Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat”: Thematic Analysis
Probably, the most unnerving actions are the ones people are capable of without actually realizing it. Human nature is susceptible to sudden and dramatic changes. People can commit actions, that they have never contemplated before or never imagined themselves capable of doing. The darker side of human nature is one of the main topics explored by the American writer Edgar Allan Poe in his works, such as The Cask of Amontillado, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Black Cat. There are numerous reasons why people can change so dramatically, one of which is alcohol abuse. In The Black Cat Poe showcases that uncontrolled drinking can destroy a man’s family, sanity, and life.
Alcohol’s effect is seen in the drastic changes in the personality of the main character. The narrator starts off by remembering his old life, before his wrongdoings. He describes himself as “noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition” (Par 2). Particularly, the tenderness of his character manifested in his affection towards animals, which manifested in the fact derived the greatest satisfaction from “feeding and caressing them” (Par 2). A similar attitude is shown towards his wife, who also liked animals. Together, the pair procured pets and indulged in caring for them. One cat named Pluto deserves a special mention because of the amount of affection they showed each other. Overall, the narrator portrays his old life as stable and positive, which is a warning to the audience about how much the narrator’s wrongdoings will cost him.
The narrator acknowledges his gradual personality changes, which have been happening for several years since Pluto’s appearance in the family. At first, the narrator started to feel irritated, experience mood swings, and disregard the feelings of others. His wife was affected by these changes directly, which took the form of “intemperate language” and “personal violence” (Par 3). The same problem extended to familial pets, whom the narrator acknowledges having “ill-used” (Par 3). However, being the most favorite cat, Pluto did not receive maltreatment immediately. As the narrator’s mood worsens more and more, the cat also experienced the owner’s violence. Finally, the narrator uncovers the reason for his mood swings, which is alcohol abuse. Overall, alcoholism drives personality changes, which manifest in the loss of self-control and love for animals, which lead to violence towards his pets.
As the narrator descends further and further into alcoholism, he commits more despicable atrocities. The narrator explains that with each consecutive drinking episode, his demeanor worsened (Par 2). The build-up culminates with physical violence inflicted directly on Pluto. The narrator cuts one of the cat’s eyes while describing himself as possessed by “the fury of the demon” (Par 5). Initially, he experiences sorrow for his actions, but then using a philosophical explanation, he elicits an emotion of “perverseness”, which ultimately leads to him hanging the cat (Par 5). What began as irritation towards animals born out of drinking has evolved into psychopathic sadism due to the increasing amounts of alcohol consumption.
Despite alcoholic intoxication and subsequent rage outbursts, the narrator experiences moments of sorrow. Soon after the cat’s hanging, he begins to miss Pluto. He states that he “began to feel sad about losing the animal” (Par 5). Later the narrator encounters another cat, which looks like Pluto, and takes it home. At some point, while intoxicated, the narrator tries to kill that cat, but his wife intervenes. The narrator remembers that this defensive action “only increases [his] anger” after which he kills his wife without thinking. The cat disappears and the narrator hides his wife’s body behind a newly constructed brick wall. During the subsequent police investigation, the officers are tipped by a wailing sound. They remove the wall and discover the dead wife and the cat, which are near the wife. The narrator is implicated and arrives at a starting point of the story where he contemplates his actions and feels regret. The consistent feeling of shame and sorrow after the deeds shows that the character still retains some part of his past personality.
The author allows the reader to experience the consequences of alcohol abuse through the first-person narration. The fact that the story is told in the first person also gives the audience a clue that the narrator is unreliable. Therefore, the narrator’s explanations and understanding of events surrounding his degradation should be approached with skepticism. The audience also has reasons to question the logic of the narrator’s reasoning, particularly, when he appeals to the supernatural side of events. This implies that some part of the story is actually created by the narrator due to alcohol intoxication. For instance, he ascribes demonic qualities to both cats, whom he blames for his misfortunes (Par 3, 8). As a result, Poe shows that alcohol changes perception, impacts reasoning, and forces people to remember events in a contrived manner.
The Black Cat is a cautionary tale, which conveys the importance of limiting personal indulgencies and maintaining emotional awareness and self-control. More importantly, it is a story about the negative effects of alcohol on the human psyche. Alcohol abuse is the primary reason why the main character hurts and later kills his pets and wife. Alcohol influences his reasoning abilities forcing him to create supernatural explanations. The narrator’s fate is the author’s example of the consequences of uncontrolled alcohol abuse, which can be avoided with sufficient restraint and self-awareness.
Poe, Edgar Allen. The Black Cat. Moyer Bell, 1984.