In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat”, the narrator uses alcohol as an excuse for his misbehavior. He emphasizes that he is not crazy and sincerely loves animals, but as the story gets deeper into the plot, you can clearly see that he is mad and the effect his craziness has on his disposition is severe. The reader is introduced to the narrator’s beloved cat, Pluto, and his wife with whom he was very close. Both characters end up getting abused and killed by the narrator who blames the murders on the alcohol and not his corrupted state of mind. The story concludes with the narrator urging the police to find his wife’s body.
By the time they do, the narrator has gone completely crazy, still excusing his mental state for his alcohol problem and refusing to take responsibility. Therefore, it is evident that Poe uses certain literary elements to create a theme of, alcohol is a scapegoat used by individuals with an evil nature to excuse inappropriate behavior. Poe conveys this message through point of view, irony and symbolism. First person point of view effectively communicates the theme by showing how the narrator is going mad and how he blames his corrupting mental state on alcohol.
Poe firsts uses point of view in the very beginning when the narrator says, “I am not mad” (3). The narrator emphasizes his sanity in order to get sympathy from his readers for his alcohol problem so he can more easily blame his behavior on the alcohol. Since this is in the first couple of paragraphs, the reader can conclude that the first thing Poe wants the reader to know about the narrator is that he doesn’t think he is crazy, almost foreshadowing that his mental state will be in question later. Poe conveys the theme again when he writes, “My disease grew worse – for there is no disease like alcoholism. . .I grabbed the poor cat by the throat. Then I deliberately cut one of its eyes out of his sockets” (5). The narrator is repeatedly using alcohol as a convenient excuse and an easy way out making sure he doesn’t have to take responsibility. The reader finds out that the narrator is not as innocent as he tries to come off as being. If the narrator is able to cut out a cat’s eye, the reader can conclude that he is also of the mental state to set his house on fire, kill his wife, and put Pluto’s body inside a wall in the house. T. J.
Matheson observes that, “These symptoms can be shown to have appeared at times when alcohol was not involved, the reader must look beyond the alcohol as the sole cause of the behavior and see as well that it may be simply a red herring, at best but one symptom of a deeper illness or problem” (“Temperance Literature”). The reader can infer that there is another problem, more complicated then alcohol. The problem is not his drinking, rather the reason why he’s drinking. Alcohol can hurt someone’s health, but not make them commit evil crimes while they are sober.
There has to be another cause. Poe also uses irony to effectively convey how the narrator uses alcohol as an excuse for his evil throughout “The Black Cat”. The narrator stresses his love for animals and his “kind and tenderhearted disposition” (Poe 4). Poe writes, “I was known for my kind and obedient disposition . . . I was most fond of animals . . . and as I grew, so did my love for animals” (4). This information makes the reader predict what the narrator is going to do and how his disposition probably changed.
Poe heavily expressed the narrator’s personality and love for animals so it would be ironic when he started mistreating things years later. Readers probably couldn’t guess exactly what that narrator was going to do with that description of him because his actions were so evil. Poe uses irony when the narrator hung and killed his favorite pet, Pluto (6). Although the narrator mistreated all of his other pets, the rabbits, the monkey, and the dog, he still “cared enough about Pluto to keep from abusing him” (Poe 5). As the story continues, the narrator once again blames alcohol for his violence toward his favorite pet which he once loved.
He also shows his regret for the murder and even regret during the murder when he says he hung it with “tears of remorse” (Poe 6). This makes the reader suspicious that the narrator is crazy because he doesn’t even have his emotions straight while he is committing the crime. R. Moore points out that after he blames the “radical alteration” (“Use of Irony”) in his mood on the “Fiend Intemperance” (“Use of Irony”), “he remains the good natured animal lover, pointing the finger at alcoholism instead of himself, thereby freeing himself from any responsibility regarding the car . . the Narrator adopts the attitude of a bewildered victim preferring not to examine his motivations too closely (“Use of Irony”). After understanding this, the reader can conclude that the narrator has a feeling he knows what he’s doing is wrong, but still does it anyway. Also, the reader learns that instead of taking responsibility, the narrator acts like he is the victim and chooses not to think about why he misbehaves because he’s afraid of what he’ll find out. He’s scared to find out what the real, in depth problem is.
The last literary device used by Poe to communicate that alcohol cannot be the excuse for someone’s misbehavior is symbolism. Poe wrote, “Pluto – this was the cat’s name – was my favorite pet and playmate” (4). Using mythological allusion, Poe uses Pluto, the cat, to represent hell and the devil (Pluto being the god of the underworld in Roman mythology. ) This connection emphasizes the narrator’s evil side and probable willingness to blame his actions on alcohol. The author uses symbolism when he writes, “My personality completely changed for the worse.
This change happened thanks to the demon Alcohol” (Poe 5). In this, Poe suggests that the “Demon Alcohol” symbolizes a scapegoat to avoid responsibility for his actions and a convenient excuse to pacify his problems. One last example of symbolism Poe uses is the new, white plaster on the wall. It held Pluto’s body inside (Poe 7) and it contained the narrator’s wife’s body in the basement (Poe 14). Just like the alcohol, plaster is used to cover something up. The plaster hides the narrator’s victims inside and the alcohol covers up the narrator’s insanity and evil.
Both being means of covering something up, this symbolizes, again, the narrator’s lack of responsibility. He refuses to take responsibility for his behaviors by hiding the bodies and blaming them on alcohol. Also, the fact that it’s white plaster, white sometimes symbolizes innocence, means that the narrator is trying to come off as not-guilty. But the narrator’s dark side soon surfaces just like the cat’s body surfaced through the wall during the fire. John Harmon McElroy claims that, “he claims with laughable dramatic irony that he (not the innocent cat) is the victim . . From his perspective the innocence of the cat caused him to kill it” (104). Saying Pluto the cat caused him to kill it quietly clues the reader in that really the devil is making him do these terrible deeds and not his addiction to alcohol. He just finds it easier to blame everything on alcohol then to take responsibility for his actions. Furthermore, T. J. Matheson points out that, “At the same time the cat is hung, the narrator is in ‘cool blood’ and, again, perfectly sober” (“Temperance Literature”).
Poe could have said he was intoxicated while hanging the cat, but because he described the narrator as sober can only “indicate that we are not meant to see it as the sole cause of his degeneration” (Matheson, “Temperance Literature”). This further leads the reader to believe that the narrator is not abusing his animals and his wife because of alcohol, but because he is evil. The primary theme of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” is, alcohol is a scapegoat used by individuals with an evil nature to excuse inappropriate behavior.
Poe conveys this message through point of view, irony and symbolism. After reading the story, the reader can conclude that the narrator has a crazy and evil nature and it is getting worse everyday. He abuses and murders his pets and family and blames his misbehavior on alcohol. The narrator refuses to think too deeply about his actions in fear of finding out what his real problem is. So, in not taking responsibility for what he has done, he simply excuses all of his problems on alcohol.
Matheson, T. J. “Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’ as a Critique of Temperance Literature. Mosaic 19. 3 (1986): 69-81. Gale Literature Resource Center. Web. 27 Oct 2010. McElroy, John H. “Comic Design in ‘The Black Cat’. ” Readings on the Short Stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Ed. Hayley Mitchell Haugen. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc. 2001. 101-115. Print. Moore, R. “Use of Irony in ‘The Black Cat’. ” Enotes: The Black Cat. Ed. Penny Satoris. (October 2002): n. pag. eNotes. com. Web. 27 Oct. 2010. Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Black Cat. ” Retold American Classics. Ed. Kathy Myers and Beth Obermiller. Logan: Perfection Learning Corportation, 1987. 1-14. Print.