The Theme of Perversity in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Black Cat
ENG 201 American Literature to 1865
The Black Cat is a tale that leaves the reader somewhat perplexed. It certainly contains all the ingredients necessary to satisfy the appetite of any Poe enthusiast – an enigmatic narrator, alcohol and the effects thereof, mutilation, strangulation, murder, putrefaction, and, last but not least, one of Poe’s slight (but recurring) obsessions, perversity – but we are left wondering whether the tale really amounts to anything much at all.
One could almost split this short story into two halves: one that contains a couple of ideas worth considering; and another that simply indulges briefly in an unlikely plot before grinding to a predictable halt. Even the worst of Poe is, thanks to the very nature of the man, worthy of our interest and consideration. This paper will analyze one of Poe’s recurrent themes as his stories often explore the determination of man’s most twisted minds. The underlying theme of perversity in Poe’s The Black Cat, is evident in several different instances and levels of intensity. The dark tale starts out normal enough…for Poe anyways. The narrator and his wife own several pets. Among them is large black cat named Pluto. Pluto become an adversary to the narrator after, one day, in a drunken rage, the narrator blinds Pluto in one eye, and then hangs the cat from a tree. Mysteriously, the house burns to the ground, leaving a silhouetted mark of a cat hanging from a gallows.
Later, our narrator acquired another car eerily similar to Pluto. Again, incensed with drink, he attempts to kill the cat and ends up murdering his wife with an axe instead. The Black Cat is a haunting tale that explores the psychology of guilt; often compared to Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart as, in each story, the narrator initially believes himself to be unassailable only to experience the withering effects of such heavy guilt soon afterwards. The narrator in The Black Cat disturbingly carved out the first cat’s eye providing the readers with another portrayal of perverseness as he becomes unsatisfied over a period of time, with Pluto’s reaction to his alcohol-induced, violent assault. From that moment onward, the cat fled in terror at his master’s approach. At first, the narrator is remorseful and regrets his cruelty. “But this feeling soon gave place to irritation. And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of perverseness.” Afterwards, he takes the cat outside to the garden one day and hangs it from a tree, where it dies.
That very night, is when his house catches fire, forcing the narrator, his wife and their servant to flee. When the narrator returns home, he sees that there is an image of a gigantic cat dangling by its neck on the one wall that survived the fire. Although the feline served as a worthy domestic companion, innocent in its existence, he is unknowingly condemned by the narrator’s compulsive perversity when his drunken judgments are sadistically acted upon. After the fire, the narrator takes home a strikingly similar looking feline he found in the tavern, and soon begins to believe that the white patch on the animal’s chest, the only characteristic that sets this cat apart from Pluto, has taken shape and formed an image resembling gallows. It is evident that his own guilty thoughts are playing tricks on his mind. His conscience is torturing his thoughts as he tries to live with his guilt. It is not long before narrator begins to loathe, even fear the new creature.
More time passes, and the reader can assume the narrator’s mind grows more spiteful as his guilt over the previous cat evolves into hatred. One day when the narrator and his wife are visiting the cellar in their new home, the cat gets under its maters feet, nearly tripping him. In a fury, the man grabs an axe and tried to kill the cat but is stopped by his wife and ends up killing her with the axe instead.
Near the beginning of the tale, the narrator says he would be “mad indeed” if he should expect a reader to believe the story implying that he has already been accused of madness. This confession can be applied to the actions the narrator takes until and after he mistakenly murders his wife. During the process of proving that he is not mad, we increasingly see the actions of a madman who knows that he is going mad but who, at times, is able to objectively comment on the process of his increasing madness,
Any sane human would most likely (hopefully) seek legal assistance and promptly report such a tragic accident. A reasonable person would understand that certain repercussions for their manslaughter would be necessary but far better than attempting to conceal the crime. The narrator in The Black Cat uses his more vicious judgment and decides to hide her body in the wall. After carefully removing enough bricks, placing the corpse in the empty space, and repairing the hole the narrator feels satisfied with his efforts.
When the police come to investigate the disappearance, a few days later, they are unable to find any trace of the woman. The cat, which the narrator intended to kill as well, has also gone missing. On the last day of the investigation, the narrator accompanies the police into the cellar. They are still unable to find anything when, completely confident in his own immunity, the narrator comments on the soundness of the building as he raps upon the wall he had built around his wife’s body. A loud wailing is emitted from the wall and the police tear down the bricks to find the concealed body. Atop her head, to the horror of the narrator, is the screeching black cat. The narrator says, “I had walled the monster within the tomb,” as he realized the explanation for the missing cat.
When the reader reflects on the information provided throughout The Black Cat, the extent to which the narrator claimed to have loved his pets may suggest the mental instability of having “too much of a good thing.” . Additionally, his failure to understand his excessive love of animals foreshadows his inability to explain his motives for his actions. This tale is One of Poe’s darkest tales and includes his strongest denouncement of alcohol. The narrator’s perverse actions are brought on by his alcoholism, a “disease” and “fiend” which also destroys his personality. The use of the black cat evokes various superstitions, including the idea voiced by the narrator’s wife that they are all witches in disguise.
In conclusion, “The Black Cat” illustrates best the capacity of the human mind to observe its own deterioration and the ability of the mind to comment upon its own destruction without being able to objectively prevent or halt
that deterioration. The narrator of “The Black Cat” is fully aware of his mental deterioration, and at certain points in the story, he recognizes the change that is occurring within him, and he tries to do something about it, but he finds himself unable to reverse his falling into madness. Many of the narrator’s acts are without logic or motivation; they are merely acts of perversity.
The final irony is that the cat which he had come to so despise — the cat that might have been the reincarnation of Pluto — serves as a figure of retribution against the murderer. By the end of the story, we can see how the narrator convicts himself of the madness which he vehemently declaimed at the beginning of the story.
Whatever its solidity in the tale, the idea of perversity is a good one because it strikes a chord in most of us. We ARE a perverse breed and that this nature does compel us to do unlikely and inadvisable things. Thankfully, most of us do not go as far as mutilating cats or even stringing them up from the limbs of trees, but such acts are just a little further down the same road that we are all on.