“The Black Cat” is a short story by American writer Edgar Allan Poe, first published in the 19 August 1843 edition of The Saturday Evening Post. It is a study of the psychology of guilt, often paired in analysis with Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”. In both, a murderer carefully conceals his crime but eventually breaks down and reveals himself, impelled by a nagging reminder of his guilt.
The story concerns an apparently insane narrator who has a much loved pet black cat named Pluto, until one night in a fit of alcohol-fuelled rage he blinds the cat in one eye, before shortly afterwards hanging it by the neck from a tree in his garden. He finds an almost identical cat in a tavern and takes it home, which results in him killing his wife with an axe in a fit of rage when she tries to stop him attacking the cat, and ultimately his conviction for murder.
The story is presented as a first-person narrative using an unreliable narrator, a condemned man when the story begins. The narrator tells us that from an early age he has loved animals. He and his wife have many pets, including a large, beautiful black cat (as described by the narrator) named Pluto. This cat is especially fond of the narrator and vice versa. Their mutual friendship lasts for several years, until the narrator becomes an alcoholic. One night, after coming home completely intoxicated, he believes the cat to be avoiding him. When he tries to seize it, the panicked cat bites him, and in a fit of rage, he seizes the animal, pulls a pen-knife from his pocket, and gouges out one of the cat’s eyes.
From that moment onward, the cat flees 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.” He takes the cat out in the garden one morning and ties a noose around its neck, hanging it from a tree where it dies. That very night, his house mysteriously catches fire, forcing the narrator, his wife and their servant to flee the premises.
The next day, the narrator returns to the ruins of his home to find, imprinted on the single wall that survived the fire, the apparition of a gigantic cat, with a rope around the animal’s neck.
At first, this image deeply disturbs the narrator, but gradually he determines a logical explanation for it, that someone outside had cut the cat from the tree and thrown the dead creature into the bedroom to wake him during the fire. The narrator begins to miss Pluto, feeling guilty. Some time later, he finds a similar cat in a tavern. It is the same size and color as the original and is even missing an eye. The only difference is a large white patch on the animal’s chest. The narrator takes it home, but soon begins to loathe, even fear the creature. After a time, the white patch of fur begins to take shape and, to the narrator, forms the shape of the gallows. This terrifies and angers him more, and he avoids the cat whenever possible. Then, one day when the narrator and his wife are visiting the cellar in their new home, the cat gets under its master’s feet and nearly trips him down the stairs. Enraged, the man grabs an axe and tries to kill the cat but is stopped by his wife − whom, out of fury, he kills instead. To conceal her body he removes bricks from a protrusion in the wall, places her body there, and repairs the hole. A few days later, when the police show up at the house to investigate the wife’s disappearance, they find nothing and the narrator goes free. The cat, which he intended to kill as well, has also gone missing. This grants him the freedom to sleep, even with the burden of murder.
On the last day of the investigation, the narrator accompanies the police into the cellar. They still find nothing significant. Then, completely confident in his own safety, the narrator comments on the sturdiness of the building and raps upon the wall he has built around his wife’s body. A loud, inhuman wailing sound fills the room. The alarmed police tear down the wall and find the wife’s corpse, and on its rotting head, to the utter horror of the narrator, is the screeching black cat: “I had walled the monster up within the tomb!”
“The Black Cat” was first published in the 19 August 1843 issue of The Saturday Evening Post; the publication was using the temporary title United States Saturday Post. Readers responded favourably to the story, spawning parodies including Thomas Dunn English’s “The Ghost of the Grey Tadpole”.
Like the narrator in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator of “The Black Cat” has questionable sanity. 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.
One of Poe’s darkest tales, “The Black Cat” includes his strongest denunciation 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. Poe owned a black cat. In his “Instinct vs Reason – A Black Cat” he stated: The writer of this article is the owner of one of the most remarkable black cats in the world – and this is saying much; for it will be remembered that black cats are all of them witches. In Scottish and Irish mythology, the Cat Sìth is described as being a black cat with a white spot on its chest, not unlike the cat the narrator finds in the tavern. The titular cat is named Pluto after the Roman god of the Underworld.
Although Pluto is a neutral character at the beginning of the story, he becomes antagonistic in the narrator’s eyes once the narrator becomes an alcoholic. The alcohol pushes the narrator into fits of intemperance and violence, to the point at which everything angers him – Pluto in particular, who is always by his side, becomes the malevolent witch who haunts him even while avoiding his presence. When the narrator cuts Pluto’s eye from its socket, this can be seen as symbolic of self-inflicted partial blindness to his own vision of moral goodness.
The fire that destroys the narrator’s house symbolizes the narrator’s “almost complete moral disintegration”. The only remainder is the impression of Pluto upon the wall, which represents his unforgivable and incorrigible sin.
From a rhetorician’s standpoint, an effective scheme of omission that Poe employs is diazeugma, or using many verbs for one subject; it omits pronouns. Diazeugma emphasizes actions and makes the narrative swift and brief.
Critics have generally agreed with the opinion of James Gargano in saying that the story “if read unimaginatively … is so mystifying that the narrator seems for once reasonable when he declares that he ‘neither expects nor solicits belief’ in it”.