Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Black Cat,” is a tale of violence and an internal battle with alcoholism. The narrator starts off loving animals and his wife, but unfortunately turns to alcohol and starts abusing his wife and animals, sparing only a black cat: Pluto. One night in a fit of rage, he gauges out Pluto’s eyeball. Horrified with his action, he hangs Pluto to prove that he is really a terrible person. That night, his house burns down and Pluto’s image haunts him. He finds another cat who he treats well until Pluto starts haunting him through this cat. While his wife is defending the cat, he murders her and buries her in a wall. To his surprise, the cat was also buried with her. Throughout the story, the narrator is aware of his horrific actions, but he continues to commit the atrocities. The cycle of abuse is the narrator’s fault, however, his justifications and blame placing allow him to keep going, yet in the end, he is unable to escape his own guilt.
The narrator shifts from a loving human to an abusive monster. From loving animals to abusing all but one, to killing that animal, to finally murdering his wife, he is losing all sanity and decency. Despite the deterioration of the narrator’s stability and humanness, he has a moment of clarity and self-awareness:
Beneath the pressure of torments such as these, the feeble remnant of the good within me succumbed. Evil thoughts became my sole intimates – the darkest and most evil of thoughts. The moodiness of my usual temper increased to hatred of all things and of all mankind; while, from the sudden frequent, and ungovernable outburst of a fury to which I now blindly abandoned myself, my uncomplaining wife, alas! was the most usual and the most patient of sufferers. (Poe 5)
This passage gives insight to the readers on how the narrator feels about himself and his actions. He is ashamed and regretful, yet states that he is powerless to himself. He feels he cannot do anything to stop himself and blames his actions on an outside source.
The narrator understands how appalling his tendencies are, yet he does nothing to stop, showing the dangerous cycles of alcoholism and abuse. He uses the word “evil” twice in the passage. Evil is a strong word only used to describe truly bad things; it is not used lightly. He understands the severity of his abuse, and recognizes it as “hatred” and “fury.” He also acknowledges his wife as “the most usual and the most patient of sufferers” (Poe 5). His wife later becomes the victim to his worst crime, homicide, and he knew that he was capable of doing that to her earlier. He knows he is an abuser, yet no effort is put in to stop. He wakes up in the morning, sees what he did to his animals drunk the night before, and proceeds to drink to forget about what he did; unfortunately, this leads to more alcoholic fits of rage. He allows his drinking to get the best of him, which hurts others, every time. While alcoholism and addiction are far more complicated than simply just choosing to stop, he makes absolutely no effort.
The narrator also justifies his abuse to himself and the readers by his language. First, the statement “pressure of torments,” (Poe 5) immediately suggests a placing of blame. Pressure, while it can come from oneself, typically refers to an outside force being placed on something else. Torment, again, suggests that something has come over him to make him behave this way, and it is not something he has control over. While alcoholism is a disease, there is no effort to fix the problem, making it the narrator’s fault, yet he is unable to recognize or admit this. Next, instead of mentioning that he lost touch with the good in him, he says, “the feeble remnant of the good within me succumbed” (Poe 5). His language almost blames the good for leaving him, not himself for allowing the good to leave. Maybe he is attempting to get the readers on his side, however, it does not seem to be working. Lastly, he uses the word “ungovernable” when describing his rages. By saying this, he claims that he has no control over his body and his actions, but at the same time admits that he is not attempting to gain this control. Overall, the narrator is at a back and forth with himself mentally, he knows his evils, but blames them on outside forces instead of working to stop them.
Guilt, in the end, is able to find its way to get to the narrator and actually punish him for once. He accidentally reveals to law enforcement that he murdered his wife and buried her in the wall. In a way, it seems like he almost wanted to get caught, he continued to assure the police officers that everything is okay, and then hits the part in the wall wife his wife in it, which reveals her dead body. Maybe the only way he knew how to pay for his actions was to get caught. Maybe he did it subconsciously, but nonetheless, the justification and placing of blame was not enough to save him from the consequences of this murder. And to add to his guilt, the new cat (who white spot looked like Pluto which haunted him) was sitting in the wall with his dead wife. In a way, the only thing that survived his abuse, was the cat. His manifestation of his guilt lives in the second cat that continues to haunt him until his own demise.
The narrator’s inflection and explanation of his actions were in effort to deflect blame. However, the readers are able to see through this attempt and understand that it is truly his fault. He only sees this in the end, when his abuse is staring right back at him, in the form of the cat on the wife’s head. Alcoholism is a real issue, and Edgar Allan Poe used “The Black Cat” to show that. Currently, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 10% of children have alcoholic parents (NIH, 2020). This is a huge and sad problem. While this information is new, alcoholism is not. Poe wanted to illustrate how an alcoholic spouse can be extremely dangerous. Poe brings light to the inside of an alcoholic’s brain, all while showing the physical and psychological terror the narrator creates.
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