Edgar Allan Poe: The Black Cat
Plot / Structure
The plot of The Black Cat is characteristically simple and yet very powerful in evoking a sense of tragic horror. The plot unfolds with an initial situation, in which a convict on the death row is sentenced to die the next day. The convict, to unburden his soul, decides to tell the story of his life or rather the story of his destruction. He presents a ‘series of mere household events’. The plot gradually develops to build into the story all that transpired, leading to his about-to-happen journey to the gallows. The narrator goes into flash back to tell us that he was a kind-hearted person, who loved pets and people. In due course, he got married to a lady, who too was similar-natured. She loved animals and joined him in his passion for pets. Soon she brought into the household ‘birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat, named Pluto.
As is the case in almost all Edgar Allen Poe’s plots, a seemingly innocuous development takes place. The narrator starts drinking. It’s at this point that an element of conflict enters the plot. The narrator’s inherently mild and loving nature is overtaken by alcohol. His behaviour with his wife and pets, except for Pluto, turns violent. He is unable to resolve the conflict.
Conflict within the narrator’s personality worsens and one night, he returns home drunk and, in a fit of drunken rage, is provoked by Pluto and cuts out one of Pluto’s eyes with a penknife. After some time, one fine morning, he simply murders his favourite cat in a ‘perverse impulse’ by hanging it from a tree in his garden. He does that with the ‘bitterest remorse’ and knowing well that he was doing ‘wrong for the wrong’s sake only.’ But he still murders the cat.
With Pluto’s murder, a complication is introduced into the plot. While Pluto’s body hangs in the garden, the narrator goes to sleep inside his house. The night turns out to be nightmarish. Somehow the same night a fire engulfs his house. He, his wife and ‘a servant’ manage to escape the flames as he was ‘aroused from sleep by the cry of fire’. The entire house, except for a wall against which the head of the narrator’s bed rested, is destroyed. A large crowd that collects to inspect the ruins is surprised at what they see on the wall that escaped destruction. The narrator finds that the wall carries an impression of a large cat in ‘bas relief’. The cat has even a rope about its neck. It is an ‘apparition’ for the narrator, who nevertheless attempts to rationalise the phenomenon by visualising that Pluto must have been cut from the tree and thrown inside his chamber by someone to wake him up at night in view of the fire. He further rationalises that the cat’s impact on the freshly plastered wall would have created the portrait of the dead cat on the white wall. The plot is now headed into a suspense zone. The reader gets curious.
In his penury the narrator moves to another residence. Yet he is kind of devastated by the experience and starts looking around for another similar cat to fill the void created by Pluto’s end at his hands.
Later, a second cat surfaces from nowhere and found by the narrator. This cat too is black just like Pluto, except that it has a white splotch of hair on its chest. It trails the narrator to his house and becomes a favourite with his wife. This second cat shows it’s fondness for the narrator. He finds that rather annoying. He starts hating it once he discovers that the cat does not have an eye just like Pluto. The cat however loves to follow the narrator. His wife draws his attention to the white splotch of hair a number of times. The white spot on the cat’s chest over time develops into an image of the gallows. The narrator calls it a ‘chimaera’, but the plot is not thick with suspense. How did the narrator land on the death row? What’s the connection between the cat and the narrator’s journey to the ‘felon’s cell’?
The guilt or the conflict inside the narrator’s mind overtakes his gentler emotions and one day he ends up lifting an axe to hit the cat. He aims the blow at the cat but his wife grabs his hand and the cat escapes. He becomes a demon and thrusts the axe into his wife’s brain. head and she dies. To hide his crime, he walls up his wife’s body inside the cellar, using brick and plaster. He cleans up the floor and feels triumphant that his act cannot be discovered. After he has dealt with his wife’s corpse, he looks for the cat, which is nowhere to be found. He feels a blissful sense of relief at the cat’s disappearance. Suspense gets deeper. Climax is around the corner.
The narrator is able to sleep well despite murdering his wife as the tormenting cat is no longer around. After a few days, the police arrive investigating his wife’s disappearance. They are not able find any clue and as the policemen are about to leave the narrator offers to show them the strength of his ‘very well constructed house’. To demonstrate how ‘these walls are solidly put together’ he hits with a cane on the very spot on the wall within which his beloved wife is buried. The narrator’s rap on the wall is answered by a ‘voice from within the tomb’. At first, ‘muffled and broken’, the voice turns into a ‘long, loud, and continuous scream’ that the narrator feels is ‘straight out of hell’.
The narrator is caught by the police, who dismantle the wall. The corpse is discovered, with the black cat sitting on ‘its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire’. What a denouement! The narrator’s autobiography is about to end at the gallows.
The plot is thus filled with all the elements of a tragedy that’s built on a horror story in which the ‘supernatural’ does seem to be an important player or character.
Narrative Point of View
The narrative in the story is told by an unnamed narrator. His point of view often appears to be apparently unreliable. An otherwise affable person who loves pets starts getting violent for no reason or rhyme, except that he takes to drinking. As the story unfolds, he tells us about weird incidents that happen. The conflict within his mind leads him to domestic violence against his wife. A drunken rage compels him to gouge out Pluto’s eye as he feels that the black cat is avoiding his presence. The empty eye socket heals, but the cat dreads him. So far it appears like the narrator is taking out his anger against his wife on the cat in a rather more violent way. Perhaps he is deriving some kind of vicarious pleasure by hitting the cat that loves his wife. Hanging the cat in his garden is perhaps an extreme step to vent his anger against himself for his lack of self-control as also against his wife who loved him.
Complication arises as the murdered cat appears in an impression - in bas relief – on the wall that remains undestroyed by fire. A second cat that is almost identical appears from nowhere and follows the narrator to his house. The white splotch of hair on the second cat’s chest is the only difference between Pluto and the new cat. Mysteriously enough, the spot on the chest develops into an image of the gallows. And to add that, the cat walled up inside the plaster remains alive even after a few days of going without food, water and air. It wails at the most inopportune time to let the police discover his wife’s body concealed in the cellar’s wall. The narrator offers some rationalisations, but the narrative point of view is hard to accept fully.
The unusual developments do tell us that there is something more to the narrator than just drinking. Who is this cat Pluto? Is the second cat an apparition or a reincarnation of Pluto? People often say ‘a cat has nine lives’? The narrative does not throw much light on these aspects, except that his wife believes in the popular notion that ‘regarded all black cats as witches in disguise’. The story interweaves the natural and the supernatural. It’s too much of a coincidence that the second cat has its one eye socket missing. And the white spot of hair; why does it turn into the image of a gallows? It appears the cat is kind of haunting the narrator by taking up new lives. It’s a horror story experienced by the narrator that belies our understanding, unless we believe in the supernatural.
The story, that the narrator calls the ‘yet most homely narrative’, begins with the narrator waiting his turn to the gallows the next day. No description of the place where the narrator is confined to be executed is offered. The initial setting is thus left undetailed for the reader to visualise what the place would be like for a felon to spend his last day of life in. The setting that emerges in the readers’ mind is surely one of gloom and despair- a death row cell in a jail.
As the narrator recounts what he calls the ‘household events’, we learn that on the night he kills his cat his house is engulfed by a fire that destroys the household and his ‘entire worldly wealth’ is ‘swallowed up’. An impression of the cat hanging on the tree in his garden somehow makes its way onto the wall that escapes destruction. The wall is the same one against the head of the narrator’s bed rested.
Again, no details are offered but the reader tends to feel that it’s probably a large house or estate with a garden around it that houses the narrator, his wife, his pets and others. A glimpse of prosperity is visible as the household has a variety of pets and after the destruction by fire the narrator is able to escape with his wife and a servant. One gets a feeling that this part of the story is set in a large house that’s located in a far off, isolated and deserted place where the narrator could merrily hang his cat in the garden without anyone noticing the heinous act.
The narrator frequents ‘vile haunts’ and finds the second black cat perched ‘upon the head of one of the immense hogsheads of Gin, or of Rum, which constituted the chief furniture of the apartment’. The place is ‘a den of more than infamy’.
The actual setting of the story comes alive at the end of the narrative when the narrator’s wife accompanies him on a household errand to the ‘cellar of the old building’, which their poverty ‘compelled them to inhabit’. The reader gets a feeling of an old, dilapidated building with a basement in which the narrator axes his wife to death. The description of how he dislodges bricks with a crowbar, plasters his wife’s body inside the wall and cleans up the floor builds up the ‘setting’. A horror house indeed!
Poe’s style of writing is rather complex and fanciful. He offers little by way of details and leaves a lot for the reader to fill in. Some could find his sentences rather cryptic. His choice of words is also very sophisticated and helps in creating the atmosphere of horror. Punctuation, rather odd sentence structure, length of sentences and size of paragraphs all add to his prose that effectively dramatizes horror.
The narrator tells us about the crimes he committed, but the linguistic style tends to make the description somewhat cryptic. Let’s look at the following sentence from The Black Cat:-
Although I thus readily accounted to my reason, if not altogether to my conscience, for the startling fact just detailed, it did not the less fail to make a deep impression upon my fancy. (13)
The sentence refers to the situation after the narrator’s house is destroyed by fire and the only wall that remained intact was the one that carried an impression of the dead cat with a rope around its neck. The issue is to figure out how that happened. Let's explore it.
"Readily accounted to my reason" is a roundabout way of saying that he could reasonably explain the phenomenon. He rationalises it by imagining that someone might have thrown the cat inside to wake him up and due to the impact on the wall and effect of ammonia the cat’s image would have been formed on the wall. The hypotheses are hard to believe by any reasonable person. Somehow the narrator is convinced of his reasoning, but his conscience does not accept the facile explanation. He starts imagining things. The reader might draw an inference from the prose that the narrator was conscious of his deeds and perhaps the role of some supernatural agent in the process.
His style at times sounds arduous. At other times, it’s very ingenious. After murdering his wife, the narrator describes his clean-up act in these words: ‘..having carefully deposited the body against the inner wall, I propped it in that position, while, with little trouble, I re-laid the whole structure as it originally stood.’ The description makes one feel there is no chance of the narrator’s crime getting to light. He has hidden his ‘deed’ securely. But the operative word is ‘deposited’; the deposit has been made in such a secure way that the content is sure to be discovered when the time comes. And the ‘deposit’ does get revealed when the police arrive.
The unnamed narrator, Pluto, the Second Cat and the policemen are the key characters in the story; leaving aside the minor one like the Dog and the neighbours who supposedly throw the cat inside the narrator’s bedroom.
The unnamed narrator is a kind and loving person, who transforms into an abusive and violent husband after he starts drinking. He becomes a murderer, first of his favourite cat and then of his wife. He appears to blame the cat, which proves to be the instrument of his destruction. Like Poe’s other characters, the unnamed narrator too is rather uni-dimensional. He rather appears to be portrayal of an idea or theme that looks into what happens to normal beings when alcohol takes over.
Pluto is a typical cat that loves its master. All black, large, fuzzy, and ‘and sagacious to an astonishing degree (4), Pluto is first loved by the unnamed narrator, who later gouges out one of its eyes and then hangs it on a tree in the garden. Appearance of the second cat, which is nearly identical, makes us feel as if Pluto is back to life to seek revenge on his tormentor. Animals do not transform into another form after being murdered. So was Pluto a ‘witch in disguise?’ We don’t know. Or, is the black cat an allegory for a black slave, who is murdered in cold blood. Or, the black cat Pluto was a supernatural intervention to punish the narrator who was violent to his wife and murdered her.
The Second Cat is a replica of Pluto. Even after murdering Pluto, the second cat comes back to haunt the narrator and ultimately lead to his destruction. The white splotch of hair on his chest in fact kind of foretells the narrator’s fate. He wails at the right moment for policemen to discover the narrator’s wife’s body hidden inside the wall.
The policemen are generic characters who come to investigate the crime. Their characters are hardly developed in the story.
Theme : The story is based on a number of themes. Domestic violence, cruelty to animals, influence of alcohol, the burden of crimes on one’s conscience and the nature of justice are the recurrent themes in the story. The author develops these themes in an integrated fashion. Let’s examine what the unnamed narrator has to say about himself. ‘From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. .. I was especially fond of animals…was happy to find in my wife a disposition not uncongenial with my own. Observing my partiality for domestic pets, she lost no opportunity of procuring those of the most agreeable kind.’ Intemperance in drinking leads him to experience ‘a radical alteration for the worse.’(2) What follows is a complete transformation. The unnamed narrator continues, ‘I suffered myself to use intemperate language to my wife. At length, I even offered her personal violence’. (2) As regards the pets, he not ‘only neglected, but ill-used them.’ Pluto is spared till ‘my disease grew upon me- for what disease is like Alcohol!’ And soon, even Pluto ‘began to experience the effects of my ill temper’. (2) It is a matter of time before the narrator heads to the gallows. The role of the Second Cat is in that sense is inconsequential. Justice is delivered in the end, whatever is the instrumentality.