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The narrator as a psychopath in Edgar Allan Poe’s "Black Cat"

Hausarbeit 2018 8 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Literatur


Table of Contents:

1 Introduction

2 Psychopathy

3 Analysis

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Edgar Allen Poe is well-known for his short stories and his gothic style (Gargano 2004: 823). He was born in 1809 in the USA (Kennedy 19) and died in 1849 (Kennedy 58). After studying languages at the University of Virginia (Kennedy 23) he went to the army in the end of the 1820s (Kennedy 25) and started to write short stories in the 1830s (Kennedy 30).

The narrator of “Black Cat” has been analysed by different authors. Fisher, for instance, has the intention to figure out the motivation of Poe. His book analyses different short stories with diverse topics. For “Black Cat”, he chooses a psychological view (Fisher 23). This focus is close to the topic of that work. However, the analysis of Fisher is superficial, because he comes to the conclusion that the narrator is emotionally fragile, without giving a deep argumentation (Fisher 24). The most detailed work is given by Susan Amper and Harold Bloom. Different topics are analysed; strategies for the interpretation of “Black Cat” were given and different approaches to understanding the narrator are mentioned (Amper and Bloom 148). That means the story could be read supernatural (Amper and Bloom 147), psychological or skeptical (Amper and Bloom 148). Even so, the argumentation could be deeper. For this reason, the psychological analysis of the narrator with a psychological test could be seen as desideratum. Filling that gap, by analysing him on a psychological way, is the main target of this work. This paper will argue that the narrator in “Black Cat” is a psychopath.

2 Psychopathy

Before an analysis can be done, a definition for psychopathy has to be found. A general definition for psychopathy does not exist because this term is used for different abnormal personalities in many ways (Blackburn 51). In consequence, that every author uses other characteristic for psychopathy. Blackburn characterises psychopathy as “a persistent disorder or disability of mind […] which results in abnormally aggressive or seriously irresponsible conduct on the part of the person concerned” (Blackburn 50). Similarly, Lykken describes psychopathy as “a pervaise pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years” (Lykken 3). However, age is an important element for Lykken; Blackburn does not mention it.

These definitions are not able to give a solid base for an analysis, because all of them have different foci. For this reason, this paper follows the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). This test was invented in 2003 and it contains 20 different items which can be divided into four subcategories: interpersonal characteristics, emotionlessness, conspicuous change in life and antisocial behaviour (Mokros 212). These elements help to signify typical characteristics of a psychopath. Every answer to a specific question can be rated. A score of zero means that the person does not have the intended trait; one means that the person might have it; two signifies a person definitely possessing that trait. With 25 to 30 out of 40, the person can be characterised as a psychopath (Lohner 84). Its validity is one of the strongest arguments for using the PCL-R.

3 Analysis

“The Black Cat” is a short story which was published in 1843 (Poe 348). It is about an unknown narrator who tells his story retrospective. He explains how his life changes. Although he has a wife and lots of animals, more and more he transforms his attitude and mistreats his companions. That includes his favourite black cat “Pluto”; he cuts off one eye while being drunk. A few days later, he decides to kill that cat by hanging. During the night , he wakes up because his house burnes down and just one wall with the shadow of the cat is left. After this incident, he finds a new cat which he, after a while, wants to kill as well. His wife tries to stop him. In consequence, that he kills her with an axe. He hides her corpse behind a wall of the basement. However, the police find the body because they hear the voice of the cat which was also trapped in there.

The first subcategory contains four items (Mokros 212). Superficial charm is the first of these and it is rated with two points. The narrator has a long relationship with his wife, but he changes his behaviour during the connection (Poe 349). His character must be charming, because otherwise they would not have such a long affiliation. The narrator has the same impression on other people and creatures as well, because the second cat follows him (Poe 352). The third evidence is given by the inspection of the police, because the first visit does not lead to consequences for him. If he were to be suspicious, they would have taken him to the police office (Poe 355). The second element of the category is self-esteem. It should be analysed whether it is unnaturally high or not. Not much evidence is given, but the behaviour in the end leads to a rating with two points because he acts really calm and he feels safe enough to give hints to the police officers. (Poe 355). Pathological lying is the third item and can be rated with two as well. The crying during the hanging process can be identified as a lie. The narrator decides to hang Pluto and he has the option to stop that action, but that does not happen. Furthermore, the shadow on the wall can be seen as evidence, because it is nearly impossible that the whole house burns down and a wall with a shadow of the cat is left (Poe 351). In addition, the relationship to the second cat is another proof. First of all, it likes him that much that it follows him. On the other hand, it starts to have an aversion against him? That does not sound reliable (Poe 352). The last item is the manipulativeness and it is also rated with two points. The narrator wants to create sympathy because he explains how people love their animals. For this reason, he uses the comparison with a dog as a pet to show how much he cares (Poe 349). Evidence is given after the situation when he cuts off Pluto’s eye. In his opinion, everybody has done silly things and broken laws in the past (Poe 350). Even though, most people would agree to this being true, one finds cutting off a cat’s eye malevolent and immoral. This shows that the narrator tries to qualify his action. The last example is given in the end, when he uses words like “demon”, “hell” and “monster” to characterize the cat. The narrator wants to manipulate the reader to see the cat as the beast instead of him. (Poe 355).

The first item of the second category is the lack of remorse (Mokros 212) which can be rated with two points. His remorse reaches a low level and he supposes that rather than him, the perverseness is responsible (Poe 350). The satisfaction after the murder can be seen as evidence as well (Poe 354). The second element is the shallow affect. The narrator gets two points there, too. When he cuts off the eye, he acts spontaneous and brutal (Poe 350). This happens twice, as the murder of his wife is not planed and happens as a consequence of a spontaneous reaction (Poe 354). The third aspect in this category is the lack of empathy and it is also rated with a score of two. The narrator does not show much empathy when he cuts off Pluto’s eye and the fact that he kills the cat makes the argument even stronger (Poe 350). His reaction after the murder can be seen as a proof, too. Furthermore, the narrator plans to hide the corpse instead of showing responsibility; he feels very calm and safe during the police inspection (Poe 354). The last item in this category is failure to accept responsibility for own actions. He gets a score of two here as well. The explanation in the beginning can be seen as a proof. The narrator tells that things have happened to him because of the cat. This shows that he does not take active responsibility. The cat is not the only reason for all the bad occurrences. He assumes that these incidents happen because of the perverseness and the alcohol (Poe 349). The narrator tells his story on a retrospective way which means he has time to recap all the past events. Yet, he does not see any responsibility for his actions. The end can be seen as evidence as well since he supposes that the beast is guilty. Albeit, he forgets one aspect: he killed his wife (Poe 355).

The third subcategory is the conspicuous change in life with the need for stimulation as the first item (Mokros 212). This is rated with one point. The short story does not give enough information for a higher rate, but the way he kills Pluto could be seen as stimulation. At first , he cuts off the eye, then he decides to hang the cat and in the end he kills his wife. This brutal behaviour could stand for stimulation, but the evidence is not strong enough for a higher score. The second element is the parasitic lifestyle. The narrator gives no information about a job or his lifestyle and for this reason it is impossible to give any points. For the third item of this category, the absence of realistic long-term goals, he gets the same score because of the lack of inevitable evidence. However, one can assume that him being addicted to alcohol makes for a miserabel life dedicated to short-term gratification. The narrator gets the same rate for the forth aspect which is a volatile nature of the character, because he does not provide evidence to proof it. The last element of that subcategory is the irresponsibility and it is rated with two points. After he cuts off Pluto’s eye, he decides to drink again. On one hand, he says that alcohol is the reason for his situation. On the other hand, he does not prevent it (Poe 350). Moreover, he shows the same behaviour after the murder of his wife because he expends the effort of hiding the corpse in order to mock the police (Poe 354).



ISBN (eBook)
Institution / Hochschule
Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena – Institut für Anglistik
Essay PCL-R Psychopath Edgar Allan Poe Black Cat English Liston



Titel: The narrator as a psychopath in Edgar Allan Poe’s "Black Cat"