This paper analyses the short story The Black Cat, written by Edgar Allan Poe and published in 1845. Poe was an American poet, short story writer, editor and critic whose works have influenced the American Romantic Movement. Due to his imaginative storytelling and mysterious and horrific tales, he is considered as the inventor of the modern detective fiction. The motives of mystery, death and macabre can be found in several of is well-known masterpieces, such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Black Cat”.
The short story “The Black Cat” remains one of his most mystifying and horrifying tales as the narrator confesses and recounts macabre past events prior to his imminent execution. The personality of the narrator changes from human to perverse after taking a black cat home. He struggles with alcoholism and cuts out an eye of the cat with fiendish pleasure and hangs it to the limb of the tree. Having lost his house due to a fire, he finds comfort in a new black cat. Shortly after taking it home, the initial fondness develops into an increasing dislike and even hatred towards the animal, which prompts him commit more horrible crimes.
This seminar paper aims to answer the question: How does Edgar Allan Poe manage to convey a horrific atmosphere and make the tale more vivid in “The Black Cat”? In order to convey the horrific atmosphere of suspense and horror and make the story more alive, Edgar Allan Poe skilfully uses gothic elements and employs numerous stylistic devices in text, syntax, lexis, punctuation and sound.
Discussing the style of this short story, Poe vividly presents elements of the supernatural, the evil side of human nature and madness, which place “The Black Cat” in the gothic genre. Thrill, suspense and horror are often evoked by gothic elements. The black cats living with the narrator appear to be supernatural. The narrator’s wife confronts him with this idea in the following lines: “...my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured with superstition, made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise” (p.1, l.27f). The second black cat that comes to him features two strange elements: like Pluto, it has only one eye, as well as a white mark shaped into gallows. This could be a peculiar kind of mystical penalty for killing Pluto.
Another typical topic in gothic pieces of writing is the evil side of the human nature and the appearance of madness. The narrator claims that he is not mad at the beginning of the story, whereas obviously he is mad due to his transformation from a tender-hearted and a true animal lover to an abuser and killer of his pets and his beloved wife. He commits perverse deeds and excuses himself by claiming that that some of this perverseness lives in all of us, saying: “[...] perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart -- one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not ?” (p.2, l.29ff)
Another gothic element that Poe applies in “The Black Cat” is choosing a gothic surrounding, particularly the cellar of the house, where the narrator hid his wife’s body. The narrator describes the house as an “old building” (p.5, l.4f) with “steep stairs” (p.5, l.5f). “Its walls were loosely constructed, and had lately been plastered throughout with a rough plaster, which the dampness of the atmosphere had prevented from hardening” (p.5, l.22ff). By describing the cellar in detail, the author creates an image in the reader’s mind that evokes mystery.
Poe adapts his writing style depending on the emotional state of the narrator. He uses short sentences when discussing his childhood, “From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition” (p.1, l.12), his wife, “I married early, and was happy to find in my wife a disposition not uncongenial with my own” (p.1, l.22) and even Pluto, “I alone fed him, and he attended me wherever I went about the house” (p.1, l.31f). When he describes the change for the worse, the sentences are longer and more complex; for example, “But my disease grew upon me -- for what disease is like Alcohol ! -- and at length even Pluto, who was now becoming old, and consequently somewhat peevish -- even Pluto began to experience the effects of my ill temper” (p.2, l.7ff). Moreover, the complex sentences indicate the complex mind of the narrator. “Uplifting an axe, and forgetting, in my wrath, the childish dread which had hitherto stayed my hand, I aimed a blow at the animal which, of course, would have proved instantly fatal had it descended as I wished” (p.5, l.7ff) contains several clauses and complex ideas.
Furthermore, Poe uses polysyndeton and asyndeton to make the utterances of the protagonist appear more dramatic and vivid by describing many details. In the sentence “It was now the representation of an object that I shudder to name -- and for this, above all, I loathed, and dreaded, and would have rid myself of the monster had I dared…” (p.4, l.32), the multiple repetition of the conjunction “and” adds more stress to the moment. Poe also uses asyndeton to dramatise horrible actions, such as “I took from my waistcoat-pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat” (p.2, l.15), and emotional state, such as “One night, returning home, much intoxicated, from one of my haunts about town” (p.2, l.11) and “I blush, I burn, I shudder…” (p.2, l.17). Omitting the conjunctions out accelerates the rhythm of the utterances and hence evokes a more dramatic and horrific atmosphere.
In order to convey to the reader a sense of the emerging horror, Poe uses the literary devices of fronting and foreshadowing. Poe uses fronting to make the reader anticipate an insane protagonist. In the second and third sentences of “The Black Cat”, Poe uses fronting to emphasise the madness of the narrator: “Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not -- and very surely do I not dream” (p.11, l.2). Accordingly, the reader gain an impression of the narrator very early on, prompting the assumption of a mad protagonist. Moreover, he uses foreshadowing hints to increase the sense of horror for the upcoming execution on the gallows. The first hint is the narrator informing in the first paragraph “But to-morrow I die” (p.1, l.3). Another obvious hint is him mentioning his wife making “frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise” (p.1, l.28f). Some less obvious hints include the hanging of Pluto, the impression of a hanged cat and the shaped gallows of white hair on the second cat. Therefore, the reader still already knows that the narrator is facing his penalty.
Despite the narrator’s poor conditions and madness, his vocabulary is rather formal and sophisticated. Although he uses common words like “beautiful” (p.1, l.26), “tenderness” (p.1, l.13), “happy” (p.1, l.15), “love” (p.1, l.19) and “friendship” (p.1, l.35) mainly when talking about his childhood and his wife at the beginning, the high-flown word choice dominates in this short story. Moreover, he uses some poetic words such as “Alas!” (p.5, l.2), which indicate a cultivated style of speech. Furthermore, the narrator’s language is full of religious terms like “Fiend Intemperance” (p.1, l.36), “sin” (p.2, l.42), “immortal soul” (p.2, l.26), “evil” (p.4, l.44) and “Arch-Fiend” (p.6, l.24), which show his knowledge of the Bible.
In terms of the Bible, the narrator not only uses religious terms, he also quotes verses or phrases from the Bible; for example, “Here at least, then, my labor has not been in vain” (p.5, l.35f) and “But my God shield and deliver me from the fangs of the Arch-Fiend” (p.6, l.23). These allusions indicate that the narrator is educated in this domain. In contrast to the Christian domain, where God is the ruler of the world and will return to earth to judge people according to their deeds one day, the name of the cat alludes to an ancient mythology where Pluto is the ruler of the underworld. The assumption arises that Poe intentionally used this name as a symbol for justice in the story. This puts the cat in a supernatural creature and the reader might associate Pluto’s “coming back” to take his revenge with the second coming of the Lord.
Poe applies a strong variety of stylistic devices to create and present an authentic portrait of the characters, describe the setting and events or evoke the gothic mood in “The Black Cat”.
Poe enriches this short story with images by comparing his thoughts and behaviour with tragic things. He applies numerous metaphors to depict the narrator’s change of the inner world and distance himself from his guilt in consuming an excess of alcohol and the vicious deeds that he knows will happen. In this respect, examples include “This peculiarity of character grew with my growth” (p.1, l.16), “The fury of a demon instantly possessed me” (p.2, l.13), “…and soon drowned in wine all memory of the deed” (p.2, l.22), “And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS” (p.2, l.27f) and “Many projects entered my mind” (p.5, l.14f). These metaphors make the narrator appear as the victim rather than the criminal as he blames Pluto as “the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder” (p.6, l.34f) at the end. Another metaphor that Poe skilfully uses to depict the inner life of the narrator is the eyes of Pluto, given that eyes are known as the mirror’s soul. After cutting out one of the cat’s eyes, he claims: “The socket of the lost eye presented, it is true, a frightful appearance” (p.2, l.23f). The narrator divides his soul in two parts and “cuts” one half – the good one – out of himself. Shortly afterwards, he admits that the love for Pluto “soon gave place to irritation” (p.2, l.27) and then came “the spirit of PERVERSENESS” (p.2, l.28).
Furthermore, Poe uses several other comparing stylistic devices to intensify the tragic atmosphere. He applies a simile to depict the changing perception of the narrator; for instance, when he describes the answer of the cat to his rapping on the wall as “a cry, at first muffled and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman” (p.6, l.25ff). He also employs metonymy by linking “GALLOWS” (p.4, l.34) to death. In the utterance “In the next, a dozen stout arms were toiling at the wall” (p.6, l.32), we observe the case of synecdoche, whereby the “dozen stout arms” refer to the policemen.
In order to emphasise the dramatic change of the narrator’s attitude towards the cat, Poe includes periphrasis by choosing various substitutes for the word “cat” (p.1, l.25), such as “playmate” (p.1, l.32), “animal” (p.3, l.27), “creature” (p.4, l.5), “beast” (p.4, l.22) and “tormentor” (p.5, l.45), which show an increasing dissociation with Pluto. Moreover, it is striking that after cutting out the eye of Pluto the narrator uses the personal pronoun “it” to refer to Pluto, instead of saying “he” (p.1, l.3) as usual. This shift further signifies the increased distance.
Poe applies numerous epithets to more vibrantly describe characters and settings. The epithets “equivocal feeling” (p.2, l.21), “cruel deed” (p.2, l.45), “hideous murder” (p.5, l.12), “immortal soul” (p.2, l.42), “fiendish malevolence” (p.2, l.15), “damnable atrocity” (p.2, l.18), “evil thoughts” (p.4, l.44) and many others emphasise gothic mysterious and horrific features of the story. Moreover, these epithets create suitable images in fewer words, which is beneficial for such a short story.