Edgar Allan Poe was one of the prolific American poets born on January 19, 1809, and died on October 7, 1849) (Quinn 16). He also doubled up as a literary critic and an editor during the forty years he lived. Besides poems, Poe also wrote several short stories where introduced a new sub-genre called investigative stories as his works were full of mystery tales and macabre (Halliburton 11). Poe also emerged as an important figure in Romanticism in the US literature since he was among the writers of short stories. Apart from the investigative genre he also pioneered the science fiction in literature. Science fiction would later form an essential part of the growth of movie industry in the country.
Edgar was the second born in his family where both parents were actors (Symons 3). His father then abandoned the family when he was hardly two years followed by the tragic death of the mother a year later. John and Frances Allan from Virginia then informally adopted him but he stayed with them till adulthood (Symons 25). However, Poe and John Allan began having conflicts due to the debts that sometimes resulted from gambling. Additionally, Edgar’s secondary school fee became a problem to John further increasing the tension between the two. Nonetheless, he completed his education and joined the University of Virginia where he dropped out to join military due to lack of fees.
Edgar’s life experience while growing has a significant influence on his writing styles and more often than not they form the foundation for his themes. The short story, The Black Cat is no exception as it depicts some of his worst experience growing up as an orphan in the hands of total strangers. Moreover, his interaction with human beings shape up the characters he uses in this work.
The Black Cat is a story about a man narrating a story from his prison cell about his life. The narrator only has few hours to die hence decide to set records straight on his entire life. From the time he was born, the kind man loved animals and kept a lot of them. His love for animals increased as he grows older and moving around with his pets, especially his dog becomes the favorite activity (Poe).
He later gets married to a wife who loves animals too and brings even more pets into the house. One of the pets she brings is Pluto, a big super-smart cat (Poe). However, the problem starts to rock the family when the starts drinking as his personality changes. He becomes abusive and starts to assault his wife and pets verbally and physically. The peak of his cruelty is a point when one day he comes home drank and cut out the eyes of Pluto.
A few days later after the eye-gouging incident, the narrator kills Pluto by hanging him by hanging. Ironically, the narrator admits that he knew it was wrong to kill the pet hence had to do it precisely. The man also faces another challenge the very day he kills the cat as his house burns down leaving only him, his wife and one servant. He also loses all his possession including money in the process. When the narrator comes back the following day he fins people gathering around his bedroom and after inquiry he sees a big black cat hanged on the wall. The cat is similar to the Pluto only that it has white spots around its neck. He then suspects one of his neighbors might have thrown it into the house to wake him up since he did not close the window. Somewhere, the carcass stuck on the wall attracting the crowd.
On another day when he is having a drink, another cat (also black) appears in the drinking place. This second cat looks like Pluto but has white spots around its neck. He takes the cat home and his wife is pleased with it. However, he late realizes the cat just like Pluto also has a missing eye. He then starts to despise it while on the other side his wife falls in love with a pet. After some time, the wife shows the narrator the white spot has grown bigger and form a ‘Gallows’ image. This new discovery makes the man even more afraid of the cat and stops abusing it. On the other hand, the cat becomes friendlier to him and even sits next to in his bed. Ironically, as the love between the man and the cat increases that with his wife wades off and he becomes abusive. One day the two decided to make a walk to their old house and the cat follows them. While in the house, conflict break between the man and the cat and he attempts to kill it with an axe before his wife intervenes which makes him kill her.
After the killing, the narrator gets worried on how to conceal the body an after much considerations decide it behind the cellar wall. The man then has a very peaceful night for the first time after a very long time, the cat also disappears during the melee. The policemen also come in to arrest the man for the murder of his wife but he they fail to overpower him. They come back later after four days and carry out another search where they discover the body and arrest him and that is he finds himself in jail. The whole of this story is a flashback that starts with the man in jail but builds upon the reason behind his arrest.
The predominant theme in The Black Cat is cruelty and betrayal, especially between the narrator and his family and the pets. As a child, the narrator was a kind man who loved animals. He describes himself as person “fond of animals” and noted for his “docility and humanity.” However, this kindness and love for animals change to hate when he became cruel to his Pluto and gouge its eyes before killing it later.
Poe’s childhood was full of betrayals from the people he loved like John Allan. Just like John adopted him, the narrator in this story adopts two cats, Pluto and the second one with the white spot on the neck. The relationships between the cats and the owners (narrator) have big similarities with that between Poe and his foster family. During initial stages, these relationships are filled with love and care. However, as time goes by conflicts begin to come up leading to tension in the family. For example, the narrator’s love towards his two cats ends and he becomes cruel and even killing them. The hate only comes after the animals have grown big and mature. Similarly, conflicts started in Poe’s family after he became a young adult. The conflicts between him and his foster father John Allan often resulted from lack of fees and debt accrued from gambling.
The main character in this short story seems to have an alcoholism problem as it is the primary cause of conflict between him and his family. He often became violent after taking alcohol and turn on his wife and pets, “One night, returning home, much intoxicated, from one of my haunts about town, I fancied that the cat avoided my presence” (Poe). He further adds that he opted to deal with the cat violently to teach it a lesson for avoiding him putting blame on “instant demon” (Poe). Just as the narrator, Poe’s problems often started after he is intoxicated and he seems to transfer this life experience in the story by associating alcohol to all the problems faced by the narrator. For example, one of the causes of conflicts between Poe and John was drinking as he often spends a lot of money on drinking. Additionally, he gets into trouble with the University of Virginia administration over drinking since the alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and horse was prohibited in the institution.
Finally, violence is one of the common scenes in the story as the narrator physically and verbally abuses his wife and pets. The presence of violence perhaps is due to the cruel childhood life that Poe passed. His father abandoned his family just one year after his birth and his mother would die a year later. Such experience certainly affected him emotionally which he seems to transfer to the work.
In conclusion, The Black Cat symbolizes Poe’s life as he tries to put his life experience through the characters. His life experiences such as violence, betrayal, family conflicts and alcoholism are all portrayed in this work through the narrator.
Halliburton, David. Edgar Allen Poe: A Phenomenological View. Princeton University Press, 2015.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Black Cat. 2018. https://poestories.com/read/blackcat. 28 April 2018.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: a critical biography. JHU Press, 1997.
Symons, Julian. The Life And Works Of Edgar Allen Poe. House of Stratus, 2014.