‘The Black Cat’ Study Guide

Edgar Allen Poe's Dark Tale of a Descent Into Madness

Black Cat
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"The Black Cat" is one of Edgar Allan Poe's most memorable stories. The tale centers around a black cat and the subsequent deterioration of a man. The story is often linked with "The Tell-Tale Heart" because of the profound psychological elements these two works share.

The story first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on Aug. 19, 1843. This first-person narrative falls into the realm of horror and gothic literature and has been examined in association with themes of insanity and alcoholism. Poe employed multiple themes and symbols to impart a palpable sense of horror and foreboding to his tale, while deftly advancing his plot and building his characters.

Plot Summary

The narrator, who is the main character, is not nice—to say the least—to his pets, except for one black cat named Pluto. To this pet, the narrator is generally kind, until one night after a day of drinking, he comes home in an angry mood and seizes the cat, which promptly bites him. The narrator then proceeds to cut out one of the cat's eyes. The eye heals and things go back to normal, or at least as normal as possible in the narrator's household. Eventually, the narrator comes to detest the cat and hangs it by the neck to a tree next to the house. 

The house burns down shortly thereafter, with only a single internal wall left standing. On the wall, the narrator sees the image of a cat, in white. The cat is clearly hanging with a noose around its neck. Still, the main character wants to find another cat that looks like the first. He searches the neighborhood for such a cat, which eventually does find him and accompanies him home. Predictably, the narrator begins to detest the new cat and to fear it, which is always underfoot and almost causes him to trip several times. But he does not try to kill the cat because of his fear. One day the narrator's wife asks him to accompany her to the cellar. The cat runs into the cellar and almost trips the narrator on the stairs. The narrator picks up an ax and moves to cut the cat's head off. The narrator's wife grabs the ax handle to stop him, so the narrator pivots and brings the ax down on her head, killing the wife instantly.

The narrator decides to hide the body by walling it in with bricks inside a false front in the cellar. The police eventually come by to search the house but find nothing, even in the cellar. The authorities begin to leave, ascending the cellar stairs when the narrator stops them, telling them how well the house is built. He taps on the false front, and a being begins to howl. The authorities scramble down the stairs and tear down the false front. They find the wife's corpse, and on top of it, the very cat the narrator had tried to kill. The narrator remarks with dread in the last sentence of the story: "I had walled the monster up within the tomb!"

Symbols

Symbols are a key component of Poe's dark tale, particularly the following ones.

  • The black cat: The animal is more than just the title of the story; it's also an important symbol. Like the bad omen of legend, Pluto, the black cat, leads his owner (the narrator) down the path toward insanity and loss of reason. 
  • Alcohol: While the cat is the outward personification of everything that the narrator hates, his drinking problem (alcoholism) may—or may not—be a reason for the loss of his grip on reality.
  • House and home: Home sweet home is supposed to be a place of safety and security, but it becomes a dark and tragic place of madness and murder in this story. The narrator kills his favorite pet (the black cat), and then he kills his own wife. So, even the relationships that should have been the central focus of his healthy and happy home become scapegoats to his deteriorating mental state. 
  • Cell: The narrator is in a prison when the story begins, but his mind had become entangled in a mass of confusion and unreality long before he was discovered for his murderous crimes against animals and humans. 
  • The wife: His wife could have been a grounding force in his life. The narrator describes her as having "that humanity of feeling." She could have saved him, or at least escaped with her own life. Instead, she becomes another horrible example of innocence lost. She never leaves him (she's loyal, faithful, and kind), and she eventually dies, not of natural causes but as the result of a murderous, alcohol-induced rage. 

Major Themes

Love and hate are two key themes in the story. The narrator at first loves his pets and seems to get along with his wife. But eventually, he comes to hate just about everything around him. Other major themes include:

  • Justice and truth: The narrator tries to hide the truth—to wall off his wife's body. But a black cat helps bring him to justice.
  • Superstition: The black cat is an omen of bad luck, a theme that runs throughout literature. 
  • Murder and death: Death is the central focus of the entire story. The question is what causes the narrator to become a murderer.
  • Illusion versus reality: The reader is never completely sure if alcohol clouds the narrator's perception of what is happening.
  • Relationships: Marriage, which is supposed to be the central relationship of a happy home, is clearly nothing of the sort in this sordid tale.
  • Loyalty: A pet is often seen as a loyal and faithful partner in life. The hallucinations of the narrator related to his black cat throw him into the most extreme passionate and murderous rages. The idea of loyalty is turned upside-down in the story. The narrator's favorite pet becomes his biggest enemy.

Key Quotes

Poe's use of language contributes to the story's chilling effect. His stark prose is the reason this and other of his tales have endured. Key quotes from Poe's work echo its themes.

On reality vs. illusion:

"For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief." 

On loyalty:

"There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute, which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man." 

On superstition:

"In speaking of his intelligence, 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." 

On alcoholism:

"...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." 

On transformation and descent into insanity:

"I knew myself no longer. My original soul seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body; and a more than fiendish malevolence, gin-nurtured, thrilled every fiber of my frame." 

On murder:

"This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong's sake only—that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute." 

On evil:

"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." 

Questions for Study and Discussion

Once students have read the tale, use the following questions to spark discussion or as the basis for an exam or written assignment:

  • What is important about the title of "The Black Cat"?
  • What are the conflicts in "The Black Cat"? What types of conflict (physical, moral, intellectual, or emotional) do you see in this story?
  • How does Edgar Allan Poe reveal character in "The Black Cat"?
  • What are some themes in the story?
  • How does Poe employ symbolism in "The Black Cat"?
  • Is the narrator consistent in his actions? Is he a fully developed character?
  • Do you find the narrator likable? Would you want to meet him?
  • Do you find the narrator reliable?
  • How would you describe the narrator's relationship with animals? How does it differ from his relationships with people?
  • Does the story end the way you expected?
  • What is the central purpose of the story? Is the purpose important or meaningful?
  • Why is the story usually considered a work of horror literature? Would you read it on Halloween?
  • How essential is the setting to the story? Could the story have taken place anywhere else?
  • What are some of the controversial elements of the story? Were they necessary?
  • What is the role of women in the text?
  • Would you recommend this story to a friend?
  • Suppose Poe did not end the story where he did: What do you think would have happened next?