'The Black Cat' - Themes and Symbols

Black Cat
Black Cat. Clipart.com

"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 August 19, 1843. This first-person narrative falls into the realm of Horror/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. 


  • The Black Cat -  It's 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) is the real reason for the loss of his grip on reality. There are no positive side-effects to his addiction to alcohol. 
  • House & 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. 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 first 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 humanity. 
  • 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 the worst possible murderous (alcohol-induced) rage. 


    • Love/Hate - Mixed emotions
    • Justice/Truth 
    • Transformation - What are the effects of alcohol on the human personality? 
    • Superstition/Religion - The black cat is "bad luck"... It's the focus of superstition. 
    • Murder/Death - Death is the central focus of the entire story. What causes the narrator to become a murderer?
    • Illusion/Reality - What is real? And, how does alcohol affect the narrator's perception of what is happening?
    • Relationships/Marriage/Human interactions (Individual vs. social structures) 
    • Loyalty - A pet is often seen as a loyal and faithful partner in life. The hallucinations of the narrator related to his black cat, which throws him into the most extreme passionate and murderous rages. The idea of loyalty is turned upside-down (his favorite pet becomes his biggest enemy). 

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    Lombardi, Esther. "'The Black Cat' - Themes and Symbols." ThoughtCo, Feb. 11, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-black-cat-themes-and-symbols-738847. Lombardi, Esther. (2017, February 11). 'The Black Cat' - Themes and Symbols. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-black-cat-themes-and-symbols-738847 Lombardi, Esther. "'The Black Cat' - Themes and Symbols." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-black-cat-themes-and-symbols-738847 (accessed March 24, 2018).