Poe’s The Black Cat as an Example of Gothic Story

Poe’s “The Black Cat” as an Example of Gothic Story Edgar Allan Poe, who lived a short and tragic life, was mainly known for his gothic stories embedded in the atmosphere of terror and suspense, with insane protagonists placed in gloomy settings. He is considered to be a horror-master and his literary output renders him a father of the detective story and one of the most prominent gothic story writers (Fisher 2004: 81). The Black Cat, first published in 1843 in The Saturday Evening Post (Sova 2007: 35), is one of many visible instances of Poe’s talent in writing gothic fiction.
Beyond the shadow of a doubt, it is an excellent example of a gothic story due to its numerous features characteristic of this genre (Hayes 2004: 85). Although gothic fiction is a genre which was born in England at the end of the 18th century, it was soon well-received in the United States, where it influenced a wide array of writers. It was primarily based on the European Romantic Movement but over the course of time, tragic and supernatural dimensions were added to these stories as the leading themes in America. The genre has a number of characteristics, one of which is the setting.
Main protagonists are usually placed in an old, abandoned castle, with secret chambers and passages. The action of gothic stories take place in dark, spooky and dismal places. The plot is very often mysterious and some unexplainable events occur on regular basis. Gothic authors try to produce an atmosphere of suspense in their works by creating unpredictable characters, who struggle with madness, anger and acts of panic, in order to threaten the readers. The characters’ state of mind, their feelings and emotions, frequently take precedence over the plot.

Ghosts and supernatural events are more than common in gothic texts and so are the tormenting visions and unlucky omens that often haunt the main characters. What is more, female characters who appear in such stories, for instance, are often put in distress, threatened and dominated by enraged males (Childs and Fowler 2006: 99-100). The Black Cat is a story narrated by an unnamed storyteller who at the very beginning, claims to be totally sane and rational and states that he is sentenced to death and will be killed the following day.
Thus, he wants to reveal his dark secrets and make a confession to unburthen his soul (Badenhausen 1992: 487). From the start, the reader is made to perceive the narrator as an average man who loves his wife and is a great admirer of animals. The story, set in an ordinary house with nameless characters, changes over the course of the action into a thorough description of the narrator’s mental state and his acts of madness. Still, no further details on the lives of the main protagonists, including their profession or age, are provided as the story unfolds.
The storyteller, due to his addiction to alcohol, becomes an abusive monster who ends up murdering his wife while attempting to kill the cat (Fisher 2004: 209). The narrator’s wife is a character whose love to animals, as opposed to her husband, is unconditional and unwavering. By following the gothic convention of literature, The Black Cat can be read as a story of the clash of masculinity and femininity (Fisher 2004: 86). One of features of the gothic fiction, as mentioned above, is presenting the female character in distress.
Gothic writers very often try to present the relations between the tyrannical and impulsive male and a feeble and helpless female. The narrator in The Black Cat was, as a young boy, a very tender and delicate man (Stark 2004: 260). Nonetheless, his behavior over the course of time changed drastically. Heavy drinking alters his life as well as the lives of his nearest ones including his wife and pets. Still, no information on why the narrator hits the bottle is given in the text (ibid: 260-261). The shift in his behavior is very abrupt and unexpected.
The plot progresses so quickly that it is hard to see when exactly the storyteller becomes a mad man. “I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others”. The bullied wife faces the acts of violence of her husband tacitly and she seems to be subordinated by him, perhaps even afraid of rebelling against him. The couple does not have any children and the wife has no one who would support her and stand up for her in front of her cruel spouse (Bliss 2009: 97; Badenhousen1992: 493; Sova 2007: 36). The narrator bluntly says, “I now blindly abandoned myself, my uncomplaining wife, alas!
Was the most usual and the most patient of sufferers”. Pluto, the animal from the title and, simultaneously, the object of the narrator’s madness, is a key character in the story. In the narrator’s mind, his favorite pet turns all of a sudden from a lovely little friend into a beast which frightens him. “A faithful and sagacious cat”, as described at the beginning, used to be the best playmate of the narrator. For many long years, they enjoyed spending time together. The horror of the pets and the wife begins when the narrator starts to drink alcohol.
Nevertheless, he admits that he is aware of the dramatic change in his behavior caused by the addiction and he sees that he has started treating his wife and his pets badly (Sova 2007: 36). One night, after returning home drunk, the narrator gouges the cat’s eye out using a pen knife. A horrible deed, described in one sentence, is followed by a paragraph starting with “When reason returned with morning” in which the narrator describes his internal feelings after committing the act and the feeling of guilt which vanishes as soon as he starts drinking again.
The above cited sentence proves the narrator’s awareness of the brutality of his actions, but the subsequent events show that at the same time, he does not feel any remorse (Bliss 2009: 97). Still, one morning, not long after cutting out the eye, the narrator, on a spur of a moment, hangs the cat on a tree in the garden. His explanation is utterly illogical: with tears in his eyes he says, “Hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence; – hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin” (Sova 2007: 35).
The latter citation clearly proves the Gothicism of the story. A mad man murders an innocent cat only because it was good. A deed so illogical that it cannot be explained rationally. One bloody act, aimed at playing on emotions, giving a thrill, kindling the feeling of terror and cruelty in readers, is just a beginning of the murdering path that the narrator takes (Bliss 2009: 98). The night after committing “the deadly sin” the fire breaks up, burning down the dwelling place of the storyteller, destroying his fortune, and leaving him in despair.
The next day, a strange figure, an apparition of a gigantic cat, appears on the wall, the only wall that survived the fire. To explain the strange figure on the wall, the narrator suggests that the cat was thrown to the room by someone at the night of the fire and as he puts it, “the falling of other walls compressed the victim of my cruelty into the substance of the freshly-spread plaster; the lime of which, with the flames, and the ammonia from the carcass, had then accomplished the portraiture as I saw it”. Not long after killing Pluto, the narrator finds another cat during one of his bar crawls.
The cat looks surprisingly familiar: it has similar fur in dark color and it lacks one eye, just like Pluto. There is, however, one significant difference between these two cats. The second one has a white spot on its fur which at first sight, according to the narrator, is just a spot, but with time, it starts to look like gallows to him (Bliss 2009: 97). The spot on the cat’s fur, as well as the sign on the wall after the fire that occurred the night after hanging the first cat, can be perceived as an omen – a supernatural element in the story.
The fate of the second cat is also different than Pluto’s. Another day, the narrator together with his wife are in the caller doing some housework, an ordinary situation that ends in a dramatic way. The cat, all at once, appears under his owner’s feet nearly tripping him over. In the act of an unrestrained rage, the narrator takes an axe attempting to kill the cat- the beast. His wife prevents him from committing the murder and in consequence, the killing punch strikes her head (ibid: 98). (…) I withdrew my arm from her grasp and buried the axe in her brain. She fell dead upon the spot, without a groan”. The narrator in only two sentences describes the killing of his own wife. Not only is he imperturbable after perpetrating the brutal murder, but he also becomes preoccupied with the problem of how to get rid of the body instead of showing some grief after his wife’s death. He considers several possible ideas, even “cutting the corpse into minute fragments, and destroying them by fire”.
The husband, and from now on also the coldblooded killer, considers defacing the body of his once beloved wife just to cover up the entire murder of his. The idea of burying the body in the wall of the cellar is a recurring theme in gothic stories. Poe used this idea also in The Cask of Amontillado, for example (Badenhousen 1992: 490). “I had walled the monster up within the tomb! ” The last sentence of the story emphasizes the gothic mystery visible in the work. An act of burying the wife in the wall must have taken the narrator some time.
How could he miss the fact that the cat hid itself in the gap while he was immuring his wife? How did the cat manage to survive four days behind the wall without the fresh air and any food? The questions to which answers remain shrouded in mystery are major characteristic of this genre. To recapitulate, the story of the cat and its mad owner is undeniably a masterpiece. Each sentence in the text is meaningful and each needs a scrutiny to properly interpret the whole work. The gothic literary convention is mostly visible in the main character, who happens to be the narrator of the story.
He scares the reader by being unpredictable, rage-driven and unreliable. Moreover, the pace of the story, keeping the reader in a lasting suspense, and the presence of numerous omens make The Black Cat one of many very elaborate examples of Poe’s gothic stories. References Badenhausen, Richard. 1992. “Fear and Trembling in the Literature of the Fantastic: Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat”, Studies in Short Fiction 29, 4: 486-498. Bliss, Ann V. 2009. “Household Horror: Domestic Masculinity in Poe’s The Black Cat”, The Explicator 67, 2: 96-99.
Childs, Peter and Roger Fowler. 2006. The Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms. London: Routledge. Fisher, Benjamin Franklin. 2004. “Poe and the Gothic Tradition”, in: Kevin J. Hayes (ed. ), The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. London: Cambridge University Press, 72-91. Sova, Dawn B. 2007. Critical Companion to Edgar Allan Poe: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File. Stark, Joseph. 2004. “Motive and Meaning: The Mystery of the Will in Poe’s The Black Cat”, The Mississippi Quarterly 57, 2: 254-263.

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