Was Poe being Ironic When He Wrote “The Black Cat”?
Do you not have a strange sensation when you read Edgar Poe? I do. It is like a fear of darkness, a fear of something so huge and terrible that we, humans, are unable to understand.
A boy was reading a book. He had started the work several hours earlier, and just was not able to put the stories aside. His parents ordered him to go to bed and to turn the lights off, but the kid continued reading under the cover using a flashlight. He was under a blanket for two reasons. First, he did not want to disturb his strict father. Second, it was less frightening. The boy kept reading till he finished the last page, and closed the book. He was a little scared, excited, and very confused. For a while, the kid lay with his eyes opened vainly trying to understand what that phantom ship, mummy, and a black cat were, but soon, he gave up and fell asleep. The book was Edgar Poe’s short stories, and the boy was me.
Many years have passed, but I still do not have an answer to the question: “What are Poe’s demons?” Are they real demons from hell? Do they exist only in his characters’ minds? Are there no demons at all and does the author just attempt to intrigue his audience? Let us analyze Poe’s “The Black Cat” and try to understand if the author writes about real demons, describes hallucinations of an insane protagonist, or is being ironic and plays with his readers?
If Poe writes about ghosts, the discovery of a cat’s portrait on a wall of the burned house is a very important episode. It is important for two reasons. First, this is, in my opinion, the only scene that cannot be explained logically. Where did the picture come from? The main character supposes that when the fire started, somebody “must have […] cut [a dead animal] from the tree and [threw it], through an open window, into [main character’s] chamber” to wake him up (300). Would it not be much easier and faster to throw a stone or a branch of a tree through the window to wake the main character up? This explanation does not sound serious. Also, the hero believes that “the falling of […] walls had compressed the [cat] into the […] freshly-spread plaster; the lime of which, had then with the flames, and the ammonia from the carcass, accomplished the portraiture as [the main character] saw it “ (301). Could this chain of events really happen? It is more than unlikely.
Second, the portrait of the cat cannot be a hallucination because many people can see it. When the narrator comes to his burned place, he finds “a dense crowd […] examining a particular portion of [the remaining wall] with eager attention” (301). He hears the “words "strange!" "singular!" and other similar expressions” (301). “When [an] excited” main character comes closer, he sees “as if graven in bas-relief upon the white surface, the figure of a gigantic cat” (301). Of course, the whole group of people could be just a hallucination of an insane man. Also, it is possible that the main character was the only one who could see the picture, and the rest of the people are excited by something else. I, however, do not believe that the writer means something like this; he, probably, writes about a ghost. Further on in the story, we meet a lot of mysterious things, but all of them can be explained rationally.
The second cat is, probably, the most mysterious figure in the story. What is it: a ghost, a hallucination, or just a normal animal that looks like Pluto? Can the new Pluto be a ghost? Yes, it can. Let us remember the plot of the story. The protagonist used to be a most good and kind man. His character changes, and he becomes a maniac. He brutally killed the cat. After that, the main character “[regrets] the loss of the animal, and started looking for “another pet […] of somewhat similar appearance” (302). Soon, he finds a cat, an exact copy of Pluto, that loves the hero of the story as much as Pluto did. Was this cat sent to the main character as a second chance to start all over again? The only thing that is different about the new cat from Pluto is “a large, although indefinite splotch of white, covering nearly the whole region of the breast” (302).
Nevertheless, the main character fails in this chance. He commits a much more terrible sin than the killing of a pet; he murders a human: his wife. Shortly before this murder, the white spot on the cat’s chest that originally was very indefinite “[assumed a rigorous distinctness of outline. It [has become] the representation of the gallows” (304). I think that if the hero of the story becomes the man he used to be, the white spot on the cat’s chest would disappear. On the other hand, a new cat could be a creature from the hell that was sent to destroy the main character.
Could a new Pluto be a hallucination? Absolutely! Let us remember how the main character finds the cat. He drinks heavily at that time, and “one night”, when he was “half stupefied” by the alcohol, his “attention was suddenly drawn to some black object, reposing upon the head of one of the immense hogsheads of Gin, or of Rum’ (302). The hero of the story “[has] been looking steadily at the top of this hogshead for some minutes, and what […] caused [his] surprise was the fact that [he] has not sooner perceived the object thereupon” (302). This object turns to be the black cat. Does it not look like the beginning of a delirium tremor? I believe that the second cat does exist because the wife of the main character can see it. The picture of the gallows on the animal’s chest, however, would be an illusion.
Also, a new cat can be just an ordinary animal that runs away after the hero of the story has killed his wife. All the mysterious things can exist only in the main character’s mind. What about a striking similarity between the second cat and Pluto? This resemblance could exist only in the eyes of the main character.
How can a scream form a tomb of the main character’s wife be explained? First of all, the cat could be accidentally walled up with the woman’s body. Suppose, the animal has survived for four days without water and started screaming when it hears a noise from outside. There is no doubt that such a scream would be terrifying. This explanation, however, is not very persuasive. How could the cat sneak into a narrow niche unspotted? How could the main character not notice the animal when he walls the body of his wife up? Remember, the hero of the story is preoccupied with the idea of killing the cat, and he is looking for the animal. Most important, how could the main character, for four days, not hear the screams of a hungry brute? I am sure that Poe writes about a ghost.
Is the scream from the tomb real? Yes, it is because the policemen hear it. This is how the main character describes their reaction. “For one instant the party upon the stairs remained motionless, through extremity of terror and of awe. In the next, a dozen stout arms were tolling at the wall” (308). Who screamed: a ghost of the cat or a spirit of the killed woman? Nobody knows and it does not really matter. The important thing is that it was a scream of a non- living being.
What about that black cat that was “upon the head” of the corpse? There are again three possible answers: a ghost, a hallucination, or a living cat. I, personally, believe that Poe writes either about a ghost or about hallucination. There is no evidence oif the policemen seeing the animal or not. Its image can exist only in the head of the main character.
What is the “spirit of perverseness”? The hero of the story defines it as “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” (299). Interestingly, it is almost the precise definition of Id (dark, primitive desires that occupy human’s subconscious) from psychoanalytic theory. Remarkably, Poe writes about it several decades before Freud’s birth.
Finally, is there an irony in “The Black Cat”? Yes, of course. The process of turning the main character from a very kind and sensitive man into a maniac is ironic. There is an irony in his reaction to an expression of love. The perception of the reality by the central character is ironic, too. There are many ironies in “The Black Cat”, and all of them are horrific. Was the author ironic when he wrote this story? I do not think so. The Black Cat is almost a philosophical tale that deals with a dark side of a human’s consciousness, and the writer is very serious about his subject.
In conclusion, have we found an answer to a question stated in the beginning of this essay? No, and I do not think that this is possible because Poe does not give his readers any clue. That is why the puzzles of his tales will never be solved, no matter how many times you have read them.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Black Cat.” Portable Poe. Ed. Philip Doren. New York: Penguin, 1977. 296-308.