'The Black Cat' is a tale that leaves the reader somewhat perplexed. It certainly contains all the ingredients necessary to satisfy the appetite of any Poe enthusiast - an enigmatic narrator, alcohol and the effects thereof, mutilation, strangulation, murder, putrefaction, and, last but not least, one of Poe's slight (but recurring) obsessions, perversity - but we are left wondering whether the tale really amounts to anything much at all.
We could almost split it into two halves: one that contains a couple of ideas worth considering; and another that simply indulges briefly in an unlikely plot before grinding to a predictable halt. Mercifully the latter contains enough of Poe's characteristic murkiness to prevent us from arriving at any definitive conclusions about his motives thereby ensuring that our reading of his tale is not a complete waste of time. Even the worst of Poe is, thanks to the very nature of the man, worthy of our interest and consideration.
* Plot summary
A decent, animal-loving man takes to drink and suffers a change for the worse. Imagining one evening that his beloved black cat is avoiding him he grabs it; the startled cat scratches him so he cuts out one of its eyes with a pocket knife. Soon after, possessed by the spirit of perversity, he reluctantly hangs the poor creature by the neck from a tree. Then his house burns down and in the ruins he imagines seeing the shape of a cat imprinted on a wall... a cat with a noose around its neck.
Our narrator soon encounters another black cat, also with one eye, but this time with a smudge of white upon its breast. It takes up residence in his house and he soon comes to loath and fear the beast, more so when the white smudge slowly begins to resemble a gallows. One day when down in the cellar with his wife the man almost trips over his cat and, exasperated, swings an axe at it; his wife stays his hand so in a fit of fury he sinks the axe in her head instead and she dies (not surprisingly).
He walls her up in the cellar and when, days later, the police come calling he is driven by that same imp of the perverse to remark upon the solidity of the cellar wall and to prove his point by rapping his cane upon the plaster. A muffled cry is heard; the police rip down the wall and the body of his wife is found with the infernal cat perched upon its head. Feline revenge is exacted and the man is condemned.
We will deal with Poe's idea about perversity further on but first let's consider the tale itself. It is in the very first paragraph of the story where we are given clues to play with and questions to ponder. Our narrator is awaiting execution and is keen to "unburden [his] soul" with a "most wild yet most homely" narrative. Our task, therefore, is to decide whether he is mad and his crime was "nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects" (however grim) or whether he really WAS a victim of a supernatural feline nemesis.
The narrator's language suggests a confused and uncertain mind: "a wild yet most homely narrative"; "Yet, mad am I not"; "very surely do I not dream"; "[the events] have presented little but horror"; "Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the commonplace". He is clearly undecided in his own mind.
His phrase "mad am I not" is a curious construction. It brings to mind 'he loves me; he loves me not': 'I'm mad; no I'm not; yes I am...'. Perhaps his dipsomania alone drove him to his initial fury, his violent perversity and, ultimately, the murder of his wife. The second cat may have been a simple bystander to the last act and inspiration for his subsequent and sinister rationale. We know that his wife light-heartedly "regarded all black cats as witches in disguise", a remark that may have simmered in her husband's mind.
What we DO know is that the cats were real, and so was the "bas-relief" on the ruined wall: "a dense crowd" had drawn attention to it and thought it "strange" and "singular". Yet we only have it from our narrator that it resembled a "gigantic cat" with "a rope about [its] neck". Similarly, although his wife had "called [his] attention" to "the character of the mark of white hair" on the second cat, she never mentioned a growing resemblance to "the GALLOWS!" The narrator's claim that "[his] very senses reject their own evidence" is perhaps the biggest clue to his delusion, his inability to face the cold horror of a simple murder and his consequent compulsion to create a feline "phantasm".
The change that comes over the narrator is interesting. We CAN read its cause as being solely down to alcohol, yet there is also a subtle implication of something else, something 'extra'. He stresses the "docility and humanity" of his infancy and his particular kindness to animals, a trait wholly at odds with the monster he later becomes. His transformation is a curious and total about-turn. As the "Fiend Intemperance" takes a hold of him he becomes abusive and violent, perhaps a soul possessed (or usurped?).
He recalls that when turning on his cat, Pluto, and tearing out its eye "The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. 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 fibre of my frame." The next morning his remorse was "feeble and equivocal" and his "soul remained untouched." He had been "grieved" by the "evident dislike on the part of a creature which had once so loved [him]", leading him to strangle it. This grief he puts down to the faint manifestation of his "old heart" but it is so obviously a perverse delusion.
(The struggle between the narrator and the "Fiend Intemperance" for possession of a soul reminds us of Poe's own life where his own similar struggles often frightened his wife and her mother and no doubt disturbed HIM owing to his complete inability to control the Fiend once unleashed.)
* The spirit of Perverseness
This spirit is the most interesting theme of the story. A couple of years after the publication of 'The Black Cat' Poe published a piece in which he expanded his idea. In the piece the spirit of Perverseness became the Imp of the Perverse. It's likely that the Imp was of so much interest to Poe because he himself was as much a victim of it as the unfortunate cat-killer in the story.
Poe saw this perversity 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." Some fundamental part of ourselves feels compelled to defy reason and good judgment and act contrary to them, "to violate that which is Law". Poe conjures a fine phrase when he talks about the "unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself".
When the narrator hangs his cat from the limb of a tree he does so with "tears streaming from [his] eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at [his] heart". The cat has loved him and has given no offense yet he feels unable to resist the urge to sin, to "jeopardize his immortal soul". His violent and perverse urge has therefore gone beyond the realm of psychology and entered the realm of possession, of the supernatural. The narrator is, quite literally, no longer himself. But then again, we know that our narrator is most likely a man seeking to blame the supernatural for his very human and earthy impulses. The Imp may be as much a phantasm as the vengeful feline spirit.
Whatever its solidity in the tale, the idea is a good one because it strikes a chord in most of us. We ARE a perverse breed and that imp DOES compel us to do the most unlikely and inadvisable things. Thankfully, most of us do not go as far as mutilating cats or even stringing them up from the limbs of trees, but such acts are just a little further down the same road that we are all on.
In the end, Poe, perhaps unwittingly, writes an extremely perceptive sentence that elevates his idea above the obvious and shows him to have been a man of 'singular' vision: "Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the commonplace - some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects." Or perhaps not! Such is Poe.