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Literature / The Black Cat

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"The Black Cat" is one of Edgar Allan Poe's more famous short stories, first published in the August 1843 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

We open the story with our narrator days away from being hanged for the brutal murder of his wife. He explains he doesn't expect us to believe anything we're about to hear from him.

The man says he used to be a fond lover of animals. He and his wife used to keep many pets, but his favorite of them all was a friendly black cat named Pluto. The man and his wife live happily and take good care of their animals, until one day the man suddenly turns to the bottle, eventually becoming a violent alcoholic. Coming home one night, he believes Pluto is avoiding him, so he snatches him up. In a panic, Pluto bites the man, who in turn gouges out one of his eyes with a knife.

From then on, the cat flees in terror at the sight of his master. Frustrated and angry, the man takes Pluto and hangs him from a tree in the garden. That night, his house mysteriously catches fire, and imprinted on the wall in ash is the image of the cat hung from the tree.

Some time later, the man runs across another cat, which is exactly the same size and shape as Pluto (it's even missing an eye), the only difference being this one has a patch of white on its chest. The man takes the cat home with him, but soon grows to hate it. It torments and tries to kill him several times, and the man realizes with horror the white fur is starting to take the shape of the gallows.

Enraged, the man takes an axe and tries to kill the creature, but is stopped by his wife, whom he kills instead. He hides her body in the walls of the house. When the police come to investigate, he's more than happy to realize that the cat seems to have vanished. However, right when the police are about to leave, they hear a yowling coming from the walls. Opening it up, they find the wife's body with the cat perched on her head.

The man accidentally walled up the cat with his wife.

This is one of Poe's more violent stories, a little shocking considering he loved cats himself. It isn't held in as such high regard as some of his more infamous works. Some scholars liken it to a mash-up between The Cask of Amontillado and The Tell-Tale Heart. Nevertheless, it is still respected and admired by readers and teachers alike.

The story was adapted for film as one of the segments in Tales of Terror.

I had walled up the tropes within the tomb!

  • The Alcoholic: The narrator delights in drinking heavily; most of the story he spends in a cantankerous, foul mood.
  • Anti-Alcohol Aesop: Alcohol addiction turns the narrator from a loving husband and diligent pet owner to a raving, violent drunk.
  • Animal Lover: The narrator and his wife keep a number of pets and take good care of them. Unlike the man, the wife continues to provide her pets with love and respect.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: The narrator's violent behavior towards both Pluto and the new cat is cruel and unusual indeed.
  • Buried Alive: The narrator ends up murdering his wife and "buries" her in the basement wall. When the police inspect his house, they're led to the tomb by the cat's screams, the narrator having buried it alive with her without noticing it.
  • The Cat Came Back: Played With. It's never explicitly stated whether the new cat is Pluto come back to life, a ghost, or just a similar looking cat that happens to show up. Nevertheless, the narrator thinks it knows everything about what the narrator did and it is at least very similar to Pluto.
  • Constructive Body Disposal: The narrator, becoming a violent alcoholic, kills his pet cat, Pluto. After some time, he brings home another, similar-looking, cat, and begins to hate it. When it nearly trips him as he goes into the cellar, he tries to kill it with an axe, and his wife gets the axe in her head when she tries to stop him. To keep anyone from finding out, he buries her body behind a brick wall. As in The Tell-Tale Heart, some police come to visit, and the narrator is at first sure he's home free. Then he knocks on the wall while rambling about how well-built the house is, and a wail from behind the wall causes the police to tear it down — he had accidentally entombed the cat while burying his wife's body.
  • Eye Scream: Poor Pluto! His eye gets gouged out with a penknife.
  • For the Evulz: The narrator kills Pluto, as he explains, for no other reason than knowing that it was wrong to do so.
    One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree; hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart; hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offense; hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin — a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it, if such a thing were possible, even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.
  • Inside a Wall: After the narrator murders his wife, he hides her body in a wall in his house. However, when the police are investigating, they hear yowling from inside the wall and open it up to find that the narrator's cat had been walled in with the carcass and is sitting on the head, meowing loudly.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It's entirely possible that the new cat really is just a new cat and the narrator is just imagining all the similarities it has to Pluto.
  • Motor Mouth: The narrator becomes very talkative out of relief when the police fail to find anything to indicate his guilt, which leads to his downfall when he knocks on the wall while talking about how solid the house is and disturbs the cat.
  • No Name Given: The names of the narrator and his wife are not revealed. The only one in the story with a name is Pluto the cat.
  • Sanity Slippage: The narrator is clearly insane; this is made obvious by all the strange hallucinations he has.
  • Til Murder Do Us Part: The narrator ends up murdering his wife with an axe.
  • Villain Protagonist: Our narrator is not only an alcoholic, he kills Pluto, abuses and murders his wife, and treats whoever is reading his story with condescension.