When I was young we lived in Moscow on the 11th floor of an apartment building so soviet you’d think it was made entirely from ice and concrete. Our Russian nanny Natasha would read us tales of Poe.
Ever since then I have loved Poe’s enigmatic tale The Black Cat and so here is my interpretation of it.
In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Black Cat the narrator pens the tale of his descent from sanity to madness all because of an obsession with two (or possibly one) black cats. These ebony creatures finally drive him to take the life his wife, whose death he unsuccessfully tries to conceal.
There are many interpretations of this dark tale, from a study on the psychology of guilt to an exploration of religion. But I tend to feel that The Black Cat can be seen as an exploration of the process of change and call of the perverse that is sometimes an irresistible temptation.
At the outset of the story the narrator tells us that he is a great lover of animals, a mild mannered man and generally well meaning person. He seems to think of himself as a good and worthy character. We are introduced to a black cat, a creature with which he shares a particular affinity and whose company he values.
His affection for and descriptions of the cat are not dissimilar to his descriptions of himself. The cat can be seen to represent his good and sane self. When the man starts drinking he begins to turn on his wife and pets treating them badly. The cat exists as a reminder to him that he was once a gentle and good person.
He cannot face this reminder and over come by anger one night when the cat is avoiding him he deliberately cuts out one of the cat’s eyes.
This mutilation of the poor creature matches the man’s mutilation of himself through becoming an alcoholic. 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.
Although he feels remorse for his actions, perhaps indicative of his longing to return to his former temperament, he can no longer stand the cat’s company. He kills and hangs the cat in an attempt to assuage his guilt and ignore his undeniably shifting identity.
Despite his destruction of the animal, his guilt and self-loathing does not disappear. In fact it can be argued that his increasing foray into madness manifests itself in the second cat or apparition. As the narrative unfolds the cat turns from companion to monster, as does the man himself.
We could read this transition, 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.
The story culminates in the unsolicited murder of the man’s wife when he can no longer resist the call of the soul ‘to vex itself.’ He has little or no restraint left over the all too powerful call of insanity that takes over his reason and results in his final fall from grace and incarceration.
This final act signifies his transformation from man to monster complete and is mirrored in the last appearance and betrayal of the cat, which, like the man has become a grotesque caricature of its original self. The cat betrays him by yowling out from behind the niche where his wife is entombed.
The cat which he has unknowingly walled up with the corpse represents his last attempt to lock away any connection to his other self. The cat however gives him away showing that he has ultimately betrayed himself.
This compelling conclusion resonates with readers and questions our curious fascination with and call to the perverse.
Does anyone else love Poe or think something different about the black cat?
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