To contextualize the writing of “Black Cat” biographically, two events are of interest. In January of 1842, Poe’s wife, Virginia, damaged a blood vessel while singing, and this was but the beginning of her decline in health brought about by tuberculosis. Her condition was quite likely exacerbated by their poverty; one of Poe’s letters from the time describes how all Virginia had to guard her from the winter cold was his greatcoat used as a blanket, atop of which perched a tortoiseshell cat to keep her chest warm. Despite his money troubles, though, Poe resigned his editorship of Graham’s Magazine after a power struggle with George Graham. Subsequently, he was forced to cast about desperately for editors and publishers for his work (Thompson xxxiii-iv). Tellingly, though, before the falling out, Poe seems to have discovered a fondness for cryptograms. He even tried to get hired by the government to write them. About a year before leaving Graham’s, he published an essay on “secret writing,” which he described as writing “in such a manner as to elude general comprehension” (Lepore 69).
“The Black Cat” is, on the surface, an especially haunting tale, and it has spurred a great deal of commentary. Oates, ever ambivalent about Poe, features it in the anthology American Gothic Tales. Though she demurs from giving it pride of place, tucking it between “Tartarus of Maids” and “The Yellow Wall-Paper” as the fifth story in the table of contents, she nevertheless writes that the story
"demonstrates Poe at his most brilliant, presenting a madman’s voice with such mounting plausibility that the reader almost—almost—identifies with his unmotivated and seemingly unresisted acts of insane violence against the affectionate black cat, Pluto, and eventually his own wife." (4)
The story introduces “the spirit of PERVERSNESS,” which Poe revisited in a later tale, to account for these “unmotivated and seemingly unresisted acts.” But there is no other reference to any philosophical school or literary tradition. And there are no physical descriptions of the characters. The only character who is really represented in any detail is the narrator, leaving readers to wonder who he is, if they should take him at his word when he recounts his tale, and what they should make of this invoking of perversity as a clue to his motive.
A long tradition continues of critical attempts to determine what the eponymous cat symbolizes in the hope that doing so will shed some light on what the narrator’s motive—though he claimed he had none—was in killing first the cat and then his wife. Ed Piacentino provides page-long footnotes to his interpretation of the story which summarize, thesis by thesis, this critical history. His own perspective, heavily influenced by all the others, is that
The narrator’s motive for murdering his wife seems to be subconscious and, therefore, the crime
"is not consciously premeditated. Nor is the narrator able to understand rationally or to persuade convincingly why he has done this terrible deed, though he repeatedly offers explanations—actually untenable rationalizations—for his former actions." (153)
Citing Piacentino as an example of misguided psychologizing, Joseph Stark works to place the story in its historical context and suggests that such “analyses…may indicate in their very strivings to provide answers that no sufficiently clear cause for the narrator’s murder of his wife and the cat may be found in the text” (255). Of course, the story states this much explicitly, but what Stark argues would have been disturbing about this taking the narrator at his word is that it “posed significant challenges to increasingly influential scientific thought as well as to shifting evangelical theology” (255). These critics’ points may be valid, but they apply only insofar as the story is taken at face value.
Originally published in August of 1843, “The Black Cat” forms a nexus with three other tales, “The Tell-Tale Heart” published seven months earlier, “The Imp of the Perverse” from July 1845, and “The Cask of Amontillado” from November 1846. Since the plot of “Black Cat” bears strong similarities to both “Tell-Tale” and “Amontillado,” centering on the murder and immuring of victims and narrated by men at the mercy of confessional compulsions, it may be helpful in uncovering any deliberately concealed satire to pursue a strategy similar to Griffith’s intertextual approach to “Ligeia.” The first notable detail arising from this comparison is the emphasis on the eyes of the victims in both “Tell-Tale” and “Black Cat,” as well as the narrator’s denial of ill-feeling toward them. “I loved the old man,” he says of the victim in “Tell-Tale,” but he was nonetheless driven to murder by one of the old man’s eyes. “He had the eye of a vulture,” the narrator says, “a pale blue eye, with a film over it” (317). The victim in “Amontillado” is also described at one point as looking into the narrator’s eyes “with two filmy orbs” (417), but in this case the eyes are not integral to the plot, whereas in “Tell-Tale” the narrator ends up postponing the violence until the eighth night because in attempting to kill the old man in his sleep he keeps finding him with the offending eye closed.
In “Black Cat,” eyes come into play in the first incident the narrator describes. Returning home drunk, he suspects the hitherto affectionate cat is avoiding him. So, he chases it down, and then he says, “I took from my waistcoat-pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket!” (350) Since only one of the old man’s eyes in “Tell-Tale” is ever mentioned, it seems the violence in these stories has something to do with the victims being one-eyed. Poe does something interesting, too, in the line following the narrator’s description of the abuse of his pet: the narrator says, “I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity” (350). It is as if Poe were drawing readers’ attention to the violent implement’s similarity to a pen. The now one-eyed cat goes on to foment the narrator’s rage, much the way the old man’s eye in “Tell-Tale” does, only in the case of “Black Cat” that rage gets turned onto the narrator’s wife.
The victim in “Amontillado” keeps both his eyes unto death, but the narrator’s motive for killing him is never in question because he states it in the opening lines. “The thousand injuries of Fortunato,” he says, “I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge” (415). The nature of the insult remains a mystery throughout the tale, but Fortunato is presented as a proud, pretentious buffoon. “You are rich,” the narrator says to him to coax him into the trap, “respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as I once was” (417). This exploitation of Fortunato’s pride, along with the vague reference to the narrator’s fallen status, persists until the end. The victim in “Amontillado” closely resembles many of the high-status targets of Poe’s satires. But what is important about him in the context of “Black Cat” and the two other tales linked to it is that Poe gives him a name. Neither the old man in “Tell-Tale” nor the wife in “Black Cat” nor the victim in “The Imp of the Perverse” has a name. In fact, the only details given about this last character are that he had a “habit of reading in bed” (405) and that he had an estate large enough to tempt the narrator to murder so that he might inherit it. But there is another victim in these stories whom Poe did deign to give a name, and that is the black cat himself, Pluto.
There remains, however, another major intertextual element to examine before considering the possible significance of the cat’s name, and that is “the spirit of PERVERSENESS” (350), as it is referred to in “Black Cat,” and The Imp of the Perverse, which gives the later story its title. “Imp” begins with a lengthy philosophical discussion on what the narrator calls the “overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong’s sake” (403). The narrator in “Black Cat” defines it as the “unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only” (350). Early in “Imp,” the narrator is at pains to distinguish between perverseness and “the Combativeness of Phrenology,” by asserting that while “Combativeness has for its essence the necessity of self-defense,” when perversity is in play “the desire to be well is not only not aroused, but a strongly antagonistical sentiment prevails” (403). However, later in the story, the same narrator concedes that perversity is “occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good” (405). A plethora of examples from Poe’s own biography suggests themselves as illustrations of an impulse akin to combativeness but with an element of self-destructiveness. There is much of pride in Poe’s perversity, but more of defiance. “Imp” is not about a conflict with a superior, though, but rather a well planned and executed murder the culprit would have escaped all suspicion for had he not been overtaken by the mysterious impulse to confess. It’s important to note that perversity does not push the narrator to murder; it compels him to tell everyone he did it. And he states explicitly that the confession is prompted by perversity, not any attack of conscience. Is he really confessing, or is he taking credit, demanding recognition, boasting about his perfect crime?
A rich drunkard named Fortunato, an old man with one staring eye, a man who likes to read in bed, and an affectionate cat named Pluto, all end up—along with one woman as collateral damage—murdered by unnamed narrators and, except for the reader, walled up with bricks or floorboards, but perversity is invoked to account for only one of these violent acts, that against the one-eyed cat. The “longing of the soul to vex itself,” however, clearly overtakes the narrator again at the end of “Black Cat” when “through the mere phrenzy of bravado” (355) he raps his cane against the wall concealing his wife’s body, boasting to the police investigating her disappearance about how solidly built it is. As in “Imp,” the narrator is betrayed, not by a guilty conscience, but by an inability to restrain from bragging about his deeds, either how well they were planned and executed or how well they were concealed. The pride of the murderer is prominent in “Tell-Tale” as well. Poe not only adheres to the convention in supernatural storytelling of addressing the readers’ supposition of the narrator’s madness but takes it to the next level; not only are the murderers not crazy, they are exceptionally competent and intelligent. “Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust [my head] in” to the old man’s room (317), the narrator of “Tell-Tale” boasts. Later, on the night of the murder, he says
"Never before that night, had I felt the extent of my own powers—of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled." (318)
The murder complete, he goes on to boast some more about “the wise precautions” he takes in hiding the body. “I… replaced the boards so cleverly,” he says, “so cunningly, that no human eye—not even his—could have detected any thing wrong” (319-20). In fact, except for “Black Cat,” all the stories in this nexus are really extended boasts. But what was it about that old man’s eye that provoked the narrator to kill him? Could it be the same thing that drove the narrator in the later tale to kill his cat?