A literary review by Miss Cuddlywumps
Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley
for “The Black Cat” (1894-5).
Public domain image
via Wikimedia Commons.
The main message of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Black Cat,” from my perspective, is simple: Don’t mess with cats.
The story, first published in 1843, is narrated by a man who has done some unfortunate things to a cat—and to his wife—and for that he will pay with his life.
Oh, he starts out as quite a nice young fellow, noted for his “docility and humanity” and “tenderness of heart.” He loves animals and has many pets, whose love is much more true than the “paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man.” He marries, and he and his wife keep a variety of pets, including a black cat named Pluto, who is the narrator’s favorite. Pluto (named after the god of the underworld, which seems an unfortunate choice) follows the man and is his friend, even after the man begins to drink so heavily his docile temperament turns mean and nasty. One night the man cuts out one of Pluto’s eyes with a penknife, and sometime later he kills the cat by hanging it from a tree. He does this, he says, because he knew the cat had loved him and because he knew it would be a sin to kill it.
The next night the narrator’s house burns down. (He really should not have hurt that cat.) All that is left is a bit of plaster with (horrors!) the image of a large cat with a rope around its neck. The narrator stupidly explains this away and goes on about his business, which consists mostly of drinking.
Then he meets another black cat. Only this cat is not entirely black like his old friend Pluto. This cat has a white splotch on its breast. The narrator is kind to this cat, which happily follows him home. Perversely (he is that kind of guy), the narrator begins to hate this cat, which is missing one eye, just like old Pluto. But the more the man hates the cat, the more the cat seems to love him and seek out his company. When he notices that the white mark on the cat’s breast resembles a gallows, he is horrified. He says,
Neither by day nor by night knew I the blessing of Rest any more! During the former the creature left me no moment alone; and, in the latter, I started, hourly, from dreams of unutterable fear, to find the hot breath of the thing upon my face, and its vast weight—an incarnate Night-Mare that I had no power to shake off—incumbent eternally upon my heart!
Our narrator is being driven insane, and seemingly by a kind of cat sidgh. He eventually attempts to kill the cat with an axe but kills his wife instead. He walls her body up in the cellar, and does such a nice job with the brickwork and plastering he has no fear the police will discover the corpse. Even better, the cursed cat has disappeared. Things are looking up!
Only our narrator now suffers from overconfidence, so that when the police come to inspect the basement he actually raps on the new plaster with his cane, purposely drawing their attention to it as he brags about the solidity of the walls. His rapping is answered by a cry, then a “howl—a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph.” For the clever narrator has walled the cat up with his wife’s corpse. Of course he is caught and sentenced to hang, just like poor Pluto, who had done nothing other than love him.
So, don’t mess with cats, or you will be haunted by a cat sidgh who will drive you mad and make you suffer.