Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Commentary
The tale of "The Black Cat" was first published on August 19, 1843, in the United States Saturday Post, later called the Saturday Evening Post, in Philadelphia. The story's placement of a murderer as the narrator embodies much of Edgar Allan Poe's stylistic method, using words to manipulate the mind of his readers. It is this fresh approach to storytelling that caused Poe's writing to find such appeal amongst a developing America still searching to define itself. Poe's work contributed to this quest very much, as in "The Black Cat." Here, a rather sick man blames everyone else for causing his behavior. When he becomes a violent alcoholic, it is "Intemperance" that causes him to behave as such, and later it is another personification that causes him to hang his cat, that of "Perverseness." It is the cat's fault that his wife murdered, for if the cat hadn't gotten in his way, he would never have swung the ax. Finally, it is the cat's fault that his crime is discovered, for it is the cat's howls that the policemen hear, causing them to tear apart the wall concealing her body. The setting and human characters are non-specific; only the black cat bears a name, Pluto. The focus is thus upon the man's inner world, and the psychology of why a crime is committed remains a central key to understanding the story.
Furthermore, the man is afflicted by paranoia and distrust of all that is around him, which started after he began staying out all night to get drunk. He first grew paranoid that the cat was following him, which is why he would become violent towards it, eventually causing it to die. The man's fears were reaffirmed when the cat's shape was burned into the wall in his ruined house, which he desperately sought to explain away by an elaborate course of events. After moving to a new residence, the man found a new cat, but quickly feared this creature because it had a white patch on its breast that resembled a gallows, where men are hung. The man's paranoia increases to the point that he murdered his wife when she prevented him from killing the cat. He felt relief only when the cat had disappeared and did not get nervous at all when the police came to investigate his wife's disappearance. Indeed, it is his overconfidence which leads to the discovery of the body, as he gloats that they don't know her body to be buried so nearby in the basement. It is this false security that led to her discovery, and the man is again consumed by paranoia and fear towards the "monstrous cat" which he had wanted to kill.
By means of these detailed descriptions, Poe paints a portrait of how the criminal thinks and comes to rationalize his crimes. In this instance, the man did not make a conscious decision to kill his wife, but instead was consumed by a sudden and violent outpouring of human emotion. Perhaps this is the lesson that Poe makes of the story, contrasting the mention of blacks cats as "witches in disguise" to the actual darkness that exists within the human heart. The first is rooted in superstition and paranoia, whereas the second is evidenced at length within the story because of the narrator's actions. The reader is left to decide between the narrator's narrow perception of the world, where black cats set out to destroy a man's life, and the wider lens of common sense which suggests that this is a disillusioned man who becomes violently abusive when under the influence of alcohol.