Discussing The Setting In Poe’s The Black Cat Research Paper
Edgar Allan Poe is probably the most notable and recognizable gothic storyteller in history. His work might be perceived as darkly ironic filled with unsettling scenarios. From the antagonistic “nevermore” of “The Raven” to the frightening certainty of death in “The Masque of the Red Death” or the terror of the swinging blade of “The Pit and the Pendulum” and the horrors of being buried alive, Poe mastered these disturbing scenes. Poe’s stories work to test the boundaries of comfort among readers, offering them characters that are often unstable, unreliable, or crazy. These elements are all well represented in the short story “The Black Cat.” The Narrator, his wife and two black cats make up the bulk of characters, however, there is one more element that plays a significant role in the story; the setting. The locations of the story may be scantly detailed but represent the couples diminishing economic status, the Narrator's descent into his own dark side, and acts as a forewarning symbol as to what is to come.
“The Black Cat” is a tale told by the Narrator who admits that his tale is strange, that most will not believe it and that he will shortly be executed for the crime he committed. The Narrator prided himself on his decency, kindness, and benevolence towards animals. He and his wife had many pets. One black cat, named Pluto, was the favored of the Narrator. However, as the Narrator spent more time away from home and began drinking more and more alcohol. , the cat’s loyalties shifted to his wife. This angered him and he cuts out the cat’s eye; later he lynches the pet from a tree in the yard. The couple’s house catches fire. The only wall spared showed the imprint of a black cat. Shortly, he meets another cat, a stray, that is, also, black except with a single white patch. Now living in a much more modest house, the Narrator continues become a greater drunkard, attempts to kill the second cat, and as he struggles with his wife, who is trying to protect the cat, he kills his wife instead. He seals her body into the cellar wall; confident that no one would ever notice or find her. Of course the narrator allows the police, now searching for his missing wife, to investigate the cellar. So certain that he was in the clear he knocks on the wall concealing his wife’s body. “Through the mere phrenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom,” the narrator says (Poe 5). There is a loud number of “meows” coming from inside the wall. The cat had been sealed inside alive. To free the cat the police discover the Narrator’s wife’s body. The Narrator is jailed and sentenced to death.
In the era of the story, the pressures of society taught that to be well-to-do and have any quality of life it was necessary to accumulate material things and the amassing of wealth. At the time it was not uncommon for the public to distrust banking businesses and would often keep all of the monies, properties and important paperwork in the home. What today we might think of as a bit of hoarding was completely typical in time when Poe published the short story. It also explains why that one fire was able to so dramatically affect the couple’s finances; they really did lose everything. The narrator says, “My entire worldly wealth was swallowed up, and I resigned myself thenceforward to despair” (Poe 2).The setting, in the first house, tells that the couple as wealthy and successful. They had many material things and many adopted pets. The home is vast and spacious, giving the air of comfort and freedom (Piacentino 1). However, as the Narrator’s sobriety deteriorates so does his mental state and, therefore, his livelihood. When he loses all of those possessions and property in the fire they are forced go live in a much smaller, more humble home. Not so grand, not so comfortable and, most important, more confining. As the story progresses we see the setting is showing us that the world getting smaller for the characters; this is an important pattern in the story (Fouzia 1-2). The next, major setting is the cellar, an even smaller, more confining, space. The Narrator then seals his wife into the wall, which is even smaller.
The setting experiences and symbolizes the pressure and frustration that the Narrator is experiencing. As the Narrator’s drinking become a bigger part of his days, his environment continues to get smaller, ultimately, leading to his imprisonment in a smaller cell and then, finally, the grave. The Narrator’s behaviors, also, become increasingly worse. He cut out an animal’s eye for “betraying” him and then lynched the pet from a tree, explaining that he, “grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket” (Poe 2).By today’s standards that level of violence and cruelty toward an animal is indicative of his deteriorating mental health. The kind of mental illness, often seen, in serial killers; it is entirely possible that such people could turn that violence onto human beings (Hamid 2). It is like the settings, becoming smaller and more confining, is like a clock counting down to his ultimate act; the murder of his wife. The Narrator, of course, is telling the story from his cell awaiting execution. Of course, normally, the main character in a story is the “hero,” the “good guy” and a voice of reason. In this case it is entirely opposite. The storyteller is the “villain” the “wrong-doer” and it raises “red flags” as to whether or not he storyteller can be trusted? This is a tool used often by Poe. In the “Tell-Tale Heart” the Narrator is clearly insane and in “The Pit and the Pendulum” there is no back-story on the Narrator; so readers do not know if he was an innocent victim or a guilty criminal.
In the “Black Cat” the Narrator gives a succinct relaying of the evens, and presents the story as “interesting” because it is so unbelievable. He offers in the opening, “FOR the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief” (Poe 1).However, he does not come across as being sad, regretful, or remorseful concerning cruelties and crimes he committed (Hamid 2). He focuses on more the cats, their “intentions” and contributions to his downfall and his own drunken and mentally unstable perceptions. He seems to consider the death and concealment of his wife is a secondary element. Can he be trusted? Well he admits to what he did and is no longer in a position to “lessen his sentence” and stay his execution, so lying seems unnecessary. His mental illness is obvious, his drunkenness was a catalyst and he is a man who is capable of great violence. That said he is a disturbed man that could not be trusted to not commit future crime, but that does not mean that every detail of the story is exactly accurate, or entirely fabricated; he received the fate he deserved. Both his ultimate betrayal by the feline in the wall and the death sentence his crime had earned him.
Edgar Allan Poe has a fantastic way of presenting characters that force people to think about the behaviors and motivations of those characters in many unsavory and disturbing ways within sometimes disturbing environments and facing dark challenges. That said the Narrator in “The Black Cat” is no exception. He is a drunk, an animal abuser and a cold-blooded murderer; he is not the makings of a traditional protagonist. He admits his guilt but still displaces responsibility of his actions on the felines. It is not his fault his wife died, it was theirs. That is a sure sign of his mental instability, but more so it represents his perspective of himself as a victim. That said we can trust his “loose lips” because he does not see himself as the villain but as the victim of the two cats torment and intentional harassment. An intelligent person who reviews the Narrator’s behaviors should be able to logically separate what is fact and what is his psychological delusion of the situation. Like many before him the Narrator is a mentally ill and unstable person who was triggered by actual and perceived threats who turned to violence and rage to lash out at those around him, human and otherwise.
Fouzia, D. "Interpretation of the Symbol Black Cat in Edgar Allan Poe's Short Story." Kasdi Merbah University - Ouargla. (2014): 1-50. Print.
Hamid, S. "Psychology in Edgar Allan Poe's The Black Cat, The Cask of Amontillado, and Berenice." Academia Education. (2013): 1-9. Web. 3 Feb. 2015. <http://www.academia.edu/4177083/Psychology_in_Edgar_Allan_Poes_The_Black_Cat_The_Cask_of_Amontillado_and_Berenice>.
Piacentino, E. "Poe's "The Black Cat" as Psychobiography: Some Reflections on the Narratological Dynamics." Studies in Short Fiction. 35.2 (1998): 1. Web. 3 Feb. 2015. <https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-83585370/poe-s-the-black-cat-as-psychobiography-some-reflections>.
Poe, E.A. "The Black Cat." 1845: 1-6. Print.