The Black Cat: Madness And The Unreliable Narrator Essays Examples

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Pets, Cat, Alcoholism, Alcohol, Speaker, Tone, The Black Cat, Literature

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2021/01/27

As a writer, Edgar Allen Poe was famous for his tales of the macabre—he used things that most people found distasteful to examine the finer points of the human mind and the human consciousness. Although The Black Cat is not necessarily one of Poe’s most famous or most well read works, it is still an important piece in the puzzle that Poe constructed in his quest to understand the human mind. Poe’s choice of tone, narrator voice, and symbolic imagery all contribute to the overall mad, Gothic tone of the short story.
One of the primary themes throughout The Black Cat is the theme of urgency, although the reader does not have a good sense of what the narrator feels is urgent. The diction that Poe’s narrator uses to describe his experiences with the cat, Pluto, reflects the ramblings of someone who is not entirely sane (Poe). The tone of the piece from the beginning is urgent and insistent, as though the narrator is insisting to the reader that he is, indeed, sane. Poe’s narrator in The Black Cat writes, “For Pluto, however, I still retained sufficient regard to restrain me from maltreating him, as I made no scruple of maltreating the rabbits, the monkey, or even the dog, when by accident, or through affection, they came in my way. But my disease grew upon me -- for what disease is like Alcohol ! -- and at length even Pluto, who was now becoming old, and consequently somewhat peevish -- even Pluto began to experience the effects of my ill temper” (Poe). There is an explanatory tone in this very long, rambling sentence, as though the speaker is searching for absolution insofar as his poor behavior towards pets and animals is concerned. The reader is meant to agree with the speaker, and say that the speaker is correct, that there is no problem with mistreating the odd rabbit or dog.
The urgent tone continues throughout the piece, even towards the end of the piece. However, what changes throughout the piece is the narrator’s ability to maintain competent, coherent thought. The narrator begins the story insisting, once again, in an urgent way that he is not insane. By the end of the piece, the reader experiences the true insanity of the speaker, as he explains: “But may God shield and deliver me from the fangs of the Arch-Fiend ! No sooner had the reverberation of my blows sunk into silence, than I was answered by a voice from within the tomb! -- by a cry, at first muffled and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman” (Poe). The sentence continues on, but the structure is rambling, and one can imagine the speaker turning red in the face and being incapable of coherent speech as it is delivered. The devolvement of urgency into insanity is one of the primary tone pairings in The Black Cat.
The narrator himself also lends himself to the theme of madness in the text. The titular cat named Pluto is named by the narrator, and is named for the god of the Underworld, or the god of death (Poe). The cat and the cat’s name and nature shake the narrator’s already fragile mental state. The descriptions that the narrator give of the cat’s behavior indicate that the cat seems to be just a normal cat—there is nothing particularly strange about the cat except the narrator’s reaction to it (Poe). It is only the narrator’s descent into madness that makes the cat particularly frightening or unusual (Barthes 3).
There is also a sense that the narrator goes from being self-aware to significantly less self aware, which is part of the descent into madness. The narrator talks about the instance in which he chooses to cut out Pluto’s eyes, saying: “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. I deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket! I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity” (Poe). This is relatively early in the text, so the speaker still has some sense of the terrible nature of what he is doing: he feels ashamed of his actions, a feeling that is reflected in the gaudy words that are used to describe the action. He foists the blame from himself onto the alcohol; something that Barthes suggests Poe himself was likely to do. In The Black Cat, there is some measure of Poe himself in the narrator; Barthes suggests that this is one of the first times Poe utilized alcohol as a plot point in text (Barthes 4).
There are a number of images that are particularly significant throughout the text. As previously stated, alcohol is an interesting plot device because Poe himself was an alcoholic, but rarely utilized drinking in his work: this protagonist was able to blame many of his actions on the alcohol that he consumed in large quantities throughout the text. When he meets the second cat—or Pluto reincarnated, as it is unclear which is the truth—he is drinking. Indeed, when he commits the terrible acts against Pluto, he is drunk. Alcohol is the excuse for all the narrator’s bad behavior, even the murder of his wife with an axe.
The cat itself is an interesting symbol. In American culture, especially during Poe’s time, the cat was considered to be a consort of witches and the Devil; black cats were particularly bad luck. For Poe to choose a black cat as a symbol in the text is very important, because the narrator claims that it is the cat that seduces him into madness. Of course, to the readers, it is obvious that the narrator’s reporting of events is likely unreliable; Poe’s narrators are the very definition of unreliable narrators, because they are very often writing their stories while in the grip of madness. The narrator describes himself initially as a gentle man and an animal lover, but the cat, Pluto, is the one who convinces him to commit murder.
The narrator may have merely met multiple cats along the way, which were of similar size and coloring; losing eyes is common for cats that have been in fights. Whether or not there is a supernatural explanation for the second cat’s appearance is not important, because the narrator believes that the second cat is also Pluto. It is this belief that drives the story forward and ensures that the narrator continues his descent into madness.
The cat is the fixation point for the narrator’s madness, and the alcohol he drinks is his excuse for being violent and aggressive. Although he tries to paint himself in a good light, it is clear that the narrator is a terrible judge of his own behavior and his own sanity.


Barthes, Roland. 'Textual Analysis Of A Tale By Edgar Poe'. Poe Studies 10.1 (1977): 1-12. Web.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Complete Stories And Poems Of Edgar Allan Poe. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966. Web.

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