Not surprisingly, Poe mentions madness early in the story “The Black Cat.” It’s kind of his shtick. He starts where many horror writers start: at the end of the story, with a narrator recounting a tale of terror and travesty. But unlike narrators in other stories, this narrator is damned by the events of the tale, and perhaps seeks solace in his retelling. Also unlike narrators in other stories, he’s not sitting around a fireside, and so many horror stories (“The Monkey’s Paw,” “The Bodysnatchers,” “The Turn of the Screw,” to name a few) start by the fireside. Our narrator sits in a prison cell, but he does not expect your sympathy. He is honest about his previous callousness. Not only doesn’t he expect your sympathy; he doesn’t expect you to believe his story. He proclaims: “For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence.” Poe knows how to write an introduction. Are you intrigued yet? I was.
The narrator grew up as a sensitive, animal loving individual. He marries a sensitive, loving wife and they have many pets. His favorite animal is a cat whose name isn’t incidental: Pluto. In Roman Mythology, Pluto is the god of the underworld (and, of course, Mickey’s dog according to Disney). The narrator doesn’t tell us the origins of the cat’s name, but as a supposedly ancillary detail, he mentions that “my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured with superstition, made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise.” He goes on to explain – though the fact that he’s lying is transparent – “Not that she was ever serious upon this point – and I mention the matter at all for no better reason than that it happens, just now, to be remembered.”
The narrator may have been born sensitive, but he has a tragic flaw: he’s an alcoholic. Poe was clearly ahead of his time when it comes to understanding the nature of alcoholism, that alcoholism is a disease. The narrator laments: “But my disease grew upon me—for what disease is like alcohol!” Alcohol consumes the narrator’s life and does what it does to so many people – it makes him mean. He describes himself drunk and overcome with anger when his cat, usually a loving companion, bites him: “The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer,” he remarks. As such, he pokes out the cat’s eye.
This is not the only indication of the narrator’s fall. Perhaps more significant than his action is his diminished ability to feel guilt over the action, an ability that will continue to decrease throughout the story. The narrator recounts: “When reason returned in the morning – when I had slept off the fumes of the night’s debauch – I experienced a sentiment half of horror, half of remorse, for the crime of which I had been guilty; but it was, at best, a feeble and equivocal feeling, and the soul remained untouched.”
Ultimately, the narrator kills the cat, and in telling us about it, he – and Poe – explore the concept of perverseness and the nature of evil. The narrator exclaims: “And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable over-throw, the spirit of PERVERSENESS.” He calls perverseness one of the “primitive impulses of the human heart,” and defines it as such: “Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?”
In a previous post, I explore Terry Eagleton’s definition of the word evil (in relation to Psycho and other horror movies) and I note that Eagleton believes evil people commit malicious acts for the sake of committing them, not because they have an end in mind or anything to gain for committing the acts. But, is the narrator in Poe’s story evil? What is the difference between perversion and evil? Perhaps a perverse act is an insidious act committed for no reason. Any person may falter and commit a perverse act at a certain point in his or her life, but an evil person plots to commit many perverse acts. Indeed, the life of someone who is truly evil might be a life colored by a chain of perverse acts, may be defined by incessant perversion – unbridled malice for its own sake.
So does Poe explore evil, perverseness, or both, when his narrator describes hanging his beloved cat? He explains: “One morning, in cold blood, I slipped the noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree;–hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with bitter remorse at my heart;–hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given no reason of offence.” The quote continues, but you get the point. If tears are streaming from the narrator’s eyes, is he evil? Poe makes no attempt to explain the acts of this formerly sensitive narrator, save alluding to his alcoholism. But he definitely raises the question: what provokes such inexplicable perverseness in a person?
In Season Three of The Walking Dead, Michonne convinces Merle that he’s not evil, because when he commits wicked acts he feels remorse; he doesn’t commit them with ease. Indeed, she’s so convincing that Merle transforms into a hero. Let’s apply this barometer to “The Black Cat.” After killing the black cat, the narrator admits at least some guilt. He is not completely evil – only perverse. Is he perverse because his soul is wrapped in and warped by alcohol, does his addiction bring to the forefront something that was already enmeshed in his makeup, or are his malice and alcoholism mutually exclusive? Poe raises this highly debatable question.
The narrator’s story does not stop at the murder of the black cat. Unsurprisingly, Poe explores the notion of Karma. What punishment will a person undergo for the senseless, needless killing of a pet? Poe’s narrator is provoked to further malice. But his guilt begins to fade away. Though his conscience winced at his decision to kill the black cat, even more malevolent deeds ignite no regret later in the story. This lack of regret pinpoints the completion of the narrator’s fall; he has been committing wicked, perverse deeds for so long that he no longer cares. He becomes a person without a conscience. Though, originally, he was a person committing evil deeds, the evil deeds have turned him into an evil person, not just an evildoer.
So what deeds does the narrator commit, you ask? And how does he end up in the prison cell? Does the poor, unsuspecting, one-eyed black cat receive justice? I always recommend reading a Poe story. He does darkness naturally, and his abysmal, psychologically complex and ultimately twisted world becomes your world for the span of time you’re reading his work. Read about the perverse killing of the black cat, and the narrator’s downfall, and tell me what you think.