Other than his elegiac poetry (“The Raven,” “Ulalume,” “Annabel Lee”), “The Black Cat” may be interpreted as autobiographic more than any other member of Poe’s canon. Those who carelessly “read into it” as confessional may held responsible for recklessly promoting the Poe myth. Nonetheless, its major components – alcoholism, domestic abuse, impulsive murder, and psychological decay – have become synonymous with both Poe the Man and Poe the Writer. “The Black Cat” may not accurately depict Poe’s tangible life – he was a remorseful, if sporadic drunk, and a great lover of cats – it does delve into some of the man’s chief philosophical inquiries, especially those of his later life: can conscience be avoided; can personality be irrevocably transformed; can guilt be banished; can the caverns of the unconscious be regulated and contained? An exploration in the struggle between will and conscience, “The Black Cat” shadows many of the same themes as “William Wilson,” excepting that its doppelgänger – for it has one – is not the replica of the man, but that of his most cherished possession.
The story begins with the narrator – a condemned man waiting to be hanged – explaining the surprising way that his journey to the gallows began: a childhood love of animals. When he grew into a man he married a woman who loved animals even more than he did, and they took many pets into their home, including a large, black cat named Pluto (after the Roman god of the underworld). The marriage is loving and supportive, but as time goes on the narrator becomes gradually drawn to drink, until he becomes a completely uncontrollable alcoholic. His love of animals darkens – along with his love for his wife – and he falls into violent moods of self-pity and indulgence. One night he stumbles home in a raving stupor and tries to pet Pluto, but the cat is aware that he is in a dangerous mood, and withdraws from his master. Resentful and angry at what he perceives as a personal rejection, he lunges at Pluto and grabs him. In a blind rage he gouges one of the animal’s eyes out with his pocketknife.
The next morning the narrator immediately regrets his rashness, but his relationship to Pluto is utterly ruined: the cat hates and avoids him, and this only worsens his feelings of rejection. Shortly after he comes home drunk once again. Eager to rid himself of this living symbol of his shame, he drags the pet into his garden and hangs it from a tree in the early morning. That night their house catches fire inexplicably, and the couple flee for their lives. The following day he returns to the charred wreckage where only one wall remains standing. There, silhouetted by soot, is the charred outline of a large cat hanging by a rope. He supposes that when the neighbors came to put the fire out, one may have slung Pluto’s body towards the house to alert his attention, where it snagged by the rope and created a stenciled outline when it shielded the wall from the fire. However, the ghostly image haunts him and lingers in his mind.
As time goes by, he misses Pluto and one day he finds a strange black cat – the very figure of Pluto – loitering around a tavern while he is on a bender. The animal is an exact replica – even down to missing one of its eyes – with one exception: it has an amorphous white patch on its chest which, over time, begins to bear an uncanny resemblance to a hangman’s gallows. He forms a begrudging attachment to the animal, and brings it home with him, but as the white patch morphs and sharpens into its ghastly shape, he once again begins to loathe and despise his pet.
One day, as he and his browbeaten wife descend into the cellar of their new home, he nearly trips on the cat, which reawakens his brutal rage: he grabs a razor-sharp axe to cut him in two, but his wife – who has suffered in miserable silence this whole time – cannot allow this, and jumps in front him to protect their pet. Still in a blind rage, he transfers his aggression in a moment, and buries the blade of the axe in his wife’s forehead.
Immediately he sets about concealing yet another act of violence: he removes a section of brick that had been walling up a cavity in the foundation, and stuffs his wife’s body in the hole, bricking it back up a la “The Cask of Amontillado,” assured that no one will be the wiser.
Shortly after, his wife’s friends note her absence, and the police visit to investigate, but find nothing suspicious, although they conduct a broad examination. He finds that the cat has disappeared from the house, and he can finally sleep in peace. The police probe leads nowhere, but before they give up, they insist on one last top-to-bottom exploration of the house. The narrator is delighted to accompany them, even when he leads them – arrogantly and perversely, a la “The Tell-Tale Heart” – to the very spot where she is buried. Overwhelmed with confidence, he lifts his walking stick and wraps it against the brick wall to demonstrate its soundness, but is immediately silenced and mortified when the walls rattle with a ghoulish, wild wail that sounds like a soul in hell. The police immediately tear down the wall, under the belief that his wife must have been buried there alive. But this is only half true: her gore-encrusted corpse is now bloated and rotting, but crouching on the head, yowling in triumphant defiance, is the black cat, with its glowing spectral eye and the image of the gallows seared on its breast. The narrator bemoans: “I had walled up the monster within the tomb!”
“The Black Cat” remains one of Poe’s most haunting studies in guilt. Punctuated by deep emotion and remorse, it differs from every murder tale he wrote: unlike “Amontillado” and “Hop-Frog,” the violence is instantly regretted; unlike “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Imp of the Perverse,” the destruction is not for the sake of amusement. It is an emotional string of brutalities – both against the wife and the cat – all of which arise from a sensual reservoir of self-indulgence and self-loathing. Dually repulsed by and attracted to the reminder of his earlier chastisements – the company of Pluto II – the narrator finds himself torn between the cleansing desire for atonement and the thrilling hunger for impunity. For a society which had no prison sentence for animal abuse, the protagonist does not stand to turn himself into the authorities to make his reprisal; rather, salvation remains available to him in the character of his relationship with his wife, whom he ultimately slaughters, leaving the karmic forces of his disastrously bifurcated psychology no option other than to employ the powers of impulsive perversity to ultimately deposit him to the gruesome fate he had been gradually warned of in the grisly emblem he projected onto his cat’s stained breast.
To the psychoanalyst, indeed, “The Black Cat” is a ponderous study in defense mechanisms and their steady failures to entomb the furry of an abused superego: the villainous narrator sublimates his misanthropy in pet collecting – providing the isolation of distance from a race he loathes – before descending into the regressive world of alcoholism, acting out his anxieties. After executing misplaced aggression against Pluto, he attempts to undo his malfeasance by adopting the cat’s doppelganger, only to project his own self-hate onto the animal. Incapable of repressing his still-breathing moral center he is inevitably destroyed by his own frantic attempts to immure morality in the oblivion of his unconscious – a fatal mistake, for, as Poe assures us, once bricked up in chasms of intentional forgetfulness, guilt will no longer silently shadow us: it will scream out for discovery.