August 19, 2010

Poe: the fury of a demon

From Wikimedia Commons
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. Yet, mad am I not—and very surely do I not dream... My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events.

Thus begins "The Black Cat," a short story by Edgar A. Poe, first published in the August 19, 1843 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. The "mere household events" which the narrator then describes are anything but ordinary. The narrator, afflicted with what is today termed alcoholism, becomes violent in his drunkenness. For no significant reason, he vents his rage onto his favorite pet, a black cat named Pluto:

One night, returning home, much intoxicated, from one of my haunts about town, I fancied that the cat avoided my presence. I seized him; when, in his fright at my violence, he inflicted a slight wound upon my hand with his teeth. The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer. 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 took from my waistcoat-pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket! I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity.

After some initial lament for his actions, the narrator is again seized by his "spirit of Perverseness" and kills Pluto by hanging him from a tree. Shortly after, his house catches fire, and he and his wife move to another home. A stray cat mysteriously arrives and joins them. This new cat looks unnervingly like Pluto — equally black but for a small white patch of fur which, to the narrator, looks like a gallows. Of course, this cat is also missing an eye. Tormented by this new cat, another alcohol-fueled rage leads to the narrator's final gruesome act which involves his cat, his wife, and a sharp axe.

"The Black Cat" is one of Poe's most violent tales. But, Poe's shocking tale was purposely extreme and, despite his public dismissal of didactic tales, "The Black Cat" features a moral: don't abuse alcohol. Today, the story is considered a "dark temperance" tale, meant to scare readers away from the evils of drinking. Having recently read Timothy Shay Arthur's temperance novel Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, I easily see the similar methods in storytelling.

Poe, of course, struggled with his own overuse of alcohol. As such, he vowed to remain sober. A few years after "The Black Cat" was published, he took a stronger step and joined the Sons of Temperance in Richmond, Virginia, making his pledge to avoid alcohol a public one.


  1. I wonder if the writer/director of "The Grudge" read Poe. Eerily similar. Kit

  2. I love to look deeply at stories, but I'm not much for morality tales. What I love about this story is the strong Gothic element. In fact, it's one of my main examples in my Gothic section of the Literary Movement Series.

    This tale seems the simplest of Poe's work to me. I like the direct connection between acts of evil and insanity. Obviously, we now know this isn't always a cause-and-effect situation. But for Poe, writing in the prime century of psychology, the connection must have been a strong one. After all, we must be able to control our own psyche, right?

    Blogfest entry today on SouthernCityMysteries

  3. Michele: It's definitely a Gothic-inspired tale. But, what I think makes Poe's "horror" stories so unique is that they are never as simple as they appear. Case in point, of course, is "The Black Cat" - a morality tale or dark temperance tale. Isanity is not the cause of his "evil" acts, but "perverseness" (read "The Imp of the Perverse"). Go back and re-read the story and see if it seems less simple if I tell you there really was never a second cat at all...

  4. Ok, ignore my inane comment. I just read the story and still have goose-bumps. I agree that perverseness, exacerbated by drink, drives the narrator: "Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile . . . action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law , merely because we understand it to be such? . . . It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself - to offer violence to its own nature - to do wrong for the wrong's sake only - that urged me to continue . . ." Poe also understands that the narrator wants to brag about his perverseness, in a twisted way he wants the neighbors to know he hanged the cat, wants the police to look behind the wall. I also like that Poe doesn't have the narrator blame outside forces, the devil, a vengeful God, soft parents; he alone is responsible for his actions. I'm not sure that the second cat is a fantasy -- there may be another cat, but he projects his own fear and guilt onto it -- the way it pursues him with affection (more perverseness), tries to trip him up, and of course the white mark. Kit

  5. I agree that Poe does not look for some excuse (other than human nature, perhaps) for shirking responsibility on the part of the narrator. I'd never thought of that before, but it's a good point!

  6. Fascinating discussion, from the original posting to the comments. This may or may not be relevant, but I can't resist tossing-out the possibility that, along with all the more likely elements of alcoholism, mental instability, morality tale, and even just a hair-raising horror story, there is at work here at least a trace of the "unreliable narrator," a motif of which I think Poe is a subtle master. Another way of considering it might be, as Rob points out, the narrator's "perverseness"--i.e., people who are perverse are often not to be relied-upon. What really happens in the story?--and can we take the narrator's word as "fact" or maybe just horrific fantasy? Don't most of us at least, on occasion, conceive of, even if momentarily, some awful deed that we would in actuality never, ever do?