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Themes in The Black Cat
Alcoholism: The plot is primarily propelled by the protagonist’s vice, alcoholism or, as he calls, it “the Fiend Intemperance.” This fiend divides the character’s soul in two, and so he takes on an increasingly divided nature as the story goes on. There is his sensible self, aware of and surprised by his own potential for darkness. There is also his darker self, endlessly thirsty for gin and filled with a desire to inflict violence.
Sin: Throughout the story, the protagonist struggles with Christian morality. As his own actions become increasingly perplexing and violent, he grows concerned that he has strayed from the commandments of the Christian God. Despite his sense of personal wrongdoing, he is unable to correct himself. As the story comes to its conclusion, the protagonist makes a plea to God, crying, “But may God shield and deliver me from the fangs of the Arch-Fiend!” But it is too late. The only reply is the cat’s devilish wail from within the sealed wall.
Guilt: The titular cat, Pluto, serves many symbolic and thematic functions in the story. One of these functions is as a symbol of the narrator’s guilt. Once the protagonist has embarked on his path of alcohol-fueled rage, the sight of Pluto fills him with guilt and self-loathing. The protagonist attacks Pluto, which only deepens his guilt. In the final act of the story, the protagonist murders his wife. Unsurprisingly, he begins searching for Pluto to kill the cat and, on a symbolic level, put an end to his guilt. The great irony is that the protagonist has buried Pluto alive along with his wife. In the last scene, the cat’s wails reveal the location of the wife’s body and announce the protagonist’s guilt.
Themes Examples in The Black Cat:
The Black Cat
"I had walled the monster up within the tomb!..." See in text (The Black Cat)
The final image—that of the dead wife and cat sealed behind the plaster wall and then broken free—serves as a metaphor for the entire story. Those brutal tendencies the narrator had sealed away in his psyche were impossible to keep concealed. Just as his violent urges could not be contained, the consequences of those urges burst into public view in the final scene.
"And a brute beast—whose fellow I had contemptuously destroyed—a brute beast to work out for me—for me a man, fashioned in the image of the High God—so much of insufferable wo!..." See in text (The Black Cat)
Here Poe highlights the Christian belief in a hierarchy of beings: humans, created in God’s image, exist in a higher tier than animals. In this paragraph Poe seems to be suggesting that this hierarchy is false (because humans are animals), or that the narrator has descended into an animal state.
"Although I thus readily accounted to my reason,..." See in text (The Black Cat)
It is not clear whether the narrator’s rational explanation for the impression of the cat is meant to be taken seriously. To return to the theme of cause and effect, the narrator either correctly traces the causal chain or constructs an elaborate illusion.
"a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it—if such a thing were possible—even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God...." See in text (The Black Cat)
The narrator makes several references to his relationship with God throughout the story. His stance seems to be that his actions represent a deviation from God’s path. As he continues to sin, he struggles with the possibility of his own salvation, a problem he first poses in this passage.
"Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man...." See in text (The Black Cat)
Poe deepens the theme of dualism here, fleshing out the idea that the narrator’s wickedness is not an aberration but rather a manifestation of his core nature. One wonders whether this theme was of particular importance to Victorian-era writers, Poe and Stevenson included. By many historical accounts, the Victorian Age in England and the United States was defined by a culture of civility and repression.
"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...." See in text (The Black Cat)
This passage draws our attention to a theme of dualism. Within the narrator exist two competing paradigms. One part of the man—his soul, you might say—is good and loving. The other part is fiendish and uninhibited. This duality is as old as civilization itself: when humans are taught to control their primal urges, dark, “shadowed” (as Carl Jung would say) portions of the psyche develop. For the narrator here, alcohol serves as a key which frees his shadow self. This particular duality is most famously explored in Robert Louis Stevenson’s [Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.] (https://www.owleyes.org/text/dr-jekyll-mr-hyde)
"But my disease grew upon me—for what disease is like Alcohol!..." See in text (The Black Cat)
Despite Poe’s insistence that his stories and poems do not contain morals and are designed solely to produce an effect, “The Black Cat” can be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of alcoholism. The narrator’s descent into alcoholism leads him to commit a series of increasingly wicked deeds. Though Poe’s goal may have been to chill the reader’s blood, one can hardly help but take away a message of temperance. Poe, as well as his brother, struggled with alcoholism; his own experiences may have informed “The Black Cat.”
"Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place..." See in text (The Black Cat)
Here we find the establishment of one of the story’s central themes. The narrator searches for some scrap of sense amidst a bewildering series of circumstances and events. The story implicitly asks us whether the world, or even our own actions, can be understood.