"The Black Cat," which first appeared in the United States Saturday Post (The Saturday Evening Post) on August 19, 1843, serves as a reminder for all of us. The capacity for violence and horror lies within each of us, no matter how docile and humane our dispositions might appear.
- By Martha Womack
Martha Womack, better known to Internet users as Precisely Poe, has a BA degree in English from Longwood College in Virginia, and teaches English and Theatre Arts at Fuqua School in Farmville, Virginia. When Martha first began teaching American literature, she found so much conflicting information about Edgar Allan Poe that she became confused about what to teach her students. As she began to research the author's life and literature, Martha discovered that a horrible injustice had occurred, and she became determined, like many others, "to set the record straight." "This mission" has lead to ten years of research and the creation of her web site, Precisely Poe. Martha is proud and pleased to be a part of the Poe Decoder, a continual project to dispel the myth surrounding Poe, the man and his literature.
Summary of the story
Point of View
Style and Interpretation
Complete Text Available
Illustration is copyright ' 1997 Christoffer Nilsson
Printed publishing rights retained by the author, copyright pending. Internet publishing rights granted by the author to Christoffer Nilsson for use exclusively in Qrisse's Poe Pages. Any for-profit use of this material is expressly forbidden. Educational users and researchers must use proper documentation procedures, crediting both the publisher, Christoffer Nilsson and the author, Martha Womack.
Summary of the story
"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. But tomorrow I die,
and today I would unburden my soul. My immediate purpose
is to place before the world...a series of mere household
events....[T]hese events have terrified--have tortured--
have destroyed me....[P]erhaps...some intellect more
calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own...
will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe,
nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural
causes and effects."
Tomorrow the narrator will be executed for the brutal murder of his wife. As he awaits his own death, he finds it necessary to record the events which seduced him into murder and informed the police of his crime.
From infancy, the narrator had been noted for his "docility and humanity of... disposition." His tenderness of heart made him "...the jest of [his] companions. [He] was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by [his] parents with a great variety of pets." He married at an early age, and like the narrator, his wife had a similar love for animals. They had "birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat. Pluto, the cat, was "a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree." As the narrator remembers Pluto, he also remembers something that his wife once said about all black cats being witches in disguise according to "some ancient popular notion." He never really believed she was serious about this point, and he is not quite sure why he remembers it now.
Out of all the pets, Pluto was his favorite. He "alone fed him, and he attended [him] wherever he went about the house. It was even with great difficulty that [he] could prevent [the cat] from following [him] through the streets." Their friendship lasted for several years until the man's temperament began to change. He grew, "day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others." He cursed at his wife, and eventually he "offered her personal violence." His pets began to feel the change in his disposition--a change brought about by the "Fiend Intemperance [lack of control in consuming alcohol]."
"One night, returning home, much intoxicated...[he] fancied that the cat avoided [his] presence." He grabbed Pluto, who out of fear, "inflicted a slight wound upon [his owner's] hand with his teeth. The fury of a demon instantly possessed [the man]." He took a penknife from his waistcoat pocket, "and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket!" When morning came, the narrator saw what he had done to the poor creature on the previous night. "The socket of the lost eye presented...a frightful appearance...." The narrator unable to deal with the results of his own actions, "soon drown in wine all memory of the deed."
"In the meantime, the cat slowly recovered. He went about the house as usual, but as might be expected, fled in extreme terror at [the narrator's] approach." At first the man was somewhat grieved by the cat's actions; however, this feeling turned into irritation. "And then came, as if to [his] final and irrevocable overthrow the spirit of PERVERSENESS.
"One morning, in cold blood, [the narrator] slipped a noose about [Pluto's] neck and hung it to the limb of a tree;--hung it with the tears streaming from [his] eyes, and with the bitterest remorse of [his] heart;--hung it because he knew that [the cat] had loved [him], and because [he] felt it had given [him] no reason of offence;--hung it because [he] knew that in so doing [he] was committing a sin--a deadly sin that would so jeopardize [his] 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."
"On the night of the day on which this most cruel deed was done, [the narrator] was aroused from sleep by the cry of fire....The whole house was blazing. It was with great difficulty that [his] wife, a servant, and [himself], made [their] escape....[His] entire worldly wealth was swallowed up, and [he] resigned himself thenceforward to despair."
"On the day succeeding the fire, [he] visited the ruins. The walls with one exception had fallen in. This exception was found in a compartment wall...against which had rested the head of [his] bed....About this wall a dense crowd were collected, and many persons seemed to be examining a particular portion of it with very minute and eager attention....[U]pon the white surface...as if graven in bas-relief...[was] the figure of a gigantic cat...[with] a rope about [its] neck."
"When [the narrator] first beheld this apparition...[his] wonder and terror were extreme.... [Then he remembered that] the cat...had been hung in a garden adjacent to the house. Upon the alarm of fire, this garden had been immediately filled by the crowd--by someone of whom the animal must have been cut from the tree and thrown, through an open window, into [his] chamber...with the view of arousing [the narrator] from sleep. The falling of the other walls had compressed the victim of [the man's cruel deed] into the substance of the freshly-spread plaster; the lime...with the flames, and the ammonia from the carcass...[had created the hideous image in the wall]."
For months, the man could not forget the gigantic image of the cat in the wall. It was during this time that he actually began to regret the loss of his cat Pluto, and he began to look for a similar pet to take the cat's place. "One night as [the narrator sat in a tavern in a drunken stupor], [his] attention was suddenly drawn to some black object, [sitting on a large container] of gin or of rum...." He approached this object, and touched it. He was surprised to discover that "it was a black cat--a very large one--fully as large as Pluto, and closely resembling him in every respect but one. Pluto had not a white hair upon any portion of his body; but this cat had a large, although indefinite splotch of white, covering nearly the whole region of the breast." The cat responded by purring loudly, and the narrator talked to the owner of the tavern about purchasing the cat; however, "this person made no claim to it--knew nothing of it--had never seen it before."
When the man left the tavern, the cat accompanied him home. "When it reached the house it domesticated itself at once, and became immediately a great favorite with [his] wife. Much to the narrator's surprise, he "...soon found a dislike to [the cat] arising within [him]." As time passed these feelings turned to hatred of the cat. He began to avoid it out of a sense "of shame, and the remembrance of [his] former deed of cruelty....What added to [his] hatred of the beast, was the discovery, on the morning after [he] brought it home, that, like Pluto, it had also been deprived of one of its eyes. This circumstance, however, only endeared it to [his] wife...."
The more that the narrator avoided the cat, the more it seemed to follow him. "Whenever [he] sat, [the cat] would crouch beneath [his] chair, or spring upon [his] knees, covering [him] with its loathsome caresses. If [he] arose to walk it would get between [his] feet and thus nearly throw [him] down. or fastening its long and sharp claws in [his clothing], clamber, in this manner, to [his] breast." The man longed to destroy the cat, but refrained from doing so "partly by a memory of [his] former crime, but chiefly...by an absolute dread of the beast. This dread was not exactly a dread of physical evil--and yet [the man] was at a loss how otherwise to define it...."
More than once his wife had called his attention to the splotch of white on this cat's chest "...which constituted the sole visible difference between the strange beast and the one [he] had destroyed." Slowly, over a period of time, this indefinite splotch of white began to take the shape of an object that terrified the narrator. This ghastly shape was that "of the GALLOWS!--oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime--of Agony and of Death!"
"...[N]either by day nor by night ...[could the narrator find] the blessing of rest any more." During the day, the cat would never leave the man's side, and at night, he would wake up "...from dreams of unutterable fear to find the hot breath of the thing upon [his] face, and its vast weight--an incarnate nightmare that [he] had no power to shake off--incumbent eternally upon [his] heart!
"Beneath the pressure of torments such as these the feeble remnant of the good within [him] succumbed. Evil thoughts became [his] sole intimates--the darkest and most evil of thoughts. The moodiness of [his] usual temper increased to hatred of all things and of all mankind...."
"One day [his wife] accompanied [him], upon some household errand, into the cellar of the old building which [their] poverty compelled [them] to inhabit. The cat followed [the narrator] down the steep stairs, and, nearly throwing [him] headlong, exasperated [him] to madness. Uplifting an axe, and forgetting in [his] wrath the childish dread which had hitherto stayed [his] hand, [the narrator] aimed a blow at the animal, which, of course, would have proved instantly fatal if it had descended as [he] had wished. But this blow was arrested by the hand of [his] wife. Goaded by the interference into a rage more than demoniacal, [the narrator] withdrew [his] arm from her grasp and buried the axe in her brain. She fell dead upon the spot without a groan."
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