Lecture on “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe
THE FIRST PERSON NARRATOR may be: openly lying, deliberately omitting important information, distorting the truth, repressing the truth, or even hallucinating: existing in a totally different reality. So how do we find the truth? We must put on our detective caps and sift through the evidence.
We are limited to the point of view of someone who might be untruthful for a variety of reasons. Piecing together the truth requires an imaginative detective who sifts all the information skeptically and searches for slips, omissions or deliberate distortions which might reveal the truth. Look for misplaced emphasis or unusual diction.
1. Where is the narrator? What will happen to him the following morning?
2. What is the narrator’s implication here? What is he asking you to do?
“Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place --some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects. " (Link)
3. What exactly is this guy saying in the following quote? With whom did he spend his time instead of other children?
“From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions. I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets.” (Link)
4. What is wrong with the following sentence?
“To those who have cherished an affection for a faithful and sagacious dog, I need hardly be at the trouble of explaining the nature or the intensity of the gratification thus derivable.” (Link)
5. Why did he marry his wife?
“I married early, and was happy to find in my wife a disposition not uncongenial with my own. Observing my partiality for domestic pets, she lost no opportunity of procuring those of the most agreeable kind.” (Link)
6. After describing his wife’s superstition about their beautiful black cat, the narrator says,
“I mention the matter at all for no better reason than that it happens, just now, to be remembered.” (Link)
Why the disclaimer? He didn’t mean to mention the fact that his wife believed that cats were witches? What is this narrator up to?
7. The narrator expresses his love for the cat, but over their years together, he emphasizes the gradual surrender to the “Fiend Intemperance…” Why did this guy commit his horrible crimes? (At least, what would he have you believe was the reason for his crimes?)
“I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. I suffered myself to use intemperate language to my wife. At length, I even offered her personal violence. My pets, of course, were made to feel the change in my disposition.” (Link)
What was this guy doing to his pets? Why?
8. Look carefully at the moment when the narrator describes attacking his cat.
“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.” (Link)
Why does this sick puppy do this to the cat? Look at the way he phrases it. Did he do it because he was drunk?
9. In the following paragraph, the narrator defines the spirit of perverseness. What does he mean when he describes his motives as ‘perverse’ Why, according to him, do people commit horrible acts of cruelty?
“And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. 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. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly 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? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow.” (Link)
10. While reading the following section of the poem, look carefully at exactly what happens on the night of the fire. The sequence of events is impossible to believe (and he knows it.) What really happened? Then consider why the narrator did it? What ultimate crime fascinates him?
“I am above the weakness of seeking to establish a sequence of cause and effect, between the disaster and the atrocity. But I am detailing a chain of facts --and wish not to leave even a possible link imperfect. On the day succeeding the fire, I visited the ruins. The walls, with one exception, had fallen in. This exception was found in a compartment wall, not very thick, which stood about the middle of the house, and against which had rested the head of my bed. The plastering had here, in great measure, resisted the action of the fire --a fact which I attributed to its having been recently spread. About this wall a dense crowd were collected, and many persons seemed to be examining a particular portion of it with every minute and eager attention. The words "strange!" "singular!" and other similar expressions, excited my curiosity. I approached and saw, as if graven in bas relief upon the white surface, the figure of a gigantic cat. The impression was given with an accuracy truly marvellous. There was a rope about the animal's neck. When I first beheld this apparition --for I could scarcely regard it as less --my wonder and my terror were extreme. But at length reflection came to my aid. The cat, I remembered, 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 some one of whom the animal must have been cut from the tree and thrown, through an open window, into my chamber. This had probably been done with the view of arousing me from sleep. The falling of other walls had compressed the victim of my cruelty into the substance of the freshly-spread plaster; the lime of which, had then with the flames, and the ammonia from the carcass, accomplished the portraiture as I saw it.” (Link)
11. During the next section of his story, the narrator wants us to believe that the dead cat Pluto comes back to life with a devilish mark on his head which eventually assumes the shape of a hangman’s noose….. RIGHT! What new plan is he formulating?
12. Look at the details of the ‘accidental’ killing of the narrator’s wife. He blames it all on that darn cat! What is really going on?
“One day she
accompanied me, upon some household errand, into the cellar of the old
building which our poverty compelled us to inhabit. The cat followed me
down the steep stairs, and, nearly throwing me headlong, exasperated me
to madness. Uplifting an axe, and forgetting, in my wrath, the childish
dread which had hitherto stayed my hand, I aimed a blow at the animal
which, of course, would have proved instantly fatal had it descended as
I wished. But this blow was arrested by the hand of my wife. Goaded, by
the interference, into a rage more than demoniacal, I withdrew my arm
from her grasp and buried the axe in her brain. She fell dead upon the
spot, without a groan.
13. In the terrifying conclusion of the story, the narrator leads the police to the very spot in the cellar where he has walled up the dead body of his murdered wife. What happens when he raps on the wall with his cane? Read this passage very carefully: how did this moment make the narrator feel? How does it make him FEEL to describe this moment once again on the eve of his execution? How is he reacting to your response?
“I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom. But may God shield and deliver me from the fangs of the Arch-Fiend! No sooner had the reverberation of my blows sunk into silence than I was answered by a voice from within the tomb! --by a cry, at first muffled and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman --a howl --a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the damned in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation. Of my own thoughts it is folly to speak. Swooning, I staggered to the opposite wall. For one instant the party upon the stairs remained motionless, through extremity of terror and of awe. In the next, a dozen stout arms were tolling at the wall. It fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb!” (Link)
14. OK, Sherlock, put the clues together. What has this narrator been up to all along? How has your response to the conclusion fit into his deranged plan?
Write a paragraph in which you describe the true intention of the narrator in Poe’s “The Black Cat”.