Poe's "The Black Cat" as Psychobiography: Some Reflections on the Narratological Dynamics

Article excerpt

Published initially in the United States Saturday Post on 19 August 1843, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat" remains one of his most mystifying and horrifying tales. The narrator's motive for murdering his wife, as one might expect, has elicited much commentary and speculation from critics. Few critics seriously accept the narrator's own dubious rationalizations for the cruel murder either of his pet cat or of his wife, that being what he has done, so he confesses, he attributes to the "spirit of PERVERSENESS ..., one of the primitive impulses of the human heart ..., to do wrong for wrong's sake" (Poe 852); or his claim at the end of the tale that the cat, which he calls "a hideous beast had seduced [him] into murder" (859). In short, the retrospective narrator, who is actually two personsaethe man who killed his wife and the retrospective teller of the taleae is an untrustworthy and unreliable authority. What J. Rea has observed about Montresor, the narrator of "The Cask of Amontillado," also seems applicable to the unnamed narrator of "The Black Cat": Montresor reveals certain things to the reader, Rea states, "in order to divert attention from the real reason for the crime" (57). Kenneth Silverman has offered a similar observation, but with more psychological suggestiveness, indicating that tales like "The Black Cat" "dramatize failures of various defenses, the protagonists' futile attempts to conceal from themselves and others what they feel" (209). The narrator's motive for murdering his wife seems to be subconscious and, therefore, the crime is not consciously premeditated. Nor is the narrator able to understand rationally or to persuade convincingly why he has done this terrible deed, though he repeatedly offers explanations--actually untenable rationalizations--for his former actions.

James W. Gargano, in what many Poe critics regard as the premier essay on "The Black Cat," may have been the first commentator to offer a cogently and logically convincing explanation to show that what the narrator "assigns" to the "spirit of perverseness" and the "Fiend Intemperance" (Poe 851) may, in fact, "be reduced to ordinary psychological and moral laws" ("Perverseness" 172). Viewing the narrator as a case study with an abnormal personality, Gargano perceives what he calls the narrator's "sentimental excesses, his extreme happiness in feeding and caressing his pets," as an indication of "an unhealthy overdevelopment of the voluptuary side of his nature" ("Perverseness" 173). And Poe's narrator does substitute this manner of behavior for normal relationships with human beings. Many of the subsequent critical views of "The Black Cat" have attempted to explain the narrator's bizarre behavior, especially his murder of his wife, within a psychological or psychoanalytical framework. (1)

While details of Poe's life offer some fertile ground for examining probable autobiographical sources for "The Black Cat," we will heed the warning of James W. Gargano, who has cautiously advised the tale's readers to avoid the biographical pitfall of seeing Poe and the first-person narrator of "The Black Cat" as "identical literary twins" ("The Question" 165). (2) Instead, the emphasis here will be to focus on the narratological dynamics of "The Black Cat" and to apply selected methodology of French critic Gerard Genette, whose book Narrative Discourse provides an engaging systematic study of narrative theory. (3)

Before proceeding to the narratological dynamics of "The Black Cat," I would like to give a brief overview, describing some of Genette's concepts that will form the basis for my examination of the narratology as it relates to the psychobiography of the narrator of Poe's tale. Drawing on a notion addressed initially by Wayne Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction, that narrative, in contrast to dramatic depiction, is illusory because "no narrative can `show' or `imitate' the story it tells," Genette calls narrative the "illusion of mimesis" (164). …