Thirty-Two Stories

By Edgar Allan Poe; Stuart Levine et al. | Go to book overview
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THE BLACK CAT

Dostoyevsky thought that Poe was very "American" because, although he dealt in fantasy and terror, his visions were firmly grounded, detailed, documented. The gothic horror in "The Black Cat" is set in a tale "homely" in its texture. The narrator says that he is happily married; we know a bit about his childhood; he seems to have been a nice person. His downfall he attributes to intemperance, a most routine vice in an age when temperance propaganda was quite inescapable in American society. Even what the narrator calls "perverseness" appears really to be conscience. Guilt about his alcoholism seems to him the "perverseness" which maims and kills the first cat; guilt about those acts produces the murder of his wife--who, after all, showed him the gallows on the second cat's breast. He says, we notice, that the "incarnate Night-Mare" was "incumbent eternally upon . . . his heart." For all its intensity, then, the tale serves as a corrective to those readings of Poe which insist upon Poe's "unreality" and his isolation from the workaday environment around him. This tale says that the capacity for savagery is within even the nicest of us: compassionate people who like goldfish, dogs, and cats.

In an earlier version of "The Black Cat," puss was female. That suggests the extent to which Poe based his story on the real and the everyday: Poe owned a black female cat with "not a white hair about her"; he describes her in the January 29, 1840, Alexander's Weekly Messenger, saying that she is very intelligent, and, like all black cats, a witch.

A note of explanation:There is a difficult and deceptive sentence in the first paragraph. Poe has used the plural form of the French word baroque to make it agree with "they" (events). It reads more easily in English, where the agreement problem does not appear: ". . . less terrible than baroque."


PUBLICATIONS IN POE'S TIME
The United States Saturday Post, August 19, 1843
Tales, 1845
The Pictorial National Library, November 1848

THE BLACK CAT

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

-248-

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