27 pages 54 minutes read

Edgar Allan Poe

The Black Cat

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1843

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Black Cat”

“The Black Cat” is a Gothic horror tale by Edgar Allan Poe, who relies on supernatural elements to portray the dark side of human nature. The tale was first published in The Saturday Evening Post in August 1843 and examines The Sources of Sin, The Consequences of Alcohol Addiction, and Science Versus the Supernatural through the lens of an unreliable narrator.

This study guide refers to the version of “The Black Cat” published in The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Vintage Books, September 1975).

Content Warning: This short story contains depictions of animal cruelty, alcohol addiction, domestic violence, and mental illness.

An unnamed narrator indicates he is to be executed the next day and promises to tell his tale, cautioning that it is both “homely” and “wild.” He says he will present the mysterious events “plainly, succinctly, and without comment” (223), leaving their interpretation up to future readers. Though his story terrifies him, a “more logical” mind may find it completely ordinary or detect a chain of cause and effect.

The narrator describes his youth and early affinity toward animals, for which he is mocked by his peers and indulged by his parents with various pets. He compares the unreliable nature of humans with the steadfastness of his animal companions. He marries young, and his wife shares his disposition toward animals, gifting him a large black cat that is both “beautiful” and “sagacious to an astonishing degree” (223).

The cat, Pluto, becomes a favorite pet and accompanies the narrator around the house and often in the streets. His wife continually makes half-serious references to the folk belief that black cats are witches in disguise. Over time, the narrator’s growing dependency on alcohol causes his temperament to change toward his pets and his wife, and he begins physically abusing both. His ill treatment finally extends even to the beloved Pluto. The narrator returns home intoxicated, senses that Pluto is avoiding him, and cruelly removes the creature’s eye with a penknife—an act he attributes to the “unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its nature—to do wrong for wrong’s sake only” (225). The same spirit eventually leads him to hang the creature, weeping as he does so and feeling that he is damned.

On the night of Pluto’s murder, the narrator is awoken from sleep by his house burning down. He and his wife narrowly escape alive. The next day, the narrator visits the burned-down house and finds neighbors gathered near the one remaining wall, which bears the image of a cat with a noose around its neck. He rationalizes the image as a bizarre chemical reaction and supposes a neighbor threw the animal’s body into the house to alert the residents to the fire.

The narrator begins to long for another feline companion, which he one night finds while drinking in a less-than-reputable haunt. He inquires after the creature and discovers it does not belong to the landlord. It is exceedingly affectionate toward him and resembles the deceased Pluto, even missing one eye; however, the cat has a large shock of white fur covering its chest.

Upon bringing the new cat home, the narrator grows to dislike and avoid it, even though the creature tries to accompany the narrator everywhere. The narrator resists his longing to be cruel because he dreads the cat and associates it with his actions toward Pluto. He then notices that the splotch of white fur now resembles a gallows. The narrator feels insulted that this prophetic image is being presented by the medium of the cat—a mere “beast” where the narrator, as a human, is made in God’s image.

The narrator and his wife are descending into the cellar of their new home when the cat follows, nearly tripping the narrator. In retaliation, he grabs an ax and impulsively attempts to strike it. His wife interrupts him, so he turns the ax on her and murders her with a blow to the head. He strategizes various macabre methods of disposing of his wife’s corpse and does not consider the cat again until he has plastered the corpse inside a recently reconstructed portion of cellar wall. The cat goes missing, but the narrator greets its disappearance with relief.

The police eventually come to question the narrator about his missing wife, and he allays their suspicions until he vainly boasts of how well constructed the house is, arrogantly knocking on the wall where his wife is entombed. The cat’s “wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell” sounds like a human child and alerts the police to tear down the wall (229). The decayed corpse of the narrator’s wife is found, the cat sitting upon its head.

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