Critical Interpretations of Poe’s “The Black Cat”

Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale, “The Black Cat,” is a disturbing story that delves into the contrasts between reality and fantasy, insanity and logic, and life and death. To decipher one distinct meaning presented in this story undermines the brilliance of Poe’s writing. Multiple meanings can be derived from “The Black Cat,” which lends itself perfectly to many approaches of critical interpretation. One of the staples of Poe’s writing is the dramatic effect it has on the reader. Poe is known for his masterful use of grotesque, and often morbid, story lines and for his self-destructive characters and their ill-fated intentions.

The Black Cat” is no different from any of his other stories, and thus a Pragmatic/Rhetorial interpretation is obviously very fitting. If Pragmatic/Rhetorical criticism focuses on the effect of a work on its audience, then “The Black Cat” serves as a model for all other horror stories. One of the most intriguing aspects Poe introduces into the story is the black cat itself. The main character initially confesses a partiality toward domestic pets, especially his cat. Most readers can identify with an animal lover, even if they themselves are not.

It is not long though before the reader learns of the disease that plagues the main character – alcoholism. Again, the reader can identify with this ailment, but it is hard to imagine that alcoholism could be responsible for the heinous actions made by the main character. In a drunken rage the main character cuts out one of the cat’s eyes with a pen knife, and act at which he even shudders. Then, only after the cat’s slow recovery from that attack, does the man hang the cat from the limb of a tree.

The reader is appalled at the disgusting display of violence and disregard for life, and is left seeking an explanation. The man replies with a reason almost as, if not more, disturbing than the act itself: it was done because he knew that it was wrong, because it was a sin that would jeopardize his immortal soul. Poe, though, has just begun to play on the emotions of the reader. Violent acts committed against animals are a sure way to offend some people, but a cold-blooded murder of one’s spouse is an offense no one can ignore.

Although the main character is vexed solely by the black cat and alcohol, his wife ultimately pays the greatest price. On a trip to the couple’s cellar, the main character trips over the black cat and is entwined in a fit of rage. He raises an axe, preparing to deliver a fatal blow to the cat, but is thwarted by his wife. Still enraged the man thrusts the axe into his wife’s brain. The brutality of this image is solely matched by the obvious absence of remorse of the man for his wife. His only concern is how to dispose of the body.

The reader is thrown into the mind of a killer, who until this point has acted only in rage or insanity, but now has a moment of clarity as he weighs his options of how to dispose of his wife. Poe uses this moment of clarity to contrast for the reader the difference between an insane man and a calculating killer. The main character decides to bury his wife inside ones of the house’s walls, which is eventually discovered by the authorities thanks to the ever-vengeful black cat. By the end of the story the reader has been presented with some very disturbing images and ideas.

The actions taken by the main character force the reader to seek retribution, which is granted by the hanging of the main character. It is necessary to try to seek out Poe’s motives for writing this story, and the response he was hoping for from the reader. Poe was exploring the dark depths of the human mind, and the horrible acts that all humans are possible of committing. He illustrates the effects of alcohol on reasonable thinking and perverseness of those who commit heinous crimes because they know the acts are wrong.

Poe wants the reader to realize that these dark depths of the mind are present in everyone’s mind, and that the readers themselves may not be absolved from similar actions. This motive is disturbing and unsettling. The average reader does not want to believe that they are possible of such gruesome thoughts or actions. So, if Poe set out to disturb his audience, then he has succeeded. Ironically, the same aspects that make “The Black Cat” perfect for a Pragmatic/Rhetorical interpretation also makes it perfect for an interpretation using New Criticism.

Whereas the Pragmatic/Rhetorical critics examine the effects a work has on its audience, the New critics disregard that aspect instead of concentrating on the traits that give the story its own distinctive form or character. Most critics would find it challenging to find another story that compares to “The Black Cat,” unless of course it was another Poe work. There are many aspects that make this story distinct. First, Poe uses the black cat to represent the alcoholism that the main character is struggling to defeat.

Many other authors have used animal imagery, but Poe uses the cat to illustrate the recurring disease of which no cure is found. This leads directly into the second unique aspect of this story, which is the graphic violence. Very few works from this period depict violence as Poe does. The graphic nature lends itself beautifully to Poe writing style and form. The key aspect of the New Criticism when applied to “The Black Cat” is the relationship between the two aforementioned examples. Every violent act is directly related to the black cat, even the murder of the main character’s wife.

Both aspects are constant, and repeated, throughout the story, and they lead directly to the story’s resolution. It is also important to mention how certain themes accompany the violence and black cat references. Those themes include life versus death, reality versus fantasy, and sanity versus insanity. When those themes are applied to each act of violence, it presents a unique view into the mind of the main character, as well as the story as a whole. Probably the most interesting way of interpreting “The Black Cat” is using the Feminist Criticism.

The main character’s wife plays a key role in the development and resolution of the story. Although the reader is only given limited information about the wife, it is in her actions that the reader learns the most about her. The Feminist critic of the Twentieth Century would view the wife as oppressed and weak, and probably question why the wife has not left the main character. It is important to remember that this story was written in the mid-nineteenth century, when divorce was a rarity. The main character does indeed treat his wife very poorly even before her murder.

Much of this violent behavior inflicted on his wife stems from the main character’s alcohol problem. Though it is evident that the main character does marvel at his wife’s patience with him, the main character never expresses any sentiments of affection throughout the story. What exemplifies the wife’s role in the main character’s life is her murder. Although he kills her in a fit of rage, and not in any premeditated fashion, he shows no remorse while she lies dead in the cellar. His only concern is the removal of her body. The Feminist critic would view this as an attack on the value of the wife’s life.

Of course there is no way of knowing how Poe wished the audience to see the wife, but it is very likely that she serves no other purpose than to link the black cat to the main character’s demise. This view alone would offend the feminist critic who views the wife as a much more integral part of the story. No matter which critical interpretation is used, it is evident that Poe’s “The Black Cat” is a unique story that relies on key aspects, such as graphic violence and sensational imagery, to heighten the reader’s perception toward the limits and depths of the human mind.

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