“The Black Cat” and the Decrepit Realm of the Insane

black cat walking on road
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Donald Reith

Upon finishing reading Edgar Allan Poe’s, “The Black Cat,” it became clear to me that there remained an open question as to the sanity of the murderer. Through careful examination of the short story; via reading books/essays researching the topic of the state of mind of the narrator, I have narrowed down the reasons for his downfall. The narrator suffered from chronic alcoholism that caused him to have delusions, subjecting him to uncontrollable and destructively impulsive behavior. He exhibited signs of suffering from the mental illness, schizophrenia. He became illogically transfixed by the presence of “The Black Cat.” His abnormal obsession carrying him past the point of sanity.
The narrator suffered from chronic alcoholism. His devotion to the bottle never wavering despite a series of events that were horrific. His descent into alcoholism caused him to have serious delusions. These delusions the narrator blamed on the presence of the black cat, Pluto. Yet the black cat had nothing at all to do with his self inflicted debauchery. It was he alone who paved his own road to insanity. When a person is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior; they meet the criteria to be considered legally insane. They will often do things that are irrational or that makes no sense. The narrator in the story makes many such actions throughout his telling. His constant drinking of alcohol was a vice that he seemed unable to get rid of. Perhaps this was his way of coping with his mental illness. The narrator claims that he is sane and that his mental disposition is vexed only because of the effects of alcohol (Bloom, 48). Many times, people who are depressed or do not feel “quite right,” will resort to the bottle to make them feel better. They will receive a short term feeling of things being “back to normal” while imbibing. Drinking alcohol is no substitute for anti-psychotic medicine, though. Often times, alcohol has many adverse effects on a person dealing with mental illness. In Poe’s days, psychiatric drugs were few and far between. Many people instead substituted alcohol. Yet after so many horrible incidents, you would have thought the narrator would have stopped imbibing, or at the least curbed his drinking habits. Yet he never did. By shifting the responsibility of his actions, the narrator counteracts our impulse to regard him as insane (47). I believe he used alcohol to escape from his inner demons. This led him into many unfortunate spur of the moment acts that he could not control. “He believed the cat did not recognize his presence properly,” one night after a night of drinking. After grabbing the cat forcefully, and being bit on the hand by the frightened Pluto, he inexplicably proceeded to cut one of the eyes out of the feline! He later “hung it as he cried with a feeling of sorrow in his heart – because he knew that Pluto had loved him – and because the cat had given him no reason to kill it.” Here the uncontrollable urge to kill Pluto is illogical. It speaks to the mental illness borne of his rampant alcoholism dominating his thoughts. As the narrator opens up: “the most wild, yet homely narrative which I am about to pen,” he immediately informs the reader to “neither expect nor solicit belief in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence.” Right off the bat, we are introduced into his world where nothing is as it seems. Or as he initially describes it. What the narrator describes as a “series of mere household events” is nothing but. The narrator goes on explaining his love for his animals, “ I never was so happy as when feeding and caressing them.” Yet he goes on to gouge out Pluto’s eye in a fit of drunken rage. The narrator’s inarguable descent into insanity is marked by his “damnable atrocity” of gouging out the cat’s eyes (Bloom, 47). Pluto, the large, beautiful cat, was said to be his “favorite pet and playmate.” Pluto is later unmercifully hanged from a tree. The repetition of the words “even Pluto” and the relegation of Pluto as victim of the narrator’s ire indicates the narrator’s descent into madness (47). His wife who he speaks of fondly, noting her “similar kind personality,” was nevertheless abused by the narrator both verbally and physically. In a twisted way, I believe he blamed his wife for his burgeoning mental illness for her role as an enabler. In putting up with his abuse, she is what is called nowadays an enabler; yet what really angered him was her lack of reaction to the abuse he inflicts on her (Aubrey, 38). The narrator’s recognition of his wife as “the most patient of sufferers” indicates that he has already passed the threshold of insanity (Bloom, 48). A pattern emerges whereas everything that the narrator posits is not as he claims it to be. “But it must be remembered that everything that happens in the story is filtered through the diseased and guilty imagination of the narrator (Aubrey, 37). He has a decidedly more positive point of view of his feelings towards his wife, and his animals, than his later actions would reveal. For while he calmly tells the tale, the tale he tells is one of himself in a rage and is not as plausible as he would like us to believe (Bloom, 49). The narrator’s mental health gradually declines as the story unfolds. He blames it on alcohol. He is seeking to assign blame somewhere else. He does not realize that he is mentally declining. The narrator is a victim of his own self-torturing obsessions (Gargano, 44). His inability to recognize his descent into madness explains why his stories of his goodness end up being so far removed from his eventual murderous actions. He has devised a fantasy land of memory derived from his alcoholic brain. A place where all was good and wholesome. A place that was torn asunder by “evil” spirits such as Alcoholism and Perverseness. His retelling of past times are not based in reality. Not only, for instance, is the narrator a confessed murderer, but his story evidences a certain delusional paranoia (Stark, 40). The narrator’s story is steeped in a fantasy of how he wanted it to be. Yet it was not to be, because his alcohol diseased mind was overtaken by mental illness, and directed him onto his murderous path. It is notable that on the day he kills Pluto the very same night is when the house was set on fire. The narrator talks of his “need to do violence for violence’s sake – to inflict harm – in the spirit of Perverseness.” I believe that he set the house on fire. The narrator prides himself on retaining his composure throughout, in fact, it is this composure that causes the narrator to believe in his own sanity (Bloom, 48). He continues on imbibing. The narrator’s descent into madness hastens one night as he sits drinking in his den (48). He eventually kills his wife and blames it on the second black cat. The cat he found at a local dive. The narrator’s fondness for the new/hallucinated pet turned to annoyance and eventually into hatred (48). This the cat he had purportedly brought home to “make up” for his cruel treatment of Pluto. The cat whose white patch of hair slowly morphed into a picture of a hangman’s noose. It seems clear that the shape of the cat’s fur has not changed at all, it has only done so in the mind of the narrator (Aubrey 37). The very same symbol of Pluto’s death. All fantasies conjured up in a increasingly heightened state of mental illness, brought on more forcefully by the narrator’s willing, careless foray into chronic alcoholism.
The narrator in the “Black Cat” suffers from many classic signs of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a psychotic disorder whose symptoms are illogical thinking. Hallucinations, delusions, and emotional, behavioral, or intellectual disturbances are common in persons suffering from the disorder. The insane enjoy faculties of reason; the manner of telling indicates the insanity (Bloom, 49). A person who is suffering from schizophrenia can be accepted for an insanity defense in many courts. Especially if the person is noted to have experienced delusions or hallucinations. Poe said that the disease from which his characters suffer in these madness stories is that of monomania consisting of a morbid irritability of those properties of the mind in metaphysical science termed the attentive (43). The narrator has a series of hallucinations starting with the image of the gigantic cat that “is graven in bas relief upon the white surface” from the raging fire. He claims the fire left an impression of Pluto hanging by a noose; through “means of compression from the flames mixing in with the lime of the plaster and ammonia from the cat’s carcass.” This unbelievable sight he claims to have seen on a “compartment wall in the middle of the house of which had rested the head of his bed.” Blindly, he refuses to see any connection between his violence and the fire; the image of the black cat will haunt him (Gargano, 45). These types of hallucinatory delusions happen to schizophrenics when the illness has taken them beyond the point of sanity. Schizophrenics will need to be hospitalized at this point, looked after, and given prescribed doses of anti-psychotic drugs. In the days of Poe, these drugs were not yet available. Certainly not the effective anti-psychotic drugs that are available in modern times. There was a lot of experimenting with drugs that went on during those times. The insane were treated very much like criminals, often locked up together in the same prisons (Bloom, 67). It has been only in recent times that psychiatrists have been able to administer truly effective drugs to help patients suffering from schizophrenia. His schizophrenic brain searching for the right answers to distance himself from his illogical, impulsive, and destructive actions. Appearances that the narrator sets forth in his telling of the story do not square with the horrid events that follow. He is searching to explain from a brain that has gone its own way. A brain that now resides in the land of fantasy. A brain racked with schizophrenia. A brain that can no longer stop or deflect irrational impulses.

The narrator justifies his perverse actions by focusing on the evil of the cat (49). His abnormal obsession with the black cat had a profound effect on his mental faculties. His pursuit of a cat identical to Pluto, so soon after killing his “favorite pet,” made no sense. If Pluto had driven him to madness, as he claimed, why seek the company of another similar cat? His murder of his wife was also driven by his uncontrollable emotions, brought on by his obsession with the black cat, driving him into instantaneous blood thirsty anger. The narrator cannot understand that his assault upon another person derives from his own moral sickness and unbalance (45). After killing Pluto, the narrator claims to have seen the second black cat on a hogshead of Gin or Rum. Here, the hallucination of the second cat and Pluto combine to create a sense of detachment from reality (Bloom, 48). He says he was staring at the “immense hogshead” when all of a sudden his “attention was drawn to some black object in repose.” This cat was said to have nearly the same physical appearance as Pluto except for an “indefinite” white patch of hair on its breast. On the face of it, the incident seems to be supernatural, since how could the fur on the cat change its shape like that (Aubrey, 37)? This is the obsessed killer’s mind creating a near perfect replica of Pluto with the added purity of a white mark by its heart. It seems clear therefore, that the shape of the cat’s white fur has not altered; it only seems to do so in the mind of the narrator (37). On some far off beaten path I believe this comforted the narrator. That is why he imagined the white mark of hair on the second cat’s breast. White is a universal symbol of purity embodied by the dove. Maybe he was looking for peace in his troubled mind. He posits that on the second day he realized that the second cat was also missing an eye like Pluto. Surely a person in their right mind should have noticed this immediately. His delusion of the white patch morphs later into a more hideous image of a noose. These delusions symbolize the growing demons in his mind taking further control of the narrator’s faculties. He anguishes over “ not being left alone, hourly attacked by horrible dreams of the hot breath of the thing on my face. A nightmare he could not get rid of and which settled in on his heart!” The reincarnated cat goads the narrator into the murder of his wife (Gargano, 45). He started to hear more voices and they were more pronounced. “Evil thoughts became my sole intimates – the darkest and most evil of thoughts.” His descent into total madness complete; he then kills his wife with a blow to the brain from an axe, because the cat “followed him down the stairs and nearly tripped him.” Finally, he imagines the second cat screaming, “muffled and broken, like the sobbing of a child,” as he foolishly taps on the wall where he has boarded up his dead wife while the police look on. His delusions sabotage his near escape from police suspicion of his wife’s disappearance. The narrator’s sanity declines as his chances of his “getting away with it” increase (Bloom, 55). He imagines the cat howling “half of horror and half of triumph, such as only might have arisen out of hell.” Symbolically, the voice is the narrator’s conscience (50). He leads the police; clued into his apparent madness, to his dead wife’s corpse, and her murderer. His last abnormal delusion is of the second cat staring at him atop his dead wife’s head, “with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire.
Summing up, we can see the narrator’s descent into madness more clearly upon closer inspection. The narrator is on death row and he is trying to compel the reader to believe in his innocence. A reader may question at what point the narrator goes mad, but there remains no doubt that he does, indeed, go mad (50). His reckless drinking disposed of his rationality and drew him into the clutches of his schizophrenic mind. A mind that had become more and more obsessed with the evil of the black cat. Superstition and fantasy mixing in with alcoholism and schizophrenia, in the narrator’s tortured mind, to form a deadly cocktail. The narrator’s reckless drinking and burgeoning schizophrenia created an abnormal obsession with black cats that led him onto his murderous path to the gallows. The moral insanity that once held him together, that once enabled him to appear rational, now causes his psychological unraveling (Bloom, 50). These forces combined explain the narrator’s devious descent from “gentle tender-hearted animal lover” to cold-blooded killer.

 

WORKS CITED
Aubrey, Bryan. Critical Essay on “The Black Cat” in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008. 35-38. Print.
Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Classic Critical Views: Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2008. Print.
Gargano, James W. “The Question of Poe’s Narrators,” in College English. Vol. 25, No. 3. in Short Stories for Students. December, 1963. 42-46. Print.
Milne, Ira Mark. “The Black Cat”. Short Stories for Students, Detroit: Gale, Vol. 26, 2008. 26-47. Print.
Stark, Joseph. “Motive and Meaning : The Mystery of the Will in Poe’s ‘The Black Cat,’” in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008. 38-42. Print.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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