Text: Richard C. Frushell, “ ‘An Incarnate Night-Mare’: Moral Grotesquerie in ‘The Black Cat’,” Poe Studies, December 1972, Vol. V, No. 2, 5:43-44


[page 43, column 1:]

“An Incarnate Night-Mare”:
Moral Grotesquerie in “The Black Cat”

Indiana State University

In “The Black Cat” the narrator and his cats are surprisingly difficult to hold firmly in mind. The former is so because of his varying awareness of his own situation, the latter because of their shifting symbolic significance. Two critics representing the polarity of commentary on this tale are Marie Bonaparte, who by careful and often ingenious consideration of the text renders the story as a biographically anchored, psychosexual dream-like sequence of incidents (a sequence, she admits, that Poe himself would have had to struggle with to understand and believe) (1), and James W. Gargano, who ignores biographical opining and concentrates on structure, artistry, and theme, but whose valuable essay is only a sketch of all three (2). Jay L. Halio, however, in an important if truncated note on the moral undercurrent of Poe’s tales, especially those on the “will,” provides a more profitable approach to such tales as “The Black Cat” (3). My purpose here is to offer observations on the ironically shifting symbolic meanings of the cats in an investigation of the “moral” undercurrent implicit in the narrator’s degeneration by stages into the condition of grotesque perversity.

1) Poe’s narrator attributes his dark deeds to perverseness, “one of the primitive impulses,” he says, “of the human heart — one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. . . . It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself — to offer violence to its own nature — to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only — that urged me to continue and finally consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute.”4 The dashes suggest here, as they do throughout the tale, a breathless, emotional outpouring of felt thought, for “tomorrow I die, and to-day I would unburthen my soul” (V, 143). In his culprit’s cell the narrator has time to reflect on his actions, as a near-death confession, his sincerity and motives are unimpeachable. He is bright, but self-deceived; that is, he is able to intellectualize his problem, but he does not, until the end, sense the implications of what he says, especially in regard to his own actions.

Although the narrator says perverseness is “unfathomable,” it is clear to the reader that the seeds of his problem lie in his pride, his exalted notion of himself, whom he likens to Mankind early in the story but to God as the story progresses, thus recalling Halio’s comment that the sin of pride forms the moral basis of many of Poe’s tales. Indeed the narrator’s yoking of man and brute throughout the story is significant as a basic double tension informing the tale. Early in the tale, before he comes under the influence of Pluto, the narrator states that “there is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute [column 2:] which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man” (V, 144). The implication is twofold: that man is second-best to “a brute” and, more important, that the narrator regards himself to be above “mere Man,” the first sign of his pride. The recurring use of this pairing shows the narrator concerned with comparing them but naive about the implications they have in conjunction for explaining his own actions — and, indeed, for structuring his actions.

2) When the narrator comments that he has offered “violence” to his own “soul” by consummating “the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute” (V, 146), it is clear that he has made an unconscious identification of state of soul with treatment of the brute. The narrator is correct in attributing his perverseness to “a longing of the soul to vex itself “; but what he fails to express explicitly is that he vexes his soul because he comes to neglect half his humanness, the affections, while overemphasizing the powers of the rational, the other half. In doing so he becomes irrational. Yet, the narrator considers himself ultra-rational, to the point of hubris. Ironically, the true “animal” in him (his “underworld,” the senses, appetites, affections, the non-rational) acts in at least two-thirds of the tale as his conscience, which longs to vex the aspiring, prideful half. Perhaps, in ethical terminology, what is moral in the narrator longs to vex the demonic, the amoral, the egoistic. Poe’s use of the tension between the “animal” (the basically instinctual) and the rational in the narrator complements the man-brute tension noted above. Both halves constitute “soul,” and the progressive disregard of the one and the abuse of the other are his ruin. The unconscious tension between the rational and the “brute” causes the narrator’s soul to vex itself.

3) The cats (also divided in “halves”) symbolically reflect the narrator’s degeneration as he moves from analogizing himself with Everyman, to equating himself with God, and finally to assuming the power of God. At the outset, Pluto seems to be a projection of the narrator’s affections, that is, the desire and capability for humane, affectional ties with beings both beast and man: “From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition” (V, 143). His pets provide enjoyment for him as he feeds and caresses them, and they, especially Pluto, return his attentions. As the story progresses and the cat’s importance as a member of the family develops, so does his symbolic meaning develop. Pluto is identified with the narrator alone: “I alone fed him, and he attended me wherever I went. . . . It was even with difficulty that I could prevent him from following me through the streets” (V, 144). Pluto, abused by his master, still does not leave, and, as mentioned before, becomes symbolic of the narrator’s conscience. As conscience, Pluto (and later his double) warns the narrator (“He inflicted a slight wound upon my hand with his teeth,” V, 145) that he is on dangerous ground in severing the affections. At tale’s end, the second cat does more than warn.

The narrator hangs Pluto and knows that in doing so he “was committing a sin — a deadly sin that would [page 44:] so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it — if such a thing were possible — even beyond the reach of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God” (V, 147). If the cat were only a cat and not a symbol of part of the narrator’s essence as a human being, the passage would be ludicrous since there would be no “deadly” sin, but the narrator is aware that the “unselfish” and “self-sacrificing” brute of the opening of the tale has become a part of him. This fact he recognizes, but the meaning of the cat escapes him, even though the horror of his deed toward the cat does not. He has not yet, however, presumed to God-power. He still retains at least the trappings of rational and feeling man.

Some time after hanging Pluto, the narrator desires another pet like Pluto: “. . . during this period, there came back into my spirit a half-sentiment that seemed, but was not, remorse” (V, 148). Perhaps subconsciously trying to reestablish affectional ties, the narrator actively searches for another Pluto. But just as he cannot return to his original state of affection, he cannot find the duplicate of Pluto, only a grotesque, a gallows-splotched imitation which, of course, foreshadows his own death.

4) When the narrator discovers that the second cat has only one eye as did Pluto he tells us: “This circumstance . . . only endeared it to my wife,” who “possessed, in a high degree, that humanity of feeling which had once been my distinguishing trait, and the source of many of my simplest and purest pleasures” (V, 150). He sees clearly by contrast in his wife that his distinguishing trait, “humanity of feeling,” has disappeared. It is the single eye, the focused, penetrating prick of conscience, that “added no doubt to [his] . . . hatred of the beast” (V, 150), even though the narrator does not understand his cats in this way. Like Pluto, the second cat tags the narrator’s steps, only now the narrator dreads the beast. At the climax of the tale, the point where the narrator is on the verge of recognizing the part of his humanity submerged by his pride, he blurts out: “a brute beast to work out for me — for me a man fashioned in the image of the High God — so much of insufferable woe” (V, 151) . In his wretchedness, the narrator comes as close as he can to stating the significance of the cat as conscience: “I started, hourly, from dreams of unutterable fear, to find the hot breath of the thing upon my face, and its vast weight [my italics] — an incarnate Night-Mare that I had no power to shake off — incumbent eternally upon my heart “ (V, 151).

When he buries the axe in his wife’s head, the narrator symbolically enacts the murder of his rational self. The final stage in his degradation has been reached. In the nadir of action he has come to the apotheosis of pride. He has symbolically killed all his humanness. After he walls up his wife he comments, “When I had finished, I felt satisfied that all was right” (V, 153). He deans up after his labor: “I looked around triumphantly and said to myself — ’Here at least, then, my labor has not been in vain’” (V, 153). Satisfied, he sleeps that night, sans cat. He has made overt those tendencies which were recognizable in him from the beginning. He orders his environment. In his overreaching pride he has demonstrated and dearly defined the perverseness within him. He is sole master over life and death. [column 2:]

The narrator has moved, then, from killing an animal which represents a killing of part of himself (his affections for others) to killing another human being — all the while ignoring his moral conscience which, in the discovery scene at the end, glares at him with “solitary eye of fire.” Non-human now, the narrator is as brutish as the cat atop his dead wife’s head. While sinking to bestiality, the narrator has at the same time overreached man’s rightful prerogative and has taken life. In murder the narrator has presumed to the power, in his words, of the “Most Terrible God” (V, 147) . The narrator’s inability or unwillingness to recognize that he is “mere man” and not God is the cause of his demise.

5) At the end of the tale the narrator gives away his secret to the police “through the mere phrenzy of bravado” (V, 155). He reveals his deeds and himself specifically because his pride has taken him so far from reality that he believes he has transcended the restrictions of ordinary human limits and consequences. (He even seems to believe he has transcended sense perception itself; see V, 143). Yet the cat at the end of the tale has changed its symbolic emphasis. The “brute beast,” which the narrator hoped he had escaped or transcended, mirrors his fallen moral condition. The cat is emblematic of that diabolical brute passion which has fed upon the head (reason) of man: “Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire sat the hideous beast” (V, 155). The amoral self is finally triumphant, though the narrator seems to undergo a shock of recognition. The fiery-eyed cat which, he says, “had seduced me into crime,” becomes a symbol of his moral sense walled up “within the tomb!” (V, 155)

In “The Black Cat,” as perversity intensifies in degree and kind, the self-esteem of the narrator intensifies so that at the end of his story he is a moral and psychological grotesque of himself of the beginning. His very self-betrayal at the end of the tale is the final manifestation of his perverseness, his soul’s need to “vex itself” even in its fallen moral condition. At first always sure that he is above mere man, he comes to think of himself as Godlike, or Satan-like, in the most “Terrible” way. Likewise, the second cat is a grotesque of the first in that he is progressively emblematic of the perversity of the narrator. This perversity cancels the moral self of the narrator, who points up the disparity which exists between his puny rational attempts (his tale) to give form to extremely complex, shifting states of mind which precede or form life and death actions and the actual cause for such actions. In this disparity lies the deepest grotesquerie of all.



(1) “The Black Cat,” Partisan Review, 17 (1950), 834-860.

(2) “ ‘The Black Cat’: Perverseness Reconsidered,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 2 (1960), 172-178.

(3) “The Moral Mr. Poe,” Poe Newsletter, I (1968), 23-24.

(4) “The Black Cat,” Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York: Thomas Crowell, 1902), V. 146. All page references are to this edition.


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[S:0 - PS, 1972]