Text: Roberta Reeder, “ ‘The Black Cat’ as a Study in Repression ,” Poe Studies, June 1974, Vol. VII, No. 1, 7:20-22


[page 20:]

“The Black Cat” as a Study in Repression

New Orleans

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” is a study in self-delusion, in which the narrator’s mind acts as a distorting prism, casting reality into forms which satisfy his self-image, his need for self-justification, and his desire to abrogate responsibility for his actions. James Gargano has analyzed the narrator’s mind into good and evil components, thus interpreting the story as an exploration of the process of moral disintegration (1). But further insight into Poe’s dark tale is gained by examining it in terms of Jungian psychology. The Jungian would find the narrator’s account of his behavior a case of repression of instinctual psychic energy, energy which, if integrated with the rational powers of the personality, can be expressed positively and creatively, but which, if repressed, becomes distorted, builds up surplus energy, and finally bursts forth in uncontrollable destructive power (2). Jung warns against such repression:

Although we, with our rationalism, think we can block this source of fear [instinct] by pointing to its unreality, it nevertheless remains one of those psychic realities whose irrational nature cannot be exorcized by rational argument. . . . There is a psychic reality which is just as pitiless and just as inexorable as the outer world, and just as useful and helpful, provided one knows how to circumvent its dangers and discover its hidden treasures. . . . Notwithstanding our rationalistic attempts to argue it out of existence, psychic reality is and remains a genuine source of anxiety whose danger increases the more it is denied (3).

Moreover, Jung has shown through ample cultural evidence that man’s conscious, rational tendencies are represented by the animus, whereas its complement, the feminine principle in man’s soul representing unconscious, instinctual forces, is symbolized by the anima. In Alchemical Studies Jung says, “I have defined the anima as a personification of the unconscious in general, and have taken it as a bridge to the unconscious” (4).

For Gargano, the black cat of Poe’s tale is a direct analogue to the narrator, with propensities for both good and evil. But in Jungian terms, the cat functions as the narrator’s anima. Poe made a similar association in the essay “Instinct vs Reason — a Black Cat,” in which he argues that instinct, like a cat, commands a wider range of perceptions than does reason because it relies on irrational impulses:

The leading distinction between instinct and reason seems to be that, while the one is infinitely the more exact, the more certain, and the more farseeing in its sphere of action — the sphere of action in the other is of the far wider extent. . . . The black cat, in doing what she did, must have made use of all the perceptive and reflective faculties which we are in the habit of supposing the prescriptive qualities of reason alone (5).

In the tale, the narrator identifies totally with his animus, [column 2:] his reason, and as he loses touch with his anima, he provokes increasingly violent emotions and misjudgments about himself.

As a child, the narrator repressed strong feelings. His quiet, docile passivity is reflected in his preference for animals over human beings: he avoids passionate, active involvement required by normal human relationships. “There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute, which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man” (p. 269). He admires his wife for having a strict control over her emotions. Because we see her strictly from the narrator’s point of view, we never know her real attitude toward any strong, irrational impulses she may have, but her overt behavior reveals that she, too, has repressed them. She is the first to point out the beliefs traditionally associated with cats: “my wife made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise” (p. 269). Although the narrator dismisses his wife’s idea as a silly superstition, he later uses these evil associations to justify his violent behavior. The cat’s blackness and its name, Pluto, symbolically connote not only the submerged subconscious, but the narrator’s attitude toward it as something dark, fearful, and unknown.

As the ubiquitous cat grows increasingly intolerable, the narrator reaches the stage in the drama of the anima’s struggle for expression when, according to Jung, the repressed, instinctual forces break through, begin to dominate, and penetrate all aspects of life: “I alone fed him, and he attended me wherever I went about the house. It was even with difficulty that I could prevent him from following me through the streets” (p. 270). The stored-up energy of the narrator’s subconscious begins to express itself in increasingly abusive acts towards his wife ant cat. He finally tries to gain control over his anima by removing its eye, but he succeeds only in distorting it. A1though reason returns the next morning and, for a moment, the narrator is again a rational man living in a rational universe, the powers of the anima have only momentarily been subdued, and its continued repression will result in stronger, more violent expression.

At this stage in the developing psychological conflict, the narrator introduces a new rationalization into his increasingly weak attempts to explain his behavior. He justifies his expression of irrational impulses by the existence of the “spirit of Perverseness”: “This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. 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 to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute” (p. 271) (6). Instead of forming some kind of positive relationship towards his irrational impulses, he chooses to see himself as the impotent, passive agent of an uncontrollable force he calls “perversity,” a force which his rational will must somehow stifle or destroy.

The narrator’s second attack upon his anima is another attempt to destroy it rather than to channel its expression into creative forms. He hangs the cat, the concrete representation of his anima, but this only delays its reappearance. [page 21:] The fire which follows the hanging also symbolizes his desire to purge the instinctual forces within him. The failure of the narrator’s attempt to rid himself of his anima is embodied in the cat’s reappearance in the form of a teas relief. This was supposedly formed during the fire when someone threw the cat’s corpse into the narrator’s bedroom and the body was compressed by falling walls into freshly-spread plaster. This reappearance of the cat makes a deep impression on the narrator’s mind, and despite his efforts to suppress them, thoughts of his murdered cat so haunt him that he seeks a replacement. When he finally finds a suitable anima figure in another cat, he exhibits the same feelings of attraction and repulsion as he had toward his first cat, and he again associates the cat with his wife. “When it reached the house it domesticated itself at once, and became immediately a great favourite with my wife. For my own part, I soon found a dislike to it arising within me” (p. 273). Like Pluto, it also has only one eye; it is another distorted version of the anima. This version, however, is much more demanding than its predecessor, which merely followed the narrator. This cat covers him with caresses, walks between his feet, fastens its sharp claws on his breast. Though there is nothing necessarily evil in the cat’s behavior, the narrator’s projections make it appear so. At this point in the story his mind is becoming deranged. The gallows configuration on the cat’s breast symbolizes his attitude toward the anima as threatening and full of terror. He describes the cat as “a brute beast — whose fellow I had contemptuously destroyed — a brute beast to work out for me — for me a man, fashioned in the image of the High God — so much of insufferable wo!” (p. 274). In the growing fear of his instinctual nature, he begins to regard his instinctual impulses as primitive and bestial; his measure of himself as a human being is based on the extent to which he expresses purely rational, controlled behavior.

As the attempted expression of the instinctual impulses becomes stronger, so does the narrator’s reaction to it. His acts become more atrocious, and instead of killing his cat, he murders his wife, the female symbol of his anima. Now the psychological walling up (7) of the anima is not an accidental, arbitrary act; it is the result of deliberation, and it is done with great precision and care. The effort, however, is again illusory; the walled-up instinctual energy is only temporarily repressed. For, as Jung shows, it is just when the rational controls have been most strenuously and willfully applied that the energy builds up its greatest force, and the irrational breaks through in unbridled expression. This is symbolically conveyed when the narrator defiantly raps the walls, assuming he is secure from any possible re-emergence of the anima, and the enclosed anima, the cat, calls our in one long, loud, continuous scream.

Thus, the parallel structure of the story is complete. The attempt at repression and the eventual re-emergence of the subconscious in the first part of the story takes more extreme forms in the second part; but the insight that the various catastrophes should force upon the narrator never comes. Gargano sees the narrator’s lack of moral insight as the cause of the tragic events, but another important cause is his lack of psychological insight into the nature of the instinctual part of man’s personality. In acting against it, he is destroyed. Like Jung, Poe warns [column 2:] his readers who are suspicious of the instinctual side of human nature that it can and should be the source of profound intuitions and creative acts. In “Instinct vs ReasonC A Black Cat,” he ranks it above reason (8):

He [man] yet perpetually finds himself involved in the paradox of decrying instinct as an inferior faculty, while he is forced to admit its infinite superiority, in a thousand cases, over the very reason which he claims exclusively as his own. Instinct, so far from being an inferior reason, is perhaps the most exalted intellect of all. It will appear to the true philosopher as the divine mind itself acting immediately upon its creatures (p. 538).



(1) James W. Gargano, ‘The Black Cat’: Perverseness Reconsidered,” reprinted in Twentieth Century Interpretation of Poe’s Tales, ed. Wm. Howarth (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971), pp. 87-94.

(2) “For a general discussion of his theories of personality, see Carl Jung, “Approaching the Unconscious” in Man and His Symbols (New York: Bell, 1972), pp. 1-94. For a more detailed account, see his Psychology and Alchemy, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Bollingen Series XX (New York: Pantheon Books, 1953), pp. 8689, 360-379; and Symbols of Transformation, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Bollingen Series XX (New York: Pantheon Books, 1956), pp. 132-170.

(3) Jung, Symbols of Transformation, p. 156.

(4) Jung, Alchemical Studies, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Bollingen Series XX (New York: Pantheon Books, 1967), p. 42.

(5) Edgar Allan Poe, “Instinct vs Reason — A Black Cat,” Introduction to Poe, ed. Eric Carlson (Glenview, 111.: Scott Foresman, 1967), p. 538. All citations of Poe’s work will be from this edition. Emil A. Gutheil, in The Handbook of Dream Analysis (New York: Liverwright, 1951), p. 281, notes the general psychological association of cats and females. Agnes Repplier, in The Fireside Sphinx (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1901), traces the symbolic associations of the cat through various periods of world culture. One medieval tale relates a man’s cat to his wife: “In an Alsatian legend, a cat comes again and again as a nightmare to torment a young joiner. He wakens once to find her stealing into his room through a hole in the chimneyplace; whereupon he stops up the hole, and nails one of her paws to the floor. The next morning reveals to him a beautiful young woman, whom . . . he promptly marries. But, after a year of wedded life, the hole is by some luckless chance uncovered, and the unfaithful wife disappears, never to be seen again” (p. 61).

(6) Fyodor Dostoevsky’s story “Notes from the Underground” is a detailed literary treatment of perversity as an expression of free will. The protagonist consciously acts contrary to his own welfare because for him the most desirable good, the quality that proves he is human, is free choice. He says, “One’s own free and unfettered choice, one’s own whims, however wild, one’s own fancy, overwrought though it sometimes may be to the point of madness — that is that same most desirable good which we overlooked . . . against which all theories and systems are continually wrecked!” His resolve to prove his free will and continue to commit acts harmful to himself results in great [page 22:] suffering. See “Notes from the Underground,” The Best Short Stories of Dostoevsky, trans. D. Magarshack (New York: Modern Library n.d.), p. 131.

Poe often uses architectural “enclosure” motifs to symbolize a character’s escape from a world governed by rational law into an imaginary, visionary world within himself (See Richard Wilbur, ‘The House of Poe,” reprinted in Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert Regan [Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1967], pp. 98-121, for an extensive analysis of Poe’s architectural imagery.) Here, however, the narrator is not trying to exclude the rational world, but to shut off his inner world of intuitive, instinctual impulses, so he can behave rationally in a world he assumes to be governed by rational laws.

(8) Not only in his stories and essays, but in his poetry as well Poe affirms the positive aspects of the irrational. See, for example “Sonnet — to Science” (1829, 1845) and “Romance” (1845).


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