Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley
This falls into the category of classic Poe stories. I’ve read it several times, but it had been quite a few years since I last read it. Reading it this time, I discovered some interesting things.
The story opens with juxtaposition between the common and the supernatural. This sets a tension between the two views of reality: the actual and the perceived.
For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not — and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburden my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified — have tortured — have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but Horror — to many they will seem less terrible than barroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place — some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.
The next thing that struck me was the name of the black cat: Pluto. Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld who is also a judge of the dead. This is important since the narration is presented as a confession for the narrator’s sins.
Pluto — this was the cat’s name — was my favorite pet and playmate. 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.
The narrator describes his slip into alcoholism. This leads to a degradation of character until he reaches the point where he is fascinated with engaging in evil for evil’s sake. He essentially revels in doing that which he knows is wrong. This is the ultimate manifestation of sin, rebelling against what is good in spite of knowing better. It is intent that constitutes an evil or sinful act.
And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart — one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? 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
After first gouging the cat’s eye and then later hanging it in dual acts of cruelty, the narrator gets another cat to try to ease his guilt. The new cat only serves as a reminder of his cruel acts and it is implied that the animal is the resurrected version of the first cat. As his perception of the animal shifts, he sees the animal differently, as the second cat becomes a symbol of judgment for his actions.
This dread was not exactly a dread of physical evil — and yet I should be at a loss how otherwise to define it. I am almost ashamed to own — yes, even in this felon’s cell, I am almost ashamed to own — that the terror and horror with which the animal inspired me, had been heightened by one of the merest chimæras it would be possible to conceive. My wife had called my attention, more than once, to the character of the mark of white hair, of which I have spoken, and which constituted the sole visible difference between the strange beast and the one I had destroyed. The reader will remember that this mark, although large, had been originally very indefinite; but, by slow degrees — degrees nearly imperceptible, and which for a long time my Reason struggled to reject as fanciful — it had, at length, assumed a rigorous distinctness of outline. It was now the representation of an object that I shudder to name — and for this, above all, I loathed, and dreaded, and would have rid myself of the monster had I dared — it was now, I say, the image of a hideous — of a ghastly thing — of the GALLOWS! — oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime — of Agony and of Death!
He then attempts to kill the resurrected cat with an axe, his wife attempts to stop him. He then turns on her and in a drunken rage, kills her with the axe. He seals the body in a wall in the basement and is content that the cat is gone.
The ending is a masterpiece in both horror and short fiction. In an act of hubris, while the authorities are investigating the wife’s disappearance, the narrator taps on the wall where his dead wife is entombed, which solicits a screeching howl from within. The officers open the wall to uncover the god of the underworld sitting in macabre judgment.
Of my own thoughts it is folly to speak. Swooning, I staggered to the opposite wall. For one instant the party upon the stairs remained motionless, through extremity of terror and of awe. In the next, a dozen stout arms were toiling at the wall. It fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb!
This is a great piece about morality and can be interpreted in an number of ways: as a treatise against alcohol abuse; as a piece addressing animal abuse; as a statement against domestic violence; or as a warning against hubris or engaging in cruel behavior for the sake of folly. The story works on so many levels for me, and of course, it is perfect to read during the Halloween season.