Edgar Allan Poe was one of the earliest gothic American writers. His works were almost always dark in theme, usually involved either murder or supernatural events (sometimes both), and his stories and poems seldom had a happy ending. His story “The Black Cat,” written in 1843, is a perfect example of Poe’s talent—a drunken man first tortures and then kills his beloved pet in a drunken rage (Poe 5-6). Regretting the action, he finds another black cat to adopt, but soon he begins to hate it as well. He begins to see it as his conscience in feline form, haunting him with the memories of the man he used to be and the brute he has become. Eventually, he decides to kill the new cat as well, but his wife gets in the way and he sinks an axe into her skull instead (11).
Now totally depraved, he buries her in the basement and tries to ignore his crime—but when the police arrive, the black cat serves as the narrator’s conscience once more. The narrator had accidentally buried the animal with his wife, and the cat’s howls and cries expose the man’s crime (14). So what is the cat—a supernatural beast able to bring the man to justice or simply a poor animal caught in an abusive household? What did Poe intend for us to take from this story?
Literary critic Roberta Reeder (n.d.) views the cat as Poe’s way to symbolize the narrator’s conscious and subconscious. She claims that the story shows the attempt of the narrator’s mind to find justification for his crimes. That is obvious, as throughout the story he keeps justifying his actions, even as they grow worse. He makes no attempt to control his demons, if that is what we can call them, even when he is given a second chance with a new pet. However, Reeder goes further, explaining that the narrator seeks to decompose reality into a number of segments, disconnected from each other and beyond the integrity of reality. Such an attempt could be viewed as the narrator’s way of not taking responsibility for his actions.
However, the story plainly shows that the narrator does not manage to disconnect. No matter how hard he tries, he is still haunted by his actions. That is the plot device that leads him from one crime to another, each one worse than the last. Reeder goes further states that it is reasonable to interpret the “Black Cat” story in terms of Jungian psychology. She states, that looking at the story from this view point may reveal a new dimension for the interpretation. In such a case the story is seen as an account of psychological disintegration, disintegration of the personality and the instinctual, subconscious powers.
This is an approach that might be valid if the story was a modern one. However, the fact is that Poe never heard of Jungian psychology, any more than he was familiar with the works of Sigmund Freud. Both of these theories were published long after Poe’s death. I believe that in most cases, it is a mistake to “graft” modern ideas and points of view on classic works of literature. In 1845, people suffering from mental illness or drug addiction (and Poe probably had to live with both) did not seek out psychological theories in order to understand themselves. In Poe’s world, a sin was a sin, and a crime was a crime. Many scholars believe that the story is a retelling of the author’s delirium which he experienced while drunk. His subconscious and his imagination probably did take his daily experiences and warp them into nightmares. Because of this fact, the place to look for the meaning of The Black Cat is the author’s biography.
There are many parallels between the story and Poe’s biography, particularly his attitude towards his beloved wife and the fears he had to put up with due to his unfortunate and harmful addiction. Poe’s dream was to earn his living as a writer. Unfortunately, in many ways he was ahead of his time, and like many artists, he did not enjoy much success during his lifetime. This probably made him drink more, and when his wife became ill and died Poe was overwhelmed and probably clinically depressed. As is true for many alcoholics, the more stress he endured, the more he drank, and the more he drank the worse off his family was. Poe’s “Black Cat” was probably the twin demons of depression and drink.
In the story, the cat is obviously a symbol of the narrator’s conscience, just like Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. The cat tries to get the narrator to stop before he commits the unforgiveable crime of killing his wife. However, there is a more subtle symbolism about the cat, which comes with the image of the hanged animal that is burned into the wall. More than any other point in the story, this tells the reader how this story will end. The cat cannot stop the man, and the man cannot stop himself. He will pay for his crimes with his life, just as the shadow of the gallows tells the reader. We will never know how many times Poe did something he regretted while drunk. Perhaps he created the literary cat in the hopes of reminding himself to fight his addiction. In the end, sadly, Poe lost that fight. However, as far as we know, he never killed anyone, and he certainly did not kill his wife—at least not directly. Whether she would have lived if he had been able to give her a better life is a question that we cannot answer.
Psychology is a fascinating field, and it is tempting to apply its theories to all kinds of literature. However, in my opinion, “The Black Cat” is a story of the author’s struggle against his addiction to alcohol and not a Jungian struggle of personality against the instincts. Roberta Reeder makes a mistake in replacing literary analysis with psychoanalysis. Poe needed no therapist to tell him that the human mind is full of demons. He simply took some of his and put them on paper.