More than any of Poe's stories, "The Black Cat" illustrates best the capacity of the human mind to observe its own deterioration and the ability of the mind to comment upon its own destruction without being able to objectively halt that deterioration. The narrator of "The Black Cat" is fully aware of his mental deterioration, and at certain points in the story, he recognizes the change that is occurring within him, and he tries to do something about it, but he finds himself unable to reverse his falling into madness.
In Poe's critical essay, "The Philosophy of Composition," he wrote about the importance of creating a unity or totality of effect in his stories. By this, he meant that the artist should decide what effect he wants to create in a story and in the reader's emotional response and then proceed to use all of his creative powers to achieve that particular effect: "Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart or the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?"
In "The Black Cat," it is obvious that the chief effect that Poe wanted to achieve was a sense of absolute and total perverseness — "irrevocable . . . PERVERSENESS." Clearly, many of the narrator's acts are without logic or motivation; they are merely acts of perversity.
In virtually all of Poe's tales, we know nothing about the narrator's background; this particular story is no exception. In addition, it is akin to "The Tell-Tale Heart" in that the narrator begins his story by asserting that he is not mad ("Yet, mad am I not — ") and, at the same time, he wants to place before the world a logical outline of the events that "have terrified — have tortured — have destroyed me." And during the process of proving that he is not mad, we see increasingly the actions of a madman who knows that he is going mad but who, at times, is able to objectively comment on the process of his increasing madness.
In this story, the narrator begins his confession in retrospect, at a time when he was considered to be a perfectly normal person, known for his docility and his humane considerations of animals and people. His parents indulged his fondness for animals, and he was allowed to have many different kinds of pets. Furthermore, he was very fortunate to marry a woman who was also fond of animals. Among the many animals that they possessed was a black cat which they named Pluto. Since his wife often made allusions to the popular notion that all black cats are witches in disguise, the name Pluto (which is the name of one of the gods of the underworld in charge of witches) becomes significant in terms of the entire story. The other popular notion relevant to this story is the belief that a cat has nine lives; this superstition becomes a part of the story when the second black cat is believed to be a reincarnation of the dead Pluto with only one slight but horrible modification — the imprint of the gallows on its breast.
Interestingly, Pluto was the narrator's favorite animal and for several years, there was a very special relationship between the animal and the narrator. Then suddenly (due partly to alcohol), the narrator underwent a significant change. "I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others." To reiterate the comments in the introduction to this section, Poe believed that a man was capable at any time of undergoing a complete and total reversal of personality and of falling into a state of madness at any moment. Here, the narrator undergoes such a change. The effect of this change is indicated when he came home intoxicated, imagined that the beloved cat avoided him, then grasped the cat by its throat and with a pen knife, cut out one of its eyes. This act of perversity is the beginning of several such acts which will characterize the "totality of effect" that Poe wanted to achieve in this story.
The next morning, he writes, he was horrified by what he had done, and in time the cat recovered but now it deliberately avoided the narrator. As the cat continued to avoid the narrator, the spirit of perverseness overcame him again — this time, with an unfathomable longing of the soul to "offer violence . . . to do wrong for the wrong's sake only." Suddenly one morning, he slipped a noose around the neck of the cat and hanged it from the limb of a tree, but even while doing it, tears streamed down his face. He is ashamed of his perversity because he knows that the cat had loved him and had given him no reason to hang it. What he did was an act of pure perversity.
That night, after the cruel deed was executed, his house burned to the ground. Being a rational and analytical person, the narrator refuses to see a connection between his perverse atrocity of killing the cat and the disaster that consumed his house.
Again, we have an example of the mad mind offering up a rational rejection of anything so superstitious that the burning of the house might be retribution for his killing the cat. However, on the following day, he visited the ruins of the house and saw a crowd of people gathered about. One wall, which had just been replastered and was still wet, was still standing. It was the wall just above where his bed had previously stood and engraved into the plaster was a perfect image of the figure of a gigantic cat, and there was a rope about the animal's neck.
Once again, the narrator's mad mind attempts to offer a rational explanation for this phenomena. He believes that someone found the cat's dead body, flung it into the burning house to awaken the narrator, and the burning of the house, the falling of the walls, and the ammonia from the carcass (cats are filled with ammonia; Poe wrote essays on cats, their instincts, their logic, and their habits) — all these factors contributed to the creation of the graven image. But the narrator does not account for the fact that the image is that of a gigantic cat; thus we must assume that the image took on gigantic proportions only within the mind of the narrator.
For months, the narrator could not forget about the black cat, and one night when he was drinking heavily, he saw another black cat that looked exactly like Pluto — except for a splash of white on its breast. Upon inquiry, he found out that no one knew anything about the cat, which he then proceeded to take home with him. The cat became a great favorite of his and his wife. The narrator's perversity, however, caused him to soon change, and the cat's fondness for them began to disgust him. It was at this time that he began to loathe the cat. What increased his loathing of the new cat was that it had, like Pluto, one of its eyes missing. In the mind of the narrator, this cat was obviously a reincarnation of Pluto. He even notes to himself that the one trait that had once distinguished him — a humanity of feeling — had now almost totally disappeared. This is an example, as noted in the introduction, of how the mad man can stand at a distance and watch the process of his own change and madness.
After a time, the narrator develops an absolute dread of the cat. When he discovers that the white splash on its breast, which at first was rather indefinite, had "assumed a rigorous distinctness of outline" and was clearly and obviously a hideous, ghastly, and loathsome image of the gallows, he cries out, "Oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime — of Agony and of Death!" As we were able to do in "The Tell-Tale Heart," here we can assume that the change occurs within the mind of the mad man in the same way that he considers this beast to be a reincarnation of the original Pluto.
One day, as he and his wife were going into the cellar, the cat nearly tripped him; he grabbed an axe to kill it, but his wife arrested the blow. He withdrew his arm and then buried the axe in her brain. This sudden gruesome act is not prepared for in any way. It has been repeatedly pointed out that the narrator loved his wife very deeply. Consequently, this act of perversity far exceeds the hanging of Pluto and can only be accounted for by Poe's theme of the perversity of the narrator's acts.
Like the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrator here realizes that he must get rid of the body. He thought of "cutting the corpse into minute fragments," he says, as did the previous narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart," but rather than dismemberment, he decided to "wall it up in the cellar" in a similar way that Montresor walled up his victim in "The Cask of Amontillado."
The walls next to the projecting chimney lent themselves to this type of interment, and after having accomplished the deed and cleaning up in such a way that nothing was detectable, the narrator decided to put the cat to death. Unaccountably, it had disappeared. After three days, the narrator decided that the "monster of a cat" had disappeared forever; he was now able to sleep soundly in spite of the foul deed that he had done. This lack of guilt is certainly a change from what his feelings were at the beginning of the story.
On the fourth day, a party of police unexpectedly arrives to inspect the premises. As in "The Tell-Tale Heart," when the police arrive unexpectedly, we never know what motivated the police to come on a search. And in the same way, the narrator here is overconfident; he delights in the fact that he has so cleverly and so completely concealed his horrible crime that he welcomes an inspection of the premises.
However, here, in an act of insane bravado, he raps so heavily upon the bricks that entomb his wife, that to his abject terror, a "voice from within the tomb" answered. At first, it was a muffled and broken cry, but then it swelled into an "utterly anomalous and inhuman . . . howl . . . a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the damned in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation."
The police immediately began to tear down the brick wall, and they discover the rotting corpse of the narrator's wife and, standing upon her decayed head was the "hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder . . . I had walled the monster up within the tomb."
The final irony, of course, is that the cat which he had come to so despise — the cat that might have been the reincarnation of Pluto — serves as a figure of retribution against the murderer. By the end of the story, therefore, we can see how the narrator, in commenting on his own actions, convicts himself of the madness which he vehemently declaimed at the beginning of the story.