Friday, December 16, 2022

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #8: The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Black Cat." United States Saturday Post, 19 August 1843.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   9.33/10
My Rating:        9.5/10

"For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief."

While awaiting execution, the narrator of this wild yet homely tale pens of his experience concerning one black cat. It is this feline that drives our narrator to a horrible act of violence, and yet, as in many of Poe's tales, the object of obsession is not the real motivator for the crime. The cat is not a menacing devil, only an innocent, victimized pet, and it is the narrator's own psychoses that drive him to murder.

Poe always saw himself as an original writer, never writing the same story twice. Of course, there are many similarities between his more popular stories, particularly those involving murder, from the first person confessional narrative, to the vague motive. With this story, Poe was attempting to play around with the conventions of temperance literature; those books focusing on the evils of drink that were so popular at the time. He wanted to create a darker domestic tale, an attack on the standards of the happy American home, and achieved this with ghastly results. There would be no saved alcoholics in Poe's rendition, no family that thwarts the evils of drink. Immediately the conventions of the mid-western family are flipped over: the happy couple has no children, but their house is instead teeming with animals. The man of the house is an alcoholic, and mistreats these animals as well as his wife (domestic violence was a staple in temperance literature--think of Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), with the exception of his favourite "brute," the titular black cat. This cat is named Plato, sharing its name with the Roman god of the underworld, and yet there is nothing hellish about this gentle creature. Identifying the cat with the underworld is the narrator's doing, as he names him, and as he also holds the cat responsible for the many horrible acts of violence he himself is capable of administering on others. When the cat crosses him while he is in a foul drunken mood, the narrator plucks out one of its eyes, which is the act of his downfall, and essentially severs himself from the man he once was, to the alcoholic brute he has become.

The narrator eventually hangs the cat, and following additional misfortune, adopts a near doppelgänger feline who follows him home one day from a local tavern. Adopting the cat is an act of remorse, and yet instead of treating this cat as he had once treated the original beloved pet, of making amends for past evils, he fears it, believing it to be a creature out to punish him. Again, though the cat is the eventual source of his comeuppance, this is all in his mind. Mixed up with alcohol and shocked at the extremes of his own behaviour, the narrator projects his own brutishness on the animal. It is  ironic that more than once this feline is referred to as a brute, and that the narrator names him for a god the underworld, and that more blatantly the animal is blamed for rousing him to violence. These are projections from the narrator himself, who is the brute, exhibiting hellish behaviour. The story is titled after the black cat, just as Poe has titled many stories after tell-tale hearts and casks of amontillado, objects that help to reveal the narrator's own guilt.

Not my favourite Poe story, but I do have a sentimental attachment as it is among the ones that most affected me as a youth. And it is expertly constructed. Of course Poe himself had bouts with the bottle, the frequent reports of him being a hopeless alcoholic are exaggerated. He was a hard worker trying to support a severely ill wife, who despite his popularity as story writer and critic, had to struggle as he rarely achieved the independence in his writing that he longed for. "The Black Cat" was written during a very productive time later in life, when his then editor allowed him more freedom than he was accustomed to.

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