Insanity in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat"

The Human Being Teetering on the Brink of the Abyss of Alcohol?

Essay, 2017

10 Pages, Grade: 1,3


1. Introduction – The Deranged Mind in Literature

For as long as people have begun to enjoy literary creativity, artists have been dealing with the motif of madness in their masterpieces. When literature flourished for the first time in the Early Modern English period, writers created numerous insane characters in their works. Over time, many of them have gained a place in the collective memory, for instance Shakespeare’s drowned Ophelia or the usurper Macbeth and his no less mad wife. It is exactly this fascination with insanity that has never wavered; on the contrary, in many literary periods, the subject of human psychology and the question of how to explore the individual mind were treated in detail. Especially in the Romantic Age, the study of humankind was a theme of great interest. However, the anthropological focus underwent a change during the Romantic period since writers started paying attention to the demonic sides of human nature. As provocative response to the Transcendentalists, the socalled “Dark Romantics” endeavoured to demonstrate that not everybody is pure and full of goodness. Indeed, they took the opposite view, namely that the ability to sin slumbers in the darkest depths of human nature as well. In the nineteenth century, this innovative concept was presented in a very radical way by the works of Gothic literature, the darkest form of the Dark Romanticism movement. Without doubt, one of the most wellknown authors of this literary subgenre is none other than Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), whom levels criticism against Transcendentalism in a horrifyingly violent manner. In the paper at hand, Poe’s popular short story The Black Cat (1843) will be analysed and interpreted from a psychoanalytic point of view. In order to make Poe’s attitude towards the human psyche graspable, the protagonist’s mental disorder(s) will be examined. In fact, the ambiguous narrative could – of course – be understood as the story of a virtuous man who suffers from the abyss of alcoholism. From this perspective, the story becomes the tale of woe that focuses on the social, economical and psychological consequences of alcohol dependency for the narrator loses his social environment, sinks into poverty, drifts towards sin, and starts to suffer from a dissociated personality. Nonetheless, it seems as if the teller’s immoral acts were motivated by other forces than the influence of intoxication. The brutish narrator himself subsumes the destructive powers that guide (and transform) him under the expression “the spirit of perverseness”. Therefore, in this essay, it will be scrutinised whether alcoholism is the primary reason for the narrator being inclined to commit foul deeds or rather an external intensification of already existing homicidal tendencies.

2. The Depths of the Human Soul in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat”

At the very beginning of the Gothic tale, the overt narrator, whose name is not passed on to the recipient, let it be known that he is on the point of dying: “But tomorrow I die.” This statement immediately leads to the reader presuming that the protagonist is likely to be sentenced to death, for example, because he might have perpetrated an incredibly horrible crime, so that – in terms of “poetic justice” – he will be punished in a manner consistent with the severity of his transgression.[1] In the last night before his public execution, the speaker desires to “unburden [...] [his; D.R.] soul” by committing his crime to paper. Besides the choice of religious terms (throughout the story), it is of great significance that the narrator starts putting pen to paper since this is yet more proof of the fact that the recipient is dealing with a character who is a believer in Christianity. Indeed, the socalled “confession”, the acknowledgement that one is guilty of a crime, is one constituent element of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. Without having confessed any wrongdoing, one will not receive absolution for one’s sins. Furthermore, in the frame narrative, the telling I points out that he does not expect the reader to attach little credence to his words for he himself cannot believe what has happened. Notwithstanding his numerous doubts, the narrator insists that he be in a sane state of mind[2] and do not dwell on dreams. Thence, the teller hopes for a recipient who is able to explain his “phantasm” in rational terms, which already indicates that the conflict between rationality and superstition plays an important role in Poe’s horror fiction.[3] Although the protagonist persists in not being mad, it is indispensable to question this judgement, especially whilst reading the rest of the story. In fact, the telling instance as it appears in the frame narrative should be perceived as an unreliable narrator. In general, a subjective firstperson narrator is certain to be untrustworthy since the reader does only learn something about the teller’s thoughts and emotions, but in this case, the recipient is also dealing with a criminal and completely insane protagonist. After creating suspense by implying the perpetration of an utterly odious crime, the autodiegetic narrator begins to tell his story in an embedded narrative ab ovo. With regard to “discourse” and “histoire”, one can establish that the telling I switches from the simple present to the simple past as a narrative tense. Indeed, in a summarised flashback (analepsis), the protagonist starts to characterise himself directly in order to detect how his mental health has successively declined. In retrospect, the round character asserts that he was full of “docility”, “humanity” and “tenderness” from early childhood. Moreover, he admits that he was always fond of animals, which is the reason why he owned “a great variety of pets”. In this selfdramatising part, there is only one remark that allows conclusions to be drawn about the cause of this disconcerting love of animals: “My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions.” Owing to the fact that the protagonist was sneered at in his infancy, one can assume that the relationship between the protagonist and his social environment was from an early age on in such a way distorted that the disillusioned misanthrope decided to reject “the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man”. Even after he married an equally sensitive and petloving woman, he continued to keep a lot of pets, as it is emphasised by an enumeration: “We had birds, goldfish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat.” Amongst them, he loved the large black cat most. In fact, the cat and its master have been inseparable ever since he can remember. However, what strikes the reader most about this cat is the fact that it is named after the ruler of the underworld, Pluto. Additionally, black cats are associated with bad luck and due to their connection with witches they are often thought to be an evil omen. Without a doubt, this dark symbolism is meant to subtly foreshadow the cruel future events. In the following, the narrator contrasts the mentioned isotopy of positively connoted character traits with some lexemes he uses to describe his “radical alteration for the worse”. For instance, he characterises himself as “moody”, “irritable” and “regardless of the feelings of others”. Given the fact that he was really used to having a gentle and sensitive “disposition” in former days, one has to state – as a consequence – that there is a dramatic change of personality. According to the speaker, the reason for changing his mind is the “instrumentality of the fiend Intemperance”. Being intemperate, the teller, as he underlines by using an emphatic correction, does “not only [neglect], but [illuse]” his innocent pets. The narrator also asserts that it is only through his intoxication that his wife starts to suffer from domestic violence. In this context, it is remarkable that the brutal protagonist intends to stylise himself as a victim that cannot be blamed for his violent acts because of a sickness that has affected his body and mind. On that account, he uses an emphatic exclamation with strong epistemic modality: “But my disease grew upon me—for what disease is like Alcohol!— [...].”[4] In addition, the depersonalised narrator does not see himself as actor, he underlines that he feels as if he watched himself act: “I knew myself no longer.”


[1] The assumption that the narrator could well be a criminal is confirmed when he mentions a “felon’s cell”.

[2] One can guess that the protagonist has already been accused of being insane.

[3] Even at the beginning of the short story, the psychology of Poe’s delinquent (the “why”) and not the crime itself (the “how” or “who”) is at the centre of attention. In contrast to paradigmatic crime stories, Poe’s focus is on the exploration of the human depths.

[4] Even at the end of the story, the nonself-critical narrator does not blame himself for his crimes. Instead, he accuses the cat of having “seduced [...] [him; D.R.] into murder”. Throughout the tale, he presents himself as a victim in order to arouse compassion, e. g., by making use of emphatic repetitions and a dramatic climax: “[...] these events have terrified—have tortured—have destroyed me [...].”

Excerpt out of 10 pages


Insanity in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat"
The Human Being Teetering on the Brink of the Abyss of Alcohol?
University of Marburg  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
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ISBN (Book)
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insanity, edgar, allan, black, human, being, teetering, brink, abyss, alcohol
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Dustin Runkel (Author), 2017, Insanity in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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