Perverseness in Poe: The Tell-Tale Heart and Black Cat

Term Paper, 2002

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)



This term paper deals with Edgar Allan Poe´s short stories "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart", which are both examples of men who give in to a strange inner force which Poe himself calls "perverseness".

His notion of this term is explicitly used in what could be called his "short-story-essay": "The Imp of the Perverse".

First of all it is neccessary to explain what Poe meant by this certain force, apart and beyond the ordinary understanding of "perverseness".

After that his two tales of terror mentioned above will be compared according to their common themes.

First a short summary of each will be given, followed by the point-of-view-technique Poe uses for a certain purpose.

Then the victims of the stories and the narrators´ causes of fear will be explored. Both tales obviously deal with the causes of domestic violence that occur as the result of an irrational fear (either superstition or ancient belief).

Then both protagonists will be characterized as perverse criminals who give in to their dark side and annihilate themselves.

Furthermore there´s a discussion of narrative style and images and the ending of the stories. At last especially "The Black Cat" is explored considering its content of truth.

So the reader may see that Poe gave us two little masterpieces in human psychology to think about: The "spirit of perverseness" is lurking in everybody...


"What could be more perverse than a personal quest for dissolution?", one may ask after reading Poe´s short stories.

The countervailing coercion of man - the perverse, that primal instinct, that seed of destruc- tion, lurks -as Poe believed - inside everyone. Interestingly, Poe's belief in the perverse cau-sed him to go beyond traditional morality. He tries to search out this radical impulse, which he believed rules the dark side of human behaviour.

When Poe speaks of perverseness, he does not intend narrower denotations of the various forms of the word. He does not mean "perverted," as in sexual miscreance. Though such deviancy may be perverse, it is not equal to the examples of perversity which Poe explains in his tales. Self-destruction of the protagonist is the prevailing topic in his stories.

His unrestraint and often horrible descriptions of human misdeeds display that he isn´t inte-rested in doing justice to morality.

Poe instead intended to show what occurred to him as the natural order of man's behavior, rather than to engage in futile speculation concerning what God intended for the individual. Poe asks through one of his narrators,

if we cannot comprehend God in his visible works, how then in his inconceivable thoughts, that call the works into being? If we cannot understand him in his objective creatures, how then in his substantive moods and phases of creation? (Poe, "The Imp of the Perverse", p. 358)

Poe was evidently interested in strange forces, often mistaken by the pedants of his and our time, as moral evil, but which Poe saw differently. Rather, he explored the counterpart to creativity, insisting that humans are also predisposed towards the perverse, that radical im-pulse described for us by the narrator of "The Imp of the Perverse," who declares that

no reason can be more unreasonable; but, in fact, there is none more strong. With certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible. I am not more certain than I breathe, than that the assurance of the wrong or error of any action is often the one uncon- querable force which impels us, and alone impels us to its prosecution. Nor will this over- whelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong's sake, admit of analysis, or resolution into ul- terior elements. It is a radical, a primitive impulse - elementary.

("The Imp of the Perverse", p. 358)

The culturally conditioned reader can easily miss Poe's point here if he pays more impor-tance to the moral meaning of the word "wrong", overriding Poe's intent. In Poe, wrong is wrong because it is perverse, not because the Bible told him so. Wrong is wrong because it harms the personality who initiates the action.

"The Imp of the Perverse" is both a short story and an essay, which displays a psychological

theory as a concept of the perverse. This - the author through his narrator explains - is "an innate and primitive principle of human action" and "in fact, a mobile without motive, a motive not motiviert." (Poe, "The Imp of the Perverse", p. 358)

As also in "The Black Cat" the author claims that "we act, for the reason that we should not". (Poe, "The Imp of the Perverse", p. 358)

The reason for offering violence or committing murder - as the protagonists in "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart" do - becomes surely more comprehensible when we have read "The Imp of the Perverse". Poe states here that "the impulse [to commit a sin] increa-ses to a wish, the wish to a desire, the desire to an uncontrollable longing, and the longing [...] is indulged." (Poe, "The Imp of the Perverse", p. 359)

So every protagonist of these tales of terror is, as we will see, "one of the many uncounted victims of the the Imp of the Perverse". (Poe, "The Imp of the Perverse", p. 361)

Perversity is a fundamental force which penetrates human existence, but humanity seems so unaware of its presence. The subject of perversity is seldom discoursed. It must be either consciously ignored, or at work on the subconscious mind.

The narrator in "The Black Cat" names "mere household events" for examples of perversity in action. In reality many of those whom society calls criminals return to the scene of their respective crimes, drawn there as if by some magnetic force. Poe´s explanation might be that the criminal returns because he might get caught, because in returning, he could utterly ruin his life.

II. "THE TELL-TALE HEART" and "THE BLACK CAT" in comparison

(1) Summary of "The Black Cat"

This story is told by an I-narrator in a flashback, while he is in jail, waiting for his execution for the murder of his wife.

The man, originally tender and docile, undergoes a transformation into a cruel and perverse character in the course of the story. He gradually begins to hate the ones he loves and vio-lates not only his wife, but also, and mostly, his black cat - Pluto. At first he cuts out an eye of the cat and finally hangs it on a tree.

He repeatedly speaks of his alcohol-abuse, which sets free in him a certain "spirit of perverseness". Although he regrets his deed at first, his temper becomes more and more fiery. When then his house had burned totally down, he sees an image of his killed cat on a remaining wall. Hereafter he finds himself a new cat, which resembles his first one, except for a white splotch on its chest. His affection for the cat turns quickly into aversion and hatred, because it also lacks an eye. To the horror of the man, the white splotch changes in a gallow-like sign and that makes him furious.

One day, going down in the cellar with his wife, the cat follows them and causes the narra-tor to lose his balance. Therefore he tries to axe the cat while his wife is trying to prevent it. Then, totally out of mind, he plants the axe in her skull. Now he has to avoid the detection of the murder and walls her dead body up in the cellar. The cat is nowhere to find.

Before long the police arrives for investigation. The officers don´t find anything until the narrator, full of feelings of the sublime and triumph, raps with a cane over the wall behind which the corpse stands. As a loud wail is heard the officers break down the wall. To the fore comes the corpse with the cat alive on its head. The cat had completed its conquest, revealing the location of the corpse and consigning the wretch to the gallows.

The final horror of the narrator, his crowning act of perversity, is similar to the crazy killer of the old man in "The Tell-Tale Heart," who had succeeded in hiding his atrocity, only to betray himself in direst effect, again to the police.

(2) Summary of "The Tell-Tale Heart"

At the beginning of this story the I-narrator tries to convince the reader urgently that he´s not mad. He explains the acute state of his senses, especially that of hearing. The reader gets to know how cunningly the man prepared and executed the murder of an elderly man in the house of which he has become a caretaker. Although the old man is harmless, the narra-tor fears him due to his "vulture eye".

For seven nights he enters again and again the old man´s room and finds him sleeping. On the eight night, having awakened him, a latern ray falls on this eye and his old heart starts beating quicker and quicker until the narrator cannot endure it any longer. So he kills the old man, dismembers the corpse and deposits its parts under planks of the floor.

Police investigations don´t lead to anything until the narrator hears the heart of the old man beating again, which gradually grows unbearable in his ears so that he finally admits the deed.

(3) Point of View

Poe writes both stories from the perspective of the murderers. When an author creates a situation where the protagonist tells a personal account, the overall impact of the story is heightened. The plot gets the effect of tautness.

Indem der Autor in diesen Erzählungen nur das zur Darstellung bringt, was für das Ich von Bedeutung ist, erfüllt er seine eigene dichtungstheoretische Forderung nach der Einheit der Kurzgeschichte.1

The state of mind of the protagonist and action are revealed at the same time without fur-ther explanation. Moreover this perspective intensifies the effect of moral shock and horror; the reader participates directly in the dark works of the narrator´s mind. Poe

[bemühte] sich in seinen späteren Erzählungen darum, den Schrecken in das Innere seiner Pro- tagonisten hineinzuverlegen oder aus deren Psyche abzuleiten. Die Erkundung der Tiefen der menschlichen Psyche ist der Grund dafür, daß in Poes Kurzgeschichten häufig die von der Ge- sellschaft isolierte Einzelpersönlichkeit im Mittelpunkt steht.2


1 Ahrends, Günter, Die amerikanische Kurzgeschichte (Trier: WVT, 1996), S. 68.

2 ebd.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Perverseness in Poe: The Tell-Tale Heart and Black Cat
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (English Faculty)
1,3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
484 KB
Perverseness, Tell-Tale, Heart, Black
Quote paper
Anja Einhorn (Author), 2002, Perverseness in Poe: The Tell-Tale Heart and Black Cat, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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