Where It All Goes Down
The Narrator's Home
Many Poe stories feature elaborately decorated rooms, described in great detail. If you've read "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Pit and the Pendulum," or "The Fall of the House of Usher" then you know what we mean. In "The Black Cat" we have several different settings, but none of them are given much physical description. The narrator is writing his last words. He might not have had time to fool around with certain details, like when and where. Besides, we don't need the specifics. The story is about the bad things that can happen at home. The vagueness of the homes in the story allows them to be any homes, anywhere.
The story is written from the narrator's jail cell, highlighting the theme of "Freedom and Confinement." The narrator writes from a space of confinement, and detailing the events that led him to prison is one of the few freedoms he has left. This tension between freedom and confinement is repeated throughout the story, and is particularly intense when we look at some other aspects of the setting.
After the narrator's house burns down, we learn that he and his wife were wealthy people, before they lost everything in the fire. In the 1840s, when this story was written, people didn't rely on banks as much as they do now, and insurance was far less common. It's believable that the man had most of his wealth stored in the house. Of course, we don't know the source of the wealth, or what, if anything, the man does for a living. We do know he must have had enough tucked away to set the family up in a new pad, though the narrator's brief description lets us know that the new house is "old" and not what he and his wife are used to.
Both houses seem like prison cells for everyone involved, especially the man's wife and pets. He seems free to come and go as he pleases, and do to them what he pleases. In both houses, the most amount of description is given to the walls.
In the first house the bedroom wall becomes important when the man sees that it's the only wall that wasn't burned up. More importantly, it holds a raised image of a "gigantic cat" on it (11). This moment foreshadows the second cat's live-burial in the second house, and also introduces the motif of walls into the story.
The repetition of building and destroying of literal walls helps us see the mental or psychological walls the narrator is building and destroying. He builds literal and psychological walls between himself and his wife and pets. By his crimes he destroys the walls that allow him to be a free citizen. That one's a bit of a mind twister. The walls of our homes give us privacy from the outside world. If we are arrested and placed in jail, the walls of privacy, and the freedoms of home, come tumbling down.
The cellar is another important aspect of setting. Notice how the setting in "The Black Cat" moves from less confining spaces to more confining spaces, reflecting the increased psychological confinement the narrator describes, and taping into our deepest fears concerning home and home life.
For example, we know that the first house the family lives in is supposedly a nice house, the house of a wealthy family. In roomy, fancy houses with servants, life seems to be more free and easy than in the cramped, decrepit quarters of the second house. Of course, because of the way the man treats his wife and pets, they are trapped, and can't even enjoy their plush surroundings. For Pluto, the fresh garden in which he is meant to frolic is turned into a death chamber. Likewise, "for [the] birds, gold-fish, [..] fine dog, rabbits, [and] small monkey" the house becomes a death trap when it goes up in flames (3).
If that's what happened in the first house, think of what will happen in the poor, crummy one they move into when they lose their wealth. Things become increasingly confining for all involved after the move. All this culminates in the cellar. The cellar is under the rest of the house. If the setting reflects the consciousness of the man (and other characters) the cellar echoes his subconscious. (Sub means under.) The unconscious is supposed to be that seething pool of desires and fears that lurk beneath the surface of our conscious thoughts. While in the cellar, all the man's deepest fears and desire culminate in the murder of his wife.
Also note that the homemade tomb inside the cellar is (arguably) the most confining space in the story. Just ask the second black cat, who has to live there for four days. It's also confining for the narrator because he now has murder on his soul. Interestingly, the opening up of that confined space leads to the narrator's confinement in the prison cell. Now, head on over to "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more on the creepy cellar.