The Black Cat
by Edgar Allan Poe
The narrator has major issues. This unnamed character is an abusive bully and a murderer. He made home a living hell for his wife, pets, and himself. He's writing to us from his prison cell, on the eve of his scheduled death by hanging. In addition to the details of his heinous crimes, he reveals his psychological transformation from nice-guy to villain. He tells us that around the time he murdered his wife, all "good" had been driven from his personality (22).
And he doesn't seem to be confessing out of a sense of guilt. Over the course of the story, the narrator provides several reasons for his various behaviors. But mostly he seems to be blaming the cat (or cats) for all his problems. According the narrator, it's the cat's fault that the domestic scene of the story ultimately turned so foul. This seems to be his real point in telling us the story.
Is this a case of the insanity defense?
Like the narrator in Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," this narrator also begins his story with the declaration that he isn't "mad," and that his story is no "dream" (1). He says he knows we probably won't believe it. He also says that what happened is "a series of mere household events," you know, just the day-to-day business of family life (1). The final line of the first paragraph is important. The narrator says that he lacks "logic" and that he's too "excitable" to tell the story plainly, to show that the murder of his wife is completely understandable. He hopes a logical reader, who isn't too "excitable" will be able to demystify the story and understand what it means.
So what is going on here? The man seems to contradict himself at every turn. He says he isn't crazy, but then he says he isn't capable of understanding his own reality. Is he trying to sound crazy? Well, that's exactly what some critics believe.
There is an excellent essay on this subject titled "Irresistible Impulses: Edgar Allan Poe and the Insanity Defense," by critic John Cleman. In it, Cleman argues that the narrator might be trying to prove he's insane to avoid his death sentence. You might have heard of the "insanity defense." (You can read all about it here.) Basically, this is a principle of law which states that if a person is insane, he or she can't be held fully accountable for the crime which he or she has committed. The tricky part is proving insanity.
In British law (on which the American law is based) in 1581 being insane meant not being able to tell the difference between right and wrong, in the same way that "an infant, a brute, or a wild beast" would be unable to know the difference (source).
Now it's time for a History Snack: In 1843 (the year this story was published) this legal principle made it into the books when the Scottish woodcutter Daniel M'Naughten accidentally shot and killed the secretary of the Prime Minister of England. The shooting and the killing wasn't accidental, but the victim was. M'Naughten meant to hit the Prime Minister himself, because he thought the man was the mastermind of a hideous plot against him. Since M'Naughten was found insane, he didn't get the death penalty. Instead, he spent the rest of his life in mental institutions. The media was all over the story, and Poe, who read everything, probably would have known all about it.
(Click here for a more recent, and much more famous case of the insanity defense, the 1982 trial of John Hinckley, Jr. In an effort to impress Jodie Foster, Hinckley tried to assassinate then president Ronald Reagan.)
That brings us back to "The Black Cat." Basically, if the narrator can prove that he doesn't know the difference between right from wrong, then he can avoid the gallows. He can't just say he doesn't know right from , he has to show it. Which is where the cat comes in. If he can compellingly argue that the cat did wrong, not him, the he has things in the bag.
Now, if the narrator is writing this from jail. He's already been to trial, been found guilty, and been sentenced to death. This means either that his lawyer didn't raise the insanity defense, or that the lawyer did raise it but the jury didn't buy it. So, the letter might be a kind of final appeal. If he can bring his sanity into question, he might be able to at least get another trial.
Since we don't have enough information to know whether the narrator does know the difference between right or wrong, we can't say for sure whether or not he's insane (in terms of the insanity defense). That ambiguity is part of what makes this story exciting.
The Narrator's Transformation: Youth and Bachelorhood
Though it might be hard to believe at first, the narrator says that ever since he was a baby, he was sensitive, kind, and mellow. He was so nice that the other kids made fun of him. He absolutely loved animals, and his parents got him lots of them. "[F]eeding and caressing" his pets were his favorite activities once he reached "manhood" (2). His favorite pet was a dog, and he says that the two had a close relationship.
This sounds good on the surface, right? But, now that he's a killer, we have to put a different spin on it. We could look at the young narrator as a kid tormented by playground bullies (though perhaps for reasons other than his "tenderness of heart") (2). In his despair he turned to animals. They couldn't judge him or hurt him. They loved him for his company, and his food. He makes no mention of a social life, or love interest, other than his dog, who loved the man with "the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute." (2)
The portrait the narrator paints of himself as a young man is flat, or one-dimensional. According to him, he started off all good, and ended up all bad. Unless we want to believe he was born evil, it's important to at least entertain the possibility that he was once good. This glimpse of a kinder, gentler narrator allows us to feel bad for him, as uncomfortable as this might be. If this is an insanity defense, the possibility that he was once good, and therefore could be good again, might be rather persuasive.
The Narrator's Transformation: Married Life
Somehow, the narrator took time out from his relationship with his dog and other pets to find a woman and get married. Love of pets is the common ground between the man and his wife. He doesn't give us much more information about their relationship, until he starts to abuse her, and their lives become nightmares.
Though he blames the cat (or cats) for many things, the narrator doesn't complain at all about his wife. When she defies him in the end, he does kill her, which is like a complaint, the first one of the story. Whether this is also the first time she defied him, we know not.
So what happened? We don't really know. You could fill in the story's gaps in many different ways. Here's our spin: While happy as a bachelor, married life proves too much for our narrator. Driven to drinking and violence by the pressures of marriage and lack of deep, meaningful connection with his wife, the man gradually loses all his goodness. Even more so than today, marriage between a man and a woman was considered the ideal, proper situation for most people. Divorce was a hotly disputed issue in the law.
So, maybe the man was just unhappy in his marriage but couldn't admit it, or get out of it. It seems awfully suspicious that his first good night of sleep in who knows how long comes just after he kills his wife. Now, suppose the man wasn't happy in his marriage, and knew it. Suppose he felt he could only get out of it by killing his wife. If he is going for the insanity defense, it would not be smart to say bad things about his wife in the appeal. That would give him a motive for killing her, and destroy his defense. If he blames the cat, he has a chance.
The Fiend Intemperance
Before the death of Pluto, the narrator offers two important explanations for his behavior. The first is "the fiend Intemperance" (6). The second one is "the spirit of PERVERSENESS," which you can read about in the next section.
The narrator says that his "general temperament and character -- through the instrumentality of the fiend Intemperance […] experienced a radical alteration for the worse" (6).
What does that mean? Well, if a person is "temperate," he avoids drinking alcohol. "Intemperance" means the opposite. In Poe's day various groups were involved in the Temperance Movement. The movement lobbied for laws prohibiting and restricting the manufacture, use, and sale of alcohol. It also tried to educate people about the dangers of alcohol. "Temperance" stories offered fictional accounts of people driven to evil and despair from drinking. Poe seems to have used alcohol frequently, and probably had some conflicted feelings about it. As far as we know, he wasn't part of the Temperance Movement. Still, some critics and readers think "The Black Cat" is a temperance narrative.
But, because all mention of alcohol drops out of the story after the second black cat appears, we tend to doubt this. In a temperance story, alcohol takes center stage. It doesn't step out of the way for cats, no matter how fuzzy and cute they might be. This doesn't mean alcohol isn't portrayed negatively in this story. It is. But it's only one of many issues involved.
If you want to find out more about the Temperance Movement, click here. Also, check out "Quotes" on "Drugs and Alcohol" for some great lines dealing with the fiend.
The Spirit of Perverseness
Now for the second explanation the narrator offers, "the spirit of PERVERSENESS" (9). Poe has his own definition of the word "perverse." To put it simply, "the spirit of PERVERSENESS" is what makes people do things they know will be bad for themselves and others (9). The discussion of perverseness is in the paragraph describing the murder of Pluto. The narrator asks:
Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination […] to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? (9)
The narrator suggests that this perverseness as an essential part of human nature. It's what makes people break the law, just for the fun of breaking the law, even if they know they'll get in trouble, even if they think the law is just. This, the narrator says, is why he killed Pluto. And if he hadn't killed Pluto, the second cat wouldn't have come to haunt him and force him to kill his wife.
Wait a minute. The narrator seems to be saying that he does know the difference between right and wrong, but that this perverse impulse "one of the primitive impulses of the human heart" made him do it anyway. This could throw a wrench in the insanity defense, which depends on him being able to show that he doesn't know the difference between right and wrong. This quote from Frontline's history of the insanity defense might give you an idea of what Poe was up to here:
One of the major criticisms of the M'Naughten rule is that, in its focus on the cognitive ability to know right from wrong, it fails to take into consideration the issue of control. Psychiatrists agree that it is possible to understand that one's behavior is wrong, but still be unable to stop oneself. To address this, some states have modified the M'Naughten test with an "irresistible impulse" provision, which absolves a defendant who can distinguish right and wrong but is nonetheless unable to stop himself from committing an act he knows to be wrong. (This test is also known as the "policeman at the elbow" test: Would the defendant have committed the crime even if there were a policeman standing at his elbow?). (Source)
Poe seems to be drawing the criticisms of the M'Naughten rule into his story as a way to more fully explore the issue.
But, insanity defense aside, Poe seems to be sincerely asking, why do we do things we know will be bad for us? Is the narrator insane, or is he just taking normal human behavior to extremes? Poe presents this possible explanation (i.e., being influenced by the perverse) for at least some of the man's behavior in an over-the-top, almost mocking manner, but that doesn't mean it's not a real issue, or unimportant. The idea of perverseness works with the other possible explanations for the man's behavior to help form a complex and mysterious profile of a very disturbed man.