The Black Cat
by Edgar Allan Poe
The Narrator's Wife
The brief outline the narrator provides us of his wife suggests that she is kind, giving, loyal, and even heroic at the end. The narrator says she has "in a high degree, that humanity of feeling which had once been [his] distinguishing characteristic." She is a highly sympathetic character, in her own right. The fact that the narrator abuses her, and her beloved pets, makes her even more sympathetic, and makes us think that the man is a complete bad guy.
So we know she's a sympathetic character, but what about her past history, her interests, her looks, where she met the man, how old she is? None of this is in the story. If we want to picture her, we have to use our imaginations. Do you have a mental picture of her? If so, what does she look like? Why? If you don't picture her, is she a shadow, a blank, a dark spot?
Do get the feeling Shmoop is trying to be your psychoanalyst, instead of your character-analyst? Don't worry. We're not. We just want to remind you that "The Black Cat" is a psychological thriller. As we argue in "Genre," the story invites us into the twisted mind of the narrator. It doesn't exactly invite us into the mind of the woman, but it does invite us to question her psychology. The biggest question readers have about her is the following: why did she stay with the man?
We can't tell you that without hearing from her. So we'll leave that question up to your imagination. We can tell you that in the 1830s divorce was a hotly contested issue in the US. Both men and women had a difficult time getting out of an unhappy marriage. Usually, men had much more power than women, especially in terms of finances. There were limited educational and job possibilities for women.
Of course, none of this explains why this particular woman stayed with this particular man. But, looking at the cultural scene Poe was writing in might be helpful in making sense of this confusing character.
Now, the woman is not a complete blank. The narrator does talk about her, and, when we look at his account, we can see that she undergoes transformations.
The woman is the one who bought "the birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey" and Pluto (3). The narrator seems to suggest that she did this, at least in part, to please him. As noted in his character analysis, the narrator transforms from an animal lover to an animal abuser and killer. The woman follows a reverse path. Her love for animals seems to increase throughout the story. She even gives her life for the second cat at the end.
This love seems connected to pity and perhaps guilt. When she learns that the second cat is missing an eye, like Pluto, this makes her love him (the cat) even more. This brings up a difficult question: did the woman try to stop the man from hurting the animals when he first started hurting them? The limited information we have makes it difficult to answer that question. But, if their behavior in the cellar is part of a pattern, maybe the narrator started hurting his wife when she tried to stop him from hurting the pets. Or, maybe she didn't try. Maybe she was too afraid or felt too powerless. What do you think?
When the new cat arrives, things work a little differently. The narrator doesn't abuse the second cat, even though he wants to. But, he does continue hurting the woman. He says his "uncomplaining wife […] was the most usual and the most patient of sufferers" (22).
As we discuss in "Narrator Point of View," this could be trickiness on the narrator's part. "Usual" has a double meaning. She's the narrator's "most usual" victim because she's the one he hurts most often, and/or a "usual sufferer" because she suffers in the usual way, by screaming and crying.
Notice also that she is the one who points out that the cat has an image of the gallows on his chest. This gallows on the cat is what keeps the narrator in check. He knows it's both a warning and a reminder of his crime (hanging Pluto). Could his wife have engineered this somehow? Was this a creative way to keep him from hurting the cat? If her main goal was to keep the second cat safe – she succeeded and became a soldier in the battlefield of a dangerous home.
The man claims that Pluto was of above average "intelligence" (4). He tells us that the woman jokingly wondered, quite often, if the cat was really a witch, drawing on the myth of "all black cats as witches in disguise" (4). He claims to provide this information, not for any particular reason, but because he remembered it. Hmm. That makes us suspicious. It sounds like the narrator is using his wife to inject the possibility of the supernatural into this tale.
In this same paragraph, he suggests condescendingly that his wife is overly superstitious. A superstition is an irrational belief or fear. Belief in the supernatural is often considered superstitious. This is ironic, considering that he's the one trying to convince us that a black cat is to blame for all his problems.
As we discuss in the above section, the woman is also the one who convinces the man that the second cat has the image of a gallows on his chest. Again, the man uses his wife to inject the possibility of the supernatural into the story.
We don't know exactly why, but the woman seems to be, in addition to a victim of spousal abuse and murder, connected with the possibility of the supernatural. We would almost expect her to come back to life and haunt the man. The fact that she doesn't brings us back to reality. The supernatural possibility seems like just another way for the narrator to evade responsibility for his actions.