The Black Cat
by Edgar Allan Poe
Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Urgent, Ashamed, Anguished, Dramatic, Flashy, Mocking…
"Tone" is the way the story sounds, in your mind when you read silently, to your ear when you read aloud. We think that most of the sentences in "The Black Cat" have multiple tones, often seemingly in conflict with each other. We'll take a look at one short passage that we think has all six of the tones we've listed, but you can find these tones (and more) throughout the story.
The urgency is established in paragraph 1, when the narrator explains that he's writing this the day before he's going to die. Of course, that's not enough. He has to make us feel the urgency. This is where the other adjectives come in. Let's look at an example where some key verbs come in:
I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity. (7)
This sentence comes right after the narrator's description of the cutting out of Pluto's eye. The fast, urgent rhythm is created by the repletion of the word "I" and the three short clauses (units of meaning in a sentence, usually separated by punctuation marks) followed by the final long clause.
The words "blush" and "burn," describe physical signs and sensations associated with shame – hence our adjective ashamed to describe the tone. "Shudder" suggests that he feels a certain amount of anguish over what he's done. He has reason to be dramatic. All these words are also flashy words – they aren't subtle. You can't easily ignore them. They draw our attention.
The final clause is where it all comes together, and why we think the tone is mocking. An "atrocity" is a shockingly cruel act. Add "damnable" to it, and we have not only a shockingly cruel act, but also one the narrator should be punished for in some extreme, or ultimate way. The word "pen" is what makes this tricky, and mocking.
To "pen" something is to "write" something. The narrator isn't exactly saying that what he did to Pluto is a "damnable atrocity." From a grammatical point of view, he's saying that his writing, and the story itself is an "atrocity," not necessarily what he did to Pluto. If we step outside the world of the story and think of Poe writing the story, the line can be said to express a certain anxiety about his work as writer, and the writing process.
There might be a bit of self-mockery on the part of Poe, but in terms of the narrator of "The Black Cat" the line seems to mock the reader. Think back to what the narrator uses to cut Pluto's eye out. That's right a "pen-knife," a knife used to sharpen a quill pen.
Now, the line we quoted becomes a complex and mocking pun. When we see how the narrator has linked violence and writing together we realize he seems more about showing us how clever he is and trying to trick is than he is about actually expressing shame over what he did to Pluto, and his other crimes. He's seems to be mocking us by pretending to be ashamed and anguished. On the other hand should be careful of assuming that all of his shame and anguish are mocking or false. Part of the story's power lies in the possibility of some glimmer of sincerity from this disturbed man.