The Black Cat
by Edgar Allan Poe
Analysis: Writing Style
Fancy and Cryptic
There are lots of elements of style. Punctuation, sentence structure, word choice, length (of sentences, paragraphs, the story itself) are just a few. We chose "fancy" and "cryptic" to describe Poe's writing style because we think they apply to many of the different elements of his style.
As Humbert Humbert, the narrator of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita famously says, "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style" (1.2). Nabokov was extremely influenced by Poe, and shared Poe's love of linguistic games and experimentation, and of the unreliable narrator. We think Humbert's description of his writing style applies to our narrator's. Of course, we are talking about Poe's writing style, but like Humbert, the narrator of "The Black Cat" is writing the story.
As we discuss in "In a Nutshell" this doesn't mean that Poe is the narrator, but rather that the process of writing is being dramatized in the story. But back to fancy. Even the best readers can get a little lost in this narrator's super sophisticated vocabulary and odd sentence structures.
The narrator is candid enough about some hideous crimes, but we still get the feeling he's being cryptic (talking in code), hiding things from us as he manipulates us with his fancy words and sentence structure. As we discuss in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" the story has layers of possible hidden meanings.
Since "The Black Cat" is fairly short, we can take our time with it. To get you started, here's an example of Poe's fancy and cryptic style:
Although I thus readily accounted to my reason, if not altogether to my conscience, for the startling fact just detailed, it did not the less fail to make a deep impression upon my fancy. (13)
He's referring to the figure of a giant cat, which has somehow appeared on his bedroom wall after the house burned down (11, 12). But what does he mean? Let's break it down.
"Readily accounted to my reason" is a fancy way of saying that he believes he came up with a reasonable explanation for the cat image, (though it might not sound reasonable to many readers). His theory that the neighbors threw the cat through the window sounds preposterous, and we might wonder about his chemical theory as well.
While the narrator feels good about his reasoning, his "conscience" is bothering him, and his "fancy" (used her as something similar to "imagination") is stimulated by the bizarre image of the cat. In other words, not without good reason, the narrator is a little bit worried about his awful deed, and his imagination won't let him rest.
Now all of that is important, but this fancy talk might also be a bit of a red herring, meant to distract us. If we worry too much about how the cat image was formed, or whether or not the narrator saw what he claims to have seen, we might miss a more important point – that the narrator hanged the cat in the tree in the morning, left the body there all day, and even left it there when he went to bed. Do you agree that this is an important detail? Why or why not? We discuss some symbolic and allegorical meaning in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" but on a literal level, we leave it to you to decide. If this were your neighbor, what would you think? Does the narrator being wealthy have any thing to do with it?
Check out or discussion of the Animal Protection Movement under the theme "Violence" for an approach you might use for a literal interpretation of this moment. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy the narrator's fancy, cryptic style.