"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.
Horror or Gothic fiction can also be "sensation" fiction, a popular genre in Poe's day. Sensation stories were designed to work on the readers' senses. The characters experience scandalous feelings and desires, commit dire acts, and find themselves in extreme situations. Violence, imprisonment, death, dismemberment, and live burial are meant to shock us into feeling.
In "The Black Cat," most of the drama occurs in the home, and revolves around the narrator's relationship with his wife and pets. Like so many narratives of terror and depravity, this one combines the family drama with the horror or Gothic. This taps into some of our deepest fears – fears of what can go wrong at home. Home is where we are supposed to be most comfortable and safe, and is also where we are most vulnerable. As in " The Tell-Tale-Heart," however, home for the characters in this story is anything but safe.
You're probably starting to see why we call this a psychological thriller. It tries to get into our heads, but also plunges us inside the twisted mind of an abusive killer detailing the stages of his breakdown. We keep reading because we want to see what happens next, and because we want to find out why or how this guy got so twisted. The suspense of "The Black Cat" extends beyond the end of the story, since the ending doesn't give us many answers. The possibility that supernatural forces are at work adds another layer of suspense, and, perhaps, another layer of terror.
The Southern Gothic is a sub genre of the Gothic. It usually features a southern setting, and deals with issues of slavery, or the American South after slavery. Poe was writing before the Civil War. As you know, the institution of slavery was still legal in the US, and was a part of southern life. Critics and readers have been debating Poe's stance on slavery and race for a long time. Because Poe was virtually silent on the issue, this debate will most likely continue for a long time.
Several essays in the collection Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race discuss the possibility that "The Black Cat" might be the story of hanged slave, in addition to being the story of a hanged cat. If you find this theory credible then you'll agree that this story is Southern Gothic. If not, then you won't. If you want to learn more about this theory, check out the "Character Analysis" of Pluto.
The title prepares to the reader to be on the lookout for the black cat – it suggests that the cat is important to the story. This might sound obvious, but what if the story was called "A Woman Murdered," or "An Unhappy Home," or "Why I Stopped Drinking"? The first would focus attention on the nameless narrator's nameless wife, the second on the idea of "home," and the third on the issue of the narrator's drinking. All these are important aspects of the story (though by no means the only aspects), and all are connected to the cat (or cats). But, whatever the title of this short story happened to be, the black cat(s) would still take center stage of this tale.
The title only references one black cat. Does this mean there is only one cat in the story? Is the second cat a kind of Pet Sematary version of Pluto? Is the second cat Pluto the undead? Or, is it possible that Pluto didn't really die? In that last scenario Pluto somehow survives the hanging and escapes the plaster cast/wall art (in which we last saw him). Then, either on purpose or by coincidence, the cat meets the man at the place where he's drinking and, well, you know the rest.
We can't neglect the two-cat theory. Just remove the possibility of the supernatural, and assume that Pluto and the second cat are both real, flesh and blood creatures, horribly abused. This reading might even be scarier than a supernatural one.
The story is wide open for multiple interpretations. That might be why "The Black Cat" still popular, over a 160 years after its publication. The title is simple, and straightforward, but we can still use it to open up this creepy story.
The story ends when the police find the dead body of the man's wife, with the cat on her head. On the one hand it's outrageous, and even funny. At the same time, when we think about just how close these details can come to our own reality, it's sad and frightening. There is always some bizarre tragedy in the news. In Poe's day, too, sensational stories were all the rage. Such stories, like this one, can cause a broad range of emotions.
Like the news items we hear and read, "The Black Cat" doesn't end neatly, with all the questions answered. For example, we know the narrator is writing his confession the day before he's scheduled to be executed for the murder of his wife. But, we don't know if the sentence is carried out, or if the confession the man writes in his "felon's cell" does "unburthen [his] soul" (20). (By the way, "unburthen" means the same thing as "unburden.")
In the final lines of the story, the narrator describes the cat as "the hideous beast whose craft seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice has consigned me to the hangman" (32). The man confesses to some awful things, and even thinks some of them are wrong and bad, but ultimately, he blames the cat for everything.
We might expect a man confessing to express remorse and ask for forgiveness from a higher power. In this case the man is simply telling his story as he sees it. He does express remorse for his treatment of his wife and the cat, but here at the end, as we said, he blames the cat. He is "unbearthening" his soul by admitting that he blames the cat. He feels "almost ashamed" to admit his beliefs about the cat, and just how afraid he was of the animal (20). (It's important to note that he never feels completely ashamed of anything.)
The narrator seems to see the cat as having some master plan, which involves tricking him into murdering his wife, and then allowing himself to be walled up, so that he could blow the whistle on the narrator. In the world of Poe, this is a completely believable scenario.
This scenario does have a couple of potential flaws though. First of all, why would the cat want the man to kill his wife? Second, if the cat allowed himself to be walled up with the corpse, on purpose, why didn't he meow (or let his presence somehow be known) before the man banged on the wall?
Here's one possible answer to the first question: if the cat wanted the narrator to pay for murdering him, he would have to get the man to kill a person. Only if the narrator was caught murdering a person would the law intervene. Still, there isn't much in the narrator's account of the cellar scene to suggest that the cat intended for the man to kill his wife.
In answer to the second question, the cat probably passed out from lack of air and didn't even realize the chance had come until the man's knock brought him back to consciousness.
You might also be wondering how the cat, if he isn't a supernatural creature, survived for four days in the wall. Well, assuming he was somehow getting air, the last paragraph suggests that the cat was probably eating the dead body to survive.
The narrator tells us that when discovered, the woman's body was "clotted with gore" and describes the cat as having a "red extended mouth" (32). We were told that the narrator "buried the axe in her brain." As such, her brains and blood probably got on her body, and "clotted" or dried there. But, this is one of Poe's gorier stories, so we have to take things to their goriest conclusions. The clue is the cat's "red extended mouth." The cat's mouth isn't described as red anywhere else in the story. Here it is quite probably meant to remind us of blood.
Another issue to consider is what happens to the cat after the man is arrested. The memory of the cat certainly haunts the narrator. Otherwise, he wouldn't be writing about his experience with the creature. But, there is no mention of the cat's future after the story. Either the narrator doesn't have access to this information, or doesn't think it's important to the story. We hope the cat found a happy home.
Some readers think the ending shows justice at work, because the man is stopped from doing more damage, and is held accountable for his crimes. Others don't see any justice in the ending, because the man doesn't learn to value the lives of others, and continues to "blame the victim" for his crimes. What do you think?
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.
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.
If you are looking for information on one or the other of the black cats here in this section, we can understand why. These furry friends seem like symbols or allegories. However, we cover their symbolic and allegorical aspects in their "Character Analyses."
Things start to get hairy for the narrator when the second cat comes along. The cat won't leave him alone, day or night. If the man falls asleep, he has bad dreams, and always wakes up with the cat sitting on his chest, breathing on his face. So the narrator eventually stops sleeping.
The narrator describes the cat as a "Night Mare," though some texts, like the University of Virginia e-text used here, run the two words together to form nightmare, which is the usual contemporary spelling. According to a footnote in The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, "The Night Mare myth was a dream horse ["mare" is another word for "horse"] that trampled people in their sleep, it's great weight causing a sense of suffocation" (353, Source ).
In many Poe stories, we aren't completely sure whether the narrator is asleep, awake, or somewhere in between. "The Black Cat" is one of those stories. The narrator admits to nodding off frequently, and to sleep deprivation. His dream life and his waking life combine to form an almost seamless nightmare-scape.
As with all his other problems, the narrator blames this situation on the cat. In his old cat-lover days, he might have considered the cat's snuggling a sign of affection, but the cat has become an easy victim for his rage. He sees it as a sign of menace, and of his guilt. It is only once the cat (and the wife) are out of the way, the man sleeps easy.
"The Black Cat" is a brutal story, where the home becomes a site of torture, terror, and murder. The man admits to abusing his wife and animals, but only goes into detail a few times. The first time involves a pen-knife.
A pen-knife is supposed to be used for sharpening the narrator's quill pen. Still, it is a knife and always has the potential to be used as a weapon. When the narrator uses the knife to "deliberately cut one of [Pluto's] eyes from the socket" the knife's potential is fulfilled (7). When we read the above lines we might get some kind of intense image in our mind. It probably provokes a variety of feelings.
When we understand the knife is meant to sharpen pens, the imagery becomes confused. The mind wants to see a pen where it sees an eye. Symbolically, the man is sharpening the cat's eye with his knife. Pluto learns to see that his beloved master is cruel and violent to the extreme. He also will experience a literal change of vision – from this moment on, he'll see the world through only one eye. Not coincidentally, the reader's eyes are sharpened at this moment as well. Crimes of violence we have hopefully never heard of before are revealed.
From King Lear to The Chosen, to Invisible Man, damage to a character's eye signals us to a changing vision in the story. By shaking us up with violence, damaged-eye symbolism might also put us in a space to experience changed vision ourselves. Most notably it might make issues of animal cruelty and spousal abuse more visible to us.
But it gets even deeper. As the narrator reminds us in the line following the one quoted above, he is penning or writing his confession. By making the man the writer of his own story, Poe creates a twisted double of himself, the real writer of the story. Working with the pen-knife, the story becomes an allegory about writing.
Writers often draw from the real life to write their stories. If they go too far, they can hurt the people they write about. There is also the possibility of hurting the readers, either with bad writing, or with good writing that gives readers bad thoughts or ideas. Writers are often conscious of the ability of writing to do violence to the vision of others.
The man's choice of weapons in the murder of Pluto strikes us as rather odd. The image of a cat hanging from a tree in the garden all day, and even at night when the man goes to sleep is profoundly disturbing. When the narrator notices that the second cat has an image "of THE GALLOWS!" on it's fur, we might feel a tad bewildered. A gallows is a structure used to hang people.
The second cat wears a symbol of Pluto's murder on its body. It becomes a symbol of the man's guilt and depravity, a visual reminder of his crime, and of his changing personality. It also foreshadows the man's own death by hanging. (Though we don't know for sure if this sentence was carried out.)
Now, Poe is often considered a southern writer. He spent much of his life in the South. In his day, before abolition of US slavery, it wasn't necessarily uncommon to see a black person hanging from a tree. It seems doubtful that Poe didn't have this in mind when he wrote the story. In Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race this possibility is discussed at length, and we look at it more closely in Pluto's "Character Analysis."
The axe and the cellar offer some vivid imagery. We can imagine that in a story like "The Black Cat," going to the cellar is a bad idea. We can almost smell the musty cellar smell wafting up at us. We might even experience a slight clouding of vision as the narrator, his wife, and the cat descend into the darkest depths of the "old" building (23). The imagery is vague and murky, until we get to the axe.
Like the knife, the axe has the potential to be used for violence. Most uses of the axe are violent, like chopping wood, for example. Firefighters use axes to save people, but the axe is still used violently to break things down. Here the axe is a symbol of the man's breakdown, and of the violent breakdown of his family.
If you see someone holding an axe, you might be slightly uncomfortable. You probably don't want one hanging about in your living room, either. When the narrator says he picked up "an axe," we think, "uh oh" (23).
We know what's probably going to happen next, especially if we've read Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. When he says he "buried the axe in [his wife's] brain" our predictions come true (23). We are certainly horrified at the brutal murder of the woman. But, we might also be somewhat relieved that the cat managed to escape unscathed. As we discuss in "Writing Style" the narrator's fancy prose can hide meaning if we don't read carefully. Here, he's surprising blunt. Nothing fancy. Yet, this is one of the story's strongest images and we can understand it instantly.
Since the narrator keeps us in the cellar for the most of the rest of the story, we get walled up, or trapped, in the story. This speaks to our theme of "Freedom and Confinement." It also speaks to the narrator's trapped state of mind. Although he is free for a time to hurt others, the story shows him increasingly imprisoned. Everything comes together in the cellar – which is just one step away from the jail cell.
The importance of the cellar as a symbol, and as imagery, is ever more apparent when we look at it against some other aspects of the setting. If you're interested in this aspect of the story, be sure to take a look at "Setting."
A "first person" narrator is a narrator who is also a person. You know the narrator is a person because he or she uses pronouns like "I," and "me." By contrast, a "third person narrator" is not a definite person, but usually a disembodied voice of unknown origin. So, the unnamed narrator of "The Black Cat" is obviously a "first person" narrator. He's a "central narrator" because he's talking about things that he did or things that happened to him, rather than things he watched, or heard about.
Like many Poe narrators this one is unreliable. This means he gives us reason to doubt one or more aspects of what he tells us. We are put on the defensive from the first lines of the story, when the narrator says he doesn't "expect" us to believe him, and that he won't even ask us to (1).
If we try to figure out if the narrator is telling the truth, we might fall into the story's dark and bottomless trap. If we think the narrator is lying about, say, the image of the gallows on the second cat's fur, then is he lying about all the abuse and murder as well? Without any outside perspective, it's all or nothing. If we try to sort truth from lies we dismantle the entire story.
As such, a helpful way of approaching the narrator's unreliability is by looking for what might be left out of the story, or what the narrator misses, but the reader sees. To that end, watch out for this guy's fancy language. The more carefully we read, the more the narrator actually reveals to us. If we go too fast, he loses us in his web of words.
For example, the man admits freely to horribly abusing his wife. During the worst of this he describes her (chillingly) as "uncomplaining" and "the most usual and the most patient of sufferers" (22).
Now, "uncomplaining" and "patient" are fairly obvious, but "usual" has a double meaning. It means that she's the narrator's "usual," or most frequent, victim. It also means that she suffers in the "usual" way, i.e., crying, screaming, etc. So, the man might be slyly admitting that he's being sarcastic when he describes his wife as silently and obediently submitting to his abuse.
But, maybe he's not being sarcastic. Maybe she was that traumatized, and found silence and submission the safest way to deal with him. The point is, the narrator dehumanizes her in his story, treating her like a thing. He leaves out her point of view, almost completely. You can take a look at her "Character Analysis" to see what we've done with the little information we have on her.
Poe wanted his stories to help readers exercise their analytical skills, and was fascinated by the idea of "secret writing" which you can read about here. An unreliable narrator helps keep us awake and on the lookout for errors, inconsistencies, and improbabilities, and invites us to read actively, and to openly challenge what we read. While this is an excellent practice, we can't get too carried away. In other words, the story also invites us to leave open the possibility of the supernatural, and to recognize that the workings of human (and animal) hearts and minds are infinitely mysterious, no matter how many facts we have under our belts.
In this stage, the tragic hero is missing something in his life, and he might look for some "unusual" way to gain satisfaction. The nameless narrator of "The Black Cat," doesn't tell us that anything is missing from his life, but he does take up drinking. We don't know why he started drinking, and we don't know exactly when he started, though paragraph 13 suggests that it was when he got Pluto and the other pets. Drinking isn't exactly unusual, but it is what the narrator seems to "anticipate" or look forward to in this first stage of the story.
In this stage the hero "becomes in some way committed to his course of action," and things seem to be going extraordinarily well for the hero. In "The Black Cat," we know that the narrator's drinking goes on for several years. He seems to stay drunk most of the time. Those years of drunkenness probably did pass by in a dream, though we can't say that things were going well. In fact, his life sounds more like a nightmare than a dream. But Booker has a separate stage for nightmares, which you'll read about very soon.
For a time, Pluto was the only one in the family to escape being physically abused by the narrator. Things start to go wrong for the narrator when he turns on his once somewhat beloved pet. After cutting out Pluto's eye, and then hanging him, the narrator's house catches on fire, and the family loses everything. Booker says that in this stage "a 'shadow figure' might appear […] to threaten" the hero. This would be the second cat…
After the second cat appears, the narrator doesn't mention drinking again. We don't know if this is because he stopped, or because he becomes so obsessed with the cat that he just doesn't bother to mention it. The cat sticks to him like glue, even sitting on his chest and breathing on his face while he's sleeping. He calls the cat a "Night Mare" (21). (Check out "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more on the "Night Mare.") Like most tragic Booker heroes, everything in the narrator's life is out of control in this stage. So out of control that the narrator kills his wife and hides her body in the wall of the cellar.
In this stage, the hero does something to ensure his own "destruction" or death. After the narrator hides his wife's body, the cat disappears and he feels free and calm. When he gets too sure of himself and bangs on the wall hiding the corpse, he rouses the cat, (who was walled in with the body) exposing his hiding place to the police. He's arrested and sentenced to death.
The first thing we learn is that the nameless narrator is going to die the next day, and that he wants to write his story, which will be ugly. This story, the narrator says, is going to be about some things that happened to him at home. The "consequences" of what happened "have terrified – have tortured – have destroyed" him (1). We don't yet know why he's going to die the following day, or where exactly he is.
The narrator tells us that as a kid the he was a kind, sensitive animal lover. We also learn that he and his wife had had "birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat" (3). The cat, of course, is Pluto. The conflict begins to unfold when the man describes the way his personality changed for the worse when he started drinking heavily, several years after Pluto became his pet. The conflict is within the narrator's home, between himself and his wife and pets, who he begins to abuse, physically and verbally, except for Pluto.
When the narrator turns on Pluto, he doesn't do it halfway. First he cuts the cat's eye out, and then he hangs him from the tree in his garden – leaving the body there when he goes to sleep. This definitely complicates things for the narrator. He is now a cat murderer, and his once happy home seems to be more and more nightmarish, especially for the other characters.
Somehow, when the narrator goes to sleep that night (after murdering Pluto in the morning) his house catches on fire. Someone (it's never revealed who) wakes him from his sleep with a warning, just in time. The narrator, his wife, and "a servant" escape the flames. All the family's financial security goes up in smoke. Presumably, the birds, gold-fish, […] fine dog, rabbits, [and] small monkey perish in the flames, though the narrator never mentions them again (3). The climax propels this desperate family into poverty and into changing residences.
As we discuss in "What's Up with the Title?" we can think of the second cat as either a modified version of Pluto, or a completely different cat. In any case, the arrival of the second cat marks the halfway point in this story. It is suspenseful precisely because we aren't sure what the second cat is. If the narrator can be believed, the cat is not only missing an eye, like Pluto, but also grows an image of a gallows on his chest (a "gallows" is an apparatus used for hanging people). The cat also seriously gets on the narrator's nerves. We might see the cat as affectionate, and desperate for affection, but the narrator sees him as executing some awful plot against him. In the stage we see the narrator getting worse and worse. And we learn that the narrator is writing from a "felon's cell" (20). Waiting to see what lands him in jail adds another layer of suspense to the story.
During that fateful trip to the cellar of the family's new residence (an "old building") the narrator tries to kill the cat with his axe. When his wife intervenes, the axe is turned on her. The narrator thinks he's successfully hidden the body and bluffed the cops. He isn't upset about killing his wife, and is happy he has managed to make the cat run away.
In the conclusion, the cat reappears, and the murder is discovered. The man seems convinced that the cat exposed him on purpose. The description of the cat's "voice" coming from inside the wall suggests that if the cat did intentionally allow himself to be walled up, in order to expose the man, he paid an awful price for it. Check out "What's Up with the Ending?" for a deeper analysis of this moment, and some other aspects of the ending.
In Act I, the narrator moves from animal loving, happily married man, to hard drinking, cat killing, violent man. As the curtains close, we watch the man, his wife, and one member of the household staff stand outside the burning house.
Act II opens on the slightly raised image "of a gigantic cat" on the wall of the man's old bedroom, the only wall that didn't burn. Soon after, the man meets another cat, surprisingly like Pluto. The man moves from mild dislike of the animal, to intense disgust. When he tries to axe the cat, his wife stops him. The curtains close on Act II as the man splits her skull with the axe.
Act III opens on the man bricking his wife's body up in the wall. The man has four days of relative peace after this – the cat seems to have disappeared, finally. In this act, we watch the investigation into the woman's disappearance. The curtains close after the brick wall is torn down, and the cat is discovered, along with the body of the man's wife, there in the tomb.