Study Guide

The Black Cat Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Edgar Allan Poe

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Black Cats

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."

The Night Mare

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 Pen-knife, Eyes, and Vision

"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 Rope, the Tree, and the Gallows

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

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."