Study Guide

The Black Cat Themes

  • The Home

    Edgar Allan Poe's horror classic "The Black Cat" offers a sinister portrait of the home. Things seem alright in the beginning. A young couple, animal lovers both, get married and fill their home with "birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat" (3). But something, or several somethings, go terribly wrong. The home becomes a scene of domestic abuse and murder. The nameless narrator details the long, slow, brutal destruction of his home life, at his own hands. His story is a gruesome confession, written from his new home, a prison cell. By tapping into our deepest fears and anxieties about home and family "The Black Cat" never fails to chill us to the very marrow of our bones.

    Questions About The Home

    1. When reading this story, did you find yourself thinking about your own home life?
    2. Is it significant that the story of Pluto takes place in a wealthy home, while the story of the second black cat takes place in a poor one?
    3. Does this story provide an inroad into discussions of domestic violence? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    By portraying marriage and domestic life so negatively, "The Black Cat" provokes discussions of alternatives to such arrangements.

    "The Black Cat" exploits and trivializes issues of domestic violence.

    The material poverty of the second home in "The Black Cat" mirrors the poverty of the couple's marriage.

  • Violence

    In "The Black Cat" the unnamed narrator offers us a parade of violent acts. Eye gouging, hanging, axing – these are the gruesome highlights. Until the end of the story, when somebody is killed, the detailed accounts of violence are focused on Pluto, the black cat who moves from pampered pet to persecuted beast. The violence the unnamed narrator practices against his wife and the other pets is rather vague. Yet, we get a pretty clear picture of what is happening. And by the end of the story the narrator has completely destroyed his family, and perhaps, completely destroyed himself in the process. In this horror classic, violence is an insidious beast that creeps, spreads, and grows uncontrollably, destroying all the bodies and minds it touches.

    Questions About Violence

    1. How did you react to the violence in the story? Was there a particular act of violence that struck you? If so, which one?
    2. What do you think made the man turn violent? Do you believe him when he implies he wasn't violent before he got married and started drinking? Try to use the text to support your answer.
    3. Does the man do violence to himself? If so, how? If not, why not?
    4. Is there psychological abuse in the story? If so, where do you see it? Does the narrator state it explicitly, or is it only implied? Pick a passage to show what you mean.

    Chew on This

    Even though the man's says he loved his wife, he becomes violent because he isn't happy in his married life.

    By focusing attention on helpless pets "The Black Cat" is an example of how art and activism can work hand in hand.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    In some stories (think stories by Ernest Hemingway) drinking has both positive and negative effects on the drinkers. Not so in "The Black Cat." The unnamed narrator of this grim tale claims he began abusing his wife and pets when his drinking got out of control, wrecking his personality. Some readers think this is a "temperance" narrative, a popular genre in Poe's day. "Temperance" in this context means "sobriety." The Temperance Movement focused on educating the public on the perceived dangers of drinking, and pushing legislature prohibiting the manufacture, use, and sale of alcohol. In a temperance narrative alcohol is the major issue, and is to blame for all the bad things that happen in the story. Here, alcohol fades out of the story just when things get bad, suggesting that alcohol is only one of many factors in the narrator's moral breakdown.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. How does the narrator feel about alcohol? How do you know? Pick a passage where he talks about alcohol, and see if you can find any double or hidden meanings.
    2. Do you think alcohol is to blame for the man's problems?
    3. Does the narrator stop drinking after the second black cat moves in? How do you know?

    Chew on This

    "The Black Cat" parodies traditional temperance narratives that hold alcohol up as the only cause of the characters' problems, while at the same time seriously questioning issues of alcohol abuse.

    The narrator uses alcohol as an excuse for his bad behavior.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    "The Black Cat," a claustrophobic tale of marital life gone wrong, offers a distinct movement from freedom to confinement. We meet the narrator already in his prison cell, writing, to free himself from his bonds – the literal bonds of the cell, and the bondage confining his mind and heart. How he became so trapped is the subject of his writing and the reason why he has taken the pen to the page. We learn how he traps his wife and pets in a cycle of violence and abuse. As things go from bad to worse, the physical spaces the characters inhabit shrink. While the man's story begins in a house of wealth and comfort (or so he implies) it ends in brick tomb in the cellar of a rundown building.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Who is the most trapped character in the story? Why do you think so? What are some of the things that trap this character?
    2. Did the story make you feel claustrophobic? Would this reaction be significant?
    3. Why doesn't the woman free herself from the situation? Does the story provide enough information to answer the question? If so, pick a passage to demonstrate. If not, does this omission comment on the story as a whole?
    4. What are some reasons Pluto and the second cat stay in the home, even though they are abused?
    5. Is anyone free at the end of the story? How do we know he or she is free? If not, what does this tell us about the story's take on freedom.
    6. How do you define freedom? What makes you feel trapped? Does this story help you think about these things?

    Chew on This

    The narrator of "The Black Cat" feels trapped in his marriage and kills his wife to get out of it; an examination of his description of his sleep patterns support this point.

    The story is an allegorical comment on how writers (like the narrator writing from his prison cell) are trapped by their own stories.

  • Justice and Judgment

    Since the unnamed narrator of "The Black Cat" is writing from his prison cell, we can be sure that justice and judgment are on his mind. In the 1830s, when Poe was writing, the wheels of legal justice couldn't begin to turn until our narrator went too far and killed his wife. At the time, it wasn't illegal to abuse one's wife or animals. The story questions ideas of judgment and justice, and reflects the fraught and turbulent state of the US justice system in a time when rights for women, African Americans, animals, children, the mentally ill, and convicted murderers were hotly contested issues. Since domestic abuse happens every day, in spite of the law, "The Black Cat" still finds a receptive audience, over 160 years after it first appeared on the literary scene.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Does this story offer meaningful comment on the legal justice system?
    2. Does the story present alternative to legal processes of justice? If so, what are they? If not, what does this say about the story.
    3. Do you think the man should be executed for his crimes? If so, why do you feel this is a just punishment? If not, what do you think is an appropriate alternative punishment?
    4. Do you think the narrator is insane? If so, should this matter in terms of how he is sentenced?
    5. Is the second black cat a symbol of justice?
    6. Is there justice for the narrator's wife? What about for Pluto?
    7. How do you judge the woman? Is she partially responsible for the abuse of the animals and the death of Pluto? Explain your view.

    Chew on This

    By making the narrator so unsympathetic that we can't feel sorry for him, "The Black Cat" makes an argument for the death penalty.

    "The Black Cat" presents a complex argument against the death penalty, as will be demonstrated by examining the passages where hanging is discussed, and by drawing on arguments from the death penalty debate in Poe's time.

  • Transformation

    Disturbing physical and psychological transformations – often for the worst – are characteristic of most horror and Gothic tales. In "The Black Cat" some form of transformation occurs in nearly every paragraph. For the narrator, these changes are psychological. After he gets married, his personality spirals deeper and deeper toward the dark side, cruelly abusing his pets and his wife. His initially happy home life is turned upside down, and everyone involved is adversely affected and changed for the worse. Like many horror stories, "The Black Cat" also offers the possibility of supernatural change, though this might just be a figment of his imagination, or an excuse to deflect blame from his crime. With all these levels of transformation, will Edgar Allan Poe's classic tale of woe change you too?

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Who changes the most in the story? Why do you think so?
    2. In paragraph 25, after the narrator kills his wife, he imagines a variety of scenarios for transforming her corpse into a safe secret. Is this paragraph significant? How might the story be different if that passage was omitted?
    3. Do you believe there are supernatural transformations at work in this story?
    4. What are some of the psychological transformations the man describes?

    Chew on This

    The woman's transformation from passive victim to defender of the meek is marked by her defense of the black cat.

    By omitting the details of the woman's physical transformation as a result of the man's abuse, this story risks misleading some readers about the nature of domestic violence.