Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe's The Black Cat
Length: 668 words (1.9 double-spaced pages)
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Edgar Allan Poe wrote that the single effect was the most important aspect of a short story, which everything must contribute to this effect. Poe’s gothic tale “The Black Cat” was written trying to achieve an effect of shocking insanity. In this first person narrative the narrator tells of his decline from sanity to madness, all because of an obsession with two (or possibly one) black cats. These ebony creatures finally drive him to take the life his wife, whose death he unsuccessfully tries to conceal.
This short story easily achieved the effect that Poe was looking for through the use of description of setting, symbolism, plot development, diverse word choice, and detailed character development. In most cases, the setting is usually indelible to a story, but “The Black Cat” relies little on this element. This tale could have occurred anywhere and can be placed in any era. This makes the setting the weakest element of “The Black Cat.”
Next, symbolism is always an integral part of any Poe story. The most obvious of symbolic references in this story is the cat’s name, Pluto. This is the Roman god of the underworld. Pluto contributes to a strong sense of hell and may even symbolize the devil himself. Another immensely symbolic part of “The Black Cat” is the title itself, since onyx cats have long connoted bad luck and misfortune. The most amazing thing about the symbolism in this story or in any other of Poe’s is that there are probably many symbols that only Poe himself ever knew were in his writings.
Furthermore, Poe’s plot development added much of the effect of shocking insanity to “The Black Cat.” To dream up such an intricate plot of perverseness, alcoholism, murders, fire, revival, and punishment is quite amazing. This story has almost any plot element you can imagine a horror story containing. Who could have guessed, at the beginning of the story, that narrator had killed his wife? The course of events in “The Black Cat’s” plot is shockingly insane by itself! Moreover, the words in “The Black Cat” were precisely chosen to contribute to Poe’s effect of shocking insanity. As the narrator pens these he creates a splendidly morbid picture of the plot. Perfectly selected, sometimes rare, and often dark, his words create just the atmosphere that he desired in the story.
Expressions such as “apparition,” “vile haunts,” and “fiendish malevolence” were added for atmosphere. Another way that Poe used word choice was with synonyms. The cat was not only the “black cat,” it was the “playmate,” the “beast,” the “brute,” the “apparition,” and the “monster.”
Finally, character development was most important to Poe’s effect of shocking insanity in “The Black Cat.” Without the perversely insane narrator this story can’t exist, let alone put across an effect. It is mentioned many times that he loves animals and that he is an alcoholic. In fact many of his rages were caused more by alcohol rather than the black cat. The cat(s) was also vividly developed. At one point early in “The Black Cat,” the narrator spends two paragraphs describing his then delightful pet. But as the story progresses both characters change dramatically. The cat is dynamic in that it is hung, reappears with a white splotch on its chest, and has a different disposition than before. The narrator spirals out of control into fits of rage and numerous hideous, unthinkable actions, commencing with the walling up of his own wife (and unbeknownst to him the black cat too) in the cellar.
Obviously, the setting, symbolism, plot, word choice, and character development contributed greatly to the effect of shocking insanity in Edgar Allan Poe’s masterpiece, “The Black Cat.” Without these, there would be no story at all. Poe’s skillful use of all of these elements, the least of these being setting and the greatest of these being character development, creates a shocking tale, which leaves the mind to ponder in all its horror.