Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Black Cat” is, perhaps, not a story for the cat lovers of the world. While the black cats in question are not demonized as they would be in some stories, cat lovers will be horrified by the abuse the first cat suffers at the hand of the narrator, and indeed, may come to hate the narrator himself. However, while the first cat does suffer senseless violence, this is not to say that the narrator does not feel any kind of guilt. Rather, the cats (both of them) are a representation of the narrator’s guilt, and subsequently responsible, in part, for his destruction.
The narrator is an alcoholic. There is no disputing this fact. During the first quarter of the story, the narrator’s downward spiral is described, becoming progressively worse over the years. One thing of note, however, is that, while the narrator begins becoming short-tempered with his wife and their pets, his cat (whose name is Pluto) takes longer to lose his regard. The narrator is quite fond of Pluto, and it is only when the cat himself begins to get on in years that the narrator begins “maltreating” him (Poe, 1845). Perhaps it is their former bond that drives him to physically attack the cat, when he thinks that Pluto is avoiding him. Thus, the cat loses an eye to the narrator’s temper.
It is after this incident that Pluto becomes a physical (or symbolic) manifestation of the narrator’s guilt. The narrator, as is evidenced in the text itself, is incapable of truly feeling or expression this guilt in a sufficient manner: “I experienced a sentiment half of horror, half of remorse, for the crime of which I had been guilty; but it was, at best, a feeble and equivocal feeling, and the soul remained untouched” (Poe, 1845). Given that the narrator himself is incapable of properly expressing his guilt over harming his beloved companion (the emotion drowned out by alcohol), it becomes necessary that his guilt is displayed in another way: Pluto’s permanent mutilation. Indeed, the narrator cannot ignore what he has done, as Pluto eye provides a “frightful appearance” (Poe, 1845), and day in and day out, the narrator is forced to acknowledge what he has done. And though it is true that, when Pluto begins to avoid the narrator, the narrator feels “grieved by this evident dislike on the part of a creature which had once so loved [him]” (Poe, 1845). In effect, it seems as though the cat is doing its job, as it were, and making the narrator face his guilt head-on. And yet, this does not stop him from killing Pluto in the most brutal manner: by looping a noose around his neck and hanging him from a tree outside the house. Clearly, the narrator is unable to truly manage his guilt, and in the face of it, fights back.
Of course, the narrator is unable to escape his guilt, no matter how hard he tries. Not only does Pluto’s silhouette appear after the narrator’s house burns down, but the silhouette still has a rope around its neck. By rights, such an apparition as this should not be possible. Even if, as the narrator tries to reason, “the animal must have been cut from the tree and thrown, through an open window, into my chamber” (Poe, 1845). The impression of the cat upon the wall is odd enough, with no evidence of the body nearby. Combine that with the rope, and one may come to the conclusion that something supernatural is occurring. And that, it seems, is the case. In this case, the narrator’s guilt over his heinous actions have a supernatural effect of their own, causing events like this that ought not to be possible otherwise.
The final manifestation of the narrator’s guilt comes in the form of yet another cat, although there is a noticeable difference at this point in the story. Not only does the cat itself have a different appearance than Pluto, but the difference in the narrator himself becomes apparent. For the first half of the story, the narrator has refused to consciously acknowledge his own, preferring instead to focus on anger. After being faced with his cruel deed, the narrator begins to feel a “half-sentiment that seemed, but was not, remorse” (Poe, 1845). Finally, after years of physically abusing his wife, maiming and killing his cat, the narrator begins to acknowledge his sense of shame. What’s more, he knows (even if he does not consciously acknowledge it) that he deserves to be punished for his crimes against Pluto, and his wife. From the first moment he sees this cat, the narrator is filled with a sense of dislike and dread that he cannot explain. True, this could, in part, stem from the fact that this cat (who is never given a name) bears an eerie resemblance to Pluto, down to its missing eye. Once more, the narrator’s guilt takes on the physical form of a cat, forcing him to face his crimes every day. But that is not all. As mentioned before, this cat is not a carbon copy of Pluto. In fact, it has a white chest that the narrator, to his horror, realizes is changing slowly over time, until eventually, the white fur takes on the shape of the gallows. Faced with the punishment he deserves (and what is arguably a premonition of his fate), the narrator becomes, if possible, even more mad. What follows is absolute horror: the narrator kills his wife, and encases her in the wall of their new house.
Now that it has been established that the cats are, in fact, representations of the narrator’s guilt, let us examine this in even closer detail. For example, one may find the name of the narrator’s first cat rather interesting. Pluto is, after all, the name of the god of the underworld in Greek mythology, who also goes by the name of Hades. Such a name can be taken in several ways. It could be argued that the itself is a harbinger of the narrator’s impending doom, or it can have another meaning. One thing of note is that, according to an article titled “Pluto in Mythology,” Pluto was seen as a “arbiter of justice” (Hall, 2019). Once more, the cat has alluded to the punishment the narrator deserves, and perhaps this is why the narrator named his cat Pluto in the first place. It is interesting that a man of his disposition (a drunk) would name his companion something that has such a dark meaning. Perhaps the narrator believes, however subconsciously, that he deserves to be punished for his crimes, or that his punishment is coming for him, one way or another. This would explain not only why the narrator mutilates Pluto in a fit of rage, and why his second cat unsettles him so much. While not completely identical, both carry a similar message, with the second cat’s being somewhat more obvious. For all that the narrator never outright expresses that his actions are wrong, whether aloud or in his narrative, he no doubt knows his actions are unacceptable. After all, his wife has surely never done anything to deserve his ire.
Now, let us look at the wife herself. Like the narrator, she is never given a name, and is hardly mentioned except in passing (with the exception of the climax and the end). However, when she is mentioned, the narrator’s description of her attitude is rather interesting. From what readers learn, the wife is quite devoted to her husband, and supports his love of various animals. Now, this woman has suffered much at the hands of her husband. While the abuse is not described beyond “personal violence,” it is a safe assumption that the narrator has hit his wife on more than one occassion (Poe, 1845). Given the time period, it is unlikely the wife would leave her husband. If she did, her future prospects would be quite bleak. However, this would not stop her from wishing that her husband be punished, or that he would apologize for his actions. Much like the narrator, it seems as though she subconsciously acknowledges that the cats are a manifestation of his guilt––although more so with the second cat than Pluto. This is where things take a turnaround. Whereas the wife is enamored with this cat, the narrator dislikes it from the first moment he sees it. True, this could be because if its white fur, foreshadowing his future punishment, but it could also be related to the simple fact that it looks like Pluto. The narrator knows he has committed many wrongs over the years, and would rather not be reminded of this fact. As readers know by now, he does not handle guilt well, and this leads him to kill his wife, and ultimately self-destruct.
With the amount of evidence within the story, there seems to be little doubt that the cats represent guilt. Pluto forces the narrator to face his actions on a day to basis, and the second cat shows him his fitting punishment. However, the narrator is unable to face this guilt, and so continues to commit more crimes in order to escape it, in a sense. At the end of the day, while the cats do reveal his crimes, it is the narrator himself who is responsible for his own demise.