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Edgar Allan Poe and The Black Cat

Edgar Allan Poe was an American author, poet, editor and literary critic during the Romantic period. He was born in Boston and can be considered different from the other authors of his period because he introduces many innovations in his way of writing. He also deals with strange themes, not considered common for that period, because writers and poets wrote mostly about nature, childhood, feelings and passions, dreams, supernatural and faith. With these characteristics I consider Poe as a different kind of writer. He started writing by working as a journalist, critic and creative writer in Virginia, and in 1838 he published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, considered by many the first detective story ever written, that recounts the adventures of Gordon, a young man with a vivid and dark imagination, that decides to take the sea on a vessel en route to the South Seas.
Poe is best known as a prose writer, and especially for his short stories or tales; the most famous collection of them is Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque (1840) and Tales (1845) that are part of the same collection but divided in two volumes. Even if his tales became successfull he remained poor and suffered from bad health and led him to take to drink, that was also the cause of his death in 1849. His way of writing was very particular, starting from the fact that he wrote short stories: this kind of literature was not considered real literary production at that time, but volgar and low art; but for Poe brevity was essential to achieve effects of surprise, melancholy and strong emotion on the reader, and he had a theory about this kind of production, according to which the author’s aim was to create a story that has to be well constructed, read at one sitting and sustained up to the end.
In his production he was influenced by the British gothic tradition and by the fantastic stories by the German E.T.A. Hoffman, who created a form of terror which was born, not from supernatural events, but from the human mind and dephts of the soul; and that is exactly what Poe does, he examinates the human mind and behavior to write his tales. Poe’s tales deal with themes like mistery, gothic and horror (The Fall of the House of Usher; Ligeia; The Pit and the Pendulum), psychotic personality, madness and revenge (The Tell-Tale Heart; The Black Cat), ratiocination and detective stories (The Murders in Rue de la Morgue; The Gold Bug). His stories are simple, he often does not specifies if the main character is a male or a woman, nor his/her name, he adds no extra elements, no sub-plots nor minor characters. He chooses settings such as dark confined places, that help to create a frightening atmosphere.

This tale is the perfect representation of how Poe mixes the non-rational elements with surprisingly rational elements. It is based on a strict logic, like in detective stories, but it also shows the limit of reason. In this story he descibes the inexplicable side of human nature, by moving between the two poles of rationality and irrationality, that makes the character, that is also the narrator of the story (a perspective that Poe used quite frequently), acts like un unconscious person, even if he’s well aware of his mental deterioration. In fact he begins the story by saying that he is not mad (yet – mad am I not – and very surely do I not dream).
He describes and recounts the actions and events that he has committed like normal. He does not even feel guilty about what he did. Here’s the plot of The Black Cat:
The narrator, who is also the main character, has no name, but he’s really fond of animals, and very lucky in finding a girl to marry, who likes animals like him. They lived togheter in a house full of animals: dogs, birds and a particualr cat, named Pluto. This cat was the narrator’s favourite and they had a particular relationship; Pluto was faithful to him and followed him eveywhere, the character really loved that cat, and of course his wife. During his life he began to drink a lot of alcohol, and one particular night he came home drunk. Pluto welcomed him home by reaching the door, but as soon as Pluto started following him, he grabbed the cat for the throat and cut out one of his eyes. After that episode the character began to hate the animal, and all this hate culminated with the cat being hanged on a tree. That same night the character’s house burned down, so he and his wife had to relocate. After a few months in the new house, the character found another cat, that seemed to not belong to anyone, so he decided to take him home. This new cat was very similar to Pluto, even in the ripped out eye, except for a white spot on the chest. The story with the cat reapeted, at the beginning he really loved him but in the end he finished to hate him. One day he and his wife were going downstairs to the cellar, and the cat was bothering him as he walked, so, in a fits of rage, he grabbed the axe and tried to kill the animal, but his wife stopped him by grabbing his wrist. That was a crucial point, he was driven by rage and cruelty so he buried the axe in her brain. The moments after the murder were full of hypothesis of how to bury the corpse without being undetected. After a few possibilities he opted to bury her in the wall, so he set to work immediately. After the work was done, he was really relieved, also because he could not find the cat anywhere! He looked for him for days but could not find him. After a few days from the murder, the police went to the character’s house to control. This part is not really clear, because the police seems to show up without a relevant reason. They searched all the building but did not find anything. Finally in the cellar, the character was so proud of the work he has done that he began to demonstrate to the police that he was innocent, so he took a cane and began to knock on the indicted wall. After a few knocks a shriek, a cry, came out from the wall. Immediately the police began to tear down the wall and discovered the corpse of the dead woman with the cat upon her head. He finishes the tale writing that he had walled the monster up within the tomb!

More than any of Poe’s stories, The Black Cat illustrates best the capacity of the human mind to observe its own deterioration and the ability of the mind to comment upon its own destruction without being able to objectively halt that deterioration. The narrator of The Black Cat is fully aware of his mental deterioration, and at certain points in the story, he recognizes the change that is occurring within him, and he tries to do something about it, but he finds himself unable to reverse his falling into madness. What attract the most is the mix between horror and the everyday life. Usually happens that a character has to be in a horror place to make that something different happens. Here the frightening is created by a “series of mere household events” and in “common places”. Poe also uses the suspense technique, that is a modern technique: he says immediately that events will be incomprehensible, horrible and frightening, but not announcing in advance the gist of the speech, he introduces us in the atmosphere, attracting our curiosity. Another main character of the story could be the alcohol: the narrator's perverse actions are brought on by his alcoholism, a "disease" and "fiend" which also destroy his personality. The use of the black cat evokes various superstitions, including the idea voiced by the narrator's wife that they are all witches in disguise. Although Pluto is a neutral character at the beginning of the story, he becomes antagonistic in the narrator’s eyes once the narrator becomes an alcoholic. The alcohol pushes the narrator into fits of intemperance and violence, to the point at which everything angers him – Pluto in particular, who is always by his side, becomes the malevolent witch who haunts him even while avoiding his presence. When the narrator cuts Pluto’s eye from its socket, this can be seen as symbolic of self-inflicted partial blindness to his own vision of moral goodness. In fact the story is full of “symbols”, not only the cat but also the fire that destroys the narrator’s house that symbolizes the narrator’s "almost complete moral disintegration". The only remainder is the impression of Pluto upon the wall, which represents his unforgivable and incorrigible sin.

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