Friday, March 13, 2009

Happy Friday the 13th!

In honor of Friday the 13th, here's an excerpt from "The Black Cat" (1843):

This [cat] was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree. In speaking of his intelligence, my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured with superstition, made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise. Not that she was ever serious upon this point — and I mention the matter at all for no better reason than that it happens, just now, to be remembered.

I love how Poe toys with his readers! The narrator just happens to remember the superstition behind black cats just as he's introducing the title character of the story. Poe knows what his readers are thinking when they think of black cats, but he turns it into a coincidence — which, we know, it is isn't. Poe's literary theory makes it clear that no words should be wasted. If he gives you a detail — such as black cats being witches in disguise — it's because he wants you to know about it.

Poe shows a wide range of skill in "The Black Cat." There is so much irony, much here is tongue-in-cheek, and dares to refer to it as "a series of mere household events." It is, however, "nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects." It's almost karma, really.

If you don't know the story, it is one of Poe's most violent. The narrator, on one of his drunken sprees, (accidentally?) buries an axe in his wife's skull. The unprovoked murder, if it really was an accident, should have been met with sorrow or grief. Instead, he immediately hides the corpse so he won't get in trouble.

Of course, that scene is not why the story is considered so violent; murder is nothing new in Poe. What makes "The Black Cat" special is its abundance of cruelty towards animals. There are many pets in the story (a monkey, rabbits, etc.) — all of which are abused (in brief, passing sentences) but the real horror happens when the narrator takes aim at his favorite pet, the black cat named Pluto. Repeatedly, the narrator tells us how he loves this cat and considers it his favorite playmate. And, yet, one day, coming home from a drinking binge (the following is not G-rated!):

I fancied that the cat avoided my presence. I seized him; when, in his fright at my violence, he inflicted a slight wound upon my hand with his teeth. The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer. My original soul seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body; and a more than fiendish malevolence, gin-nurtured, thrilled every fibre of my frame. I took from my waistcoat
-pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket!

The narrator is struck by the same "imp of the perverse" which is frequently mentioned in Poe's works - an odd desire to do things which we know we shouldn't, "to do wrong for the wrong's sake only." It is in this spirit that, with tears streaming down his face, the narrator takes a noose to the cat's neck and hangs it from a tree. Watching it die, he notes how much he loves this cat. He knows, however, that he is committing a sin and, in so doing, he will be punished.

I won't divulge more than that. This classic Poe story simply must be read. In talking about it, however, the poor wife's murder is so easily overshadowed by the fate of the cat (and the revenge it takes).

It's worth justifying Poe's use of violence in this story, because it is so explicit whereas many of Poe's works ("Berenice," for example) merely imply violence without describing them deeply. "The Black Cat" is considered by many (including this blogger) to be a dark temperance tale — a story so horrible it will scare people away from drinking alcohol. The narrator's violence and cruelty is only present when he has been drinking, after all.

Poe himself was a recovering alcoholic. Knowing the problems he had with drinking, he often did his best to avoid alcohol (including one period of 18 months of sobriety, an aspect which English teachers forget to mention to their impressionable students) and, at least once, he joined a temperance society. The fanaticism of these organizations was well-known and it was assumed when Poe joined the Sons of Temperance that he would use his pen for their cause. But, more on that story another time, perhaps.

In the meantime, enjoy this Friday the 13th and feel free to be superstitious about witches in disguise.


lila jane said...

I didn't know that Poe experienced periods of sobriety. I imagine he used laudanum as well as alcohol when he was not sober which could have given him hallucinations. Do you know if he abused other substances?
I enjoyed the post though I had to close my eyes and stuff my ears through the animal abuse sections!
Lisa Waller Rogers
Lisa's History Room

Rob Velella said...

There is only evidence that Poe used laudanum once, though even that instance is disputed. The truth is: Poe was not a drug addict, nor was he a recreational drug user. Blame Rufus Griswold! As far as hallucinations, he does not appear to have suffered any.