Symbols of Madness
Like all of Poe’s short stories, the single effect was the most important characteristic in “The Black Cat.” Poe tried to achieve the effect of appaling madness. In this first-person narrative, the narrator takes you through the transformation from sanity to madness, all because of an obsession with two black cats. During this transformation, he takes the life of his wife, whose death he unsuccessfully tries to conceal. Using the description of setting, symbolism, plot development, and detailed character development, Poe was able to attain the effect he was looking for.
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Unlike most short stories, the setting is the weakest element of the story. This story could have occurred in any town or anyplace. On the other hand, symbolism is a major part of this story. Most of these symbols are obvious but there are some only Poe himself knows. The first symbolic reference is the cat’s name, Pluto.
This is the Greek God of the underworld. Another symbolic part of “The Black Cat” is the title itself, since black cats have long been known for bad luck.
Poe’s plot development added much of the effect of shocking insanity to “The Black Cat.” His complicated plot of alcoholism, murders, fire, revival, and punishment is quite astonishing. This story has almost any plot element you can imagine a horror story containing. The words in this short story were precisely chosen to contribute to his effect of shock. Another way that Poe used word choice was with synonyms. The cat was not only the cat; it was the “playmate,”(Poe103) the “brute,”(Poe106) and the “monster”(Poe107).
Character development was most important to Poe’s effect of madness in “The Black Cat.” Without the perversely insane narrator, this story can not exist, let alone put across an effect. It is mentioned many times that he “was especially fond of animals” (Poe103) and that he was a lot of the time “much intoxicated”(Poe103). In fact, many of his rages were causes more by alcohol rather than the black cat.
The cat(s) was also vividly developed. At one point early in the story, the narrator spends two paragraphs describing his then delightful pet as being “remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree”(Poe103). But as the story progresses both characters change dramatically.
The cat is dynamic in that it is hung, reappears with a “mark of white hair”(Poe106) on its chest, and has a different disposition than before. The narrator spirals out of control into fits of rage and numerous unthinkable actions, commencing with the walling up of his own wife and beknownst 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 madness in “The Black Cat.” Without these, there would be no story at all. Poe’s skilful use of all of these elements creates a shocking tale, which leaves the mind to ponder in all its horror.
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