In The Black Cat, author Edgar Allan Poe utilizes specific diction in order to communicate a theme to readers. This is the narrator’s own self-loathing, as expressed through the three other characters in the story; his first cat Pluto, his unnamed second cat, and his unnamed wife. The gradual unraveling of this conceit, from it has hidden nature at the beginning, to its apotheosis at its climax, serves to create a sense of dread in readers. For this reason, The Black Cat remains a classic in the annals of horror literature.
Poe commences the storyline as the narrator insists upon his sanity: “I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not.” This passage serves to coax the reader into a false sense of security. At first the narrator appears of sound mind, he even admits that his story is unbelievable. “But tomorrow I die,” he continues. “And today I would unburden my soul.” Most readers can relate to this motive; the narrator knows he is going to die, and therefore requires spiritual cleansing before his demise. Readers may even be apt to identify with the narrator.
This frame of recitation continues as the narrator describes how compliant others believe him to be. “From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions. I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets.” Poe’s language paints a very sweet portrait of the narrator, almost sickeningly so, to the point of grating upon the reader. It is here where the first hints of Poe’s true agenda become apparent. The narrator is a nurturer; this is a feminine characteristic.
Furthermore, the narrator’s favourite pet is Pluto, a cat. In Western culture, cats are often a feminine symbol. The narrator even makes a point to mention that the wife believes, "all black cats are witches in disguise." Although the narrator insists that he recounts this antidote simply because it occurred, this remains a dubious statement, as witches are also associated with women, albeit in a more negative light. This negative view of femininity is indicative of the narrator’s own discomfort with his early behavior, as it made him “the jest of his friends.” This provides the narrator’s motivation for his subsequent actions.
After mentioning Pluto and he were friends for a good many years, the narrator begins describing how he became increasingly violent and ill tempered. Upon returning home drunk, he seizes Pluto for simply avoiding him, and gouges his eye out after Pluto instinctively defends himself. "How many times have we committed a violent or silly action for no other reason than we know we should not?" In this passage, the narrator attempts to normalize his behaviour, even though it is clear to most readers that his actions are jarring. Could this rage have been building up in the narrator for far longer than he lets on, as he began to see Pluto as a symbol of his own timidity? This is extremely likely, as the urge to, "do wrong for the wrong sake only," later motivates the narrator to asphyxiate Pluto, whom he hung “with the tears streaming from my eyes, hung it with the bitterest remorse, hung it because I knew that it loved me, hung it because it had committed no reasonable offense.” It seems that the narrator’s motivation for doing away with Pluto lies within his own hatred for Pluto’s sweet nature. Despite that hatred, there is also a bittersweet undercurrent to the affair. In killing Pluto, the narrator is also killing a part of himself. This becomes important at the conclusion of the narrative.
The narrator later purchases a new cat that resembles Pluto, except the single white hair on Pluto extends to an entire patch upon the new cat. The white of the new cat’s fur represents the good in him, which is even greater than that of Pluto. Therefore, this makes him even more of a target to the narrator whom soon falls into the old habit of first avoiding, then being cruel to the new cat. The emerging pattern is that the narrator begins affectionate and almost maternal towards feminine symbols, then, in his words, begins to “loathe” them. As a man, the narrator feels ashamed that these symbols are making him appear in a sensitive manner, and seeks to destroy them.
This trend mirrors many abusive romantic relationships. For instance, the new cat lacks an eye, just as Pluto did. “This circumstance endeared" the cat to the narrator’s wife due to her own sensitivity. The narrator also notes that the new cat is increasingly affectionate towards him. "With my aversion to this cat however, it's partiality for myself seemed to increase." Those trapped within abusive relationships often grow more attached to their partner as their maltreatment escalates. This coincides with the wife’s increased sensitivity, and as soon as the narrator’s relationship with her takes an ugly turn. The narrator describes her as being, "the most unusual and most patient of sufferers" and when he attempts to kill the cat, his wife stops him. He then, "buries the ax in her brain," the organ responsible for her sensitivity, killing her.
On a metaphorical level, the wife and both cats are one being that represent the narrator's feminine side. The narrator’s articulation communicates that he is uncomfortable with being a sensitive soul. Because this side of the narrator finds expression through the three feminine characters in the story, the narrator murders them to achieve manhood. However, as the narrator is awaiting execution, he has also died in destroying this part of himself. The slow extrication of this admission is chilling. It is clear why modern authors still regard Poe as a master of the macabre even today.