The Unreliable Narrator – The Black Cat

‘I neither expect nor solicit belief.’ So begins The Black Cat, which – along with The Tell-Tale Heart – constitute a study by Edgar Allan Poe into the criminally unstable mind.

The two tales share many qualities, including:

  • An unprovoked attack by the protagonist,
  • A meticulous and calculated concealment of evidence,
  • An insistence on sanity,
  • A confession brought about by the protagonist himself.

But perhaps the greatest similarity between the two stories is Poe’s use of the Unreliable Narrator.

The Unreliable Narrator is a term, coined in 1961 by Wayne Booth, that is used to describe a narrator whose recounting of a tale is suspect – whether through willful deceit, immature naivete, or mental instability. The Unreliable Narrator forces the reader to ask, “Is this true?” rather than “Who did it?” or “What happened?”

While this device can be employed in third person narratives, it is most often used through a first person point of view. This narrative mode forces the reader to either accept or reject the narrator’s version of events without the ability to corroborate or subvert the same with the aid of multiple perspectives.

The latter is the rendering used by Poe in The Black Cat.

Illustration for "The Black Cat" by Aubrey Beardsley (1894–1895)

Illustration for “The Black Cat” by Aubrey Beardsley (1894–1895)

In the story, the narrator claims a docile nature and great affection towards he and his wife’s many pets, with their favorite being a large black cat called Pluto. One night, upon returning home intoxicated, he attempts to grab Pluto, who bites him. Enraged, the man gouges the cat’s eye out with a pen-knife.

While the narrator is initially remorseful, he soon grows agitated by Pluto’s presence and decides to hang him from a tree. That night, the house is engulfed in flames. The next morning an impression of the hanged cat is found etched onto one of the walls. Though the narrator initially suspects a link between the crime and the apparition, he soon finds a logical explanation for it and moves on.

Some time later, the man finds a similar cat in a tavern and adopts it. The cat is identical to Pluto save a white patch on its breast. Upon taking it home, the narrator almost immediately begins to loathe and even fear it.

One day, the man and his wife descend to their cellar where the man is nearly tripped up by the cat. In a fit of rage he picks up an ax to kill it. His swing is halted by his wife, and he turns and brings the ax down on her head instead.

He immediately sets about concealing the body, bricking it up in a protrusion in the wall. When the police arrive to investigate her disappearance, they find nothing amiss at the house, and the narrator believes himself successful. In this time, the cat has also gone missing.

On the final day of the investigation, the man brings the police into the cellar. Confident in his concealment of the evidence, he comments on the sturdiness of the walls while rapping his cane upon the spot where he’s hidden the corpse. A howl erupts from within. The police tear down the wall where they find the body with the screeching cat atop its head.

In this tale, the narrator is deemed unreliable due to his displays of questionable sanity. And though he makes some effort to insist he is sane, one wonders whether he is truly insane or suffers some form of psychopathy – which is not altogether the same thing.

The narrator insists upon his sanity in three clear passages: 1) at the opening of the tale where he declares ‘Mad indeed would I be…’ and ‘Yet, mad am I not;’ 2) following his murder of Pluto and that night’s fire wherein the narrator refuses to seek a supernatural link between the two; And 3) the night of his wife’s murder where he admits it’s odd he should sleep ‘soundly and tranquilly’ even with the ‘burden of murder’ on his soul.

These passages are indicative of sound reasoning and reflection on the part of the narrator.

And though his actions are inexplicable, he nevertheless attempts to explain them: Firstly, and chiefly, as resulting from alcoholism; and secondly, and more ambiguously, as arising from a ‘perversion of the spirit’ – a motive he is unable to fully reconcile.

If we are to focus on the three acts of violence in the story, we can make some observations as to their possible motives.

In the first act, the narrator cuts out Pluto’s eye. He admits to being intoxicated at the time. Furthermore, and in another indication of the soundness of his reason, he realizes – albeit in hindsight – that the cat bit him out of fear and not some unprovoked malevolence. Additionally, the phrasing of his testimony, saying, ‘The fury of a demon instantly possessed me,’ and ‘My original soul seemed to take its flight from my body,’ indicate that he’d succumbed to an alcoholic fit of rage. His reaction to the remembered act – ‘I blush, I burn, I shudder’ and ‘I experienced a sentiment half of horror, half of remorse’ – point to an understanding of the criminality of the act.

If the first act, however repugnant, can be explained by intoxication, no such opportunity is available for the second act of violence he perpetuates on the innocent animal.

Though the cat recovered from the gouging of its eye, it was understandably nervous of the narrator and avoided his presence. The man, where initially remorseful, is soon agitated by the cat’s avoidance of him. This carries on to the point where the narrator’s soul is overthrown by ‘the spirit of perverseness,’ which he contends is the committing of sin for sin’s sake. The man captures Pluto and hangs him from a tree in the yard. It is worth noting that the narrator claims to have done this in ‘cool blood.’ Cool, not cold – perhaps signifying that there remains within him some remnants of conscience. This notion is compounded by his claim to have hung the animal with ‘tears streaming’ from his eyes and ‘the bitterest remorse’ in his heart.

The crime is truly perverse and completely calculated versus the impulsive nature of the first. It’s an unprovoked action which – to my mind – provides effective foreshadowing of the narrator’s complete moral disintegration later in the tale.

The third and final act of violence is the murder of his wife. This crime seems at first to be another bout of unchecked rage as the ax which was intended for the newly-adopted cat is redirected to the interfering wife’s head. However, in actuality, the nature of the crime is a melding of the previous two.

In the previous paragraph the narrator admits to indulging in ‘the darkest and most evil of thoughts,’ all of which cannot possibly have been centered on the cat. In fact, in the very same paragraph, he further admits to ‘sudden, frequent, and ungovernable outbursts of fury’ directed towards his wife. These passages indicate a deliberate and escalating trend of violence, which no doubt would have included thoughts of murder.

His moral disintegration is now complete, as he recounts the ‘entire deliberation’ with which he proceeds to conceal the body. There is also the aforementioned tranquility in which he sleeps that night. Further to that is the ease and calmness with which he responds to police inquiries.

All signs point to an utter lack of conscience coupled with full cognition as to the horror of his crimes.

Three acts of violence, increasing in both brutality and deliberateness.

That the narrator suffers some mental instability seems unimpeachable, but why should that render his account dubious? Perhaps the events did, in fact, proceed as illustrated. Perhaps his testimony constitutes the full and whole truth. Perhaps his self-ascribed motives of alcoholism and ‘perversion’ are to blame.

Then again, not knowing is the beauty of the Unreliable Narrator.

Who’s your favorite unreliable narrator? Do you employ this device in your writing?