Household Horror: Domestic Masculinity in Poe’s the Black Cat

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The narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 story “The Black Cat” insists that his tale of horror is “a series of mere household events” (348); this insistence forms the basis of much of the criticism of this story. Critics have risen to the narrator’s challenge to reduce these events to “the commonplace” and the “ordinary” (254) in their efforts to propose a motive for the narrator’s violence.1 Exploring the story through the lens of gender construction offers an additional perspective on this issue. Poe situates the story within the household, thus aligning the narrator with the feminized domestic sphere. The male narrator’s feminine traits are apparent, and he struggles to recast this inappropriate femininity into a sensitive masculinity. He attempts to actively maintain a benign persona that masks his femininity; however, he performs a kind of hypermasculinity that manifests itself in increasingly horrific acts of violence.

The narrator’s feminine traits, stemming from his childhood, are displayed in his “docility,” “humanity,” and “tenderness of heart” (254) and become particularly apparent in the nurturing, almost maternal, way he cares for his pets: he is “never [. . .] so happy as when feeding and caressing” his animals (254). This femininity has matured into a failed masculinity that the narrator both covertly recognizes and denies. Even as he describes his maternalistic relationship to domestic animals, he notes how his affinity for them affords one of the “principal sources of pleasure” of his “manhood” (254). He reinforces the universal, hence appropriately masculine, nature of this emotion toward domestic pets in his appeal to the reader who has “cherished an affection for a faithful and sagacious dog” (254). Such affection, according to the narrator, should be preferred over the “paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man” (254; emphasis in original). The dependent nature of the relationship between owner and pet—resulting in an “unselfish and...
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