The False Account of the Black Cat

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The short story “The Black Cat,” by Edgar Allen Poe, plays off the fear and trepidation of readers by sharing the details of a horrific murder through the killer’s point of view. However, several details in the story, such as the decay of the body, the police’s presence, and the appearance of a second cat, allude to the idea that the tale may in fact not be true, and cause the reader to doubt the reliability of the narrator. By implying that the narrator is indeed lying, Poe puts into question the sanity of the speaker, while also suggesting the need of a scape goat, in a second cat, to retain innocence.

Poe tries to invoke the fear within the reader by creating a very insightful description of the narrator’s wife’s dead body, buried in the wall of the cellar, which highlights his deceiving nature. After the discovery of his wife’s corpse, the narrator describes the scene grotesquely with, “The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators” (70). This description would seem to imply that the dead body was concealed for multiple days, or even weeks. However, the narrator mentions earlier in the story that it has only been four short days; certainly not enough time for so much decomposition to occur. In her article “Untold Story: The Lying Narrator in ‘The Black Cat’” Susan Amper argues that decay would take an even longer period of time due to the location of the body. According to Amper, “It is inconceivable that a body, walled up immediately upon death in a cool basement, should become ‘greatly decayed’ in the short space of three days. On the contrary, protected from the heat and insects that promote decay, and preserved even from dehydration in the damp cellar, the corpse would have remained in excellent condition, not just for days but weeks. Unless we are prepared to make the apparently groundless supposition that the narrator is either mistaken or lying about the condition of the corpse, we can only conclude that the murder must have been committed much earlier than he admits” (Amper, 477-478). In other words, Amper believes that unless the whole tale of the murder of his wife is a fabrication formed in an insane mind, the narrator is a lying criminal. Amper’s ideas about the lying narrator also translate into my interpretation of the preservation of innocence. In the beginning of the narrative, the killer calmly states, “Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the commonplace… which will perceive in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects” (64), implying that the narrator not only wants answers for the disturbing experience that he went through, but also that the actions he made to end his own agony were completely justified, and should be considered a “natural” reaction; a crime of passion rather than something planned out prior to the event. The addition of a second cat in the narrator’s story also supports this theory, by providing a scape goat for the killer’s crime.

As soon as the cat is mentioned in the story, the narrator is cast as unreliable when he states that his, “attention was suddenly drawn to some black object, reposing upon the head of one of the immense hogsheads of gin, or of rum, which constituted the chief furniture of the apartment… what now caused me surprise was the fact that I had not sooner perceived the object thereupon” (67). The narrator, a diseased alcoholic, drank heavily, a habit reiterated by his specific descriptions of the apartment where he finds the cat. The narrator’s alcoholism, a condition that so easily skews reality and conceived events, causes the reader to deeply question whether the narrator is being entirely truthful. Amper accounts the presence of this new cat as a complete figment of his imagination, conceived only in order to protect the narrator from getting caught in the web of lies that he has...
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