When Edgar Allan Poe wrote 'The Black Cat' in 1843, the word 'paranoia' was not in existence. The mental illness of paranoia was not given its name until the twentieth century. What the narrator is suffering from would be called paranoia today. The definition of paranoia is psychosis marked by delusions and irrational decisions. This definition could best be described in the nineteenth century as being superstitious and believing that supernatural powers are affecting our decisions. Superstition and being taken over by the supernatural is a recurring metaphor for paranoia in Poe's story.
At first, the narrator of the story is very caring and loves animals; being with animals is 'one of [his] principal sources of pleasure' (346). The narrator's favorite pet is his large entirely black cat named Pluto. The narrator's wife 'made frequent allusion[s] to the ancient popular notion' that black cats were associated with bad luck, evil, witches, and the devil. Poe's protagonist does not accept this superstition.
People still associate black cats with bad luck, evil, witches, and the devil, so this foreshadows that something bad will happen in the story. The cat's name, Pluto, increases the assumption that the narrator will have bad luck. In Greek mythology, Pluto was the god of the dead and ruler of the underground. The symbolism of the cat's name can be used to show that in some way the cat will be involved with death. When the narrator returned home after a night of drinking and noticed that Pluto was avoiding him, he went on a search for it. Upon finding and grabbing Pluto, the narrator is bitten in the hand by the cat.
Because of this bite, 'the fury of a demon instantly possessed' the man, and he 'knew [himself] no longer' (347). Since the black cat, associated with evil, bit the narrator, he now has evil inside of him. After this attack, the narrator first shows signs of mental illness. His saying he 'knew himself no longer' and that his soul has 'take[n] its flight from [his] body' implies that he is not in control of his body and an outside power, the supernatural, is (347). After the attack, the narrator took out his pocketknife and stabbed the cat in the eye, an irrational decision showing the increasing severity of his illness.
One day the narrator took his cat outside and tied a rope around its neck. He then tied it to a tree and left the cat to die. While engaging in this act of torture, the narrator cried and had remorse for killing the cat. He claims that he hung the cat because it loved him, and because it did not do anything to deserve the punishment. Because of this, the sin that he committed would jeopardize his soul forever. No sane man would do this to an animal that he claimed to love.
Again the narrator is not in control of his body and is being controlled by the supernatural and shows signs of mental illness. Later that night, the narrator is awakened by fire in his house and immediately exited it. All but one wall of the house was destroyed. After the blaze was put out, a large crowd gathered around the remaining wall and were amazed at how a wall in the middle of the house could remain standing after a fire. The narrator approached the wall and thought that he knew what the audience is commenting about. He saw a gigantic cat with a rope around its neck.
He is filled with wonder and terror when he saw that the cat is alive. In reality, though, the cat is not alive; the narrator is just having a delusion, which is a symptom of paranoia. He quickly calms his worries about how the cat survived by saying that an onlooker watching the fire must have seen that the cat was tied to the tree and released it. Making oneself believe what is not true is also a sign of paranoia.
The cat could not have been alive because it was hung from the tree in the morning, while the fire started late at night. The cat would have been dead by the time an audience would have formed outside of the burning house. There is significance to the cat's being seen by the narrator on the wall. The wall symbolizes the Wailing Wall, also known as the Western Wall, in Jerusalem. The wall was part of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. This temple served as a holy place for Jewish people but was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.
Thousands of Jewish people come to the wall to pray and mourn the dead. When the narrator approaches the lone standing wall of his house, he sees only an image of the cat. He is actually just mourning the death of Pluto. As the narrator said before, he had a lot of regret when hanging his cat. He even says that he could not 'rid himself of the phantasm of the cat' (349). This means that the narrator had illusions of the cat the day of the fire and continues to have them months after.
Frequent illusions are also a sign of paranoia. Another cat came into the life of the narrator, one with a striking resemblance to Pluto. This cat was large, black, and even had an eye that was poked out, exactly like Pluto. The only difference was that this cat had a large white spot covering its entire breast area. When the narrator first saw the cat, he described it as a large black object.
This foreshadows that the narrator will have more bad luck. Upon closer examination, the cat had a large white spot on it. White has always been associated with purity, justice, and Jesus Christ, opposites of what black is associated with. Later in the story, the narrator describes this white spot as having the distinct shape of the gallows. This symbols that the cat will lead to the death of the narrator. He is writing this story from a prison cell and is going to die the next day.
One can assume that his punishment is death by means of hanging from the gallows. The black and white color of the cat implies to the reader that after committing another evil act, he will be caught and justice will prevail. This indeed does happen. The new cat began to like the narrator and followed him and this increases his madness.
When walking to the cellar with his wife and the cat, the narrator became angry when the cat almost made him fall down the stairs. This sparked 'madness' in the narrator and he picked up an ax in order to kill the cat (351). When the narrator's wife stopped him from killing the cat, 'demonical' rage came upon him (351). He then 'buried the ax in her brain' (351).
His irrational decisions and sudden madness show that he is suffering from paranoia. The irrational decisions continue in the story. By putting the body inside the walls of the cellar, the narrator thought that nobody would ever know of his murder. The narrator took 'every possible precaution' to make the wall with the stored body identical to the others. Although he killed his wife, the narrator's 'labor [was] not in vain' because he felt it was identical to the other walls and would not be caught.
Because of the way he killed his wife, and of the lack of remorse shown, one can see the extent of the illness from which the narrator is suffering. After the narrator hid the dead body, he could not find the cat, which he wanted to kill. After three days the 'tormentor' had not returned (352). By using the word 'tormentor,' the narrator is saying the cat is the reason for all of his problems. Claiming that ones actions are the result of an outside force is another sign of paranoia. The narrator is glad that the cat is gone because without the outside force present, he will not have any more problems.
When police detectives find no evidence of murder, the narrator thought that his plan to hide the body has worked. When in the cellar where the body was, the narrator's speech and actions sparked suspicion in the detective's minds. Again the extent of the narrator's illness is shown by his actions. If the narrator had let the detectives leave like they were in the process of doing, he would have never been caught. As the detectives are about to leave, the narrator continually mentions that the house and walls are 'well constructed' (352). The narrator mentions this three times.
The third time, the narrator took his cane, and 'rapped heavily... upon the very portion of the brick work behind which stood the corpse of' his wife (352). When doing this, the cat let out a soft cry, and then let out a 'long, loud, and continuous scream' (353). The narrator calls the cat an 'arch fiend' and the screams where those that could have came 'only out of hell' (352-353). This passage goes back to the claim that black cats symbolize evil. A fiend is another name for the devil.
As said before, the black and white color of the new cat foreshadowed that the cat will cause something evil to happen and some form of justice will prevail. The narrator claims that the cat was screaming when he tapped on the wall with his cane. The cat did not actually scream. The guilt of the narrator's crimes finally caused him to confess to what he has done. The narrator heavily knocked on the wall with his cane to show the detectives where the body is. The narrator's crime was then discovered.
In Poe's 'The Black Cat' recurring actions and symbols show that the narrator is suffering from what is known today as paranoia. Superstition and the supernatural are words that can be seen as a metaphor for paranoia. The narrator becomes superstitious and is controlled by the cat. Throughout the story, the narrator shows common signs of paranoia, such as delusions, irrational actions, and high amounts of anger. Works Cited Poe, Edgar Allan. 'The Black Cat.' The Heath Anthology of American Literature.
Ed. PaulLauter. Lexington, Massachusetts: DC Heath and Company, 1990. 346-353.