Edgar Allen Poe was an American writer who lived a life plagued with multiple tragedies, and his work well reflected the feelings of that lifestyle. His composition style and ability to establish such an intense atmosphere and mood serve to help him portray his internal strife through his poetry and other works. One particular work that captures this feeling of sorrow and anger towards these tragedies is his short story called “The Black Cat.” This story is truly a tale that shows some aspects of human nature and the idea that we tend to be self-destructive without prompting to be so. However, this story does not just capture the darker side of the human psyche. It just may have some connections to real mental/physical health issues that are now better understood in today’s time on issues such as alcohol consumption and some form of psychological disorder. To see these connections, we have to analyze the text and see what patterns or behaviors lie within this story.
The themes of mental sickness become readily apparent through the actions and diction of the main character. First, the narrator has a gradual and unexplained decline in his overall mood, being replaced with a quick temper and more profound sadness that appears from nowhere. Nothing serves to prompt this behavior. This behavior seems characteristic of a mental disease known as manic depressive disorder, which is known for this highly polar behavior in its many cases. (www.latuda.com) For example, in the text,
the narrator is observed to suddenly flip into a blind rage towards his animals and wife to which he then later quickly swaps back to a more depressive and slower state. To quell this sudden shift in the psyche, he then turns to drink excessively as a means to alleviate these self-destructive tendencies. However, instead, it further exasperates the decline more. As a result of this consumption, it leads the character to take more rash and fatal decisions, which end up taking the lives of both his beloved cat and eventually his beloved wife.
Further evidence of some mental ailment becomes evident towards the end of this story. The narrator is relieved that his wife is dead and gets natural sleep after all that time. The reason is also that the cat was gone at long last. This behavior is quite abnormal to observe through an individual who seemingly has no reason to go through with his actions. So, what caused this decline? What went wrong? For that, we turn to the passages themselves for clues to this sudden decline.
This passage is our first significant opening to observing the decline of the narrator. It reveals a few unique details as to how his mental state is being affected. For starters, he notes how for several years, his overall life was quite positive with minimal to no real stimulus that would cause this harmful behavior to stipulate in his actions. Suddenly he begins to suffer an unexpected turn and begins to decline, developing more and more violent behaviors towards both his wife and many pets that he has in his home—assuming that he does not imagine the multiple pets that are. There is reason to make this idea noted as all of his supposed “pets” seem to suffer in parallel to the mental decline of the narrator himself. Doubtful to the notion that he truly owned that number of pets, it is probable to believe that these animals may have been imaginary, as their state ties to the narrator. One such notable example for this claim concerns how he saw phantoms of the black cat after he had hung the cat from the tree in his yard. He claimed that he had seen the outline of the cat etched into his bedroom wall following the fire. As bizarre as this may be, the explanation he gives for it is there is just as unrealistic as the phantom he saw. According to the narrator, someone took the cat from its noose and threw it into the bedroom. From where it ends up burnt alongside the wall, an impression was made—a particular condition for something of that caliber to have occurred.
Further indicators that his mental state is suspect in this text could be found within the word choice that he uses throughout his narration. Note that he keeps making references to ghosts or spirits throughout his writing, which does seem to indicate further that something is amiss within the perception of this narrator. In constant reference to supernatural activities, one could conclude that this individual was highly religious or devoted to the spiritual plane. However, this sort of constant reference to this otherworld could also be a sign of mental illness or some sickness plaguing the narrator’s mind. Note how he experiences guilt for the cruel murdering of his cat throughout the story in how he possesses refrainment from seeing/hurting the new cat that entered his life. He often makes ties to many negative aspects of his life to the black cat. He seemingly finds relief once the newest cat, which reminds him of the black cat, is supposedly gone from his life. The amount of blame and obsession that the narrator has over this cat is sure to exhibit some form of mental illness or, at the least, extreme guilt for the murder of his first cat. However, the issue that ties all these prior behaviors together seen is how he attempts to remedy these issues, his rampant alcohol consumption.
The narrator references his alcohol consumption as a disease in itself in this quote from the passage: “But my disease grew upon me–for what disease is like Alcohol!” while noting how it has grown in his life. He uses it to help ease the anger or tension he seems to have developed inexplicably throughout this period. Most understand that alcohol can hinder one’s judgment and make them follow through with thoughts that otherwise can be more self-destructive. Likely, all the actions he commits throughout the story are actively enabled by his alcohol dependency. In combination with the underlying psychological issues involving possible hallucinations and violent behaviors, he leads to the deaths of both his first cat and, ultimately, his wife. His alcohol even enables him to seal away the corpse of his dead wife into the walls themselves. It is further exasperating his mental condition that he is currently suffering. This combination of the two makes any problem revolving around these issues grow only more out of proportion.
In conclusion, some health parallels were drawn in the writing of “The Black Cat,” as one could infer from the narrator’s surroundings and lifestyle description. The strangely calm response from and phantoms to his rampant paranoia and alcoholic abuse, this narrator had some underlying mental disease. When the coupling of alcohol ensued, it only accelerated the degradation in the long run. Through Poe, we can delve into the mind of a man who is suffering from unknown forces from the time that we could now link to mental illness. Here, we find a greater appreciation for Poe’s unique take on conveying these problems that remain unspoken back during his period. In demonstrating the destructive behaviors being amplified by alcohol as well as the potential consequences if not diagnosed and treated properly. It is quite similar to our society as this issue still goes on to this day but fortunately we do have buffers to help mitigate some of the severity in the long run.
Poe, Edgar. “The Black Cat”. Sakai, ENGL 105I.025.SP21, Posted by Paul Blom, 5 Jan. 2021. Originally published in The Saturday Evening Post,
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Heartbreaking by Kevin MacLeod
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