Before the age of mental health awareness, there was an all-too-common conception that the world was filled with demon possession at every corner. Even now, when we engage in therapy, or do something for our mental health, we can sometimes refer to it as “exorcising our demons.” For instance, actively replacing negative thoughts or self-talk with positive affirmations and gratitude has known positive effects on our mental health. So, in a way, doing those things is a form of modern exorcism. There’s also an older form—writing.
The art of taking a problem and turning it into a monster is not by any means a new one. An in-depth study of fairy tales and myths alone reveals commonalities between stressors in a cultural environment and monsters in the stories. In Gothic Fiction, however, this practice takes on a new turn entirely. It can, as in the case of many of the women writers in Gothic fiction, take the form of subtly showing why women needed better education, better options, and better legal protections than were provided under English law in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Or, as in the case of the story we will be looking at today, Gothic Fiction can be the canvas for painting the darker impulses of human nature.
In the type of Gothic which explores the depravity of humanity, we have something altogether difference from the haunted castles, the ghosts from the past, and the thrills and chills which come from supernatural occurrences. Instead of Hamlet and The Castle of Otranto—where past history and crimes are revealed and avenged—we have Macbeth and we have characters like those from Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories. What we see in “The Black Cat,” for instance, is much like what we see in Macbeth—we watch as the character lose himself only to have something which resembles him takes his place.
My original soul seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body; and a more than fiendish malevolence, gin-nurtured, thrilled every fibre of my frameEdgar Allen Poe, “The Black Cat”
The narrator of “The Black Cat” admits within a few paragraphs of falling victim to a malady known in those days as “Intemperance.” Today, “intemperance” is called alcoholism. In Poe’s day, there was no AA, and very little in the way of mental support or help but it was recognized by some as a disease on its own—not as a symptom of addiction.
The cat to which the title refers is a bit of a mystery because there are two black cats—not one. The first black cat is with the narrator at the beginning of what was supposed to be a happy marriage. It and the narrator get on very well and the cat is his favorite of the household pets. When he sinks lower and lower into alcoholism, however, his household relationships start to suffer—including the relationship with the cat. He cuts ones of the cat’s eyes out in a fit of apoplexy one day to start and then ends up hanging the poor thing on a tree in a nearby garden.
One morning, in cold blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree;–hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart;–hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin—a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it—if such a thing were possible—even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.Edgar Allen Poe “The Black Cat”
The first cat is named, appropriately enough, Pluto—The Roman God of the Underworld. In astrology, Pluto also represents transformation, dreams, and illusions. The narrator’s transformation in the story is one which is common enough in tragedies where the main character is the one who suffers the downfall.
The cat Pluto represents the narrator’s own fall from grace in the first half of the story and, in a sense, his own conscience. The narrator has the chance to turn back when he experiences “a sentiment half of horror, half of remorse” for gouging out Pluto’s eye, but instead he “soon drowned in wine all memory of the deed.” Time and again, when the house burns down, when the specter of Pluto appears on the one remaining wall, when the second cat appears, and when the second cat has as great an affection for him as Pluto, the narrator has the chance to come to terms with how far he’d fallen. He chooses to do nothing.
It isn’t until narrator commits the ultimate crime which leads to his execution—to which he alludes when he opens his tale, that that narrator finally has to come to terms with what he had done. This confessional nature is very similar to Frankenstein or like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, both of these are confessional in nature and both are told with the intent of giving a full account of what actually happened; gore and all.
But tomorrow I die, and to-day I would unburden my soulEdgar Allen Poe “The Black Cat”
What we see in “The Black Cat” is much like what we see in Macbeth—we watch as the character loses himself only to have something which resembles him takes his place. It is very remarkably like demon possession—but possession in which the person with the malady knows very well what he’s about and yet continues his path of destruction anyway.
Perhaps the most telling is the fact the narrator of “The Black Cat” like so many other characters in Gothic fiction, like being miserable and they like inflicting misery. Call it what you will, sadism, masochism, emotional addiction, or victim mentality, there is a theme in some of darker regions of the Gothic genre of actually preferring misery to happiness. So it is with Macbeth, so it is with Claudius in Hamlet, and so it is with the narrator of “The Black Cat.”
It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only—that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute.
This willfulness to prefer misery is monstrous and it makes monsters out of the both the people who inflict and who enjoy suffering. How could anyone in their right mind prefer misery? Anyone suffering from depression will be able to tell you right off the bat: for some people at least it’s not a matter of willful choice, but a matter of disease where even the will to not be miserable is taken away. Our narrator, however, made willful and deliberate choices, by his own admission.
What Poe is demonstrating in “The Black Cat” is a sickness of both mind and soul—both of which are now major monsters in the modern world. Worse than depression, the narrator of “The Black Cat” is willfully miserable—he doesn’t want love, he doesn’t want happiness, he doesn’t want to be free of his alcoholic addiction. Not at least, while the events he recounts were actually happening.
Yet, isn’t that the human condition? Even today, in the 21st century, we are victim to our own willfulness to be in pain. Yes, you read that correctly. We choose to be in pain more often than not and whether or not we suffer from addiction or depression. We choose to be in pain in so many varied and insidious reasons—not always knowingly, and not always willingly. When we refuse to get help for our problems, when we refuse to see good in a given situation, when we choose to dwell on everything that’s wrong, when we refuse to forgive ourselves and others, when we deliberately shove our own opinions down others’ throats, we inflict pain and suffering on ourselves and on other people. That is just as monstrous as any dragon, ogre, demon, devil, or zombie.
Poe had a flair for displaying the perverseness of human nature without the romanticism. This is Gothic which really should horrify us—not because it is horrible—but because it shows us exactly how far we can fall and how evil we can become. We, at base, are no better than the narrator—or could be no better than the narrator, if we decide, as he did, to not exorcise our own demons.