Symbolism in 'The Black Cat': Self-awareness of Insanity

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About this sample


Words: 963 |

Pages: 2|

5 min read

Published: Jul 3, 2023

Words: 963|Pages: 2|5 min read

Published: Jul 3, 2023

Symbolism in 'The Black Cat' by Poe is centred around the idea of self-awareness. The narrator is aware of his descent into madness and spends the novella trying to convince himself (and the reader) that what he understands as the truth is based on reason; he is not a madman. Poes story tells of a man in his final hours confessing to the murder of his wife and his cruelty against his two cats. He believed his first cat, Pluto, to be evil and violently removed one of his eyes with a pen-knife; he later hanged Pluto on a tree outside his house. The next cat he acquired was also missing an eye (a fact the narrator did not know when he decided to keep him) and so due to this, as well as his fur colour with the exception of one white area, the second cat reminds the narrator of Pluto and by extension his cruelty towards the creature. This extract introduces the second cat and the fallout of Plutos murder.

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Analysis of Symbolism in 'The Black Cat' Through Narrator's Story

In this extract, the narrator claims to be “above the weakness of seeking to establish cause and effect, between the disaster and atrocity”. He contradicts this in his next sentence where he describes himself as “detailing a chain of fact” which is arguably no different. This contradiction from the narrator shows that he is aware of his madness as he outright agrees that to try and create a rational narrative from irrational events is a “weakness”; despite this he then goes on to do just that in the very next sentence when he tries to tell the reader what he believes to be a reasonable story for what is before him (the outline of Pluto on his wall). By using the phrase “chain of fact” the narrator is trying to validate his line of thinking by convincing the reader that it is an irrefutable certainty and therefore cannot be the ramblings of a madman - he is trying to prove his sanity through seemingly unfalsifiable language. Similarly, later in the extract, the narrator uses what seems to be the argument of science to try and defend his idea: “the lime of which, with the flames, and the ammonia from the carcass, had then accomplished the portraiture as I saw it.” By using a scientific explanation for the image before him, the narrator is trying to make himself appear more credible and therefore increase the likelihood that he will be believed.

Within this extract, the narrator tries to argue that in order for his story to be plausible, he must have been awoken by the dead Pluto being “thrown through a window”. As much as this is almost certainly madness to anyone hearing his story, it is also in conflict with the narrator's earlier recount of events. Previously in the novella, the narrator had told the reader that he was “aroused from sleep by the cry of fire”, not by the soundsightfeel of his murdered cat being thrown through his window in an attempt to awaken him. From this, I argue that the narrator has simply fallen further into his insanity and forgotten the reality of events and has instead opted to convince himself of his lies in order to ignore his obvious madness. This means that he is aware of how irrational his tales are (as he must know that previously in his written confession he spoke of what actually happened rather than the deluded version he adopted as a way to defend his sanity) and yet still believes them to be wholly truthful. This is Foucault's definition of madness: a belief in the unreal which is strengthened in the mad person by an insistence on the logic, or reason of the situation. The belief in him being awoken by someone throwing Pluto through his window is unreal and is strengthened by the narrator in his insistence of it being a logical mode of reasoning.

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The ideas of the narrator knowing of his insanity but being unable to fight it is arguably an example of terror gothic. His insanity is inescapable - a thing of fate. He cannot decide to regain sanity nor can he talk himself out of his madness and so his mental state is written in stone as it were. However, horror gothic is still very prevalent throughout this novella; the gouging of Plutos eye and his murder, the murder of the narrators wife and the desemation caused by the fire are all examples of horror gothic, the grotesque. Despite this, I argue that terror gothic is much more apparent throughout this novella, mainly the ever looming threat of the inescapable. The horror gothic elements are a consequence of the terror gothic. The narrator fears the inescapability of his madness and so in response to this he creates the horror gothic: he attacks Pluto and hangs him, he murders his wife etc. The only thing the narrator can be certain of at any point of the story is his insanity; of course at the time of the narrator writing his confession he can also be certain of his impending execution. These facts operate as the only known truths within the whole novella; everything the narrator statessuggests other than these facts cannot be regarded as the unadulterated truth and instead must be approached as the stories a madman tells himself to try and stay sane. His obsessive need to be regarded as rational all but proves that despite knowing of his mental state, any attempts he makes to talk his way out of it are futile. Due to this, the reader must understand that the narrator is unreliable and needs to be treated as such - his account of events is likely wrong.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

Cite this Essay

Symbolism in ‘The Black Cat’: Self-Awareness of Insanity. (2023, July 03). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from
“Symbolism in ‘The Black Cat’: Self-Awareness of Insanity.” GradesFixer, 03 Jul. 2023,
Symbolism in ‘The Black Cat’: Self-Awareness of Insanity. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 Jul. 2024].
Symbolism in ‘The Black Cat’: Self-Awareness of Insanity [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2023 Jul 03 [cited 2024 Jul 15]. Available from:
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