We started my “Monsters, Race, and Comics” course this semester by reading various texts, including Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” and “Hop-Frog or The Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs.” These stories work as explorations of national and societal anxieties, explorations which rest at the core of the gothic and horror. Underneath the veneer of seemingly innocuous tales of a man imbibing in too much drink and killing his cat and wife and a tale about a court jester who enacts revenge on the king who enslaves him lies the national fears and anxieties of the conservative class surrounding the enslavement of human beings. I’ve written about this before with “Hop-Frog,” and today I want to look at how “The Black Cat” works within this matrix, playing on the fears of the psychological trauma induced upon the enslaver when he or she enslaves someone else.
In their collection of Poe’s short stories, Stuart and Susan Levine place both “The Black Cat” and “Hop-Frog” in the section entitled “Moral Issues,” and they position the stories in relation to alcoholism and the temperance movement. With “The Black Cat,” they also state that the overall moral rests on the ways that power corrupts: “All this tale says is that the capacity for violence and horror is within even the nicest of us: compassionate people who like goldfish, dogs, and cats.” This fear of absolute power is at the core of “The Black Cat,” and we see it in the actions of the narrator, how his violence increases over the course of the story as his position of power over the cat(s) and his wife increase, spurred on partly by alcohol. However, I’d argue that more exists here than a mere morality tale about the presence of evil within each of us.
Lesley Ginsberg, in “Slaver and the Gothic Horror of Poe’s ‘The Black Cat,’” details the ways that Poe’s narrative revolves around slavery and how the story invokes “discourses central to the 1830s and 1840s, including its rehearsal of the scene of pet abuse so often featured in antebellum child-rearing manuals and its repetition of the obsessive pitting of black against white, dependency against freedom, and animal against human which fueled contemporary debates over chattel slavery and social reform.” Ginsberg’s essay lays all of this out and highlights the Africanist presence, to borrow Toni Morrison’s phrase, underneath the surface of “The Black Cat,” and Ginsberg discusses abolitionist rhetoric, specifically Frederick Douglass, in relation to the story. With Douglass, she focuses on the ways that he uses the animalistic language of proslavery advocates within his narrative as he talks about his escape, both physical and psychological. However, Ginsberg doesn’t talk about Douglass in relation the moral that the Levines propose for “The Black Cat,” the presence of evil within all men.
Over the course of the story, the narrator gradually succumbs to the inner evil that lurks within. He claims that this evil arises because of “the Fiend Intemperance,” and he details how he directed his wrath and anger towards those in the household: “My pets, of course, were made to feel the change in my disposition. I not only neglected, but ill-used them.” After he hangs Pluto, another cat takes a liking to the narrator and nudges up against him. The narrator initially feels compassion for the stray cat, “but gradually — very gradually — I came to look upon it with unutterable loathing, and to flee silently from its odious presence, as from the breath of a pestilence.” The narrator cannot stand to look at the new cat, and the vile feelings begin to arise again.
Eventually, the narrator succumbs to “the pressure of torments” and all of the good within him succumbs to its pull. The moodiness of my usual temper,” he tells us, “increased to hatred of all things and of all mankind; while, from the sudden, frequent, and ungovernable outbursts of a fury to which I now blindly abandoned myself, my uncomplaining wife, alas! was the most usual and the most patient of sufferers.” The narrator allows anger to overcome him, anger, we could argue, induced by power over the menagerie of animals that the man has in his house. As Ginsberg points out, we should read the animals as enslaved individuals, due to the use of animal imagery at the time in relation to enslaved individuals and in other contexts.
The narrator succumbing to the evils of power reads, in some ways, like Frederick Douglass’ description of Mrs. Auld in his narrative. When Douglass first went to live with the Aulds, she started to teach Douglass to read and write; however, Mr. Auld chastised his wife, telling her that by Douglass to read and write she would ruin him, making him unfit for work because he would want to be free. Once Mr. Auld told his wife this, she worked hard to prove to her husband that she didn’t have any sympathy for Douglass because they enslaved him. She made sure no one else instructed Douglass, and she ceased to teach him. While she initially “lacked the depravity” to treat Douglas sin this manner, she acquired “some training in the exercise of irresponsible power.”
Her manner changed, and once she entered “upon the duties of a slaveholder,” she began to treat Douglass as nothing more that chattel because to treat him as a human would be dangerous. The institution “proved its ability to divest her of her heavenly qualities,” and she “became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself” to teaching Douglass to read and write. “Slavery,” as Douglass puts it, “proved as injurious to her as it did to me.” Douglass shows, through Mrs. Auld, the impact of slavery and racism not only on the oppressed but also on the oppressor. In this manner, Douglass points out that ways that power can warp and distort the ways that individuals view one another. Mrs. Auld didn’t start viewing Douglass as inferior or less than human until her husband told her too and then she began to dehumanize him, losing her “tender-hearted” nature.
Read in connection with “The Black Cat,” Douglass account of Mrs. Auld highlights the ways that power cam unleash the evil within, and it expands upon the Levines assertion that the tale merely says we all have a latent evil within us that can come out at any time. While the story relies on proslavery imagery and tropes, as Ginsberg notes, a fear arises that the institution of slavery causes psychological damage to the oppressor as well as the oppressed. In ways, this reminds us of Thomas Jefferson’s ambivalence on slavery where he knew the inhumanity of it but also supported it.
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.