The narrator of "The Black Cat" begins by saying that we probably won’t believe what he is about to tell us. But he assures us that he is not mad, and because he is about to die the next day, he wants to recount to us these “household events” that have caused so much terror. He suspects that to some people, the events will seem commonplace, and their horror will be explained away with logic and science.
Poe uses this foreshadowing message to increase the sense of horror for what is to follow. We already know that the narrator is on the brink of death, so the fact that the events are domestic and logical makes them even more real and horrific. Horror and the mundane household often come together like this in Gothic literature.
The narrator of "The Black Cat" tells us of his boyhood, which was easy. He had a particular love of animals and had a lot of pets and this love only increased into adulthood. He thinks there is something in the loyalty and unselfishness of a dog that you can’t get from a man. But the narrator did marry, and was lucky to find a wife who appreciated his love of pets, and filled their house with a host of them, including a black cat.
The set up of the story is nice and friendly. The narrator’s childhood sounds loving and the description of his love of animals paints a picture of a kind household, full of life. But because of the introduction, we know to be suspicious of this happy family scene.
This cat was unusually large and intelligent. The narrator of "The Black Cat" remembers how his wife used to talk about the superstition that black cats are all witches in disguise, but he assures us that this is unimportant to the story. He just remembers the detail. Anyway, the cat’s name was Pluto and became a favorite of the narrator, following him everywhere. This special bond lasted several years.
The narrator zooms in on the cat, Pluto. Though he assures us that his wife’s superstitions are unimportant, the mention of them increases the sense of foreboding we already have for the titular black cat.
Meanwhile, though, the mood of the narrator of "The Black Cat" became progressively worse. He drank a lot and suffered from bouts of very bad temper, in which he even lost patience with the animals, and even with Pluto. One night, drunk, the narrator returned home, and imagined that Pluto was avoiding him. This sent him into a fit of rage, and, he is ashamed to write it, he attacked the cat and gouged out one of his eyes with a quill pen.
Note how the act of violence is particularly directed at the symbolic eye, which Poe often uses to show the supernatural spirit or soul. But there is also another symbolic act at play here – the weapon that the narrator uses is a quill pen, a writing tool, suggesting both the power and the violence that Poe feels towards the written word.
In the morning, the narrator of "The Black Cat" felt horrible about the cruel act. The cat’s eye socket healed, but he now knew to avoid the narrator and their bond was lost. At first, this loss saddens the narrator but that feeling of regret gives way to anger and perverseness. He explains this word, perverse. It is a natural phenomenon in human beings, to do the thing that one knows is wrong just because it is wrong. It is this phenomenon that the narrator uses to explain his attack on the animal, and in the spirit of perverseness, he also commits a further act, and hangs the cat from a tree. He cried as he did it. He knows that this sin places him beyond the reach of mercy.
The narrator is tormented by his own mind. It is not the cat’s behavior that provokes his feeling of perverseness, it is his own disordered mental state. This is an interesting take on the traditional Gothic genre: adding psychological explanations to the mix, such as the description of perversity, creates the opportunity for the reader to sympathize with the narrator, that isn't traditionally a feature of Gothic tales of past eras.
That very night, the narrator of "The Black Cat" and his wife were awoken by the sound of flames. The house was on fire. They escaped but they saw all their possessions go up in smoke. The narrator resigned himself to despair. He says that he does not try to prove a series of causes and effects but that he must relate a chain of facts. He went back to the house the day after the fire and sees that all the walls have caved in except for one. It is the part of wall above the head of the bed, and now has a crowd of people around it. Going closer, the narrator realizes that within the wall, there is a shape in relief, of the murdered cat.
Poe plays with the idea of the power of a disturbed mind. The fire is such a violent coincidence that it seems to have been caused by some supernatural power: like the narrator’s rage, or perhaps the cat itself. The coincidences continue as the outline of the cat appears in the only piece of the building not destroyed by the flames. It is impossible to separate the disturbed vision of the narrator and the reality, because we know his mind is guiltily obsessed with the image of the cat.
The narrator of "The Black Cat" tries to logically explain how it could have happened. The cat must have been thrown into the window when people saw the flames and gotten stuck to the recently plastered wall and been preserved there by the compression of the other walls and the substance of the plaster. But though the narrator believes he has explained the incident, he still gets terribly paranoid about seeing the vision again. He gets an urge to find a replacement animal.
The battle in the narrator’s mind between delusion and reality rages at this point. He tries desperately to explain what he sees with rational thought, but his mind is already infected with superstition and his explanations begin to sound far-fetched and somewhat insane.
One day, in a den of disrepute, the narrator of "The Black Cat" suddenly spots a cat atop a barrel of alcohol he’s been staring at. The cat is large and looks almost exactly like Pluto apart from a white patch on its breast. The narrator starts petting it and finds it very responsive to his touch. Soon, the cat is very attached to the narrator and won’t let him leave without him. He takes it home, and soon the cat becomes a favorite of the narrator’s wife, but, much to his surprise, the narrator finds a loathing growing within himself for the animal’s unwavering affection.
The den setting is filled with alcohol and other substances that provoke illusions and hallucinations. By putting the narrator in this setting, Poe introduces another level of mistrust in our intimacy with him. How far can the narrator be trusted, when the arrival of Pluto’s double is a product of these mind-altering drugs and dark, shady atmosphere?
The narrator of "The Black Cat" starts to avoid the creature, partly out of this hatred but also from shame at the way he had treated his last cat. He also hates a particular coincidental feature of the cat: that it too only has one eye, though this only endears the cat to his wife. As the narrator’s loathing for the cat increases, so does the cat’s affection and it springs up on the narrator unawares, looking to be petted, attaching itself with its claws. The narrator, at these moments, wishes he could destroy the animal, but stops himself because of the traumatic memory of Pluto but mostly because of his dread of the new cat.
Poe brings out his doppelganger technique again. The features of this new cat coincidentally make him an exact replica of the murdered Pluto. Now this animal presents the narrator with a bigger challenge – an supernatural (or possibly imaginary) rival is much more difficult to get rid of than a real one. The narrator now battles with his own delusions as well as his violent moods.
The narrator of "The Black Cat" tries to explain that this dread is not because of the apparent evil of the beast, but of the strange transformation of the patch of white on the cat’s breast into the shape of a gallows – it is merely a cat, yet it is his most haunting image, and has caused him somehow to be writing from “this felon’s cell.” The image of the gallows terrifies the narrator. He mourns that such a beast can get the better of a man like him, “made in the image of a High God.” Now he can get no rest, because the cat is all over him in the day time and the nights are filled with bad dreams.
The narrator’s turn of phrase in this passage is illuminating. By comparing himself to a high God, and therefore superior to other animals, he confesses his delusions of grandeur. He believes that the world is against him and a lot of the visions that we see appear before him, the doppelganger animal, the gallows, the cat in the wall, can all be attributed to this inflated sense of importance.
In this state of permanent torture, all the goodness that the narrator of "The Black Cat" had in his heart has disappeared. His evil instincts take over, and even his wife is feeling his fury. One day, they go to visit their old house on an errand, and when the narrator sees the new cat has followed him he swings an axe at it, but his wife stops his arm. In a rage, he strikes his wife in the head with the axe and kills her. His mind turns immediately to how to dispose of the body. He considers cutting it up, digging a grave in the cellar, but decides that the best way is to hide the body in the wall of the cellar.
From the first attack on Pluto, the narrator’s evil deeds multiply horrifically, each one breeding the next. All trace of remorse is gone. Now the narrator cold-bloodedly focuses on concealing the body of his wife, without any sign of grief or of ever having cared for her. Poe uses the domestic environment to amplify the horror – just as the narrator warned at the beginning of the story, the household is now home to murder. In fact, the very walls of the family home are used to hide the bodies.
The plan works. The narrator of the "Black Cat" removes the bricks covering the fireplace, and puts the body in and covers it again. He works hard to replace the wall and recreate the scene just as it was and in the end is satisfied that nothing is amiss. Then the narrator determines to find the cat so that he can at last rid himself of its presence, but he finds it absent for the first time. The sense of relief is extreme. The cat doesn’t appear for the whole night and for the first time since its arrival, even with the murder of his wife on his hands, the narrator sleeps soundly. For three more days, this bliss continues.
After the intense activity of the narrator’s plan to hide the body in the wall, the silence in the cat’s absence is strongly felt. It is the quiet before the storm. We as readers know we have not heard the last of it because the narrator has not been found out (we already know that he is in prison as he writes this). Though the narrator sleeps soundly, Poe keeps up the suspense for the reader.
On the fourth day, some policemen arrive to search the property, but knowing that his stowing place is perfect, the narrator of the "Black Cat" is not embarrassed and leads the officers in a full tour of the house. He roams about the cellar, calmly. The police are satisfied, and in his absolute glee, the narrator stops them as they depart to mention how well-built the house is and taps his cane against the brick work that hides the body. But his bravado is short lived. A horrible moan comes from the wall and turns into a shriek, half terrified, half triumphant. The narrator is suddenly faint as the police quickly uncover the corpse inside the wall. It has already started rotting, and on top of the gory figure of the narrator’s wife, sits the cat.
The narrator’s delusional, arrogant personality has grown out of all recognition from the animal-love we were first introduced to. The narrator feels no fear, all remorse is gone, and he seems to delight in his crimes to the point where he desires to show them off and get credit for them. But this is his downfall. The moment he has been frantically awaiting finally comes and he receives his come-uppance. The cat is both a supernatural rival revealing his crime, and a symbol of his tortured conscience, suddenly revealing all that he has done.