- Title: The Black Cat
- Written By: Edgar Allan Poe
- Published On: August 19, 1843
- First Published In: The Saturday Evening Post
“The Black Cat” is a classic tale of madness and murder by Edgar Allan Poe. Originally published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1843, it was subsequently published in both The Baltimore Sun and The Pensacola Gazette that same year. The tale is similar to Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” in its use of an unreliable narrator who slowly descends into insanity and murder.
“The Black Cat” has inspired writers and filmmakers from around the world. Along with Poe’s other tales of psychotic murders, it serves as the forerunner of novels like Psycho by Robert Bloch, Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson and American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis.
The story was adapted into film early on by Universal Pictures, which made two films: The Black Cat (1934) and The Black Cat (1941), both of which starred Bela Lugosi. It has also served as the inspiration for Tales of Terror (1962) directed by Roger Corman, Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, directed by Sergio Martino, and the 1990 movie Two Evil Eyes, directed by Dario Argento.
“The Black Cat” remains one of Poe’s most potent stories. It is widely read even now, over 175 years after its first publication, and it a classic of the horror genre.
Who Was Edgar Allan Poe?
- Born: January 19, 1809
- Died: October 7, 1849 (Aged 40)
- Best Known For: The Tell-Tale Heart, The Raven, The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Edgar Allan Poe is one of the greatest writers in the history of literature. Though perhaps best known in his own time for his literary criticism, he is remembered today for his powerful and gripping short stories and his lyrical poetry.
Poe is widely considered the father of both the modern detective story and the horror short story. His tale “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” introduced readers to Auguste Dupin, a forerunner of Sherlock Holmes, and laid the foundation for many of the tropes and cliches that have dominated mystery fiction to this day (locked rooms, eccentric detectives, first-person narration by a close friend of the detective, etc.).
Poe’s horror stories have inspired everyone from HP Lovecraft to Robert Bloch to Stephen King to Ray Bradbury. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos pay direct homage to Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
Director Alfred Hitchcock once said he made suspense movies because he loved Poe’s work so much.
Poe’s poetry is also acknowledged as powerful and potent. Poems like The Raven, Annabelle Lee and Eldorado are commonly read and memorized around the world.
Given the incredibly short duration of his life, Poe is one of the most influential writers in the history of literature, a man who less than twenty years of writing and with only a handful of short stories and poems changed the direction of the short story, the mystery genre, the horror genre and the science fiction genre. Few writers have ever accomplished so much.
THE BLACK CAT
Why Read The Black Cat?
The Black Cat is one of Poe’s finest stories. You can draw a direct line from The Black Cat to the modern mystery/thriller genre and books like Psycho by Robert Bloch and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
Though Poe’s work is over 175 years old, he remains one of the most engaging and compelling short story writers of all time. While many 19th Century writers are considered dull by modern standards, Poe continues to surprise and amaze readers even now.
Likely this is because no one has ever mined the depths of the twisted psyche the way Poe does in The Black Cat.
What is the theme of The Black Cat?
The theme of The Black Cat is the descent into madness of the main character. Poe emphasizes throughout the story that this descent is fueled by the narrator’s heavy drinking, although it is an open question whether it is the alcohol which brings about the narrator’s madness or whether he was insane from the very start.
Poe also explores the theme of guilt and how it ravages the mind. Here too, though, Poe leaves the issue open, as the narrator claims to feel overwhelming guilt for killing the black cat but expresses no guilt at all over killing his wife.
What is the setting of The Black Cat?
The setting of The Black Cat is not clearly stated by Poe. Like many of Poe’s stories, the setting is likely in New England, where Poe himself made his home, but it is never declared outright.
Who is the protagonist of The Black Cat?
The protagonist of The Black Cat is the unnamed narrator. The story focuses entirely on his life and actions, and it is told from the narrator’s point of view.
As with other Poe tales (The Tell-Tale Heart), the narrator of The Black Cat is unreliable, meaning that the reader cannot wholly trust what he is saying.
The narrator is, after all, a self-confessed murderer, alcoholic and, at best, borderline psychotic. The reader should be careful in deciding what to believe and what to question.
Who is the antagonist of The Black Cat?
The antagonist of The Black Cat depends upon the reader’s point of view. Do we trust what the narrator says about the cat coming back to life and haunting him? If so, does this make the black cat itself the antagonist?
Or do we dismiss the narrator’s story and claim he is entirely mad, thus making him his own antagonist?
Either way, it is clear that the main conflict is within the narrator’s own mind, making this one of Poe’s internally-conflicted stories.
What is the inciting incident of The Black Cat?
The inciting incident is also difficult to pin down. Is it the arrival of the cat in the first place? Or the narrator’s initial descent into alcoholism? Or when he kills his beloved pet?
What you consider the inciting incident depends greatly upon your view of the narrator. If the reader sees him as a normal man seduced by alcohol, then his drinking is where the story begins to turn.
But if the reader views the narrator as insane all along, then the cat’s arrival is where the story first diverts.
What is the conflict of The Black Cat?
The conflict of The Black Cat is internal within the narrator’s mind. At the heart of this conflict is the narrator’s unstable sanity, which is eroded by his alcoholism, leading to his murder of the cat. Once the cat is dead, this instability becomes driven by his guilt.
That guilt, however, is questionable. The narrator mentions no guilt whatsoever at murdering his wife, which makes his stated guilt over the death of his cat suspicious at best.
What is clear is that the narrator slips further and further into madness, a journey he began perhaps before the story even began.
What is the climax of The Black Cat?
The climax of the story occurs when the body of the narrator’s wife, along with the black cat, is discovered by the police.
At this point, the narrator’s crimes are revealed, he is taken into custody, and, as noted at the beginning of the story, he is found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.
THE BLACK CAT
Why teach The Black Cat?
The Black Cat is a classic horror tale and one of Poe’s most compelling stories. Where some readers may be familiar with The Tell-Tale Heart, fewer recognize The Black Cat, making it a good choice for teachers who want to teach Poe but don’t want to go for the most obvious choice.
The Black Cat is a complex tale, one that can prompt highly-engaged discussion. The narrator is wholly unreliable, providing plenty of room for debate amongst students about whether the narrator is insane or driven to madness by alcohol.
Finally, the story remains shocking even in our jaded modern world. Students who think they’ve seen it all still find themselves caught off-guard by Poe’s deep dive into madness.
Why is The Black Cat good for reluctant readers?
The Black Cat is one of Poe’s most surprising, gripping and shocking tales. For these reasons, it is ideal for reluctant readers, who often find themselves bored by stories where “nothing much happens.”
Reluctant readers are often bored by dull storytelling, but The Black Cat is never dull, and Poe’s exploration of madness is just as captivating today as it was over 175 years ago.
More Stories Like The Black Cat
- The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
- A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin
- A Home Away From Home by Robert Bloch
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
- One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
THE BLACK CAT
Our lesson plans for The Black Cat are designed to use the story as a springboard for further investigation, asking students to analyze the text of the story and then go beyond to engage with the text in ways that spur critical thinking.
Our lesson plans are broken out in multiple sections: Stories in Context, Stories in Conversation, Interrogating Characters, Missing in Action, Analyzing Language, Activity, and Launchpad (see below for descriptions of each section).
These sections can be used to build a larger unit focused on The Black Cat, or they can be taught individually. This allows educators to do either a deep or shallow dive into the story as their particular class demands.
The short story is included with these lesson plans.
Just need a FREE PDF copy of this story? It is included in our Best Short Stories for Middle School free download.
In this section, we provide a short bit of background information about the story, author Edgar Allan Poe, unreliable narrators and the history of black cats.
This is designed to very briefly prep the reader but not distract from the story or lessons to come.
In this section we briefly acknowledge some of the other stories The Black Cat has inspired over the years. Stories do not exist in vacuums, and it is often enlightening for students to make the connections between their reading and other literature and movies that exist.
In Interrogating Characters, we zoom in on a single character from the story and invite students to analyze that character more deeply.
We never select the main character, as that is often too easy a target. Instead, students are asked to ponder the inner workings of a secondary character, pushing them to think more deeply about the story and the text.
Every story leaves something out. In Missing in Action, we ask students to consider the voices of characters who could have been included in the story but weren’t, or characters who are noted in the text but never have the opportunity to speak.
In this case, we ask students to wonder about the narrator’s wife. She is mentioned briefly here and there and then suddenly murdered. We never hear from her, and one wonders how her husband’s descent into madness must have affected her before her death.
In Analyzing Language, we pose six questions that focus on the specific language the author uses. Writers must make choices about what words to use, and those choices are often of great importance, revealing what the author is thinking as they write.
These questions focus students’ attention closely on the text at its most basic level and ask them to get inside the head of the writer.
In the Activity section, we ask students to step back just a bit from the text and engage in something more imaginative.
With The Black Cat, we ask students to imagine the legal proceedings that occurred after the narrator was arrested. We ask students to put themselves into the shoes of the defense and make a case for why the narrator should be found not guilty.
Is the narrator a victim of his alcoholism? Is he truly mad? Is he the product of a broken home? What defense makes the most sense?
Launchpad is where we ask students to use the story as a starting point and then imagine what happens next. This is the lesson where students can flex their imaginative muscles and practice their creative writing skills.
We focus in on a particular aspect of the story and then ask students to use that as their “launchpad” for crafting their own tale.
THE BLACK CAT
The Black Cat Read By Christopher Lee
The Black Cat Movies
The Black Cat 1934
- Directors: Edgar Ulmer
- Stars: Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi
- Screenwriter: Peter Ruric
- IMDB Rating: 6.9
The Black Cat 1941
- Director: Albert Rogell
- Stars: Basil Rathbone, Hugh Herbert, Brod Crawford and Bela Lugosi
- Screenwriter: Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, Eric Taylor & Robert Neville
- IMDB Rating: 6.1
Tales of Terror
- Directors: Roger Corman
- Stars: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre & Basil Rathbone
- Screenwriter: Richard Matheson
- IMDB Rating: 6.8
Your Voice is a Locked Room & Only I Have the Key
- Director: Luciano Martino
- Stars: Luigi Pistilli, Ivan Rassimov, Franco Nebbia & Riccardo Salvino
- Screenwriter: Sauro Scavolini
- IMDB Rating: 6.7
Two Evil Eyes
- Directors: Dario Argento & George Romero
- Stars: Adrienne Barbeau & Harvey Keitel
- Screenwriter: Franco Ferrini
- IMDB Rating: 6.1
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