On the Haunting Remorse of Edgar Allan Poe’s
“The Black Cat”
Jacke Wilson Kicks Off a Month of Edgar Allan Poe on
The History of Literature Podcast
For tens of thousands of years, human beings have been using fictional devices to shape their worlds and communicate with one another. Four thousand years ago they began writing down these stories, and a great flourishing of human achievement began. We know it today as literature, a term broad enough to encompass everything from ancient epic poetry to contemporary novels. How did literature develop? What forms has it taken? And what can we learn from engaging with these works today? Hosted by Jacke Wilson, an amateur scholar with a lifelong passion for literature, The History of Literature takes a fresh look at some of the most compelling examples of creative genius the world has ever known.
In 1843, Edgar Allan Poe, desperate for money and terrified that his wife was about to die, “became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” Fueled by alcohol and despair, he fell into “fits of absolute unconsciousness”—and yet managed to write some of his greatest masterpieces, including “The Black Cat,” which has been shocking readers for more than 150 years. In this first installment of “Edgar Allan Poe Month,” Jacke explores Poe’s life leading up to “The Black Cat” before reading the hair-raising tale of uncontrollable rage, murder, and haunting remorse.
From the episode:
His mother had died young, and his foster mother and his brother, and now his young wife had the signs of it too. She was not even twenty. And yet when she sang, she was coughing up blood. He felt like she was doomed. He must have felt like they all were.
And he had developed an idea that everyone has in them a perverseness. Later, he expanded on this idea in a story called “The Imp of the Perverse,” in which a narrator describes his penchant for self-destructive impulses, doing things merely because one feels one should not do those things. In the story, he describes killing a man simply because he believes it’s wrong to do so, but then confessing because he knows he shouldn’t do that either. It’s a haunting image, this idea of being controlled by something beyond you, something within, that you yourself cannot control. The confession is as horrendous as the murder itself.
It’s a familiar course of action for a story for anyone who knows what is probably Poe’s most famous short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” That’s where Poe lives, in between that uneasy state where you act strongly in ways that destroy others, but not in a kind of Leopold and Loeb or Raskolnikovian belief that you’re superior to others, which you try to maintain as you assert your mastery over your accusers, your investigators. But in a kind of self-destructive state, where you yourself never really wanted to murder a person but you couldn’t help it. And then you’re not trying to fool your accusers, but you maybe think you’re getting away with it—until your own powerful impulses make you give yourself away. We’ll hear a variation on this in “The Black Cat” as well.