Free Essay in American Literature: "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart"

Published: 2022-09-09
Free Essay in American Literature: "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart"
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Edgar Allan Poe
Pages: 5
Wordcount: 1236 words
11 min read

There must be a very powerful secret behind the way these two seemingly simple short stories have become some of the most haunting and memorable works in the history of the American literature and have exercised a very profound aesthetic and ethic effect upon several generations of readers. At first sight, they might seem to be mere horror fiction, but after a closer look new, more complex roles of the central symbols are revealed that are used to introduce poignant psychological commentary. Thus, the narrative in both short stories is two-layered: elements of mystery and horror effectively work together with a very shrewd and sensitive psychological analysis underlying the narration, the tension and the interplay between the two create the semantic depth behind the fascinating, intriguing plot and magnetic gothic atmosphere which constitute the primary appeal of these two pieces. This ingenious narrative structure helps Poe explore in detail the terrible descent of a human psyche into cruelty caused two different plagues - alcoholism in "The Black Cat" and madness in "The Tell-Tale Heart."

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Both short stories are built around a detail that gives the piece its name and also is used by the author as the central structural element. Yet the two symbols - the black cat and the thumping heart of the dead man - function differently in the respective texts. The black cat is a symbol that appears at the very beginning of the eponymous short story and effectively unifies it. It is used to gradually bring to light the main character's cruelty which is beginning to show when he starts drinking more heavily and it finally begins to govern his whole disposition. Though the main character's wife is the ultimate victim for whose murder he is about to be hanged, more emphasis is placed on the cat. Poe elucidates the way one act of cruelty leads to another, even more abhorring one, and finally to killing a human being. The tell-tale heart of the old man from the second story is a symbol that comes into clearer focus only when the murder is being committed and is used to effectively build up the suspense. It is a symbol of fear and dread that both characters seem to experience and which become the psychological 'curse' of the murderer. It obviously points at the main character's madness as it cannot be anything but an audial illusion. Therefore, the cat as a symbol possesses more independence and fulfills more functions than the tell-tale heart, the role of which is quite specific and limited in the context of the short story.

Also, though both short stories are a first-person narration, the narrators are quite different. The narrator in "The Black Cat" is rather reliable. He obviously tries to partially shift the blame off himself by saying that the events that have happened "have terrified - have tortured - have destroyed" him (Poe 8), yet he does not attempt to fully rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the reader. He fully realizes that his cruel deeds were committed as a result of the drastic change in his character caused by the abuse of alcohol. The narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" does not claim to know why he has killed the old man. He only says that he was prompted by the man's blind eye, "the eye of a vulture - a pale blue eye, with a film over it" (Poe 3), which seemed to frighten him. The narrator is not able to explain his motives, instead, he keeps repeating that he is not mad in a fixed and obsessive manner which only reinforces the feeling that he is insane. As E. Arthur Robinson underlines, "the point of view is criminal's, but the tone is ironic in that his protestation of sanity produces an opposite effect upon the reader" (Robinson 369). These two types of narrators allow the reader to explore the two different kinds of murderers from an inside perspective.

Finally, the development of action in the two short stories happens according to slightly different patterns. "The Black Cat" is built around the contrast of two personalities - of the main character as a sober man and as a drunkard. The first of them is a nice and gentle person who describes himself in the most favorable way: "From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions" (Poe 8). The other one is a vile and cruel degenerate and the narrator contrasts this new essence with his original self saying, "My original soul seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body; and a more than fiendish malevolence, gin-nurtured, thrilled every fibre of my frame" (Poe 10). Such a structure allows the reader to have an insight into the way heavy drink slowly corrupts normal people turning them into monsters. Poe first urges the reader to like the character and even empathize with him and then gradually makes the protagonist less and less likable and humane. It is obvious that this process is not a fast one, so, the character had more than one chance to try and change. "The Tell-Tale Heart" does not offer this long-term perspective following only a short period of time within which the main character's madness, presumably caused by a disease, reaches its climax. Poe does not make any attempt to justify the main character's behavior. The madness is shown as an eclipse that forces the main character to lose his humanity. He cannot either fight it or try to change himself. Thus, though he is shown as a more brutal and cruel character than the protagonist of "The Black Cat," the latter one is certainly painted in darker colors.

All in all, one can say that "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart" only look similar. In fact, they vary significantly in the way they narrate the story and offer insight into the character's personality. Yet, in the modern culture, both of them perform an extremely important function. Poe's detailed and poignant investigation of violence and the way human psyche succumbs to its destructive power brings the so much needed clarity of vision into the modern cultural paradigm. Modern young Americans, primary consumers of the mass culture, are not at all shocked by the violence shown in the media. For example, children in Childish Gambino's viral video "This is America" go on dancing merrily and smiling happily after witnessing the multiple killings. The modern media bring up in the audience "an appetite for violence" and the generation of young media consumers that have grown up with this appetite has become "numb to the killings of unarmed men" (Bain) soothed by the stultifying effect of the popular entertainment. Poe's meticulous psychological account removes this lulling effect and brings to light the whole ugliness of violence. This is what makes both short stories such an unsettling, powerful and mesmerizing read.

Works Cited

Bain, Katie. "The Rise of Donald Glover: How He Captured America." The Guardian, 12 May 2018,

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Black Cat." The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings. Random House Publishing Group, 2004.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Tell-Tale Heart." The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings. Random House Publishing Group, 2004.

Robinson, E. Arthur. "Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart.'" Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 19, no. 4, 1965, pp. 369-378. JSTOR, JSTOR,

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