The respective narrators in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat are nameless characters around whom each story revolves. This is just as well, considering the fact that the two narrators are almost interchangeable. Both narrators are thematic symbols of the dark side of the human mind, which characterizes much of Poe’s works of horror. Each narrator moves through the action of his story virtually parallel to the other, in his struggles with irrational fear, innate perversity and obsessive mental fixations. Although Poe does insert a few added dramatic elements into the story of The Black Cat, these elements pull the two characters closer together, instead of pushing them apart. The reader can still easily see each man follow the same path through his narration: he becomes consumed by his irrational fear, then obsesses over the object which is the manifestation of this fear, which then pushes him to violence against those associated with the obsession. Poe brings the reader full circle, using similar language and actions within both plots, taking both narrators to the height of their madness and seeming triumph, which in the end, is their undoing.
Both stories are narrated through the distorted eyes of a character that has been driven to madness on some level or another. Each narrator begins his respective story by defending his sanity through a twisted sort of rationalization. The narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart addresses question of his sanity twice in the first paragraph: asking once of the reader, ?why will you say that I am mad?? and then again asking, ?How, then, am I mad (p277)?? His defense lies in ?how healthily ? how calmly [he] can tell [the reader] the whole story.? This is the same rationale that the narrator of The Black Cat follows in his defense of his sanity.
Just as the narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart presents his personal account of the events in the story as healthy and calm, the Black Cat narrator presents ?plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events (p320).? Although he hopes for ?some intellect [that] may be found which will reduce [his] phantasm to the common-place,? the Black Cat narrator still states, ?mad am I not (p320).? This element of the supernatural is one in area where the two narrators diverge a bit. However, as the two stories progress, this difference is used as a balancing agent that allows the characterizations of the narrators to parallel one another within the action of their respective stories.
Both narrators are on the verge of complete madness, waiting for that certain element to push them over the edge. In the first part of the story, the reader learns that the Black Cat narrator ?was noted for the docility and humanity of [his] disposition (p320) in the past. It is indicated that he was at one point, a seemingly happy man. There is no indication of such a past in the life of the Tell-Tale narrator. His murderous intentions ?to take the life of the old man (p277)? are made clear in the second paragraph of the story. Thus, Poe added elements of the supernatural to he plot of The Black Cat. It is left unclear as to whether or not there are actually two cats in the story, or if the original cat, which Poe so aptly named after the Roman god of the Underworld and judge of the dead, Pluto, has come back from the dead in retribution. The narrator’s wife’s talk about superstitions involving witches and the eerie gallow-shaped white marking on the black cat are also elements that add to the narrator’s eventual snap into madness, and what push him to the same violence as the Tell-Tale narrator.
This violence is brought on by an irrational fear that both narrators posses. Both the Tell-Tale and the Black Cat narrators refer to their states of mind as a sort of disease. Their individual fears manifest themselves in sensual hypersensitivity, which lead them to be affected in extreme ways by their surroundings. The Tell-Tale narrator says that the ?disease had sharpened [his] senses ? not destroyed ? not dulled them (p277).? His sense of hearing being the most acute, he hears ?all things in the heaven? and ?many things in hell (p277).? This aspect of his disease ends up being key in his eventual undoing, when his crime is revealed in the final scene of the story.
The narrator of The Black Cat explains that his ?disease grew upon (p321)? him. Although he equates his disease and resulting ?ill temper (p321)? with his abuse of alcohol, his actions throughout the story are not those that are motivated solely by intoxication. If anything, the alcohol simply amplifies this sensual hypersensitivity to the level of his fellow narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart. The disease is based in their irrational fears of things that not only pose no real threat to them, but that they admit to having once felt love for.
The Tell-Tale narrator states, ?I loved the old man (p277), when speaking of the same man that he resolves to kill just six lines later. Similarly, the Black Cat narrator speaks of the ?self-sacrificing love of a brute, which goes directly to the heart (p320)? of those who have the opportunity to experience friendships with animals, when Pluto, the animal that inspired such thought, will become the first recipient of his violent madness, when he ?deliberately cut[s] one of [the cat’s] eyes from the socket (p322).? Although both narrators’ fears result in violence against living beings, their victims are more personifications of the irrational fear that Poe uses as a thematic string in his horror stories.
The Tell-Tale narrator admits, ?it was not the old man who vexed [him], but [the old man’s] Evil Eye (p278).? At no point in the story is the reader given any logical basis for the narrator’s reaction to the eye. There is no rational or sane provocation for the narrator’s maniacal plan of murder. He admits that it is ?impossible to say how first the idea entered [his] brain; but once conceived, it haunted [him] day and night (p277).? The narrator then goes on to relay how, each night, for seven nights, he would carefully sneak into the room of the old man to wait for him to open his ?vulture eye (p278),? thus pushing the narrator to his climatic act of murder.
Just as the Tell-Tale narrator goes from a fixation on ridding himself of the eye, to a period of waiting for his catalyst, the Black Cat narrator goes through the same process. Both narrators spend a period of time waiting, while their aversion to their object of obsession turns darker and more volatile, despite no rational provocation. The Black Cat narrator explains that ?with [his] aversion to this cat?its partiality for himself seemed to increase (p325)? Instead of easing his ill will towards the animal, this leads to his ?absolute dread of the beast (p325).? This dread, when left to fester over time, as over the seven days for the Tell-Tale narrator, gains intensity.
The Black Cat narrator explains his motivations through the concept of a sort of demon possession, which he feels roots from a certain ?PERVERSENESS? that is ?one of the primitive impulses of the human heart (p322).? Through the narrator’s words, Poe presents the dark side of the human mind, where you ?do wrong for the wrong’s sake only (p322).? This perverse side of the human mind, in conjunction with their irrational fears is what fuels the action of both stories. This horrible combination of the human mind is what is behind the Black Cat narrator’s actions when he ?in cool blood,? ?slipped a noose about [the cat’s] neck and hung it to the limb of a tree (p322), ? and when in ?a rage more than demoniacal,? (p327) buried an axe in his wife’s head because she tried to protect the cat.
This combination of irrational fear and perversity is presented in the final moments before the narrator kills the old man. Once again reminding the reader of his acute senses, the Tell-Tale narrator thinks he hears the beating of the old man’s heart. At first, it ?increased [his] fury, as the beating of the drum stimulates the soldier into courage (p279).? Then, this sound in the silence of the house excites him to ?uncontrollable terror (p280).? This flow of emotion from anger, to exited terror, ends with a perverse happiness, as the narrator ?smile[s] gaily (p280)? once the old man is dead. This perverse sense of satisfaction and triumph is what trips both narrators up in the end of their stories, as their meticulous plans unravel before their eyes.
Both narrators are careful and calculating in their plans to dispose of, or to just conceal the bodies of their murder victims. The Tell-Tale narrator ?could scarcely contain [his] feelings of triumph (p278)? after the murder of the old man. He then goes on to gloat of how he first ?dismembered the corpse,? then hid its pieces under the floor planks ?so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye ? not even his ? could have detected any thing wrong (p280).? This last, ditch effort to get one over on the dead man’s eye is a testimony to how deep into the dark and perverted human mind the Tell-Tale narrator has fallen.
Similarly, the Black Cat narrator shows no remorse when, all in one sentence, he announces the ?hideous murder accomplished?? and moves on ??to the task of concealing the body (p327) of his dead wife. Calmly, he runs through scenarios in his mind of cremation, grave digging, or even sending the corpse as a package of merchandize out of the house. Finally, he settles on a plan much like that of the Tell-Tale narrator, but instead of concealment under the floor, he chooses concealment behind the cellar walls. He too, is pleased with his handiwork, as the ?wall did not present the slightest appearance of having been disturbed (p327).? He congratulates himself ?triumphantly? and his ?happiness [is] supreme! The guilt of [his]dark deed disturbed [him] but little (p328).?
At the entrance of the police in both stories, each narrator is at the height of his madness and thus feeling most invincible in their accomplished murders. The Tell-Tale narrator states confidently that ?the officers were satisfied? and that his ?manner had convinced them (p281)? of his innocence. The Black Cat narrator is equally confident that the police ?were thoroughly satisfied and prepared to depart (p328).? However, just as both reinforced their madness to the reader by their insistence of their sanity at the beginning of their tales, they both reinforce their guilt to the police by their insistence on their innocence.
The Tell-Tale narrator, ?in the wild audacity of [his] perfect triumph (p281),? sits directly over the floor planks under which the corpse of the old man lies. Sitting, chatting easily with the police, he begins to feel uneasy and eager for them to leave. Unable to pinpoint the source of his uneasiness, a ringing in his ears turns, in his mind, into the beating of the old man’s heart. This sound, which excited him to ?uncontrollable terror? before, now drives him into an uncontrollable fit of paranoia and to confession, as he shrieks, ?I admit the deed! ? tear up the planks! Here, here! ? it is the beating of his hideous heart (p282)!?
The Black Cat narrator shows the same audacity, as he too, disturbs the ready-made tomb of his wife. Not only does he detain the police officers for a few more words of smug assertions of his innocence, but he ?rapped heavily, with a cane?upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the dead wife of [his] bosom (p329).? Then, as the Tell-Tale narrator hears the sound of his greatest fear, in the beating of the old man’s heart, the Black Cat narrator hears the ?wailing shriek (p329)? of the cat. This doesn’t lead him directly to a confession, but it only takes an instant for the police to tear down the wall and find his dead wife, along with the cat. Like the beating heart to the Tell-Tale narrator, the cat had ?seduced [him] into murder as well as ?consigned [him] to the hangman (p328).?
Poe’s formula for horror is apparent in these two stories. Each narrator functions similarly as a study in the dark and perverse human mind. While there are, of course, differences in the plots and specific characterizations of the narrators, parallels can be made on every level, through each event, in each story. Poe presents two figures, who confront fears in the most irrational and violent of ways, and in their attempts to rid themselves of these fears, they are trapped by their own madness.