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Edgar Allen Poe (part II, the ending)

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So just what is this perverse spirit, which Poe so succinctly describes in his stories? Is the spirit only to be found in the fertile imagination of the author, or, does perversity apply to everyday life? Poe would, and did declare that perversity is a fundamental force, which permeates human existence. If this were true, then how odd that humanity seems so unaware of its presence! The subject of perversity is seldom discoursed. Thus, if perversity indeed permeates existence, it must be either consciously ignored, or at work on the subconscious mind. Perhaps Edgar Poe was better in touch with this dark side of psyche precisely because his subconscious mind lay so close to his waking consciousness.

But let us examine "mere household events" for examples of perversity in action. Many of those whom society calls criminals return to the scene of their respective crimes, drawn there as if by some magnetic force. We could postulate, if we were conventional moralists, that criminals return to the crime scene because they wish to subject themselves to the exciting possibility of Divine retribution. But how much more satisfactory is the Poesque explanation. The criminal returns because he might get caught, because in returning,, he could utterly ruin his life. Criminal investigators oblige the criminal by watching crime scenes, sometimes for months, in hope that the stakeout will cough up yet another suspect. And it is time well spent.

In addition, many seemingly mundane choices of everyday life are choices so obviously dangerous or damaging to the organism, whether it be the third piece of buttermilk pie or passing vehicles on a curve or smoking cigarettes or precariously balancing a ladder or abusing drugs or engaging in radical sports. And these commonplace activities can be extended to interpersonal indiscretions such as arrogance or rudeness or dishonesty or insensitivity. How often we shake our heads at the tomfoolery of some Jack who has proven to be his own worst enemy. How easily we can see, especially in others, the irrationality of the perverse at work, but without calling it by name or admitting its primal origins. And how seldom do we find individuals who own up to the tomfoolery of their own actions and behavior, also abundantly perverse.

Not only is perversity easily discernible in individuals, it also extends to cultural behavior and societal conditioning exhibited by members of the crowd. Civilizations tend to rise on the wings of their own creativity, and then plummet in the corruption of their own perversity. And though we look outside ourselves for someone to blame, our own culture takes corruption from perversity as well. Timothy McVeighs and Lee Harvey Oswalds do not spring forth from their mothers' wombs ready to murder presidents or to build fertilizer bombs to blow up federal buildings. They feed from perverse elements of our culture. We hold them responsible as individuals, but what of the propagandists and gun associations and intelligence agencies and purveyors of hate who help bring their hideous acts to fruition? How easy it is for such poisonous elements to subvert those of weak imagination.

In fact, rational thought, isolated from the workings of the imagination, leads from nowhere to nowhere. It actually represents a perversion of thought, which causes individuals, and societies to do themselves harm. Poe knew that, alone, rationality is a severe limitation to thought. Though he employed rational thought in his own discourse, he infused it with his imaginative and intuitive genius; yet the ability to accomplish a great creation is not enough. What thoughtful person will deny that Western man, in his prolific creative endeavors, has adopted the rationale of profitability, thus setting in motion his perverse specter, which from time to time, menacingly rears its head, revealing his own failure to apply imaginative genius to his creative accomplishments?

Perhaps the conditions which I described in the preceding paragraphs illustrate that creativity and perversity do, as Poe declared, walk hand-in-hand, just as do the attraction and repulsion motions of the universe. Consider the possibility that man's prolific creative genius necessarily must be just as abundantly perverse. Certainly this antipodality of action and reaction seems to follow the basic laws of Newton, as well as the oscillations manifested throughout the universe.

But what prevents the individual from recognizing his own perversity in Poe's terms, as a primal force governing many of the activities of psyche? After Toby's debacle, I would not bet the devil my head, but could it be our own cultural conditioning which blinds us to this truth, which Poe proclaimed as self-evident? Must we deliberately shed the accouterments of convention to travel Poe's intellect? Yes, yes, emphatically, yes. It is also helpful to consider that Poe performed his search very much from the Romantic tradition and in the American spirit. He searched individually, passionately, but entirely alone. Yet his quest for transcendence to the unity of the godhead and his profound postulates governing the spiritual universe rarefied him from his literary and social compatriots, and even from many modern readers. Readers of Poe's time and of ours have much to unlearn before they can hope to decode his macabre.

In addition, Poe's psychological theory, which represents the mind's compulsion to kill the body, drew from the society of his time the author's own imps of the perverse, most notably the Reverend Rufus W. Griswold , who believed Poe to be demented. Yet how could Griswold be expected to grasp Poe's belief in a spiritually governed universe where God is manifest in his own creation? How could he comprehend Poe's psychic landscape, where the mind wars against the body to rejoin his higher spirit within God? Griswold recoiled. Though we disparage his onslaught of Poe's reputation--his alteration of letters and other records of fact, we can also perceive the Reverend's desperation. He was bright enough to see what Poe undertook, and was scared silly. Even today we find much judgementiveness in Poe scholarship, a calculated distancing of the critic from the "danger zone."

So what we are undertaking here, in these several essays, is Poe's psychal study of man, an examination of the seasons of intellect, body and spirit, through which he believed that we all cycle. And these essays also seek to portray Poe's creative spirit. Though hyper-aware of his own tendency to perversity, what creative impetus must have been requisite for Edgar Poe to have penned poems and stories which so closely mirror the psychic patterns of his own mind!

"For the most wild yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not--and very surely do I not dream. But tomorrow I die, and today I would unburden my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world...a series of mere household events....[T]hese events have terrified--have tortured--have destroyed me....[P]erhaps...some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own...will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects." Tomorrow the narrator will be executed for the brutal murder of his wife. As he awaits his own death, he finds it necessary to record the events, which seduced him into murder and informed the police of his crime. From infancy, the narrator had been noted for his "docility and humanity of... disposition." His tenderness of heart made him "...the jest of [his] companions. [He] was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by [his] parents with a great variety of pets." He married at an early age, and like the narrator, his wife had a similar love for animals. They had "birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat. Pluto, the cat, was "a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree." As the narrator remembers Pluto, he also remembers something that his wife once said about all black cats being witches in disguise according to "some ancient popular notion." He never really believed she was serious about this point, and he is not quite sure why he remembers it now. Out of all the pets, Pluto was his favorite. He "alone fed him, and he attended [him] wherever he went about the house. It was even with great difficulty that [he] could prevent [the cat] from following [him] through the streets." Their friendship lasted for several years until the man's temperament began to change. He grew, "day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others." He cursed at his wife, and eventually he "offered her personal violence." His pets began to feel the change in his disposition--a change brought about by the "Fiend Intemperance [lack of control in consuming alcohol]." "One night, returning home, much intoxicated...[he] fancied that the cat avoided [his] presence." He grabbed Pluto, who out of fear, "inflicted a slight wound upon [his owner's] hand with his teeth. The fury of a demon instantly possessed [the man]." He took a penknife from his waistcoat pocket, "and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket!" When morning came, the narrator saw what he had done to the poor creature on the previous night. "The socket of the lost eye presented...a frightful appearance...." The narrator unable to deal with the results of his own actions, "soon drown in wine all memory of the deed."
"In the meantime, the cat slowly recovered. He went about the house as usual, but as might be expected, fled in extreme terror at [the narrator's] approach." At first the man was somewhat grieved by the cat's actions; however, this feeling turned into irritation. "And then came, as if to [his] final and irrevocable overthrow the spirit of PERVERSENESS.

"One morning, in cold blood, [the narrator] slipped a noose about [Pluto's] neck and hung it to the limb of a tree;--hung it with the tears streaming from [his] eyes, and with the bitterest remorse of [his] heart;--hung it because he knew that [the cat] had loved [him], and because [he] felt it had given [him] no reason of offence;--hung it because [he] knew that in so doing [he] was committing a sin--a deadly sin that would so jeopardize [his] immortal soul as to place it--if such a thing were possible--even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God." "On the night of the day on which this most cruel deed was done, [the narrator] was aroused from sleep by the cry of fire....The whole house was blazing. It was with great difficulty that [his] wife, a servant, and [himself], made [their] escape....[His] entire worldly wealth was swallowed up, and [he] resigned himself thenceforward to despair." "On the day succeeding the fire, [he] visited the ruins. The walls with one exception had fallen in. This exception was found in a compartment wall...against which had rested the head of [his] bed....About this wall a dense crowd were collected, and many persons seemed to be examining a particular portion of it with very minute and eager attention....[U]pon the white surface...as if graven in bas-relief...[was] the figure of a gigantic cat...[with] a rope about [its] neck." "When [the narrator] first beheld this apparition...[his] wonder and terror were extreme.... [Then he remembered that] the cat...had been hung in a garden adjacent to the house. Upon the alarm of fire, this garden had been immediately filled by the crowd--by someone of whom the animal must have been cut from the tree and thrown, through an open window, into [his] chamber...with the view of arousing [the narrator] from sleep. The falling of the other walls had compressed the victim of [the man's cruel deed] into the substance of the freshly-spread plaster; the lime...with the flames, and the ammonia from the carcass...[had created the hideous image in the wall]."

For months, the man could not forget the gigantic image of the cat in the wall. It was during this time that he actually began to regret the loss of his cat Pluto, and he began to look for a similar pet to take the cat's place. "One night as [the narrator sat in a tavern in a drunken stupor], [his] attention was suddenly drawn to some black object, [sitting on a large container] of gin or of rum...." He approached this object, and touched it. He was surprised to discover that "it was a black cat--a very large one--fully as large as Pluto, and closely resembling him in every respect but one. Pluto had not a white hair upon any portion of his body; but this cat had a large, although indefinite splotch of white, covering nearly the whole region of the breast." The cat responded by purring loudly, and the narrator talked to the owner of the tavern about purchasing the cat; however, "this person made no claim to it--knew nothing of it--had never seen it before."

When the man left the tavern, the cat accompanied him home. "When it reached the house it domesticated itself at once, and became immediately a great favorite with [his] wife. Much to the narrator's surprise, he "...soon found a dislike to [the cat] arising within [him]." As time passed these feelings turned to hatred of the cat. He began to avoid it out of a sense "of shame, and the remembrance of [his] former deed of cruelty....What added to [his] hatred of the beast, was the discovery, on the morning after [he] brought it home, that, like Pluto, it had also been deprived of one of its eyes. This circumstance, however, only endeared it to [his] wife...." The more that the narrator avoided the cat; the more it seemed to follow him. "Whenever [he] sat, [the cat] would crouch beneath [his] chair, or spring upon [his] knees, covering [him] with its loathsome caresses. If [he] arose to walk it would get between [his] feet and thus nearly throw [him] down. or fastening its long and sharp claws in [his clothing], clamber, in this manner, to [his] breast." The man longed to destroy the cat, but refrained from doing so "partly by a memory of [his] former crime, but chiefly...by an absolute dread of the beast. This dread was not exactly a dread of physical evil--and yet [the man] was at a loss how otherwise to define it...." More than once his wife had called his attention to the splotch of white on this cat's chest "...which constituted the sole visible difference between the strange beast and the one [he] had destroyed." Slowly, over a period of time, this indefinite splotch of white began to take the shape of an object that terrified the narrator. This ghastly shape was that "of the GALLOWS!--oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime--of Agony and of Death!" "...[N]either by day nor by night ...[could the narrator find] the blessing of rest any more." During the day, the cat would never leave the man's side, and at night, he would wake up "...from dreams of unutterable fear to find the hot breath of the thing upon [his] face, and its vast weight--an incarnate nightmare that [he] had no power to shake off--incumbent eternally upon [his] heart! "Beneath the pressure of torments such as these the feeble remnant of the good within [him] succumbed. Evil thoughts became [his] sole intimates--the darkest and most evil of thoughts. The moodiness of [his] usual temper increased to hatred of all things and of all mankind...." "One day [his wife] accompanied [him], upon some household errand, into the cellar of the old building which [their] poverty compelled [them] to inhabit. The cat followed [the narrator] down the steep stairs, and, nearly throwing [him] headlong, exasperated [him] to madness. Uplifting an axe, and forgetting in [his] wrath the childish dread that had hitherto stayed [his] hand, [the narrator] aimed a blow at the animal, which, of course, would have proved instantly fatal if it had descended as [he] had wished. But this blow was arrested by the hand of [his] wife. Goaded by the interference into a rage more than demoniacal [the narrator] withdrew [his] arm from her grasp and buried the axe in her brain. She fell dead upon the spot without a groan." The next step was to conceal the body. Many thoughts passed through the man's mind. He thought about cutting the corpse into small pieces, and destroying them by fire. Maybe he could dig a grave for the body in the cellar floor; or possibly, he could cast the corpse into the well in the yard. The narrator even thought about packing his wife's body into a box as if it were merchandise, and getting a porter to remove it from the house. Finally, after much deliberation, the narrator knew that he had found the perfect solution. He would "...wall [the body] up in the cellar, as the monks of the Middle Ages [were] recorded to have walled up their victims." The cellar was well adapted for a purpose such as this. "Its walls were loosely constructed, and had lately been plastered throughout with a rough plaster, which the dampness of the atmosphere had prevented from hardening. Moreover, in one of the walls was a projection, caused by a false chimney, or fireplace, that had been filled up and made to resemble the rest of the cellar." The narrator knew that he "...could readily displace the bricks at this point, insert the corpse, and wall the whole up as before, so that no eye could detect anything suspicious."

"By means of a crowbar [the narrator] easily dislodged the bricks, and...carefully deposited the body against the inner wall...." He then "...relaid the whole structure as it originally stood." Afterwards, he "...prepared a plaster which could not be distinguished from the old, and with this [he] very carefully went over the new brick-work....The wall did not present the slightest appearance of having been disturbed." The narrator cleaned up the mess with "the minutest care." His next step was to look for the cat. The man had "firmly resolved to put it to death." However, the cat must have been frightened by the man's previous actions, and it was now nowhere to be found. "It did not make its appearance during the night; and thus for one night, at least since its introduction into the house, [the narrator] soundly and tranquilly slept; [yes], slept even with the burden of murder upon [his] soul." Three days passed, and still there was no sight of the cat. A few inquiries had been made about the narrator's wife, but he had easily answered those. "Even a search had been instituted--but of course nothing was to be discovered. Upon the fourth day...the police came, very unexpectedly, into the house, and proceeded again to make rigorous investigation of the premises....They left no nook or corner unexplored....[F]or the third or fourth time, they descended into the cellar....The police were thoroughly satisfied and prepared to depart. [The narrator] burned to say if but one word, by way of triumph, and to render doubly sure their assurance of [his] guiltlessness." "Gentlemen," [the narrator said], as the party ascended the steps, "I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you all health and a little more courtesy. By the bye, gentlemen, this--this is a very well constructed house...I may say an excellently well-constructed house. These walls--are you going, gentlemen?--these walls are solidly put together...." At this point, the narrator "...rapped heavily with a cane which [he] held in [his] hand, upon that very portion of the brickwork behind which stood the corpse of [his wife]....No sooner had the reverberation of [his] blows sunk into silence, than [he] was answered by a voice from within the tomb!--by a cry, at first muffled and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous scream...a howl--a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph...." "Swooning, [the narrator] staggered to the opposite [side of the cellar]." The police began tearing down the wall. There before all, stood "...the corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore....Upon its head...sat the [cat], the hideous beast whose craft had seduced [the man] into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned [him] to the hangman. [He] had walled the monster up within the tomb."

As the story begins, the narrator is in jail awaiting his execution, which will occur on the following day, for the brutal murder of his wife. At that point, the rest of the story is told in flashback, as the narrator pens "...the most wild, yet homely narrative...[whose] events have terrified--have tortured--have destroyed [him]."

Although several characters are mentioned in this story, the true focus lies upon the nameless narrator, who is known for his "...docility and humanity of ...disposition. His tenderness of heart...[made him] the jest of [his] companions." He was especially fond of animals, and he was pleased to find a similar fondness for pets in his wife. They had many pets including "...birds, gold fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat." The cat was a large, beautiful animal that was entirely black. Pluto, as he was called, was the narrator's favorite pet. He alone fed him, and Pluto followed the narrator wherever he went. Occasionally, his wife would refer to an old superstitious belief that "...all black cats [were] witches in disguise. Not that she was ever serious upon this point...."

Point of View
Poe writes this story from the perspective of the narrator, a man whose "...temperament and character [are transformed] through the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance [alcohol]." Telling the story from the first person point of view (a perspective that Poe used quite frequently), intensifies the effect of moral shock and horror. Once again, the reader is invited (as was the case in both "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado") to delve into the inner workings of the dark side of the mind.

Style and Interpretation
"'The Black Cat' is one of the most powerful of Poe's stories, and the horror stops short of the wavering line of disgust" (Quinn 395). Poe constructed this story in such a way that the events of the tale remain somewhat ambiguous. As the narrator begins to recount the occurrences that "...have terrified--have tortured--have destroyed [him]," he reminds the reader that maybe "...some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than [his] own," will perceive "...nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects."

As the narrator begins to tell his story (flashback), the reader discovers that the man's personality had undergone a drastic transformation, which he attributes to his abuse of alcohol and the perverse side of his nature, which the alcohol seemed to evoke. The reader also discovers (with the introduction of Pluto into the story) that the narrator is superstitious, as he recounts that his wife made "...frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, [that] all black cats [are] witches in disguise." Even though the narrator denies this (much as the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" denies that he or she is insane), the reader becomes increasingly aware of his superstitious belief as the story progresses.

Superstition (as well as the popular notion to which the man's wife refers) has it that Satan and witches assume the form of black cats. For those who believe, they are symbols of bad luck, death, sorcery, witchcraft, and the spirits of the dead. Appropriately, the narrator calls his cat, Pluto, who in Greek and Roman mythology was the god of the dead and the ruler of the underworld (symbolism).

As in other Poe stories («The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Gold Bug"), biting and mutilation appear. The narrator of "The Black Cat" first becomes annoyed when Pluto "inflicted a slight wound upon [the] hand with his teeth." After he is bitten by the cat, the narrator cuts out its eye. Poe relates "eyes" and "teeth" in their single capacity to take in or to incorporate objects. This dread of being consumed often leads the narrator to destroy who or what he fears (Silverman 207).

Poe's pronounced use of foreshadowing leads the reader from one event to the next ("one night," "one morning," "on the night of the day," etc.). Within the first few paragraphs of the story, the narrator foreshadows that he will violently harm his wife ("At length, I even offered her personal violence."). However, are the events of the story, as the narrator suggests, based upon "...an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effect," or are they indeed caused by the supernatural? By using, three main events in this story (the apparition of the first cat upon the burned wall, the appearance of the gallowslike pattern upon the chest of the second cat, and the discovery of the second cat behind the cellar wall), a convincing case can be presented for both sides.

While making a case for the logical as well as the supernatural, one must remember the state of mind of the narrator. All events are described for the reader by an alcoholic who has a distorted view of reality. The narrator goes to great lengths to scientifically explain the apparition of the cat in the wall; however, the chain of events that he re-creates in his mind are so highly coincidental that an explanation relying on the supernatural may be easier to accept.

Once again, the reader wonders if the narrator's perceptions can be believed as he describes the gallowslike pattern upon the chest of the second cat. Maybe what he sees is just a hallucination of a tormented mind. The markings of an adult cat surely would not change that much, unless maybe the pattern was not part of the animal's fur, but only a substance on its surface which, with time, could wear off and disappear (a substance such as plaster?). Afterall, the second cat is also missing an eye. Poe is very careful to avoid stating if it is the same eye of which Pluto was deprived. Are there really two cats in this story, or did Pluto (possibly "a witch in disguise") survive, and return for retribution.

Of all the incidents, the discovery of the cat (first or second) behind the cellar wall is the easiest to believe. The cat was frightened by the man, and logically, sought shelter. What is somewhat strange is the fact that the police searched the cellar several times, and not one time did the cat make a sound. It was not until the narrator rapped heavily with a cane upon the wall, that the cat responded. Was it a series of natural causes and effects, or was it what the narrator described? "Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb."

"The Black Cat" is Poe's second psychological study of domestic violence and guilt (the first being "The Tell-Tale Heart"); however, this story does not deal with premeditated murder. The reader is told that the narrator appears to be a happily married man, who has always been exceedingly kind and gentle. He attributes his downfall to the "Fiend Intemperance" and "the spirit of perverseness." Perverseness, he believes, is "...one of the primitive impulses of the human heart." "Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a stupid action for no other reason than because he knows he should not?" Perverseness provides the rationale for otherwise unjustifiable acts, such as killing the first cat or rapping with his cane upon the plastered-up wall behind which stood his wife's corpse "...already greatly decayed and clotted with gore." We might argue that what the narrator calls "perverseness" is actually conscience. Guilt about his alcoholism seems to the narrator the "perverseness" which causes him to maim and kill the first cat. Guilt about those actions indirectly leads to the murder of his wife who had shown him the gallows on the second cat's breast. The disclosure of the crime, as in "The Tell-Tale Heart," is caused by a warped sense of triumph and the conscience of the murderer. What makes this story different from "The Tell-Tale Heart" is that Poe has added a new element to aid in evoking the dark side of the narrator, and that is the supernatural. Now the story has an added twist as the narrator hopes that the reader, like himself, will be convinced that these events were not "...an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects." [See Style and Interpretation]

The Black Cat
First Publication:
"The Black Cat" was first published in the United States Saturday Post, which was a temporary title substitution for The Saturday Evening Post, on August 19, 1843. It was written in late 1842.

Subsequent Publication:
"The Black Cat" was republished in Tales (1845), The Pictorial National Library (November, 1848), and was translated to French by Isabelle Meunier in la Democratie pacifique in the January 27, 1847 edition.

"The Black Cat" is a peverse grotesque short story.

The narrator of the story tells a tale of horror and murder from a prison cell. A lover of domestic animals, the narrator had had many different pets and had lived comfortably in a house with his pets and his wife. Soon, mostly because of the negative effects of alcohol, he began to despise the pets. Previously his favorite (because of its affection), a large black cat named Pluto eventually copied and seemed to mock the narrator so much that the narrator gouged out its eye and hung the cat. That night his house burned down and left a perfect bas relief of a cat with a noose around its neck in the one unburnt piece of plaster in the house. Soon the author wanted company of another cat and found one identical to Pluto, save for a large white patch of hair on its chest. The white patch eventually transformed from a nondescript patch to a gallows, as the narrator again becomes increasingly loathful of the cat. One day the cat triped the narrator in the cellar, and the narrator brandishing an axe, swung it to kill the cat. His wife blocked the blow; and, in a rage, the narrator planted the axe in her skull. He walled up his wife in the cellar and, and without the disappeared cat to bother him, finally had a good night's sleep--even with the murder on his mind. Police came to investigate but they found nothing. They came back four days after the murder and the narrator took them to the exact place where he had killed his wife. While he is bragging to the police about the solidity of the walls in which his wife is entombed, a loud shriek alerts the police to something behind the wall. The narrator had walled up his cat along with his dead wife. "'The Black Cat' is a story of 'orthodox' witchcraft; the sudden appearance of the second cat from nowhere, the slow growth of the white marking, and the murder of the wife after the animal brushed against the protagonist on the stairs are touches of the supernatural" (Mabbot 848).

Importance of the work:
"The Black Cat" combines "several themes that fascinated Poe--reincarnation, perversity, and retribution" (Mabbot 847). It is partially related to "The Tell-tale Heart" because the narrator is so afflicted with perversity. Poe was able to create an entirely separate person from himself for this story. "Poe's narrators possess a character and consciousness distinct from their creator--they speak their own thoughts and are the dupes of their own passions"(Hammond 27). Poe's favorite animal was the cat, and he had a black one named Catarina. Poe also had a drinking problem that caused him to rage. Although he is not the narrator, he feared for Maria and Virginia Clemm when alcohol caused him to become violent.


Mark Levin
What is superstition? According to The Little Oxford Dictionary, superstition is "belief in the existence or power of the supernatural; irrational fear of the unknown; a religion or practice based on such tendencies; widely held but wrong idea." Let us examine that definition in depth. First, there is "belief in the existence or power of the supernatural". This means that there is believed to be some force that can influence the events on the Earth. Second, there is "irrational fear of the unknown." This has been endemic to the human race since the early days when a cave man did not know if that cave was safe to enter or if he would be attacked by a bear. Third, "a religion or practice based on such tendencies." This is the belief that a charm or talisman, such as throwing salt or hanging a horseshoe over the doorway, can affect the aforementioned supernatural force. Finally, there is a "widely held but wrong idea." This is a belief that is believed only because everyone else believes. It may be wrong, it may be preposterous, but all the other people think it is right and you believe it too. Why do people believe in something that can be scientifically proven wrong? They may want a simple explanation for a coincidence. For example, a woman plants a tree in her yard and the weather is warm for the rest of the month. She reasons that planting trees causes warm weather. That is a simple, obvious conclusion. A weatherman will give a long, confusing explanation such as "Various meteorological factors caused displacement of the cold front." The woman will believe her own explanation because it is simple and easily understood. Once one person believes this conclusion, others will believe too. Perhaps the woman will be gossiping with some friends, and she mentions her tree superstition. They tell others and soon the whole town believes that trees cause warm weather.

Some examples of common, everyday superstition include the belief that the number 13 is unlucky, that walking under a ladder will bring bad luck, and that a black cat crossing your path can affect your luck. Belief that black cats affect your luck goes far back in time. One king of England, Charles I, owned a black cat. His fear of losing it was so great that he had it guarded. The day after it fell ill and died, he was arrested (Radford 1949, 40). Black cats were often witches in disguise or witches' familiars (Potter 1983, 29). There were also many cat charms relating to ships and the sea. Fishermen's wives would keep a black cat at home to prevent disaster at sea, consequently the cats became very valuable and were often stolen. If a cat ran ahead of a sailor to the pier that would bring good luck, but if the cat crossed his path it means bad luck. For luck, cats were often kept on board ships. If a sailor was approached by the ship's cat it meant good luck, but if the cat only came halfway and went away again it meant bad luck. The worst possible cat-related act, guaranteed to raise a storm and bring bad luck of all sorts, was to throw the cat overboard (Radford 1949, 40). Cat superstitions were also common in medicine. Fur and blood drawn from various parts of the cat's anatomy cured everything from shingles to St. Anthony's Fire (Radford 1949, 40).

All of these superstitions today boil down to "Black cats cause bad luck." A cat crossing your path will adversely affect your luck. This can easily be verified or disproved with only a person, a cat, and a situation that can be affected by luck. I performed an experiment to test a black cat's effect on luck. Two people tried their luck at guessing computer-generated random numbers. Their paths were then crossed by a cat and then they guessed more numbers. To ensure that the luck effects were only caused by black cats, their paths were also crossed by a white cat. The source of random numbers was a random number generator that I wrote in True Basic 2.6, a BASIC programming language for Macintosh computers. The random number, between 0 and 1, is calculated by factors including the date and time. The program's main loop appears below.

The first line of the program states that the program runs 50 times, to simulate 50 coin tosses. The computer requests that the user enter "h" or "t", as in "tails" or "heads" in a coin toss. Then a random number between 0 and 1 is picked. If the number is greater than one half (.5) then it counts as tails. If the number is less than one half it counts as tails. The computer compares the user's guess to its random choice. If the user was right then the computer adds 1 to its tally of correct scores. After 50 coin tosses the computer prints out the final percentage correct. Each person was tested 5 times and the results averaged, to minimize statistical errors. The situation of the actual path-cross was a hallway with 2 doorways on opposite sides. As the subject walked down the hallway the cat ran out of one doorway and into the other.

The above diagram is a floor plan of the area in which the test subject encountered a cat. The human began on the left. As he walked down the hall, the cat was released in alcove A. The cat walked or ran across the human's path. The cat then proceeded into alcove B across the hall. The human continued to the computer room C. The subject then ran the luck program. The program was run 5 times immediately. The results were entered into a series of charts. Luck For Subject Alone is a chart of the subject's luck when his path was not crossed by any cats. Luck for White Cat is a chart of when the subject's path was crossed by a white cat. Luck for Black Cat is a graph of the subject's luck when his path was crossed by a black cat.

The lower line in each chart is the lowest percentage that a subject received. The upper line is the highest percentage that the subject received. The centerline is the actual percentage of coin flips correct. The first subject, according to "Luck for Subject Alone", scored between 56% and 44% for all his tries. The percentages are near the upper range for all tries but the last. 1 out of 5 try is at the lower range. The average of his tries was 52%: slightly above the statistical prediction of 50%. When his path was crossed by a white cat, his luck first decreased to 36%. This is a great drop taken by it, but all the other 4 were near or at the top. The average percentage for a white cat was 49.2%, 2.8% below the subject's average and .8% below the statistical prediction. However, 3 out of 5 tries are not outside the original range. They are within the subject's average percentage range, but they are only slight drops from the statistical average of 50%. The subject's luck was decreased according to a random factor, not according to the cat's path crossing.

These are the cats used in the experiment.
These results appear to agree with the superstition, even for the wrong cat color. I ran the test a second time to see if the white cat's results could be repeated. This time the results (see "Luck for second white cat crossing") were different. The subject's luck started out high, at 56%. Then it peaked at 58%. It then dropped to the lowest point, 40%, and went up through 48% and 50%. These percentages are higher than the drop observed earlier. The drop to 36% can now be seen as a random error, not related in any way to the white cat. If the cat truly was capable of decreasing luck, the subject's luck would have repeated the decline. The black cat, surprisingly, caused less of a drop than the white cat. The black cat lowered the minimum percentage to 40%. The luck average was 47.2%. This range is still within the percentage range of the unaffected luck. The luck has not descended out of the average range of the subject. The luck of the second subject was slightly different. His percentages were 40-52%, averaging 46.8%. When his path was crossed by a white cat, his success rate became 40-60%, averaging 49.6%. The white cat caused a gain in luck! The black cat caused an expansion in luck, to 36-56%. Both results go directly against the old superstition. If black cats are unlucky, then why did the subject's luck increase? One possibility is the corollary superstition that a black cat running away from you is bad luck whereas a black cat approaching you is good. But neither applies here. The cats crossed the subject's path at nearly a right angle. The cat did not move towards the subject or away from him. Secondly, the subject's luck range did not simple shift upward, it expanded. The minimum was lowered and the maximum was raised. The possibility for bad luck was there, but so was the possibility for good luck. This remains unexplained by the superstition.

In conclusion, neither cat produced a drastic change in the subject's luck. True, the subject's luck declined slightly, but the change was not great enough to leave the subject's average luck range. There are several objections that believers could raise. It could be said that the cat affects not guessing power but fortune and misfortune in real-life situations. I own a black cat, and although she has crossed my path hundreds of times, I see no degradation in my schoolwork or social life. It could be said that the computer's brain is somehow beyond the cat's influence. I see no difference between an object that could land on one of 2 sides and a stream of electrons that could end in one of 2 states. Another argument is that the stakes must be raised so that there is a disadvantage to losing. This implies the existence of a malevolent being, manifested in cats, whose reason for existence is to deny people fortune. But that is ridiculous. The idea that black cats cause bad luck is false. Cats do not affect the luck of anyone whose path has been crossed.


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