Defiance and Duplicity: Decoding Poe’s Attacks on Readers Part 4 0f 4

Read from the beginning

            Absent from any of the critical attempts to uncover what the cat might symbolize is what ought to have been the most obvious starting point—the cat’s name. In a footnote to the Norton Critical Edition of Poe’s work, G.R. Thompson explains that Pluto is the “name in some myths of the ruler of Hell (or Hades, which is another name for its ruler)” (349). Though Thompson is elsewhere in the same edition savvy in sifting out Poe’s satirical side, he fails here to look further into the name Pluto, probably for the same reason so many other critics fail to look further into it—because it meshes well the preconception of Poe as the writer of Gothic Horror stories. That is precisely the reason why the name is such a perfect trap for those readers unable to view his work with anything but a single, film-covered eye. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, “Pluto is the Latin form (used in English) of the Greek name Plutō n, meaning ‘wealth-giver’, because wealth is seen as coming from the earth” (6 April 2009). The word persists with this meaning today, usually in the form of a suffix. As the Oxford English Dictionary Online attests, “pluto-, comb. form,” is used in “forming nouns and adjectives relating to wealth and the wealthy” (6 April 2009), as in the term plutocracy, rule by the wealthy. (The equation of money and the underworld has a long history, dating from much earlier than “Death and Taxes.” The name Dis, another Roman name for Hades, comes from the word dives, “rich.” Dante places Plutus, actually a separate Roman god but whose name in Italian is still Pluto, in the fourth circle of The Inferno, overseeing the Avaricious and the Prodigal, along with the Lady Fortune [59].)

            Poe seems to have made the safe assumption that his use of the name Pluto would be seen with the cyclopean eye of his readers as a casual reference to the resting place of the dead, and some of the bragging of his narrators’ just may be an expression of his own pride in so well concealing, while at the same time expressing, his true feelings toward his wealth-giver, the reading public. When the narrator of “Tell-Tale” says, “in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, [I] placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim” (320), only the befuddled psychoanalyst can keep at bay the suspicion aroused by what is commonly read as an instantaneous transition from pride into a state of overwhelming guilt. The beating of the heart that prompts the confession is really a continuation of the terror excited by the old man’s one-eyed glare; no matter what Poe does with his writing, only the fear-inducing aspects are ever appreciated. Since the old man is an earlier version of Pluto, the tale itself represents the author’s confession of his true ambivalence toward his readers. And why did he make such a confession? “Anything was more tolerable than this derision!” he says. “I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer!” (320) But the confession went unheard, drowned out by the terrified beating of readers’ hearts. It is even possible that “Black Cat,” “Imp,” and “Amontillado” represent continued, escalated flirtations with being found out. The victim of “Imp” is nothing but a reader with money. And the murderer of Fortunato—note the name—though confessing in the tale, ends by bragging about escaping detection for “half of a century” (421); three years after he began playing this game, Poe was probably less and less worried that anyone would catch him at it. But it is in “Black Cat” that the allegory—or coded message—is the most developed.

            Before looking more closely at this story, an important distinction must be made between irony and duplicity. When the author clues readers into knowledge the protagonist is not privy to, as Gargano gives Poe credit for doing in “Black Cat,” that is irony. In this sense, Poe and the narrator of the story need to be distinguished from each other. But that doesn’t mean Poe can’t be seen in the story at a different level. As Regan explains:

"The intention of the writer who employs irony is that the reader shall, perhaps after momentary difficulties, decipher his code; the intention of the writer who employs duplicity is that his code baffle as many readers as possible." (294)

One level is what Griffith calls the “Gothic overplot,” another level is the ironic one identified by Gargano, and yet another level, a duplicitous or coded one—the “satiric underside”—seems to be signaled by recurring elements between this and other tales, like a focus on eyes, and perversity, as well as by the dual meanings of the cat’s name.

            This multi-dimensionality is keeping with Poe’s ideas of the Arabesque, a term which appeared in the title of an earlier collection of his tales. As Thompson explains, “Islamic tradition discourages the artistic reproduction of any natural forms that may be said to possess a soul,” and to avoid such forms artists in this tradition rely on “almost purely geometrical forms” such as the elaborate designs seen in Arabesque architecture and textiles. One of the primary characteristics of these designs is that each patterned is inlaid and interweaved with several others so that the overall image is intricate and multidimensional. Thompson also points out that Poe, following the influence of German theorist Friedrich von Schlegel, applied the same principle to his conception of Romantic Irony, “which is neither just parodic or serious but both simultaneously, as in Cervantes’s Don Quixote and the plays of Shakespeare” (79). It appears, however, that Poe added yet another layer to this design. And this is how he solved the dilemma historian Jill Lepore describes thus: “he needed to turn his pen to profit, but he also wanted to signal…that he was lowering himself” (68).

            The first paragraph of “Black Cat” features a few odd statements that have been the source of much commentary. The narrator calls the story the “most wild, yet most homely narrative” (348) in the first sentence. In this seeming contradiction lies an invitation to a dual reading. In the middle of the paragraph, he characterizes the story as consisting of “a series of mere household events” (349) before explaining how horrible and devastating their consequences have been, another seeming contradiction. But the final sentence of the paragraph is the most telling:

"Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place—some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects." (349)

This statement could of course be read as another application of the Gothic trope of having the unreliably hysterical narrator reference the possibility of his own madness in order to make his ravings more credible. “I neither expect nor solicit belief,” (348) he says in the first sentence—because he would have to be crazy to, the implication runs. But, with Gargano’s evidence in mind of Poe’s deliberate use of the double voice, one the author’s and one the narrator’s, along with Griffith’s discovery of a “satiric underside” concealed by the “Gothic overplot” elsewhere in Poe’s work, and especially in light of the dual meanings of the cat’s name, another reading suggests itself: Poe is taunting his readers to catch him disparaging them.

            It is noteworthy that the narrator himself is responsible for the half-blindness of the cat, since this was not the case with the old man in “Tell-Tale.” Before getting to the disoculation, though, the narrator describes a childhood surrounded by pets, even to the exclusion of human companions. “There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute,” he writes, “which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man” (349). The man Poe, ever frustrated by those on whom he depended for anything, must have taken great pleasure in the complete dependence and obedience of animals. But then cats are much less obedient than dogs. In terms of his career, this early period represents his naïve and romantic youth, before maturity complicated his ideas and feelings toward his art. All that was to change when, with his own pen, he made himself into something more complex than a writer of romantic poetry. His writing was to take on a satiric edge, not that his readers ever really caught on to the difference. Really at this point in the story, though, there is more Gothic plot than coded satire, and the equation of the narrator’s love of animals with Poe’s early romantic writing is no less tenuous than countless other allegorical readings. But when the narrator, in the grip of perversity, goes beyond the initial injury and kills Pluto, things get more interesting.

            The Imp of the Perverse compelled the narrator of that tale not to murder his victim but to confess it, but in “Black Cat” perversity is responsible for the eponymous cat’s demise. “Imp,” published two years later, may have been referring to the symbolic violence done to the reader of the earlier tale. Since the perpetrator had gone undetected for so long, the Imp, a self-destructive force, had proven itself not to have been in play. Poe suffered no consequences for loosing “Black Cat” on his audiences. But he did suffer from his strained relationships with those who served as an intermediary between him and his readers, editors like White and Graham. In another apparent contradiction, the narrator of “Black Cat” claims, “It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only—that urged me continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute” (350). Whom is he hurting when he hurts the cat? The answer comes in the next paragraph: “On the night of the day on which this cruel deed was done, I was aroused from sleep by the cry of fire… The whole house was blazing” (351). Having given in to his frustration with his wealth-giver, the narrator subsequently, immediately, loses his home. For those who missed this not-so-subtle point, he adds a few lines later, “My entire worldly wealth was swallowed up” (351).

            Just as White failed to detect the parody in “Berenice,” Poe could always count on at least a preponderance of his readers at large to miss any satire he concealed in his work. And so, despite the violence done to it, the black cat returns—Poe continues to make money by writing scary stories. But because he was in more dire economic straits at this time in his life, owing largely to his falling out with Graham, the cat returns sporting an ominous sign: “the GALLOWS!”(353) delineated by a tuft of white fur. The narrator brings this second cat home, where it “became immediately a great favorite with my wife” (352). But he says, “I soon found a dislike to it arising with me…its evident fondness for myself rather disgusted and annoyed” (352). Oddly, it is not until the paragraph following this admission of his dislike, that he mentions what would seem to be its most remarkable feature: “like Pluto, it also had been deprived of one of its eyes” (352). Of course, Poe continued to hate the admiration of his half-blind readers, even though it was helping him support his wife.

            The narrator admits that he “longed to destroy” (352) Pluto, but was dissuaded from doing so “by absolute dread of the beast” (353), which he attributes to the image in the cat’s fur. Forced to coexist with this object of dread, he wrestles with the irony of how he “a man, fashioned in the image of High God,” was being made “wretched beyond the wretchedness of mere Humanity” by “a brute beast—whose fellow I had contemptuously destroyed” (353), a line which clearly equates perversity with contempt. The uneasy cohabitation persists until his wife, “the most patient of sufferers,” accompanies him, “upon some household errand, into the cellar of the old building which our poverty compelled us to inhabit” (353). The cat rushes in to trip him, causing him to forget his dread and take up an ax, which when his wife tries to stop him from using, ends up in her brain. His rage for the cat gets turned on his wife. Since the cat is the “wealth-giver,” the image springs direfully to mind of Virginia shivering in her unheated room with nothing but a coat and a cat to keep her warm.

            At this point, the story becomes, like the others in the nexus, a case of self-destructive boasting. After walling up his wife, he says “I looked around triumphantly, and said to myself—‘Here at least, then, my labor has not been in vain’” (354). When police arrive to investigate her disappearance, he shows them to the cellar and the basement—“Secure… in the inscrutability of my place of concealment” (355). Once they have had a look around and are making to leave, the narrator calls them back. “The glee at my heart” he says, “was too strong to be restrained. I burned to say if but one word, by way of triumph, and to render doubly sure their assurance of my guiltlessness” (355). He starts boasting about how his is “an excellently well constructed house,” and “through the mere phrenzy of bravado” (355), he raps with his cane on the wall concealing his wife’s body. Just as in “Tell-Tale” and “Imp,” the narrator is responsible for the discovery of his own crime. Pluto, inadvertently walled up with his wife, aroused by the tapping, sounds a cry “half of horror and half of triumph,” so that the wall is torn down and it is revealed, perched atop his dead wife’s head, looking out with its “solitary eye of fire” (355).

            What is most impressive about Poe’s coded attacks on his readers is that the stories concealing them are so good that even critics with a sophisticated awareness of his multileveled satires have found no reason to see them as anything but superbly crafted Gothic tales. This excellence, which he achieved despite his contempt for those who appreciated the genre, is itself yet another form of defiance. Poe must have determined that if he had to write overwrought, hysterical tales of murder and madness to be read, he would just have to show everyone how it was done. He would take it to the next level—and do so in the same stories into which he was weaving his codes. Harold Bloom, straining to find something positive to say about Poe, writes that he “authentically frightens children, and the fright can be a kind of trauma,” and his own reading of the author as a child “induced nasty and repetitious nightmares that linger even now” (3). Bloom is just the kind of authority Poe would have detested, and he would have been delighted to hear to that he managed to give the critic, who hasn’t even caught on to the topmost layer of his layers-deep satire, nightmares into adulthood. Still, his laugh would have to be tempered by the tragedy that he never did get his chance to write what he wanted to write without the specter of poverty looming over him.