Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts, to parents who were itinerant actors. His father David Poe Jr. died probably in 1810 and his mother Elizabeth Hopkins Poe in 1811. Edgar was taken into the home of a Richmond merchant John Allan and brought up partly in England (1815-20), where he attended Manor School at Stoke Newington. Never legally adopted, Poe took Allan's name for his middle name. Poe attended the University of Virginia (1826), but was expelled for not paying his gambling debts. This led to a quarrel with Allan, who later disowned him.

In 1836 Poe married his 13-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm. She burst a blood vessel in 1842, and remained a virtual invalid until her death from tuberculosis five years later. After the death of his wife, Poe began to lose his struggle with drinking and drugs. He addressed the famous poem "Annabel Lee" (1849) to her.

Poe's first collection, "Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque", appeared in 1840. It contained one of his most famous works, "The Fall of the House of Usher". The dark poem of lost love, "The Raven", brought Poe national fame, when it appeared in 1845. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841) and "The Purloined Letter" are among Poe's most famous detective stories. Poe was also one of the most prolific literary journalists in American history. Poe suffered from bouts of depression and madness, and he attempted suicide in 1848. In September the following year he disappeared for three days after a drink at a birthday party and on his way to visit his new fiancée in Richmond. He turned up in a delirious condition in Baltimore gutter and died on October 7, 1849.


Anguish in Poe’s works

Much of Poe's best works is concerned with terror, sadness and anguish. In his prose tales his familiar mode of evasion from the common experience was through eerie thoughts, impulses, or fears. From these materials he drew the startling effects of his tales of death (“The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Masque of the Red Death”, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”, “The Premature Burial”, “The Oval Portrait”, “Shadow”), his tales of wickedness and crime (“Berenice”, “The Black Cat”, “William Wilson”, “Imp of the Perverse”, “The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”), his tales of survival after dissolution (“Ligeia”, “Morella”, “Metzengerstein”), and his tales of fatality (“The Assignation”, “The Man of the Crowd”). Even when he does not hurl his characters into the clutches of mysterious forces or onto the untrodden paths of the beyond, he uses the anguish of imminent death as the means of causing the nerves to quiver.

Horror elements are always present in Poe’s stories and they recur quite insistently: noble families in ruined castles, torn corpses, women buried alive, foolish murderers and in each of his works is always present a strong sense of anguish.

The difference between Poe and all the other writers is that he excites in us the real horror, because in his works he speaks about himself, reflecting the torment of his soul and the restlessness of his tormented life in his dark pages. In his thoughts the nightmare of a premature death was always present, because all the people he loved were gone.
Typical of his narration (he always uses a first person narrator) is the lucidity and the quietness of the characters when they speak and tell about horrible and awful scenes.

Another element that many of protagonists have in common is the madness, which derives very often from apparently normal situations and from the quite obsessive repetitions of certain actions. An example of character affected by madness is present in one of his most known stories: the black cat.


Click here to read "The Black Cat"


The Black Cat: Analysis

Setting: 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 flashbacks.

Characters: Although several characters are mentioned in this story, the true protagonist is the nameless narrator, who is fond of animals, and he was pleased to find a similar fondness for pets in his wife. They had many pets including a cat. The cat was a large, beautiful animal that was entirely black. Pluto, as he was called, was the narrator's favourite pet. He alone fed him, and Pluto followed the narrator wherever he went.

Point of view: Telling the story from the first person point of view (a perspective that Poe used quite frequently), Poe intensifies the effect of moral shock and horror: In this first person narrative the narrator tells of his decline from sanity to madness, all because of an obsession with two (or possibly one) black cats. These creatures finally drive him to take the life of his wife, whose death he unsuccessfully tries to conceal.

The reader discovers 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".

Symbolism: Symbolism is always an integral part of any Poe’s story. The most obvious of symbolic references in this story is the cat’s name, Pluto, which is also the name of the Roman god of the underworld. Pluto contributes to a strong sense of hell and may even symbolize the devil himself. Another symbolic part of “The Black Cat” is the title itself, since black cats have long connoted bad luck, death, sorcery, witchcraft and misfortune.

Language: The words in “The Black Cat” were precisely chosen to contribute to Poe’s effect of shocking insanity. Perfectly selected, sometimes rare, and often dark, his words create just the atmosphere that he desired in the story. Expressions such as “apparition,” “vile haunts,” and “fiendish malevolence” were added for atmosphere. Another way that Poe used word choice was with synonyms. The cat was not only the “black cat,” it was the “playmate,” the “beast,” the “brute,” the “apparition,” and the “monster”.

(Edgar Allan Poe's Grave)


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Percorso interdisciplinare di Pamela De Pasquale Anno Scolastico 2004-2005 Liceo Scientifico "G.Oberdan" Trieste