Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” and Frederick Douglass

Matthew Teutsch
5 min readAug 29, 2022

We started my “Monsters, Race, and Comics” course this semester by reading various texts, including Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” and “Hop-Frog or The Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs.” These stories work as explorations of national and societal anxieties, explorations which rest at the core of the gothic and horror. Underneath the veneer of seemingly innocuous tales of a man imbibing in too much drink and killing his cat and wife and a tale about a court jester who enacts revenge on the king who enslaves him lies the national fears and anxieties of the conservative class surrounding the enslavement of human beings. I’ve written about this before with “Hop-Frog,” and today I want to look at how “The Black Cat” works within this matrix, playing on the fears of the psychological trauma induced upon the enslaver when he or she enslaves someone else.

In their collection of Poe’s short stories, Stuart and Susan Levine place both “The Black Cat” and “Hop-Frog” in the section entitled “Moral Issues,” and they position the stories in relation to alcoholism and the temperance movement. With “The Black Cat,” they also state that the overall moral rests on the ways that power corrupts: “All this tale says is that the capacity for violence and horror is within even the nicest of us: compassionate people who like goldfish, dogs, and cats.” This fear of absolute power is at the core of “The Black Cat,” and we see it in the actions of the narrator, how his violence increases over the course of the story as his position of power over the cat(s) and his wife increase, spurred on partly by alcohol. However, I’d argue that more exists here than a mere morality tale about the presence of evil within each of us.

Lesley Ginsberg, in “Slaver and the Gothic Horror of Poe’s ‘The Black Cat,’” details the ways that Poe’s narrative revolves around slavery and how the story invokes “discourses central to the 1830s and 1840s, including its rehearsal of the scene of pet abuse so often featured in antebellum child-rearing manuals and its repetition of the obsessive pitting of black against white, dependency against freedom, and animal against human which fueled contemporary debates over chattel slavery and social reform.” Ginsberg’s essay lays all of this out and highlights the Africanist presence, to borrow Toni Morrison’s phrase…

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Matthew Teutsch

Here, you will find reflections on African American, American, and Southern Literature, American popular culture and politics, and pedagogy.