Much like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat” follows the narrator’s descent into madness after he proclaims his sanity in the tale’s opening paragraph. Even the narrator acknowledges the “wild” nature of the tale, attempting thereby to separate his mental condition from the events of the plot. The nature of the narrator’s madness differs from that of the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” “The Black Cat” does not concern itself only with the self-contained nature of the narrator’s mind. Rather, the narrator confesses an alcoholism that interferes with his grasp on reality and produces mood swings. Alcohol is, like the cat, an external agent that intrudes on the dynamics of the plot. The introduction of alcohol as a plot device is also significant because Edgar Allan Poe was an reputedly uncontrollable drunk throughout his lifetime. For many years, his biographers asserted that he died of alcohol poisoning in a gutter in Baltimore. More recent biographies insist that the exact cause of Poe’s death cannot be determined. Regardless, it is certain that Poe suffered from the deleterious effects of alcohol consumption throughout his life.
The influential literary critic Tzvetan Todorov introduced a concept of the “fantastic” in the early 1970s to discuss literature of horror, and the idea can be applied usefully to “The Black Cat.” The fantastic, he asserts, explores the indefinite boundary between the real and the supernatural. The fantastic is a literary category that contains elements of both the rational and the irrational. One of the fantastic elements in “The Black Cat” is the existence of the second cat—with the changing shape of its white fur and its appearance on the corpse behind the wall. These plot twists challenge reality, but they do not completely substitute a supernatural explanation for a logical one. It is possible that the plot twists derive only from the insanity of the narrator. As a result, the plot twists, like the fantastic, hover between the real and the supernatural. The resolution of the story is both rationally possible and tremendously unlikely; the cat could inhabit the basement walls, but it is difficult to believe that it would remain silently in the wall for a long time or go unnoticed by the overly meticulous narrator.