Madness. A word to describe a state of being mentally disturbed, deranged, coming off the path of normality and sanity defined by the society we live in. It describes a certain form of absurdity, something abnormal, possibly stupid in the eyes of others. But when does one become one become mad? It could creep up on them quietly, slowly, like a headache. Unnoticed by its new host, nestling into their thoughts behind bones and flesh, with a dangerous hunger for every ounce of sanity. Maybe it claws at their back, ripping open naked skin until it can see the unbearable iron rod against their spine and their teeth feel more like sharpened daggers and then it starts whispering things into their ear until clammy hands reach for a knife or rip out strands of hair, gradually becoming worse until their grip on reality disappears. Maybe Madness comes with a pang, from one second to another, after a look in the mirror or after something as simple as forgetting to buy milk at the grocery store. A blink of an eye and of you go down a spiral of chaos (and Stupidity, god knows, what dumb things a human could possibly do). It could be, that there is a piece of madness in every one of us and all it needs is a push over the edge. Many stories in our age as well as in past centuries offer protagonists with certain forms of madness in literature, with different roots and cause of deranged behavior.
The Narrator in Edgar Allen Poe’s story called ‘The Black Cat’, which doesn’t portray the author, but plays the significant protagonist in this story, actively illustrates conspicuous behavior that indicates a form of madness or insanity. Those signs become gradually more striking, the more the narrated story progresses. First of all, it is worth noticing how the narrator keeps insisting that he isn’t mad (c.f. ll. 2-3) despite finding himself on death row and knowing that his execution will take place the following day. The reason for is before standing death is the gory murder of his wife.
As the narrator begins to take a look back on the life he lead, the reader gets an image of a almost stereotypical happy life the narrator lived – a wife, a beautiful house, lovely pets. He introduces the reader to a unique black cat called Pluto, ‘his favorite pet and playmate’ (l.9), which seems like a normal ‘friendship’ a person could have with their pet.
It seems as if the narrator had a content life, until he experiences ‘[…] a radical alteration for the worse’ (l. 26). This sudden change causes the narrator to get ‘more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others’ (l. 27). Now, these feelings could be seen as some sort symptoms after having a bad day or even going in the direction of depression, that may cause the protagonist to feel rather malcontent. Soon, he starts developing abusive behavior, first of only doing harm with his words until he starts to use ‘personal violence’ (l.28) towards his wife and the animals he surrounds himself with, the only exception being his black cat, Pluto (cf. ll. 28-31). Not only could be the abuse and neglect towards an important person in his life a sign for the narrators own suffering, it is also the beginning of the already mentioned madness. As the story goes on, more suspicious problems start to occur along the lines of alcoholism. After another night of consuming too much alcohol, the narrator feels as if ‘the fury of a demon instantly possessed (him)’ (ll. 34-35) after Pluto, his cat, ‘inflicts a slight wound on the narrator’s hand’ (l. 34).
In a moment of uncontrollable rage, he proceeds to grasp the pet by the throat ‘and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket’( l.37). The next morning the narrator feels ‘a sentiment half of horror, (…) remorse (and) guilt’ (ll. 39-40). In spite of the fact that he shows violent and horrendous actions, the protagonist still has a sense of sanity, although his cruel behavior exposes growing parts of madness in him. However in a short while the narrator describes ‘ the spirit of perverseness’ (ll. 45-46) which forces him to continue his violent behavior towards Pluto, even though this significant black cat was once his favorite pet. Consequently, the animal gets hung on a tree by the narrator, who is concious and aware that he is indeed committing a ‘deadly sin’ (l.55). Despite the fact that the character feels remorse and guilt ‘with tears streaming from my eyes`(ll. 53-54), his ever growing madness keeps pushing him into doing deranged things. After many suspicious encounters in which the narrators madness was only a faint shadow, the protagonist gets haunted by the ‘phanatsm of the cat’ (l. 78) for the following months, after he barely survived a fire that not only destroyed his home but took most of his valuable possessions ferom him, the same night he murdered his favourite cat. On the occasion of visiting the ruins of his burned home, he finds that a wall of his bedroom survived the flames, even though it was ‘a compartment wall, not very thick’ (l.64) and to his horror discovers the body of a cat without any rope around its neck. The main character tries to calm his nerves with a rather unlikely explanation about how the cat might have gotten into his bedroom, but, like previously mentioned, thee narrator can’t let go his thoughts about his dead pet until he finds another cat which resembles Plutos appearance in almost every aspect except for a rather small white spot (cf. ll.82-87). This occurance is rather strange in light of the fact that Pluto has been described as a unique and unusual cat, which lets the reader believe that there shouldn’t be a second cat that looks similar to Plutos appearance like the animal found by the protagonist.
Without further thoughts about it, the narrator of the story adopts the cat, only to develop “disgust and annoyance’ (ll. 95-96), which evolves quickly into ‘bitterness and hatred’ (l.96) for the reason that his new pet keeps reminding him of the sin he commited, his ‘former crime’ of murdering Pluto (l.108). The growing anger and hatred towards the animal triggered solely by its presence and its habits that resemble Plutos behavior may be another sign of the main character madness in this tale, but the memory of his violent actions in the past prevent the narrator from hurting the cat, but nevertheless, he keeps physically abusing his wife (cf. ll. 112). (so, the wife gets beaten and the cat can watch like a little piece of trash???)
The other day, the main character climbs the stairs into the cellar, his wife following him with every step, until he trips over his pet causing him to almost fall (cf. ll. 129-130). Feeling èxasperated … to madness’ (l.130), the protagonist reaches for an axe and starts an attempt to kill the animal, from which his wife can stop him. Instead of starting a second attempt to kill his cat, the narrator now goes for the head of his wife, successfully murdering her with one strike. (cf. ll. 132-134). A point worth noting is, how the only reaction the main character shows is concern about a good hiding place where he can get rid of the corpse of his now dead wife, after proceeding to start yet another try to “put the cat into death’ (l.154) he has to discover, that the cat has fled from the home. As a result of murdrering his wife, hiding her lifeless corpse and the cat being fiagone, the narrator feels ‘satisfied’ (l.150) and slips into a ‘soundly and tranquilly’ (l.158) sleep that night (way to go after you killed your wife and cemented her into a wall, if you ask me, sir). The reader can now only imagine how lost the narrator is and how far he came off the right path. (because no one, I repeat, no one gets rid of a corpse through putting that body into wall)
To sum up everything, that has been stated, the narrators insanity seems to gradually become more prominent. Within each strange occurance, the madness seems to creep up on him like a shadow until the protagonist gets overwhelmed by this deranged feeling that eventually urges him to commit murder. He gets pushed and pulled to the edge, keeps his balance on the edge for a certain time until one single moment pushes him over the edge and he falls into the madness, just like gravity. And suddenly nothing makes sense anymore and it doesn’t have to make sense anymore. The surrounding don’t appear as they truly are and the mainh character has to act on it, even if their actions are abnormal and deranged.
‘The Imp of the Perverse’, also written by Edgar Allan Poe, describes an overpowering impulse that forces a person to do what other faculties say shouldn’t be done. In the 21st century, the french term ‘l’appel du vide’ is similar to the Imp of the Perverse. It translates literally to ‘call of the void’ and describes the unexplainable desire or urge to jump, when on the edge of a cliff – something society says a person shouldn’t do (unless there is water underneath and it is safe, but we’ll just ignore that). The narrator of ‘The Imp of the Perverse’ mentions the pull to such void as he tries to explain the certain impulse of doing a rather dangerous thing in certain situations; ‘It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations durimg the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such height’.
Likewise feels the protagonist in ‘The Black Cat’. Though he is driven by pure anger at his cat Pluto, he feels an urge to abuse the animal in form of stabbing out one of its eyes, which may already seem cruel enough. As the story of ‘the black cat’ moves further, the main character describes a ‘spirit of perverseness’ – he feels an unexplainable urge to show more violent behavior towards his pet and ultimately kills the cat out of sheer impulse.
‘For weeks, for months (the narrator) pondered upon the means of the murder’, he feels the impulse to attempt a murder, studying and analyzing the behavior of his supposedly victim until he commits the murder. He followed the urge to take someone else’s life without a second thought about the consequences of his actions in that exact moment. The same demeanour has the narrator of ‘the black cat’; he acts on the impulse to commit a murder and kills his own cat. Both narrators feel remorse and guilt after some time, feel harrassed through memories of their crimes. Both mention the feeling of being haunted, by both their thoughts and the feeling of guilt ripping through them, although they murdered with the awareness of committing a sin. The protagonist in ‘the Imp of the Perverse’ seems to get gradually mad, jut like the narrator of ‘the Black Cat’. Their madness is just a shadow behind their back up until the very moment, where it overwhelms the characters and pulls him into the darkness. They are driven by unexplainable urges to murder until their desires are satisfied – The main character in ‘The Black Cat’ proceeds to take the life of his wife, while the protagonist and narrator of ‘the Imp of the Perverse’ takes the life of another inncocent person, without any cause or reason. The insanity of the character builds up with every other situation they experience, it layers itself until the madness crushes the narrators underneath its weight. They get driven mad through their own irrevocable actions and fall down a spiral of chaos.