Along with Poe’s “Black Cat,” I hope you are reading the How to Read Literature book. Foster does a great job breaking down a lot of the basics of the type of reading that will be expected in the class. The more you understand how to read literature in this way, the better you’ll do on these assignments, the AP test, and also the more fun you can have with the material.
You could read the “Is That a Symbol?” chapter of the Foster book as a companion to this assignment.
So, considering that we have all read “The Black Cat,” we know that this one is pretty crazy and sick even for Poe. Well…maybe.
I guess on the surface it is violent. But if we begin thinking about the story a little deeper than what’s presented on the surface, then we may find some interesting ideas beyond the superficial horror of the story.
Let’s look at the title. Beyond the functions of plot, maybe the titular character serves some other purposes. Psychoanalytic readers love Poe. For example, I’ve read at least one essay in which the black cat is symbolic for a mother figure. The patch of white on the cat’s breast symbolizes a “mother’s milk.” Hmmm…I don’t think I’ve ever been satisfied with that reading and maybe I should be generous and go find that essay again. Even if that makes total sense to you, let’s take that idea and use it.
If we can take the black cat as symbolic, and I think we can, well, what does the symbol mean? (This is where literature holds all matter of fun for me.) In one sense, maybe the black cat as “mother” here represents our narrator’s traits that he believes or imagines are inherited. Maybe he’s trying to cut himself from his family by killing the symbol of it. Here, I think, the black cat could be symbolic of our narrator’s alcoholism, madness, or wrath or any mixture of these. Remember though, the white spot on the black cat becomes a noose, possibly the noose that eventually hangs the narrator. Maybe the black cat is his inherited degeneracy that leads to his downfall. The narrator is then “tied” to his family and to this inheritance. In the end, he can’t kill the black cat or “sever” himself from his genetics or addiction.
If we abstract this a bit from the story itself and talk about it in terms of a more thematic generalization, we could come to a statement like this: the black cat is the thing we hate in ourselves, but that we cannot “kill” or get rid of it without destroying ourselves.
And this is just the beginning of a thought process on the black cat. I’m sure I’m missing several interesting ways to read the symbolism of the cat.
But on to the assignment.
Do one of the following:
For this assignment, give a reading of an object or animal from a text much like the one that I’ve given above. (By “text” I mean a movie, comic strip, novel, or poem, etc.) THIS MUST BE YOUR OWN WORK. Be creative and thoughtful (that’s easy to say, I know, I know) and not obvious. Yes, Garfield could represent sloth, but that’s obvious—go beyond that. Explore some new ideas.
You could start with these types of questions: What does this character or object mean? Represent? Say about the world? Say about being human? Can I use this specific detail or characteristic to say something more general about living in the world?
You don’t have to parody Poe for this one (sometimes that is irresistible, I know) but write a sequence using an animal or object as a symbol. Like the analytical assignment, this should not be obvious, but try to be thoughtful, explore some ideas, and have fun.
You could approach this from the mysterious, like Poe’s black cat, or state up front something like “Life is like a box of chocolates” and then creatively explore this symbolism.