If you’re a character in a Poe story, chances are your fate is doomed. Such is the case for Pluto—aptly named for the Roman god of death—from Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Black Cat.”
Pluto is a large, friendly black cat who belongs to the (unnamed) narrator and his wife. They’re both very fond of him, and vice-versa. Everything is great, until the narrator gradually sinks into alcoholism and, with that, becomes a lot more contentious.
One night coming home very drunk, he thinks Pluto is avoiding him. Offended, he finds the cat and uses his pen-knife to remove one of its eyes. Pluto slowly recovers over time, but as our unreliable narrator slips further into the bottle he becomes irrationally enraged once more, fashions a noose, and hangs his once-adored pet from a tree.
That’s when things really get messed up.
(/s. But also, they do.)
The night our inebriated narrator commits this heinous deed, he wakes to a mysterious fire in his house. The next morning, he sees an impression on the wall of a “figure of a gigantic cat” with “a rope about the animal’s neck.” Henceforth, he’s haunted by thoughts and visions of Pluto, even succumbing to guilt over what he’s done.
Some time later, he comes across another black cat in a tavern who acts and looks exactly like Pluto. Becoming quick friends with the cat, he takes him home and he and his wife dote on him. But soon, the pattern repeats.
Once again, the narrator becomes moody, easily enraged, and intolerant of the cat, ultimately failing in an attempt to kill the creature and—oops—killing his wife instead. It just so happens the murder takes place in a cellar, where he can conveniently hide her body by removing a portion of the wall and resealing her inside it.
Everything is great again (well, relatively speaking) until the cops come to investigate and—oops—a howling, yowling meowing comes from behind the wall, screaming the narrator’s guilt. You might as well call this story “The Tell-Tale Cat.” In fact, it was published the same year as Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” in 1843.
It’s no leap to conclude that Pluto and his successor (who, for all we know, due to our unreliable, drunken narrator, could be one and the same cat) aren’t cats so much as nasty reminders to the narrator of his destructive alcoholism. He tries to kill it, but it always comes back to haunt him.
Poor Pluto didn’t do anything wrong except be a metaphor. A metaphor for a thing that haunts and stalks the narrator. A neutral entity that takes on a malevolent aura when filtered through the wrong perception, that turns into something evil, intent on bringing bad luck and ruin.
This latter was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree. In speaking of his intelligence, my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured with superstition, made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise. Not that she was ever serious upon this point—and I mention the matter at all for no better reason than that it happens, just now, to be remembered.—Edgar Allen Poe, “The Black Cat”