Symbolism Is Simple…Sort of: “The Black Cat” Assignment

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:

1. Analytic

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?

2. Creative

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.

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10 comments

  1. 1. Analytic
    I’ve chosen the two hounds belonging to the boy Billy Coleman in Where the Red Fern Grows to analyze for symbolism. Most obviously they represent loyalty—a trait most ascribed to canines—and diligence to their task. The fact that one is male (Old Dan) and the other is female (Little Ann) seems to suggest that their teamwork is a symbol of any successful human marriage. They are remarkable hunting dogs because they have managed to remove any weakness from the individual by supplementing the opposing strength of the other. Throughout the novel, each individually has successes, but they are never as great as when they use their combined physical and mental abilities. Billy’s dedication to his animals is born from their unrelenting spirit in the hunt and their affection for each other and their owner. They are protective of Billy, in a way that can resemble a parent, and willingly sacrifice their lives for his and for his game (meant in manner of the object of Billy’s hunt). Their deaths—Old Dan’s from being disemboweled by a mountain lion and Little Ann’s from the grief of losing her companion—are unexpected and come suddenly. This seems to represent the fact that nothing in life can really be planned with certainty, that chance can permanently alter one’s life. Their deaths also manage to convey the real-world lesson that although the person or creature you once loved is suddenly gone, the memories of them, however initially painful to recall, soon develop into the salve for the wound created by their passing. Billy’s acceptance over his dogs’ deaths, once he witnesses the growth of the red fern between their graves, reinforces the soul’s need to grieve over what has been lost so that healing may ensue. If the dogs were really parental symbols, then their deaths and Billy’s reaction are dually a warning and an example to the reader. It explains the only natural course is to lose one’s parents, or greatest protectors, as they age. Additionally, it suggests the “child” must use the education received from his or her parents to shape a future which validates the parents having lived.

    • Very nicely done! You even gave a kind of psychoanalytic reading of the dogs as symbols. I like your reading of them behaving like parents, or at least representing a marriage of sorts. Are Billy’s parents present in the novel? Do the dogs replace them? I don’t remember.

      I read this book in grade school and have attempted to not read or watch dramas that have animals ever since. This book and a traumatic viewing of _Old Yeller_ scarred me for the rest of my life!

      • I read it in middle school so it’s a bit fuzzy, but from what I remember his parents are alive. There time is mostly taken up by chores on the farm and taking care of his sisters. I did a quick review of the plot online and it repeatedly mentioned his grandfather and his interactions with the dogs. Although I appreciated the story (the best you can as a sixth grader who is horrified over the image of a dog’s intestines exposed), I could never read it again for the reason that it’s just too depressing.

      • I was wondering if the dogs were a physical replacement of Billy’s parents as well as a psychological one. Hmmm…the Grandfather. Not sure what to do with him; it’s been 20 years or more for my last reading.

  2. 1. Analytical
    For my response I have chosen to analyze the different symbolic animals within Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” I read this earlier this year just for fun, so I had to go back and graze over it again to get myself reacquainted with the text, so I’m hoping I can give a quality reading of these animals. The story actually begins and ends with the animals I’m going to be looking at. The text starts out with some a small sentence of background information, “Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.” This sentence introduces the reader to the first animal, the leopard, which has died trying to reach “the House of God” high on the mountain. The other animal is not introduced until the end of the story, when Harry, the main character, hears the howling of the hyena in the night. To understand the true symbolic meaning of the two animals and their relation to Harry you have to read the rest of the story, but I’ll try to sum it up quickly.
    The story is about a writer named Harry who goes on a safari in Africa (much like Hemingway himself) and gets an infection in an injury he obtained while on the safari. The entire story mostly just revolves around the current situation Harry is in, with him dying in his camp with the woman he is with, and the past year or so that has been Harry’s life. Harry badly wants to be a successful writer but doesn’t actually want to have to write. He is tormented by his own personality and how he has let himself fall into crowds he doesn’t want to be a part of. He argues and bickers with the woman who is on the safari with him and who is taking care and watching over him as his health deteriorates. The story talks about Harry’s dreams that he never achieved and the amazing things he saw but was too lazy to ever write down. As the story begins to close Harry becomes more peaceful, but begins to hear the howling of hyena somewhere around their campsite. As Harry drifts off to sleep he imagines a plane picking him up and taking him to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, as the howling of the hyena continues.
    I want to start off by analyzing the hyena and its symbolic meaning. The hyena in this story represents Harry himself (as does the leopard, but I’ll get to that), but not the good Harry that can be found in some of the stories that are told, but the disgraced Harry, the one that is too lazy to write and just likes to party with the wealthy people that he truly dislikes. Harry wants something good to just fall in his lap, a good story that will make him famous and wealthy, but something he doesn’t have to work very hard to write, just as a hyena is a scavenger and gets its food and nourishment from the leftovers of animals that have been killed by bigger and stronger predators. The hyena is basically representative of Harry’s life in the past year, his disgraced life, the one he has come on the safari to try and rid himself of. Now the leopard on the other hand has an entirely different meaning for Harry and his life. The leopard, we know, died trying to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro, the same place Harry imagines himself going to at the end of the story. The leopard is the real Harry, the passionate and the strong Harry, the Harry who could write a great story using his amazing writing skills. The leopard is great and strong animal in the story, but he too, like Harry faced death at the hands of the elements of Africa, dying trying to reach a goal; he leopard, trying to reach the summit, while Harry died trying to regain his true meaning and demeanor. The leopard fell short, as did Harry, and even though Harry did imagine himself flying over Kilimanjaro and reaching “the House of God”, his true fate, the hyena, still howled into the night as he death overcame him

    • And we can still “hear” his howl by reading the story. In a way, the “howl” is the story itself. Makes me want to reread this and look at Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” again.

  3. 1. Analytic
    Most of the time, dogs are a symbol of love, loyalty, friendship, etc. Yet in Stephen King’s Cujo, the Camber’s family Saint Bernard represents evil and choas in the most innocent of creatures. Like most evil beings, Cujo didn’t start out as an agent of chaos, but was turned by a dark force, in this case a rabid bat in a cave. This friendly body soon turned into the monster that haunts four-year-old Tad Trenton’s closet. Man’s best friend soon becomes man’s worst nightmare when he starts to brutelly kill anyone who comes near the house, including his own master, the neighbor, and the sheriff. The evil in the dog has killed three beings that would normally represent good and help the poor mother and son that are trapped in a Pinto by the demon dog. Cujo’s bloodlust only increases when Ted’s mother tries to leave the car to save herself and her over-heated son, only to be attacked by the 200 pound dog. She survives the attack and rushes back to the Pinto, but Cujo got a taste and wants more. Mrs. Trenton soon finds a bat on the side of the road and goes to attack the hellhound. Mid-beating, the bat breaks and she stabbs the dog with it. Like most evil, even when you think it’s dead, it isn’t really. Just as Ted and his mother think they are safe in the house, Cujo bursts throught the kitchen window and attacks. Mrs. Trenton finally kills the dog with the dead sheriff’s revolver. One may take the symbolism of Stephen King’s Cujo in many ways. To me, Cujo really represents two main points: 1. Choas and evil has many faces, even those that you may not predict. The most innocent of creatures, such as a beloved pet dog, can become an agent of chaos bent on destroying anything that crosses its path. Likewise, though it may start off innocent, good, and pure, a simple push of an evil being, such as a rabid bat, can turn the greatest of people or creatures into a dark force. 2. The monsters in your closet can easily come to life. Ted saw an evil being with strong teeth and beady black eyes that wanted noting more than to kill. Days later, Ted met Cujo. Like Cujo, the monsters in your closet never TRULEY die. It may take a while to kill it in body, but the fear will always remain. All in all I believe Cujo represents the unpredictability in evil and how/where/when it may show its ugly head.

    • While it is not considered “of literary merit” (by College Board), you’ve identified some of the reasons why Stephen King’s books have done so well. Well, for one, he’s a good writer. He also, at his best, has the ability to capture what’s scary, or potentially terrifying, about everyday life. King has a great book on horror’s place in culture called Danse Macabre. I highly recommend it and wish that he would update it!

  4. 1. Analytical
    I chose to analyze the two contrasting symbols of darkness and light in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. I chose this story because of its darkly honest tone, similar to Poe’s “The Black Cat”. I feel the color of the cat can be compared further to the darkness symbolized in “Allegory of The Cave”. In Plato’s work, the darkness represents ignorance, and the light represents knowledge. He sets this up in a scene with a dark cave surrounded by sunlight on the outside of the cave and a fire on the inside of the cave which casts shadows. The prisoners in the cave are in the darkness(ignorance). The fire casts shadows of passerby in front of the prisoners and considering this is all they’ve ever known, they assume the shadows as truth. If a prisoner was released to look into this fire, his eyes would not yet be adjusted to the light (knowledge). Therefore, when he sees the objects that made the sadows wich represent the real truth or knowledge, he will be confused by this knowledge (blinded by the light). But, with time, his eyes will adapt to the light, his brain to the knowledge, and this new truth will be percieved as the only truth. And if the man traveled back into the cave, his eyes, again, would burn with ignorance (darkness) because he can no longer assume the shadows a truth the way thi still imprisoned can. As Plato describes it,(this isn’t an exact quote) “If the man were set to a contest against the still imprisoned, he would surely look ridiculous in his blinded frenzy to find truth”.

  5. 1. Analytical of The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brian
    I have chosen to analyze the title of Tim O’Brian’s The Things They Carried. Throughout the story O’Brian is telling the experience of an American troop in the Vietnamese War. On the surface, it seems like the title is referring to the physical and literal items that the soldiers had to carry, considering O’Brian goes into extreme detail about weight and size of the guns, food, knives, and trinkets that each man carried, some more than others, and how they rotated with the big gun to even the load. Only,this is just half of what the title is referring to. The title also refers to the mental and psychological burdens that the war and gore put on their shoulders. In the novel, O’Brian has graphic scenes where the men seem almost inhuman; he shows how they had lost touch with the morals of the world while in battle. One scene depicts a soldier cutting off the extremity of a dead Vietnamese to keep as a souvenir and then peeing on the corpse. Other stories from O’Brian’s experience like this explain how difficult it was to keep it together mentally in the Vietnamese jungle, seeing friends change, die, lose control and just disappear into the wilderness. These mental burdens were just as heavy as or heavier than the literal things that the men carried. This is further shown in O’Brian’s anecdotes from after the war that he adds throughout the book. One is about his doughter asking him questions about the war and how it takes him back to the one moment where he ambushed a man on a foggy trail, and his concience waivering on whether the other guy would have done the same thing to him. His half regret knowing he took the life of another human, and other burdens move him to write the book, and title it The Things They Carried.

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