ENGL1302 Weatherford College Role of Animal in Literature Analysis Paper do as attachment…………………………………………………………

ENGL1302 Weatherford College Role of Animal in Literature Analysis Paper do as attachment……………………………………………………………. Death, Decay, and the Daguerreotype’s Influence on “The Black Cat”
Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, College of the Holy Cross
In “The Black Cat,” Poe’s narrator discovers an odd pictorial representation of a crime he just committed. An
“impression” of the cat he killed appears with astonishing accuracy—even the rope around the animal’s neck—
on his bedroom wall. This portrait resembles a daguerreotype in its placement, its durability, its verisimilitude,
and its effect on viewers. The narrator’s explanation for how it was produced alludes, moreover, to LouisJacques-Mandé Daguerre’s pioneering technique for developing images on photosensitive plates that have been
exposed in a camera obscura. Indeed, “The Black Cat” grotesquely parodies each step in Daguerre’s procedure, as
Poe himself depicted it in his initial essay on “The Daguerreotype.” The proliferating forms, figures, and
facsimiles of the black cat—including how the story’s second half recapitulates the first—recall other aspects of
daguerreotypes, such as their print reproduction and their use in post- mortem portraiture. Although the
processes described in this story clearly suggest daguerreotypy, they produce different results. “The Black Cat”
reflects not only Poe’s familiarity with early photography but also his awareness of techniques for resisting or
assisting decomposition, as explained by chemists like Humphry Davy, Justus von Liebig, and Alexander
Petzholdt. Whereas early photography provided a means to preserve optical reflections—including those of
family members who have died—Poe’s narrator attempts to abolish such traces of the past. By mod- eling the
macabre processes that the narrator describes on Daguerre’s technique for developing latent photographic
images, Poe’s horror story transforms the very nature of the daguerreotype portrait to emphasize not
preservation, but decay.
the daguerreotype and early photographic techniques, postmortem portraits, chemistry, decomposition, “The
Black Cat”
the edgar allan poe review, Vol. 19, No. 2, 2018
Copyright © 2018 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA
In March 1839, the Museum of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art—a journal published in Philadelphia, where
Edgar Allan Poe was then living—reported on an invention “that seems more like some marvel of a fairy tale
or delusion of necromancy than a practical reality: it amounts to nothing less than making light produce
permanent pictures, and engrave them at the same time, in the course of a few minutes.”1 No one knows how
Poe learned about this mysterious method for preserving the dreamlike visions inside a camera obscura,
which Louis-Jacques- Mandé Daguerre had announced in France on January 9, 1839, thus heralding the
invention of photography.2 Perhaps he read about it in the Museum or some other American journal that
spring or heard it described in a lecture by W. R. Johnson, a professor, in Philadelphia the following winter. 3 In
any case, Daguerre’s discovery must have seized Poe’s imagination, since he was already familiar with the
camera obscura and with optics in general.4 By the spring of 1840, he was pub- lishing articles on the
daguerreotype in both Alexander’s Weekly Messenger and Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, emphasizing the
invention’s technical aspects.5
Not surprisingly, Poe’s interest in this discovery affected the fiction he wrote in the early 1840s. 6 It influenced
his own invention—in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” published in 1841, a year after his articles on the
daguerreotype— of a new genre (the detective story); a new plot (the locked-room mystery); and a new form
of narration (use of a first-person observer without direct access to the detective’s mind). 7 His first experience
sitting before the camera, probably in 1842,8 also led him to create a new kind of horror story, featuring a
mono- maniac obsessed with obtaining a particular image: in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which appeared in 1843,
the narrator’s attempt to shine a dark lantern onto an old man’s eye reflects the process of taking
daguerreotypes.9 Poe’s fascination with this technology may have shaped other stories, too.10 He refers
explicitly to Daguerre’s discovery in “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade,” when the queen
recounts that a powerful magician once “directed the sun to paint his portrait, and the sun did” (M 3:1168).
Poe’s strangest treatment of the daguerreotype occurs in a horror story about obsession, blinding, murder,
interment, exposure, guilt, and confession that was published several months after “The Tell-Tale Heart.”11 In
“The Black Cat,” the increasingly unstable narrator discovers an odd pictorial representation of one of his
crimes. An “impression” of his dead cat Pluto—hanged from a tree in the garden the day before—appears
with astonishing accuracy, even including the rope around the creature’s neck, on the inner wall of his
bedroom (M 3:853). The replica’s appearance on an interior surface, in particular, suggests a camera. The way
this device works is that images pass through a tiny aperture into a dark- ened chamber—hence the term
“camera obscura”—to reflect upside-down on
Death, Decay, and the Daguerreotype 207
the opposite surface. The manifestation of optical images inside a dark space is a natural phenomenon, first
observed by philosophers and scientists thousands of years ago; what Daguerre discovered was a way to
preserve them.
Poe concentrates in “The Black Cat” neither on how images enter a camera from outside (as he does in “The
Murders in the Rue Morgue”) nor on how the camera’s operator focuses and exposes them (as in “The TellTale Heart”). Instead, he describes a bizarre method for developing an image—in this case, of an animal’s
corpse—once it has been captured on a photosensitive surface. By modeling that imaginary process on
Daguerre’s procedure, Poe’s horror story transforms the very nature of a daguerreotype portrait to
emphasize not pres- ervation, but decay.12
The Portrait
How did Pluto’s likeness come to appear on that bedroom wall? As if the nar- rator of “The Black Cat” were a
detective like Dupin or Legrand—or even like Daguerre himself, who supposedly established through a series
of deductions that it was mercury vapor from a broken thermometer that had developed images on exposed
plates13—he traces the incidents leading to this result. In the opening paragraph, the narrator explains that
his tale comprises “a series of mere household events” (M 3:849), which a rational mind might see as “nothing
more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects” (M 3:850). The first event occurs when
the narrator, who loves animals but has gradually succumbed to the “Fiend Intemperance,” deliberately cuts
out the eye of his favorite pet, the black cat of the title (M 3:851). Next, annoyed because the cat now flees
from him, he hangs Pluto from a tree, weeping all the while because he knows that killing his pet is wrong.
That night, the narrator’s house catches fire and burns to the ground, destroying its contents along with his
“entire worldly wealth” (M 3:852).
Everything is obliterated save for a single interior wall. Poe’s narrator points out that it was “a compartment
wall . . . which stood about the middle of the house, and against which had rested the head of my bed.” When
he returns to the site the next day, he finds a crowd of onlookers gathered around this wall, examining it
“with minute and eager attention” and exclaiming over something on its sur- face. “The words ‘strange!’
‘singular!’ and other similar expressions, excited my curiosity,” the narrator reports. Studying the wall
himself, he sees Pluto’s image reproduced there “with an accuracy truly marvelous” (M 3:853). The portrait is
ter- rifying not only because it depicts the cat’s dead body but also because it remains visible, in daylight, even
after the house—of which that wall once formed an inte- gral part—has been demolished. This phenomenon
cannot be explained away
208 Susan Elizabeth Sweeney
as the narrator’s fancy, as Susan Amper points out: “We could call it imaginary, the product of the narrator’s
guilty conscience. But the figure seems the most real thing in the story, one of the few that we are told has
been observed by others.”14
Indeed, the cat’s likeness recalls the verisimilitude of a daguerreotyped portrait. 15 The surface on which it
appears resembles an exposed plate that has been removed from a camera—where it would have been
inserted along the inner wall—and developed. The exclamations it elicits from the crowd sug- gest the
amazed responses of those viewing a daguerreotype for the first time. “Wonderful wonder of wonders!!” one
observer remarked in an early descrip- tion of the spectacle.16 In his first article on Daguerre’s discovery, Poe
described the image’s truthfulness in similarly exalted terms, as “most miraculous” and “infinitely more
accurate in its representation than any painting by human hands.”17 The fact that the spectators in “The Black
Cat” express such astonish- ment after carefully examining the likeness also recalls the daguerreotype. As Poe
explained in his article, “The closest scrutiny of the photogenic drawing [that is, the daguerreotype, literally
an image made by the sun] discloses only a more absolute truth, a more perfect identity of aspect with the
thing represented.”18
The Procedure
Faced with the uncanny visual record of his crime, Poe’s narrator remarks, “I am above the weakness of
seeking to establish a sequence of cause and effect, between the disaster and the atrocity. But I am detailing a
chain of facts—and wish not to leave even a possible link imperfect” (M 3:853). His statements recall an
account of Daguerre’s discovery, a year earlier, in The Photographer’s Guide: man’s intelligence “enables, and
gives him a desire to see through, and explain cause and effect. What then can be more interesting and
pleasing to the intel- lectual and philosophic mind, than to trace the effect of this curious operation of nature
to its cause?”19 In the same spirit, Poe’s narrator proposes an expla- nation for Pluto’s portrait. He speculates
that some passerby, noticing the fire, cut down the dead cat and tossed it through the bedroom window to
rouse the occupants from sleep. The narrator adds that his bedroom had been recently plastered. He deduces,
therefore, that “the falling of other walls had compressed the victim of my cruelty into the substance of the
freshly-spread plaster; the lime of which, with the flames, and the ammonia from the carcass, had then
accomplished the portraiture as I saw it” (M 3:853).
Readers have dismissed this hypothesis as “unlikely,”20 “delusionary,”21 or “preposterous.”22 David Halliburton
quotes the narrator’s explanation in its entirety before observing that in the mid-nineteenth century, “a mind
like Poe’s did not have to restrain its speculations about the behavior of matter for fear
Death, Decay, and the Daguerreotype 209
of being corrected by someone with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering.”23 Yet despite the narrator’s unreliability,
his scenario may not be all that farfetched. Ammonia—a gaseous compound of nitrogen and hydrogen—does
indeed ema- nate from a corpse’s lungs in the hours after death.24 Strong bases like ammonia or lime could
indeed etch a pattern onto a wall’s surface, especially in response to pressure against it. 25 Poe undoubtedly
knew these facts. He was interested in specific aspects of bodily decay, as shown by the early story “Loss of
Breath” and later tales like “The Premature Burial,” “Some Words with a Mummy,” and “The Facts in the Case
of M. Valdemar.” He read widely in natural history, chemistry, and engineering. He also published a column on
new discoveries, “A Chapter on Science and Art,” in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine; surveyed recent inventions in “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade”; predicted tech- nological advances in tales of
science fiction; and boldly speculated about the interconnectedness of all matter in Eureka: A Prose Poem.26
Poe must have had a reason, then, for including this detailed account of chemical reactions in “The Black Cat.”
In their essay on Poe and early daguerre- otypists in Philadelphia, Benjamin J. McFarland and Thomas Peter
Bennett observed that the etching of the cat’s image is “faintly analogous to the chem- ical processes of
photography and may serve as a metaphor for the process,” although they did not develop this notion any
further.27 More recently, Tiffanie Itsou described it as “a figurative daguerreotype—a one-of-a-kind image
taken directly from its original subject and rendered through the effects of light and chemicals.”28 I suggest,
however, that the narrator’s explanation for the portrait not only alludes to Daguerre’s remarkable discovery
but also parodies each step in the procedure he established.29
It may seem strange to think that Poe—who is known for caricaturing his enemies, from his foster father,
John Allan, to the Boston literati—would mock the inventor of the daguerreotype in this way. Daguerre was
someone he greatly admired, one of the few individuals admitted to his “private hall of fame.” 30 Poe clearly
appreciated the magnitude of Daguerre’s accomplishment; understood the science behind it; and recognized
the affinity between his own interest in visual phenomena and the new technology’s emphasis on reflections,
represen- tations, and facsimiles. By the time that he wrote “The Black Cat,” however, Poe may have already
expressed his admiration for Daguerre’s ingenuity in describ- ing aspects of his detective hero, C. Auguste
Dupin—who, like Daguerre, was a Frenchman, a Parisian, an analyst par excellence, and someone accorded
the rank of chevalier in the Lé gion d’honneur. Besides, Poe’s horror story focuses on a brutal, selfish
monomaniac, not a supremely rational intellect. In the open- ing paragraph, the narrator even acknowledges
that he cannot reason clearly,
210 Susan Elizabeth Sweeney
addressing a hypothetical reader with a mind “more calm, more logical, and far less excitable” than his own
(M 3:850). The narrator’s volatility and impulsive- ness suggest that, as a thinker, he is the opposite of
Poe’s first essay on “The Daguerreotype” demonstrates his familiarity with Daguerre’s complex procedure for
preserving images in a camera obscura. Eventually, the daguerreotype process would include several
additional steps, from trimming the metal plate to gilding and framing a finished daguerreotype portrait (Fig.
1). In his essay, Poe describes in detail the series of chemical reac- tions that form the essence of Daguerre’s
A plate of silver on copper is prepared, presenting a surface for the action of the light, of the most delicate
texture conceivable. A high pol- ish being given this plate by means of a steatitic calcareous stone (called
Daguerreolite) and containing equal parts of steatite and carbonate of lime, the fine surface is then iodized by
being placed over a vessel con- taining iodine, until the whole assumes a tint of pale yellow. The plate is then
deposited in a camera obscura, and the lens of this instrument directed to the object which it is required to
paint. The action of the light does the rest.31
The process of preparing, exposing, developing, fixing, and displaying a daguerreotype plate. Susanna Celeste Castelli,
DensityDesign Research Lab, 2014.
fig. 1
Death, Decay, and the Daguerreotype 211
Three years later, in “The Black Cat,” Poe’s narrator presented a crude, gro- tesque, even macabre version of
this sequence to explain how a cat’s likeness came to appear on his bedroom wall.
To begin with, the first link in the narrator’s “chain of facts” (M 3:853)—that the cat’s body must have been
flung into an open window—recalls the optical phenomenon of an external image traveling through the
aperture of a camera obscura. In Poe’s story, it is a black cat’s corpse, not a moving figure’s illuminated
reflection, that has passed through the opening.32 Although the narrator’s bed- room may have been dark,
since it was nighttime and the occupants were appar- ently sound asleep, the house itself must have been
ablaze; the narrator claims that he did not awaken until his bed curtains caught fire. Indeed, “The Black Cat”
replaces the sun, as the light source generating images inside a camera, with a raging fire—implying heat as
well as brightness and evoking the infernal regions. Poe thus describes not a sunlit reflection penetrating a
darkened cham- ber during the day, but instead a black object entering a blazing room at night.
The next link in the narrator’s chain—his observation that the wall against which the animal’s corpse was
thrown had been freshly plastered—alludes to the necessity of preparing a smooth surface to take the image.
More precisely, as Poe’s article explains, the daguerreotypist first fuses a copper plate with sil- ver foil; next,
he polishes it with a fine sand, a mixture of carbonate of lime or calcium carbonate (that is, limestone) and
steatite (composed largely of mag- nesium or talc);33 then he coats it with iodine fumes, making the surface
pho- tosensitive. An 1853 illustration of daguerreotype equipment depicts wooden boxes in the left and right
foreground, each containing a porcelain basin with an airtight glass cover, which were used to coat the
polished plate with iodine (and later bromine as well) before depositing it in the camera (Fig. 2). 34 In “The
Black Cat,” the narrator’s bedroom wall received similar treatment when it was spread with lime plaster. The
primary ingredient of lime plaster is crushed limestone, which is heated to produce quicklime, or calcium
oxide—a soluble, highly alkaline substance—and then combined with water to form slaked lime, or calcium
hydroxide. (Poe was familiar with this chemical reaction, which he mentions in “The Balloon-Hoax.”)35 Slaked
lime is mixed with sand, horsehair, and other materials to create plaster, which, after being applied to a wall,
grad- ually sets, drying and hardening into limestone again over a month’s time. 36 Poe’s story describes using
both limestone and sand to prime the surface that will receive the image, approximating the very process he
described in his first article on “The Daguerreotype.”
To establish the third link in this supposed chain of facts, the narrator spec- ulates that the cat’s corpse was
pressed into the fresh plaster by the house’s col212 Susan Elizabeth Sweeney
fig. 2 Apparatus for processing daguerreotypes from Robert Hunt’s Manual of Photography, 1853. The equipment depicted
includes the following: (a) camera obscura; (b) silver plate; (c) bromine and iodine boxes; (d) mercury box; (e) plate
holders; (f) box for holding plates; (g) levelling stand, used in fixing the image; (h) dish for washing plates; and (i) hand
lapsing walls, just as an image being daguerreotyped is cast onto the prepared plate after the daguerreotypist
inserts it into the camera. Here, the cat’s solid corporeality takes the place of the fleeting apparition captured
by a daguerreo- type. Indeed, the corpse’s physical position offers a grotesquely literal version of what
happens to an image inside a camera.37
Finally, the narrator suggests that the cat’s image has been preserved through a complex chemical reaction.
This last link in the narrator’s chain corresponds to the most important step in the daguerreotype pro…
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