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Logic vs. Justice in Poe’s The Black Cat, The Tell-Tale Heart and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

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The idea of reason vs. intuition is often seen in literature, but some literature depicts it differently than others. The Black Cat, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Scarlet Letter all have a character that becomes obsessed with “justice,” and their struggle with justice primarily depicts the struggle between reason and intuition. While the characters in these stories naturally want justice, they also want to do what their reasoning tells them, which often goes against what they intuitively think is just.

In The Black Cat, the narrator has a major struggle with justice and guilt after he cuts out the eye of his favorite pet, a black cat. Despite struggling with alcoholism for several years, which causes the narrator to abuse several of his other pets and his wife, his violence against the black cat is somehow different for him. It was his abuse of the cat that truly caused him to go mad. Shortly after he cut out the cat’s eye, he quickly began to get angry at the cat for avoiding him.

Soon, he even ends up hanging the cat, but even he cannot sufficiently explain his own actions to himself. He says that he “hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart; — hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence” (Poe, The Black Cat). He is crying and remorseful even as he hangs the cat, almost as if he does not want to do what he is doing. He says that he hangs the cat because it had done nothing wrong, rather than despite that it had done nothing wrong. His actions at this point are clearly not the actions of a sane man. Up until this point, he had been a violent alcoholic, but he could not be called insane until he hangs the cat. The narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart does not descend into insanity like the narrator of this story, but is very similar nonetheless.

The Tell-Tale Heart features a man who is similar in many ways to the narrator of The Black Cat. Much like the narrator of The Black Cat, the narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart is constantly obsessed with justifying his actions, despite the fact they clearly make no logical sense. He kills the old man because of his eye, which he compares to the eye of a vulture. He is also obsessed with being slow and careful in his murder, and believes that this proves him sane. “Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded –with what caution –with what foresight –with what dissimulation I went to work!” (Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart).

His reasoning is that a madman could not possibly have the caution and foresight that he has in planning and committing this murder, but he has no logical reason to kill the old man in the first place. He says that he has no desire for the man’s gold, and that the old man had never insulted him. Most importantly, he says that he loves the old man. The narrator of The Black Cat kills the black cat under almost the exact same circumstances. In fact, there are few differences between the narrators of the two stories, but Dimmesdale from The Scarlet Letter has both several similarities to and differences from the narrators of both these stories.

In The Scarlet Letter, Dimmesdale’s crime is much less serious that the crimes of the narrators of the other two stories. In fact, his crimes is the opposite of the murders committed in the other two stories in a few ways. It is clear that the murder of the old man is not a crime of passion, the narrator says so himself. Dimmesdale’s sin however was out of love more than anything. Dimmesdale also never tries to explain or justify his actions, unlike the narrators of both the other stories. This is probably because he never feels the need to; the narrators of The Black Cat and The Tell-Tale Heart seem to know that they will be seen as madmen and therefore try to justify their actions, whereas Dimmesdale’s sin is not something that would cause people to think he is insane.

Dimmesdale is, however, eventually is driven to a sort of madness (in the form of his sickness) like the other two narrators. On page 128, Dimmesdale is described to be “suffering under bodily disease, and gnawed and tortured by some black trouble of the soul” (Hawthorne). It is clear that his physical ailment is strongly linked to his mental state. His madness is due purely to his own guilt however, whereas the other two narrators have other reasons for their eventual insanity as well as guilt. Perhaps the most important way that these characters are similar however is the fact that they all share similar fates at the end of their stories, and they end up with these fates for similar reasons.

One of the most interesting similarities between these three characters it that despite the fact that they all have committed a crime, they themselves are the ones who most desperately seek justice. In all of these stories the sinners are the only ones with the power to bring themselves to justice, and all three of them eventually do. This is most obvious in The Tell-Tale Heart, in which the narrator believes he is hearing the beating of his victim’s heart. The beating of the heart represents his guilt and conscience, which he desperately tries to silence but cannot. He knows that the only way to stop it is to confess, and he eventually gives in to his conscience, screaming, “I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! here, here! –It is the beating of his hideous heart!” (Poe, Heart).

In The Scarlet Letter, Dimmesdale grows physically weaker throughout the book because he does not confess to his sin. He wants justice because he knows that what he did was wrong, but he also believes that he cannot confess. Dimmesdale tries to atone himself through physical punishment, but he knows that the only true relief from his guilt will come when he confesses. When he finally does confess, he finally get the kiss from Pearl that he had wanted, which clearly shows her approval of Dimmesdale’s confession. It’s less clear what actually happens to the narrator of The Black Cat and what is in his mind. Many of the things that he mentions could have been his overactive imagination creating hallucinations because of his extreme guilt. By the end of The Black Cat, the narrator is clearly insane, as proven by his actions during the policemen’s visit. He says, “I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom” (Poe, Cat).

Perhaps, however, his actions were subconscious; perhaps he secretly did want to be discovered because he knew it was the only way to stop his guilt. Even though it may not make logical sense to an outside observer, all three of these characters went against reason and followed their intuition, which was to confess.

The struggle between reason and intuition is depicted in The Scarlet Letter, The Black Cat, and The Tell-Tale Heart through Dimmesdale and the narrators of the latter two’s struggles with their intuitive desire for justice despite the repercussions, which their reasoning side seeks to avoid. However, their intuition leads them to the morally right decision, which ultimately makes them feel better. Dimmesdale is even thankful for the mark on his chest, saying “[God] is merciful! He hath proved his mercy, most of all, in my afflictions. By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast!” (Hawthorne 229). The symbolic mark on Dimmesdale’s chest is itself even a representation of the conflict between reason and intuition throughout The Scarlet Letter. Logically, there is no reason for it to exist, but clearly it must. The intense need for justice overpowers any sense of reason; guilt can be a powerful force.

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Logic vs. Justice in Poe’s The Black Cat, The Tell-Tale Heart and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. (2022, Nov 30). Retrieved from

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