Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The first-person narrator informs the reader that he is trying to recall and write down everything that happened to him earlier. He describes the Spanish Inquisition’s sentencing him to death, a sentence that he could not understand because of his extremely nervous state. When he regained consciousness temporarily, he felt himself being carried down and down into an apparent abyss. Later, when he was fully conscious, he knew that he was lying on his back in an oppressive, damp environment. Finally daring to open his eyes and finding himself in absolute darkness, he imagined that he was buried alive. Food and drink were provided to him only when he swooned or slept. Later, while investigating his surroundings, he narrowly escaped falling into a deep pit to a certain death. Shaken, but relieved, he fell asleep. When he awoke, some light entering the dungeon made it possible for him to compare the room to his calculations made in the dark.
Soon he discovered that one form of torture and execution had only been replaced with another, for he was strapped to a table so that only his head and left arm could be moved slightly. A large razor-sharp pendulum suspended overhead drew nearer with each pass. The ponderous rate at which it descended increased his agony, for he had to await death for what seemed to be many days. At last he developed a plan: He smeared some scraps of meat on his ropes so that the rats in the cell came to gnaw on them. Just as the pendulum brushed his skin, the ropes were loosened enough to allow him to escape. His relief was again short-lived, for the walls of his cell became hotter and hotter, forcing him toward the pit in the center of the room. When he resisted, his invisible tormentors moved the walls so that he was squeezed toward death by heat or by falling into the pit. At the moment when he was losing his foothold, the machines were suddenly turned off, and the walls receded. Just before he fell into the pit, he was rescued by General Lasalle, the leader of the French army, which had just invaded Toledo.
First published in 1843 and subsequently revised by Poe for an 1845 issue of The Broadway Journal, "The Pit and the Pendulum" is told by an unnamed first-person narrator whose credibility actually rises even as he is subjected to increasingly fantastic tortures. At the outset, the narrator acknowledges that he is "sick," but we immediately realize that his illness is not a form of insanity, but an hallucinatory condition that can be explained by the physical abuse that he has already undergone. Although he is temporarily deranged, the narrator is nonetheless rational. He is, in fact, a victim of the Spanish Inquisition in Toledo, accused of some unidentified (implicitly heretical) crime, and has been bound for sentencing. The narrator first hears the sound of his judges in a "dreamy hum," but is then unable to hear at all. Instead, he sees the white lips of the black-robed inquisitors as they pass sentence upon him. He focuses his sight on seven tall candles, which at first appear to him as angels, but then dissolve into meaningless forms. The whole scene, including the judges, vanishes before the narrator's eyes. He is now engulfed by utter darkness, and a single sweet note ringing in his ears that he associates with the relief of death. The narrator swoons and lapses into a limbo state of consciousness: he is aware of his own existence but he is disassociated from sensory contact with the external world.
The narrator suddenly experiences a sense of motion and when his full mental faculties return, he is able to recall his trial in full. He lies on his back, but he keeps his eyes shut, fearful of what he might see. He recalls tales of the horrible deaths that the torturers of the Spanish Inquisition have inflicted upon their victims. When he does open his eyes, he still cannot discern what his situation is because there it is pitch black. He initially fears that he has been buried alive; but when he is able to stand erect, he recognizes that he is in some sort of cell where he may be starved to death. He knows that the judges have imposed a death sentence, and that the only remaining questions are how and when it will be executed.
In complete darkness, the narrator tries to glean whatever he can about his physical surroundings. The walls and the floor of his enclosure are moist and slippery, and appear to be constructed of stone. He attempts to trace out its seemingly circular dimensions, marking a starting point with a bit of fabric from the coarse robe in which his torturers have dressed him and then counting paces until he reaches it again. In his weakened condition, however, he is unable to complete this exercise. He collapses and falls asleep from exhaustion. When he awakens, he finds a loaf of bread and a pitcher of water at his side. The inquisitors plainly intend to keep him alive for the presumed purpose of increasing his torment. He resumes his effort to estimate the size of the dungeon cell: he reckons that it is fifty yards in circumference. The hem of his coarse prison robe becomes tangled. He slips on the floor and falls on his face. In this position, he senses that his chin is elevated above the remainder of his head and realizes that he is lying on the edge of a large circular pit. He stands and drops a piece of stone into it. The time elapsed by the stone's fall indicates that the pit is a deep chasm, the sound of a splash at the end of its descent indicates that water lies in its lower reaches. Just then, he hears the sound of a door opening and closing overhead. He is sure that he is being watched and that his observers fully expected him to fall into the pit....
(The entire section is 1472 words.)