Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The first-person narration, in which the “I” remains unnamed, causes the reader to identify with the protagonist. The obvious disadvantage of the use of the first person—the knowledge from the outset that he manages to escape because he has lived to tell his story—is overcome by Poe’s ability to create such tension and illogical fear that one forgets this fact.
The protagonist’s dread is shared by the audience, for both are ignorant of the character’s environment and his ultimate fate. Therefore, suspense is maintained, for the reader and the narrator discover each detail simultaneously. As each new fact is revealed, there is a temporary feeling of relief, which is destroyed as new, more awful terrors become known. This alternation of relief and renewed terror ultimately causes the reader to doubt that any escape is possible, despite the fact that, logically, the narrator must survive in order to write his account.
Another technique that contributes to the nightmarish atmosphere of this tale of horror is the distortion of time, space, and reality. The narrator says that the pendulum’s descent was “only appreciable at intervals that seemed ages. . . . Days passed—it might have been that many days passed.” Perception of space is also altered and unreliable. A room thought to have a perimeter of one hundred paces is, in reality, much smaller. In addition, the room’s shape and characteristics are changed by unseen forces:...
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The Pit and the Pendulum (Magill Book Reviews)
“Terror is not of Germany, but of the soul,” said Poe in the preface to his TALES OF THE GROTESQUE AND ARABESQUE. In other words, Poe rejected the conventional trappings of the Gothic horror tale and tried, instead, to create the effect of terror by leaving much to the imagination, while at the same time giving minute details which create verisimilitude.
A victim of the Inquisition, the narrator of “THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM” finds himself confined in a torture chamber. He escapes by plunging into a pit, only to face further terror in the form of a swinging pendulum with a razorlike blade that descends closer to his body with each swing.
The entire plot consists of the narrator’s responses to this plight. He endures a series of dreadful predicaments which hasten the disintegration of his mind and body in this living death. Despite the seeming futility of his condition, he absurdly struggles to save himself from each dilemma, only to face a yet more horrible situation. At various times, hope revives, and his mind becomes calm, attaching itself to a trifle or matter-of-factly calculating the dimensions of the prison. At other times, his mind plunges into despair and his senses betray him, especially toward the end when he perceives the shape of the room changing.
The tale ends with the unexpected deliverance of the narrator from the scene of terror. On the literal level, he is liberated by the enemies of the Inquisition, but the real story is one of the mind saved from annihilation or madness.
Ideas for Group Discussions
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For Further Reference
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Burluck, Michael L. Grim Phantasms: Fear in Poe’s Short Fiction. New York: Garland, 1993.
Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
Irwin, John T. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytical Detective Story. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Kennedy, J. Gerald. A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
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