Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
One obvious theme is the inexorable passage of time, ending in death as the final outcome of all life. The pendulum, usually associated with clocks and time, here combines the two elements, for it is one of two possible means of execution, and it is also compared to the scythe wielded by Father Time. The other obvious symbol of death is the pit, a synonym with death or Sheol since biblical times.
The horrors of the Spanish Inquisition are also treated specifically. This is not, however, a diatribe against Spain or a laudatory statement about France. Instead, on a more universal level, it shows the cruelty that humans exercise on their fellow human beings. Edgar Allan Poe uses the historical background solely to render the story more believable and, thus, more frightening. His purpose is to create a nightmare in which the reader becomes a coparticipant with the protagonist, sharing in the terror and the suspense.
(The entire section is 156 words.)
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Poe's story is both a fictional account of one of people's worst nightmares and an allegory of the most basic human dilemma. The stark details of the story suggest its universal theme. It begins with the protagonist's being sentenced to death, although he does not seem to be guilty of any crime; his judges are only shadowy, black-robed figures without identity; and he is thrown into absolute darkness, which makes it difficult for him to know whether his experience is a reality or a nightmare. In fact, many aspects of the story suggest that what Poe is trying to create here is a dream experience. Even the conclusion, when the narrator is saved from the pit by the sudden arrival of the French army, seems like the awakening from a nightmare.
The entire story takes place inside a pit or prison cell into which the narrator of the story, and indeed the story's only visible character, has been thrown. Although the pit is the immediate setting of the story, the broader historical context is the Spanish Inquisition during the sixteenth century, when the Inquisition, a court of the Roman Catholic Church, persecuted heretics, so-called witches, and members of other religions with torture and execution.
The story does not indicate what the nameless narrator and central character of the story has done, if anything, to deserve the tortures he endures in the pit, nor does it deal with any of the religious or social implications of the Inquisition. It simply...
(The entire section is 280 words.)