illustration of a blade on the end of a pendulum swinging above a man's head

The Pit and the Pendulum

by Edgar Allan Poe

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How does the conclusion of "The Pit in the Pendulum" impact its overall meaning?

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One does not associate Edgar Allan Poe's stories with happy endings. Because of this, the reader may be surprised by the sudden reversal of fortune at the end of "The Pit and the Pendulum." After all the narrator's terrible trials, he is suddenly saved by General Lasalle himself, the ultimate deus ex machina, who has ahistorically led the French army into Toledo and vanquished the forces of the Inquistion.

The ahistorical element here may provide a clue to Poe's attitude, and certainly has an impact on the overall meaning and effect of the story. Critics have written much about the historical inaccuracies in "The Pit and the Pendulum," several of which, such as the sudden entrance of General Lasalle, would have been so easy to check and correct, that we seem to be left with two alternatives. Either Poe simply did not care about the historical accuracy of his story and never troubled himself about the details, or he muddled the historical details intentionally, to create a confused, dream-like effect in the narration.

In either case, it is very clear that historical accuracy matters much less than the creation of atmosphere, and that the sudden, hasty ending is similarly subordinate to the baroque description of the tortures suffered by the narrator during the story. The sudden, unobtrusive ending serves chiefly to deflect attention away from itself and towards the horrific events in the main body of the narrative.

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If anything, the ending seems to reinforce the general themes of irrationality and randomness central to the story.

Some readers might get the impression that Poe was defeated by his own material and that the rescue at the close is unconvincing and even inadvertently comic. In the context of his oeuvre it is at least an atypical climax, since most of his stories conclude with some horrific catastrophe and the protagonist's defeat. In "The Pit and the Pendulum" we are shown a counterweight to the horror, where suddenly "the Inquisition [is] in the hands of its enemies." The turnabout is presented without elaboration, in a single brief and rapid paragraph, as if it has somehow been arranged for the personal salvation of the narrator. The "outstretched arm" that catches his own is that of "General LaSalle," and we are given virtually no further information beyond that of the French Army having entered Toledo and deposed the Inquisition.

It's like a supernatural intervention. Somehow the "fiery walls" of the chamber are destroyed—without any harm to the narrator—and after the slow and demonic torture to which he's been subjected, he's been instantly saved. Furthermore, his rescuer is the leader of the liberating army, seemingly saving him personally.

Is this an ending Poe simply tacked on because he couldn't think of anything other option, any more legitimate way to end the story? We have no way of knowing. But the utter strangeness of this reversal is in keeping with the nightmarish surrealism of the whole narrative. It makes no less sense than anything...

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else in the story that General LaSalle's forces would miraculously appear and destroy the torture chamber and its deadly pendulum. Perhaps, as with the works in general of Poe, and of his contemporary Hawthorne as well, the outcome merely reinforces our overall impression of a dream, of events in which reality and fantasy are indistinguishable, merged into one.

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The happy ending of this gruesome short story is a surprise. The unnamed narrator has been through a series of horrible close encounters with death after being condemned by the Spanish Inquisition. The narrator, for example, finds himself tied to a board, with a pendulum sharpened like a scythe swinging overhead and coming closer and closer to him. Luckily for him, food has been left near him, which is being devoured by rats. The narrator keeps his wits about him and is able to smear grease from the food on his bonds, so that the rats gnaw through them, allowing him to escape in the nick of time. Then the narrator finds his ledge narrowing as his back is pressed against a hot wall. Only as he begins to faint and fall into the pit is he suddenly saved by General LaSalle of France.

This sudden intrusion of a savior is called the "deus ex machina" or god as machine or mechanism, coming in to save the day. It impacts the story by making an already surreal and nightmare-like situation seem even more like awakening from a bad dream. We might even think what the narrator recounts was a dream that he woke up from.

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The final paragraph of Edgar Allan Poe's 1842 story is

"There was a discordant hum of human voices! There was a loud blast as of many trumpets! There was a harsh grating as of a thousand thunders! The fiery walls rushed back! An outstretched arm caught my own as I fell, fainting, into the abyss. It was that of General Lasalle. The French army had entered Toledo. The Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies."

What is revealed in these final eight sentences is the reason the narrator has been imprisoned and tortured. He has been held in Toledo, Spain, during the period known as the Spanish Inquisition, when the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella sought to make Spain exclusively Catholic and purge it of nonbelievers.

The overall meaning of the story is found in how the narrator experiences his captivity. The focus is on the sounds and sensations he hears and feels and the terror he experiences. His miraculous escape from the blade because of his own cleverness and the arrival of his high-ranking savior makes for a dramatic story.

Poe apparently was not concerned with historical facts, though, because General Lasalle did not lead the French troops that invaded Toledo during Napoleon's campaign in the Peninsular War (1807–1814).

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