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The Pit and the Pendulum

by Edgar Allan Poe
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How do you imagine making the torture a gauntlet and a spectacle justifies torture in the mind of the inquisitor?

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In The Pit and the Pendulum , the narrator consistently makes reference to the “Inquisition,” and his imprisonment in the Spanish town of Toledo. This is a reference to the fifteenth-century Spanish Inquisition, to which the narrator has fallen victim. The militantly Catholic monarchy of Spanish King Ferdinand II and...

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In The Pit and the Pendulum, the narrator consistently makes reference to the “Inquisition,” and his imprisonment in the Spanish town of Toledo. This is a reference to the fifteenth-century Spanish Inquisition, to which the narrator has fallen victim. The militantly Catholic monarchy of Spanish King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I was a period of extreme religious intolerance. After having successfully driven the Muslim Moors out of Al-Andalus, the Spanish monarchy used extraordinarily brutal methods to convert Jewish and Muslim believers to Catholicism. The use of torture was well-established across Europe by this period as a way of forcing prisoners to confess to religious crimes, and the Spanish used it zealously to persecute heresy.

For these reasons, the deployment of torture as a spectacle had a number of purposes. In the first place, it was very common for European religious authorities to use torture, or the threat of torture, to convince heretics to convert to particular Christian faiths. In the case of Spain, this was to Catholicism. By emphasizing the psychological effects of torture via public executions, displaying instruments to be used for the deed, and visualizations of the horrible creativity of torture itself, authorities often hoped to convert prisoners without actually needing to kill them. It is possible that the Inquisitors holding Poe’s narrator captive hoped that their nefarious machinations would convince him to renounce whatever faith he held and accept Catholicism in its stead.

In the second place, transforming torture into a spectacle, particularly a long, drawn-out gauntlet, was a common strategy employed by early-modern monarchs to demonstrate their power to the masses. Michel Foucault explains the utility of public torture at great length in Discipline and Punish, focusing specifically on the function of torture in early-modern France in punishment for attempted regicides. Torture, Foucault argues, was the way in which the king could symbolically represent his power in the body of the condemned. The tortured-man, through his very activity of suffering and pain, was a manifestation of the authority of the monarchy. In The Pit and the Pendulum, the protracted torment that the narrator is put through may very well be the efforts of the Spanish Inquisitorial authorities, who themselves represent the power of the Church, to project their authority. In this case, the spectacle and gauntlet of the narrator’s suffering would once again serve as an embodiment of state authority, serving a political, as opposed to a merely sadistic, function.

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