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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What happens to the narrator at the end of the first paragraph in "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

Quick answer:

The narrator swoons at the end of the first paragraph.

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At the end of the first paragraph, the narrator swoons.  

If you are like my students, they do not immediately know what "swoon" means. It means to faint, to lose consciousness, to pass out, and/or to black out.  

The reader does not know for sure that the narrator...

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has lost consciousness until the reader reads the first sentence of the second paragraph.  At the start of that paragraph, the narrator flat out announces that he "had swooned."

Swooning does carry a slightly different connotation than a simple passing out.  When a person swoons, it is often because of an emotional overload.  Having the narrator swoon at the end of the first paragraph makes perfect sense, because the narrator has just been sentenced to death.  From the moment that his death sentence is pronounced, the narrator starts to lose touch with reality.  He admits that he no longer hears specific words. 

The sentence -- the dread sentence of death -- was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears. After that, the sound of the inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum.

By the end of the paragraph, the narrator is hallucinating and wishing for death. 

And then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave.

His mind simply can't handle everything that is going on, so he swoons.  

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What happened to the narrator of "The Pit and the Pendulum" as he slept?

The first time that sleep overtakes the narrator is during his effort to circumnavigate the walls of his dungeon and thus find out how large it is. When he wakes up, he finds a loaf and a jug of water beside him, which indicates that he has been observed or inspected as he slept, and shows us how carefully his keepers are watching him.

The second time he sleeps is after he discovers by accident that there is a hidden pit in the center of his dungeon, but escapes falling into it when he accidentally trips before reaching its edge. Again, when he wakes up, he finds a loaf and water beside him. However, this time, the food and drink appear to be drugged, so that his keepers can manipulate him freely while he is unconscious. They bind him to a "low framework of wood" which is intended to hold him in a fixed position as the pendulum slowly descends from the ceiling and cuts him in half.

The intervals of sleep thus serve as punctuation to the narrator's ordeal, allowing the narrator's keepers to first challenge him with the pit, and then with the pendulum.

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