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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Please explain some of the symbolism in "The Pit and the Pendulum."

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The Pit and the Pendulum” is full of symbols. Although they are all open to interpretation, several, particularly the pit and the pendulum themselves, are very clear and comprehensible given the themes and atmosphere of the story.

The narrator is condemned by white-lipped, black-robed judges, whose resolution and contempt for human life suggest that they symbolize fate. He then notices seven tall candles, which at first seem like angels but quickly become “meaningless specters with heads of flame.” The narrator himself says that he saw no help would come from them, showing that they symbolize the departure of hope, perhaps hope from a spiritual or religious quarter.

The pit symbolizes the ever-present threat of death and hell, into which it would be all too easy to cast oneself in despair or sink without even realizing it. The pendulum is a symbol of time, lethal and razor-sharp because time eventually destroys everyone and everything. Although all these are instruments of torture designed by the Inquisition, the red-hot walls which threaten to force the narrator into the pit actually symbolize torture, which through the infliction of fiery pain actuates the subject to seek his own destruction.

Finally, General Lasalle and his forces, the enemies of the Inquisition who rescue the narrator, accompanied by the sound of trumpets, represent the Enlightenment values of reason and liberty.

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Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" is a tightly written, concise story where almost every object is packed with symbolism.

The most obvious would be the pendulum itself. With its steady swinging arc and the danger it poses to the central character, the pendulum symbolizes the passage of time and the inevitability of death. The pit beneath is meant to represent oblivion or perhaps even hell. The moving walls are much like the pendulum, not stopping as time does not stop. The imagery in all three of these symbols represents an almost primal fear of death and pain, as well as the unknown.

The Spanish Inquisition is symbolic of human evil and the lengths humans will go to sanctify their brutality. Though their goal is to protect the faithful from heresy, they seem to prey on people for petty reasons. Sadism rather than love motivates their actions. The Inquisition becomes associated with the pit and the pendulum, while the secular French soldiers who rescue the protagonist are associated with light, suggesting much about Poe's attitudes towards organized religion.

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The narrator describes the ceiling of his cell as having a panel painted with a figure of Father Time, a traditional anthropomorphized representation of the passage of time. Traditionally, he is a bearded figure who carries a scythe and some timekeeper, like a clock or an hourglass.  In the story, however, there is a moving pendulum, as if symbolically marking off the time the prisoner has left. At closer inspection, the pendulum does not simply swing, it is a large razor, which will ultimately, and literally, take the life of the prisoner.

The pit, the other threatening feature of...

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the cell, is a yawning abyss meant to symbolically represent the abyss of hell.

As the pendulum moves ever closer to the prisoner, he stops struggling and begins to think of it as a "bauble"—or toy—as if his torturers are symbolically toying with him psychologically.

The fact that the prisoner is being tortured in the context of the Inquisition might be symbolic in that it could reveal attitudes Poe had about religion. Poe scholars tend to agree that he was not a practicing Christian in most periods of his adult life, and by revisiting the horrors of the Inquisition, Poe could be reminding readers of the Church's brutality.

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There are several symbols in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum":

  • The candles - At first the seven candlesticks resemble angels who may have come to help the narrator as they surround the seven black robed judges; however, they soon fade from his view. They may, then, symbolize his flickering, waning life as he is condemned by the judges.
  • The pit - At first the narrator escapes the pit, but after he is able to escape from the pendulum, the walls push him toward the pit, much like the fall into Hell.

"The pit, typical of hell, and regarded by rumour as the Ultima Thule of all their punishments."

  • The pendulum - The swinging pendulum represents the inexorable passage of time. Shaped like a scythe of Father Time, the rhythm of this pendulum resembles the heart beat of the narrator.
  • The moving walls - The walls seems to close in on the victim, pushing him toward the pit. This pit symbolizes the unknown horror of the Inquisition. Its depth does not permit the victim from seeing its shape or knowing what is inside it.

Only at the last second is the narrator saved by the French.

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This story is full of symbolism.  One could view the entire story as one man's descent into hell (the pit functions as a symbol obviously), then his progression into purgatory (the pendulum serving as a way to pass time or work off his sins), and then finally his ascension into heaven (the French soldiers freeing him symbolic of heaven by the sudden light shining into the gloom and the sound of horns heralding his release).

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