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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Rats are often used as symbols of death and decay. In "The Pit and the Pendulum," how does the prisoner’s response to these rats—especially when they crawl over him—suggest that he might see them in this way?

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The narrator in "The Pit and the Pendulum " is painfully aware of the connection between rats and death. He knows that they desire to make him their "prey," in other words, to eat him alive. He wonders what food they have been used to eating within the well....

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The narrator in "The Pit and the Pendulum" is painfully aware of the connection between rats and death. He knows that they desire to make him their "prey," in other words, to eat him alive. He wonders what food they have been used to eating within the well. Previously, he has guessed that the pit held worse torment than simply plunging to one's death, and here the reader understands what he meant. Worse than dying in the fall would be to have fallen into the pit and remained alive, only to be devoured by the rats. Ironically, the man's plan of escape requires him to submit himself to possible consumption by the rats. After he spreads the meat on his bonds, he must lie "breathlessly" still, as if dead already, to persuade the rats that they can eat him. He is nearly smothered by them as they swarm over him, even over his lips and throat. He is moved to intense disgust, and a "deadly clamminess" grips his heart. Yet everything depends on his convincing the rats he is dead, so he continues to lie perfectly still. Thus, ironically, the agents of death become his deliverers, and he is able to escape the descending pendulum. Had he not been willing and able to face the horrors of being consumed by rats, he would have died under the oncoming blade.

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