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
Start Free Trial

What do the rats symbolize in "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

The rats in "The Pit and the Pendulum" symbolize freedom, resourcefulness, and hope.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Typically we see rats as a symbol of disease and death. And that's just how the narrator views them at first; he scares the "ravenous" creatures away.

Yet the rats do not symbolize death here. Instead, Poe flips this symbol completely contrary to the reader's expectations. The rats actually become...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Typically we see rats as a symbol of disease and death. And that's just how the narrator views them at first; he scares the "ravenous" creatures away.

Yet the rats do not symbolize death here. Instead, Poe flips this symbol completely contrary to the reader's expectations. The rats actually become a symbol of hope and freedom.

As the pendulum swings ever nearer to the narrator, he develops a desperate plan that hinges on the rats. He smears his "bandage" that is wrapped around him and confines him to his position under the pendulum with the meat remnants, which he realizes the rats have been feeding on. He is then forced to lie perfectly still, convincing the rats that he is dead.

As they press in upon him, seeking the last bits of meat, he is "half stifled by their thronging pressure," utterly disgusted by their presence. Yet he relies on the rats to free him. They are his only hope.

His plan works. The rats begin to chew through the bandage, seeking the meat remnants the narrator has used. At the last second, they chew completely through the material, and the narrator finds freedom.

Thus, the rats symbolize hope in the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation. The narrator could have overlooked this source of hope because of his bias against the creatures, and the story would have ended with his complete demise. The transformation of the rats into a symbol of hope is an unexpected twist in this short story.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team