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

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.



edcon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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 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.


teacherscribe eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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).

dawson8003 | Student

I have to do a research paper on the different sides of darkness explored by edger allen poe, but im having a hard time. What am I not understanding?

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The Pit and the Pendulum

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