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

Who were the narrator's tormentors?

Expert Answers

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

Edgar Allan Poe's short horror story "The Pit and the Pendulum" begins with the narrator being sentenced to death. In the first paragraph, we only know that the ones who pass sentence on him have "inquisitorial voices" and are "black-robed judges." Poe deliberately creates an aura of mystery regarding why the narrator is being tried, who is trying him, and what his offense is. In paragraph five, the narrator has come to his senses enough to begin reflecting upon his state. He mentions again the "inquisitorial proceedings" and then refers to the "autos-da-fe" and Toledo, a city in Spain. From this we can determine that the narrator is a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition, but not until paragraph 12 is the word "Inquisition" actually used. When the narrator refers to his captors, he calls them "inquisitorial judges" or "inquisitorial agents."

The Spanish Inquisition was a judicial institution established by the Pope to prosecute heresy; it functioned from 1478 to 1834. Its chief function was to verify the faith of Jews and Muslims who converted to Catholicism, but it wielded great power and could have dealt with anyone who the Church deemed as an enemy. For example, the Archbishop of Toledo was arrested in 1559 by the Inquisition and accused of Lutheranism; he was imprisoned for 17 years. Perhaps this is why Poe set his story in Toledo. As mentioned in the story, the condemned were usually executed at an auto-da-fe, a public pageant attended by large crowds and often royalty, which often featured burning of heretics at the stake. The head of the Inquisition was the grand inquisitor; he had five assistants as well as consultors; these would be the "black-robed judges" described in the first paragraph. There is no record of the Spanish Inquisition employing the methods of torture Poe describes in this story. Although Poe has General Lasalle rescuing the prisoner, Lasalle was never in Toledo. However, the appearance of General Lasalle helps us date the story to 1808. 

Poe uses members of the Spanish Inquisition as the tormentors of his protagonist, but by downplaying religious themes and leaving the specific nature of the narrator's crimes unnamed, he is able to focus more on the psychological and physical responses of his main character and less on the identities and motivations of his captors. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team