The Pit and the Pendulum Summary

"The Pit and the Pendulum" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe in which the narrator relates how he was tortured and imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition.

  • The Spanish Inquisition imprisoned the narrator in a dark cell positioned over a deep pit.

  • He was then strapped to a table, over which a blade swung like a pendulum, gradually getting closer to him. He escaped by using meat scraps to entice rats to chew through the ropes.

  • His captors attempt to force him into the pit by closing the walls around him. He's saved at the last minute by the French army.

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1472

First published in 1843 and subsequently revised by Poe for an 1845 issue of The Broadway Journal, "The Pit and the Pendulum" is told by an unnamed first-person narrator whose credibility actually rises even as he is subjected to increasingly fantastic tortures. At the outset, the narrator acknowledges that he is "sick," but we immediately realize that his illness is not a form of insanity, but an hallucinatory condition that can be explained by the physical abuse that he has already undergone. Although he is temporarily deranged, the narrator is nonetheless rational. He is, in fact, a victim of the Spanish Inquisition in Toledo, accused of some unidentified (implicitly heretical) crime, and has been bound for sentencing. The narrator first hears the sound of his judges in a "dreamy hum," but is then unable to hear at all. Instead, he sees the white lips of the black-robed inquisitors as they pass sentence upon him. He focuses his sight on seven tall candles, which at first appear to him as angels, but then dissolve into meaningless forms. The whole scene, including the judges, vanishes before the narrator's eyes. He is now engulfed by utter darkness, and a single sweet note ringing in his ears that he associates with the relief of death. The narrator swoons and lapses into a limbo state of consciousness: he is aware of his own existence but he is disassociated from sensory contact with the external world.

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The narrator suddenly experiences a sense of motion and when his full mental faculties return, he is able to recall his trial in full. He lies on his back, but he keeps his eyes shut, fearful of what he might see. He recalls tales of the horrible deaths that the torturers of the Spanish Inquisition have inflicted upon their victims. When he does open his eyes, he still cannot discern what his situation is because there it is pitch black. He initially fears that he has been buried alive; but when he is able to stand erect, he recognizes that he is in some sort of cell where he may be starved to death. He knows that the judges have imposed a death sentence, and that the only remaining questions are how and when it will be executed.

In complete darkness, the narrator tries to glean whatever he can about his physical surroundings. The walls and the floor of his enclosure are moist and slippery, and appear to be constructed of stone. He attempts to trace out its seemingly circular dimensions, marking a starting point with a bit of fabric from the coarse robe in which his torturers have dressed him and then counting paces until he reaches it again. In his weakened condition, however, he is unable to complete this exercise. He collapses and falls asleep from exhaustion. When he awakens, he finds a loaf of bread and a pitcher of water at his side. The inquisitors plainly intend to keep him alive for the presumed purpose of increasing his torment. He resumes his effort to estimate the size of the dungeon cell: he reckons that it is fifty yards in circumference. The hem of his coarse prison robe becomes tangled. He slips on the floor and falls on his face. In this position, he senses that his chin is elevated above the remainder of his head and realizes that he is lying on the edge of a large circular pit. He stands and drops a piece of stone into it. The time elapsed by the stone's fall indicates that the pit is a deep chasm, the sound of a splash at the end of its descent indicates that water lies in its lower reaches. Just then, he hears the sound of a door opening and closing overhead. He is sure that he is being watched and that his observers fully expected him to fall into the pit. He has an impulse to simply jump into it, fearing that by remaining alive he will be subjected to even greater horrors. But he pulls back when he recalls that a slow, agonizing death awaits him there as well. He sleeps and again finds bread and water at his side when he awakens. The water, however, has been drugged, and he soon lapses into unconsciousness once more.

The effects of the drug wear off, and when the narrator comes to he finds that his cell is illuminated. Now able to see, the narrator realizes that his blind conception of the dungeon was wrong. The enclosure is smaller than he reckoned, its shape is not circular but square-like, and its walls are actually made of metal. Moreover, he sees that the walls are embellished with paintings of hellish figures; images of skeletons, fiends, and devils staring back at him. Worst of all, the narrator is now unable to move freely. He has been strapped and bound into a wood rack. The torturers have placed a dish of highly spiced meat within his reach, but this time there is no pitcher of water to slake his thirst.

The narrator looks upward at the cell's ceiling. There he sees the traditional image of Father Time, but instead of a scythe, Time appears to be holding a huge pendulum. Rather than being a two-dimensional painting, Time and the pendulum seem to be some kind of machine. The narrator "fancies" that the pendulum is moving in slow, short sweeps. When he averts his gaze from the pendulum, he sees that the cell is filled with large, ravenous rats who have emerged from the pit in search of food. Focusing once more on the pendulum, he notes with alarm that it is now swinging more rapidly, in broader strokes and that it is descending upon him. Its edge is a razor-like blade aimed directly at his breast. Having escaped the pit, the narrator now faces the "milder" death of the pendulum. As the pendulum descends still further, its intended victim lapses into a swoon. When he awakens, he notes that the descent of the pendulum has been temporarily halted and that most of the meat at his side has been eaten by the rats. He experiences a brief sense of hope, but dismisses it; there is no cause for hope.

The pendulum is now within a few inches of the narrator's breast as he lies face up in bondage. Just then, he realizes that if he can free one of his hands, he can then untie the larger strap that binds him to the wooden rack. The narrator takes the last morsel of spicy meat on the dish and rubs it on one of the bandages with which his hands have been bound. Hundreds of rats swarm across his body. He feels their teeth loosening the bandage but remains motionless. His plan works. The rats bite through the bandage, his hand is freed, and he is able to untie the longer strap that holds him on the wooden rack. He has escaped from the pendulum's blade.

The narrator's sense of triumph is brief. He is "Free!---and in the grasp of the Inquisition!" The demonic priests are still watching him. Immediately after he steps away from his wooden "bed of horror," the pendulum ceases its movement and the whole apparatus is drawn up into the ceiling. The narrator becomes aware of light streaming through the fissures of the cell's metal walls. The horrible images painted on its walls seem to glow in brilliant colors now, and the he breathes in the vapors of hot iron. To his horror, the narrator finds that the walls of the dungeon are being heated. He rushes toward the pit and the coolness of its well, but draws back and begins to cry. He then recognizes that the very shape of the cell is changing from that of a rough square into that of a diamond. The narrator is being forced toward the pit. He wishes for any death but that which awaits him in the pit, but he knows that this is exactly the doom that his torturers have planned for him. As the walls close in, the narrator is forced to the pit's edge. With less than an inch of foothold remaining, he stops struggling, lets out a scream, and closes his eyes, tottering on the brink of the abyss.

At the last moment, the narrator hears human voices and the sound of a trumpet's blast. The walls of his cell suddenly rush back, and an outstretched arm catches him just as he is about to topple into the pit. The arm belongs to the French General Lasalle. The narrator concludes that the French army has liberated Toledo from the Inquisition, that his tormentors are now captive themselves, and that he has been liberated from the horrid fate that they had devised for him.

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