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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Critical Discussion

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Poe places the narrator/protagonist of "The Pit and the Pendulum" in a situation of bounded isolation: he cannot escape his surroundings nor can he directly communicate with anyone, even his torturers. Like several other characters in Poe's tales, the narrator's situation is one that provides no exit. Given this, some scholars have interpreted the story as an existential allegory about the human condition at large. Even if individuals are fortunate enough the escape the accidental death of the pit, all mortals are subject to the relentless approach of inevitable death from Time.

But Poe also introduces glimmers of hope into the story. Not only is the narrator unexpectedly rescued from the Inquisition, the tale's author uses the narrator's commentary to advance his theory that "even in the grave all is not lost," that consciousness persists after death and can only be relinquished if the individual's will weakens and submits to oblivion. The narrator of this story repeatedly entertains hope even as he confronts a situation that seems to be hopeless.

"The Pit and the Pendulum" is subject to a very wide range of interpretations, including Freudian readings in which the narrator has rebelled against a paternal authority, the fathers of the Inquisition and/or seeks a return to the"womb of the pit. What is perhaps most striking about the tale is the narrator's variable state of consciousness. He allows that his perceptions are faulty or otherwise limited, but at the tale's conclusion, he has full use of his mental faculties and reacts as any normal person would under the horrible circumstances that he describes. This lends some credence to the otherwise miraculous appearance of General Lasalle in the proverbial nick of time.

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Psychoanalysis of the Narrator in "The Pit and the Pendulum"