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The Pit and the Pendulum

by Edgar Allan Poe

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

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In this essay we shall attempt to perform two separate, but not unrelated, tasks. First we shall use the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud to explicate the bizarre and surreal nature of events and emotional states described in Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum." In doing this we shall demonstrate that the character of the narrator and the events which transpire in the tale can be consistently understood by viewing them in the light of a central doctrine of Freudian psychoanalysis, which Freud himself describes in an opening passage of his paper "Sexuality in the Aetiology of the Neuroses" in the following manner:

Exhaustive researches during the last few years have led me to recognize that the most immediate and, for practical purposes, the most significant causes of every neurotic illness are to be found in factors arising from sexual life.1

However, there is another strain which runs throughout the story and which is directly responsible for the critical difficulties surrounding the story’s metaphysical resolution. This is a strain of transcendent experience, one that corresponds both in detail and cosmology, to satori experiences observed by Jung in the practice of Zen Buddhism. In fact, as we shall detail in a concluding passage of this essay, a most valid interpretation of the tale’s conclusion can be gleaned by utilizing the theory of synchronicity developed by Jung in his later years with the help of the eminent physicist Neils Bohr.

An initial problem -which we encounter in attempting to analyze the character of the narrator in Poe's tale is the degree of 'objectivity’ which we should attribute to his account. The narrator is the sole source of our knowledge concerning the tale's events, and he himself tells us of the hallucinatory character of his experience, advising us from the outset that he is, "sick unto death with that long agony."2 Despite the admittedly high emotional state of the narrator, are we to take the accounts of mechanisms of torture as 'naturalistic' renderings of events with the dimensions of his cell really closing in upon the protagonist, or are these, in fact, merely metaphorical projections or extensions of his personality with no basis in reality. The distortions of time and space, the gaps in causal relations and perhaps most importantly the narrator's characterization of the pit's tortures as, "moral horrors,"3 distinct from physical horrors all incline us to believe that the tale can be most meaningfully interpreted if the events which transpire in it are taken as reflections of the character’s state of mind, events being linked as in a dream.

Having made the assumption that the tortures described in the tale are to be considered as psychic reflections of the narrator’s mental state, we may well inquire: What then is the Freudian psychoanalytic interpretation which can be put upon the appearance of the story's two predominant mechanisms and symbols, the pit and the pendulum. Perhaps the best approach to this problem is to analyze the textual features of the narrator's account of his judgment after the inquisitional judgment:

Yet for a while I saw; but with how terrible an exaggeration! I saw the lips of the black-robed judges. They appeared to me white -- whiter than the sheet upon which I race these words -- and thin even to the point of grotesqueness; I saw that the decrees of what to me was Fate were issuing from those lips. I saw them writhe in deadly locution. I saw them fashion the syllables of my name; and I shuddered because no sound succeeded. I saw, too, for a few imperceptible moments of horror, the soft nearly imperceptible waving of the sable draperies which enwrapped the walls of the apartment.4

We would suggest that the predominant strain of imagery in this passage is sexual with the image of thin-dips, the texture of sable draperies and the writhing motion all being associated with the vagina. We would further suggest that the narrator's account of death and rebirth which immediately succeeds this passage identifies this "apartment" as the equivalent of the womb. What then does this introductory passage from the womb of the apartment into the chamber of awakening consciousness have to do with the mechanisms of torture which dominate the narrator’s cell? Freud gives the answer in the form on the following assertion:

For the events and influences which lie at the root of every psychoneurosis belong net to the present day, but to an epoch of life which is long past and which is as it were, a prehistoric era -- to the time of early childhood.

The narrator's present neurosis are then related to traumatic shacks in the formative moments of existence, and in the case of Poe's narrator both the time and import of this traumatic experience are taken to the extreme in the trauma of birth. The narrator consistently professes his failed attempts to remember the events which preceded his internment but, "he has," as Freud describes the typical patient, “though only in a particular sense, forgotten them.”6 The two great fears or phobias which have arisen as a result of this traumatic experience are these of death, expressed as we shall see in the symbol of the pendulum, and rebirth, complementarily expressed in the symbol of the pit.

How have these mechanisms come to be associated with traumatic phobias is symbolized in the pit and the pendulum. Again Freud provides a solution to this transference in his paper “Obsessions and Phobias: Their Psychical Mechanism and the Aetiology." Here he writes that phobias are expressed in 'replaced ideas' and details that:

The replaced ideas all have common attributes; they correspond to really distressing experiences in the subject's sex life. He succeeds merely in replacing the incompatible idea by another ill adapted for being associated with the emotional state, which for its part remains unchanged.7

Thus while the narrator succeeds in replacing his original fear of mortality and rebirth through their symbolic replacement respectively by the pendulum and the pit, these symbolic expressions are "ill-adapted" and result in the surreal horrors which he encounters. At this point the first task which we set out to accomplish has been completed: we have clearly demonstrated the aetiology and symptomatalogy of the neurotic aspects which pervade the tale's narrator and the occurrences which emanate from his thoughts. However, there remains the problem of the piece's relatively inexplicable ending. One could of course contend that the narrator frees himself chiefly through his own ingenuity, his employment of the rats to cut the bandage holding him to the pendulum, but as he informs us, while this event has brought him immediate freedom, he is still, "in the grasp of the Inquisition.”8 How then are we to explain this miraculous remedy of the narrator's condition?

Throughout the tale, interspersed among the confused and hysterical sentiments which the narrator presents as his reaction to the cell's horrors, we find another, decidedly different strain. Early in the piece the narrator tells us, "there have been brief moments when I have dreamed of success; there have been very brief periods when I conjured up remembrances which the lucid reason of a later epoch assures me could only have reference to that condition of seeming unconsciousness.”9 Later, in describing his battle with the rats for the last remaining scraps of food a similarly ‘optimistic’ sentiment relieves the dank of the narrator's situation as he recounts, "Karl put a portion of it in my mouth, there rushed to mind the half-formed thought of joy -- of hope.”10 We may take these moments to represent periods in which the narrator is participating in the experience of transcendent consciousness. At these points the phobias and obsessions which characterize the narrator’s mental condition momentarily disappear and an assured cosmic awareness replaces the narrator’s reflections on his entombment. These experiences nay be considered as equivalent of "peak-experiences", and quite comparable to the quasi-hypnotic states reached in the satori experience in Zen Buddhism as described by Jung,11 the oceanic experience which Freud disallows and rejects in the introductory chapter of his Civilization and Its Discontents.

What import does this strain of heightened experience have upon the narrator's ultimate escape? Jung, studying texts of ancient literatures, "noted the correlation between the movement of events within dreams," within prototypical dream structures that is, “with respect to changes of destiny in the course of human life."12 Jung reasoned with the aid of Neils Bohr that since consciousness itself is composed of atoms as is physical reality, changes in subconscious configurations may have manifest relation to alterations in substantive reality, terming this theoretical metaphysic “synchronicity" by which he meant a meaningful, but net direct causal, relationship between conscious states and human destiny. We can, in fact, find no mere plausible explanation of the appearance of LaSalle in the torture chamber and the narrator's rescue that Poe’s own early conception of synchronicity. The impetus in this change of human destiny is alteration in dream structure, and the positive outcome of the tale is directly related to the appearance of intermittent peak experience moments in the narrator's interpretation of his condition.

This point reinforces the symbolic import of the pit and the pendulum. Satori experience as conceived of in the East has the metaphysical purpose of freeing the contemplative adherent from an endless wheel of births and rebirths. This is, in fact, the symbolic meaning of the narrator’s attempt to escape the torture chamber in which he finds himself, an escape from endless rebirth as expressed in the fear of the pit. The distortions produced by the narrator’s mental state vanish as peak experiences have produced a change in his destiny. Ultimately, we believe, the only consistent explanation which can be given for the tale's resolution lies in Jung's theoretical conception of synchronicity and this serves to underscore the value of a psychoanalytic analysis of the narrator's character as a means of explicating the tale's bizarre events.


1. Sigmund Freud, "Sexuality and the Aetiology of Neuroses," The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. III. Trans.James Strachey and Anna Freud. London: Hogarth, 1962, pp. 263.

2. Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Pit and the Pendulum,” Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1966, pp.196.

3. Ibid., p.201.

4. Ibid., p.197.

5. Ibid., p.267.

6. Ibid., p.268.

7. Sigmund Freud, "Sexuality and the Aetiology of Neuroses," The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. III. Trans.James Strachey and Anna Freud. London: Hogarth, 1962, pp. 75.

8. Poe, p.206.

9. Ibid., p.198.

10. Ibid., p.203.

11 Progoff, Ira. The Death and Rebirth of Psychology. (New York: Julian Press, 1956), pp. 47-49.

12. Progoff, Ira. Jung, Synchronicity and Human Destiny. New York: Julian Press, 1973), p.3.


Freud, Sigmund. "Obsessions and Phobias: Their Psychical Mechanism and Their Aetiology,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. III. Trans.James Strachey and Anna Freud. London: Hogarth, 1962, pp. 74-84.

________. "Sexuality and the Aetiology of Neuroses," The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. III. Trans.James Strachey and Anna Freud. London: Hogarth, 1962, pp. 263-285.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Pit and the Pendulum,” Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1966, pp.196-207.

Progoff, Ira. The Death and Rebirth of Psychology. New York: Julian Press, 1956.

________. Jung, Synchronicity and Human Destiny. New York: Julian Press, 1973.

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Critical Discussion