The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe

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

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...

(The entire section is 1,894 words.)