Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The first-person narration, in which the “I” remains unnamed, causes the reader to identify with the protagonist. The obvious disadvantage of the use of the first person—the knowledge from the outset that he manages to escape because he has lived to tell his story—is overcome by Poe’s ability to create such tension and illogical fear that one forgets this fact.

The protagonist’s dread is shared by the audience, for both are ignorant of the character’s environment and his ultimate fate. Therefore, suspense is maintained, for the reader and the narrator discover each detail simultaneously. As each new fact is revealed, there is a temporary feeling of relief, which is destroyed as new, more awful terrors become known. This alternation of relief and renewed terror ultimately causes the reader to doubt that any escape is possible, despite the fact that, logically, the narrator must survive in order to write his account.

Another technique that contributes to the nightmarish atmosphere of this tale of horror is the distortion of time, space, and reality. The narrator says that the pendulum’s descent was “only appreciable at intervals that seemed ages. . . . Days passed—it might have been that many days passed.” Perception of space is also altered and unreliable. A room thought to have a perimeter of one hundred paces is, in reality, much smaller. In addition, the room’s shape and characteristics are changed by unseen forces: The walls can be heated and moved, light can be provided or withheld, the pendulum can be stopped and started. The character’s swoons and exhausted sleep exacerbate the confusion, for they cause gaps in the reader’s knowledge about reality. After each period of unconsciousness, something in the environment has been changed, so that one fears these so-called respites.

Poe’s psychological portraiture is masterful as he evokes, for example, the sensations of losing and regaining consciousness. Especially realistic is his description of the mental state of the narrator as he is being sentenced: The condemned man focuses on unimportant images—the curtains; the candles, which become phantasmagoric; the thin, white lips of the judges, which move but emit no comprehensible sound: “And then, all at once, there came a most deadly nausea over my spirit, and I felt every fibre in my frame thrill as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery.” This attention to detailed accounts of sensations, smells, sounds, thirst, and hunger makes the narration credible and even real for the reader. In addition, the writer of the account stresses that this is unlike fiction: “Such a supposition [that I was dead], notwithstanding what we read in fiction, is altogether inconsistent with real existence.”

After all the foiled, character-generated escapes, the final rescue is anticlimactic but welcome nevertheless. This use of deus ex machina, the resolution of the problem by a force exterior to the action of the story, is rather surprising because it is used infrequently in Poe’s stories. Its use is justifiable, however, for the story is historically based.