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.

The Pit and the Pendulum

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

“Terror is not of Germany, but of the soul,” said Poe in the preface to his TALES OF THE GROTESQUE AND ARABESQUE. In other words, Poe rejected the conventional trappings of the Gothic horror tale and tried, instead, to create the effect of terror by leaving much to the imagination, while at the same time giving minute details which create verisimilitude.

A victim of the Inquisition, the narrator of “THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM” finds himself confined in a torture chamber. He escapes by plunging into a pit, only to face further terror in the form of a swinging pendulum with a razorlike blade that descends closer to his body with each swing.

The entire plot consists of the narrator’s responses to this plight. He endures a series of dreadful predicaments which hasten the disintegration of his mind and body in this living death. Despite the seeming futility of his condition, he absurdly struggles to save himself from each dilemma, only to face a yet more horrible situation. At various times, hope revives, and his mind becomes calm, attaching itself to a trifle or matter-of-factly calculating the dimensions of the prison. At other times, his mind plunges into despair and his senses betray him, especially toward the end when he perceives the shape of the room changing.

The tale ends with the unexpected deliverance of the narrator from the scene of terror. On the literal level, he is liberated by the enemies of the Inquisition, but the real story is one of the mind saved from annihilation or madness.


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The entire story takes place inside a pit or prison cell into which the narrator of the story, and indeed the story's only visible character,...

(The entire section is 147 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Although Poe often declared that the allegory was an inferior form of fiction, he comes close to creating an allegory in "The Pit and the...

(The entire section is 220 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Although Poe often declared that the allegory was an inferior form of fiction, he comes close to creating an allegory in "The Pit and the...

(The entire section is 340 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Edgar Allan Poe is a writer often first discovered by readers when they are still adolescents. His stories are seemingly so simple, so direct...

(The entire section is 422 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Edgar Allan Poe is best known as the author of numerous spine-tingling stories of horror and suspense. "The Pit and the Pendulum" is a...

(The entire section is 646 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. The story never explains why the central character has been thrown into the pit. Why does Poe not inform the reader of his crime?


(The entire section is 240 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Many short story writers in America in the nineteenth century said that they wanted to write a story that seemed like a dream or a...

(The entire section is 176 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"The Pit and the Pendulum" is typical of other Poe stories that present horrifying and extreme predicaments. In "A Descent into the...

(The entire section is 228 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Buranelli, Vincent. Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Twayne, 1961. This is a basic introduction to Poe's works, focusing primarily on his...

(The entire section is 226 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Burluck, Michael L. Grim Phantasms: Fear in Poe’s Short Fiction. New York: Garland, 1993.

Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Irwin, John T. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytical Detective Story. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

May, Charles E. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe, A to Z. New York: Facts On File, 2001.

Whalen, Terence. Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.