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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Style and Technique

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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

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“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.

Setting

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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, has been thrown. Although the pit is the immediate setting of the story, the broader historical context is the Spanish Inquisition during the sixteenth century, when the Inquisition, a court of the Roman Catholic Church, persecuted heretics, so-called witches, and members of other religions with torture and execution.

The story does not indicate what the nameless narrator and central character of the story has done to deserve the tortures he endures in the pit, nor does it deal with any of the religious or social implications of the Inquisition. It simply recounts, in excruciatingly exact detail, the step-by-step means by which the torturers try to break the protagonist's spirit and his own step-by-step attempts to escape each new horror that befalls him.

Literary Techniques

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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 Pendulum." Instead of allegory, Poe favored gothic short fiction, a form that was extremely popular in the early nineteenth century in Germany. Many of Poe's stories reveal that he is familiar with such gothic fiction and is at times parodying the form. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to determine if he is presenting a seemingly horrific story as a serious experience or as a satiric and comic one. Although "The Pit and the Pendulum" seems to fit in the serious category, the miraculous escape at the end makes it very similar to the so-called "inescapable predicament" type of short fiction which he did parody in other stories.

The tone and point of view of the story is first-person, a fact which immediately eliminates any suspense or uncertainty about whether the narrator dies in the pit. The story's language is typical of the so-called "inescapable predicament" story of the time; it is melodramatic and highly emotional, filled with exclamations and declarations of horror and disgust for which the narrator says he has no name. The highly stylized language and highly charged tone are indicative of the narrator's dilemma, but also were a common nineteenth-century literary convention.

Literary Qualities

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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 Pendulum." Instead of allegory, Poe favored gothic short fiction, a form that was extremely popular in the early nineteenth century in Germany. Many of Poe's stories reveal that he is familiar with such gothic fiction and is at times parodying the form. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to determine if he is presenting a seemingly horrific story as a serious experience or as a satiric and comic one. Although "The Pit and the Pendulum" seems to fit in the serious category, the miraculous escape at the end makes it very similar to the so-called "inescapable predicament" type of short fiction which he did parody in other stories.

"The Pit and the Pendulum" is also similar, both in its technique and its central dilemma, to other Poe stories. For example, Poe often used the concept of a premature burial as the basic predicament of a story. In many ways, the narrator in "The Pit and the Pendulum" also suffers the horror of being made to languish in his grave-like pit. The manner in which the narrator methodically examines the nature of his cell and attempts to deduce ways he might escape is another characteristic of Poe's fiction. In this regard, the story is not only typical of Poe's nightmare stories, it also shares some of the logical elements of stories such as "The Gold-Bug" and "The Purloined Letter."

The tone and point of view of the story is first-person, a fact which immediately eliminates any suspense or uncertainty about whether the narrator dies in the pit. The story's language is typical of the so-called "inescapable predicament" story of the time; it is melodramatic and highly emotional, filled with exclamations and declarations of horror and disgust for which the narrator says he has no name. The highly stylized language and highly charged tone are indicative of the narrator's dilemma, but also were a common nineteenth-century literary convention.

Social Concerns

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Edgar Allan Poe is a writer often first discovered by readers when they are still adolescents. His stories are seemingly so simple, so direct and straightforward, so little weighted down with philosophical abstractions or social complexities that they are easily readable by junior high students. Moreover, although many of his stories focus on murder, vicious revenge, premature burial, and other violent and nightmarish phenomena, they are usually phrased in such general and abstract terms that they are a far cry from the graphic violence typical of present-day horror films. Thus, instead of creating anxiety and fear in the minds of young readers, they seem to stimulate a pleasurable feeling of admiration for Poe as a writer who can so enthrall and entertain. In fact, many successful writers have said that they first fell in love with literature and decided to write after reading Poe.

However, Poe is not merely a simple writer, one who only has the power to create the delicious but harmless sense of momentary horror. He is a writer who, both because of his skill as a creator of highly polished narratives and his genius at understanding some of the most powerful and deep-seated fears and anxieties of human beings, can, and should be, studied more carefully.

Additional Commentary

Edgar Allan Poe is a writer often first discovered by readers when they are still adolescents. His stories are seemingly so simple, so direct and straightforward, so little weighted down with philosophical abstractions or social complexities that they are easily readable by junior high students. Moreover, although many of his stories focus on murder, vicious revenge, premature burial, and other violent and nightmarish phenomena, they are usually phrased in such general and abstract terms that they are a far cry from the graphic violence typical of present-day horror films. Thus, instead of creating anxiety and fear in the minds of young readers, they seem to stimulate a pleasurable feeling of admiration for Poe as a writer who can so enthrall and entertain. In fact, many successful writers have said that they first fell in love with literature and decided to write after reading Poe.

However, Poe is not merely a simple writer, one who only has the power to create the delicious but harmless sense of momentary horror. He is a writer who, both because of his skill as a creator of highly polished narratives and his genius at understanding some of the most powerful and deep-seated fears and anxieties of human beings, can, and should be, studied more carefully.

For Further Reference

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

Carlson, Eric W., ed. The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966. This is an invaluable collection of the best known and most influential essays on Poe and his work.

Davidson, Edward H. Poe: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957. One of the most intellectually powerful and thus one of the most influential studies of Poe, this book created a new respect for his work.

Hoffmann, Daniel. PoePoePoePoePoePoePoe. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972. Although this is a highly personal and idiosyncratic consideration of Poe, it is worth reading as a psychological study of his tales.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1941. This is the most authoritative and most trustworthy biography of Poe.

Thompson, G. R. Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973. An important study of Poe's use of romantic irony in his tales to create hoaxes, this work represents a new approach to Poe's fiction.

Thomas, Dwight, and David Jackson, eds. The Poe Log. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. This is the most basic biographical source for information about Poe. It includes thousands of documents and notes about his life on an almost day-to-day basis.

Bibliography

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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.

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