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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Analysis and summary of "The Pit and the Pendulum," including its symbolism, themes, elements, and narrative structure

Summary:

"The Pit and the Pendulum" by Edgar Allan Poe explores themes of fear, time, and the unknown through its harrowing narrative. Symbolism is evident in the pendulum, representing the inexorable passage of time and imminent death, and the pit, symbolizing hell and despair. The story’s elements include intense suspense and vivid imagery. The narrative structure follows the protagonist's psychological torment and ultimate rescue, emphasizing human resilience.

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What is the symbolism in "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

The Pit and the Pendulum” is full of symbols. Although they are all open to interpretation, several, particularly the pit and the pendulum themselves, are very clear and comprehensible given the themes and atmosphere of the story.

The narrator is condemned by white-lipped, black-robed judges, whose resolution and contempt for human life suggest that they symbolize fate. He then notices seven tall candles, which at first seem like angels but quickly become “meaningless specters with heads of flame.” The narrator himself says that he saw no help would come from them, showing that they symbolize the departure of hope, perhaps hope from a spiritual or religious quarter.

The pit symbolizes the ever-present threat of death and hell, into which it would be all too easy to cast oneself in despair or sink without even realizing it. The pendulum is a symbol of time, lethal and razor-sharp because time eventually destroys everyone and everything. Although all these are instruments of torture designed by the Inquisition, the red-hot walls which threaten to force the narrator into the pit actually symbolize torture, which through the infliction of fiery pain actuates the subject to seek his own destruction.

Finally, General Lasalle and his forces, the enemies of the Inquisition who rescue the narrator, accompanied by the sound of trumpets, represent the Enlightenment values of reason and liberty.

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What is the symbolism in "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" is a tightly written, concise story where almost every object is packed with symbolism.

The most obvious would be the pendulum itself. With its steady swinging arc and the danger it poses to the central character, the pendulum symbolizes the passage of time and the inevitability of death. The pit beneath is meant to represent oblivion or perhaps even hell. The moving walls are much like the pendulum, not stopping as time does not stop. The imagery in all three of these symbols represents an almost primal fear of death and pain, as well as the unknown.

The Spanish Inquisition is symbolic of human evil and the lengths humans will go to sanctify their brutality. Though their goal is to protect the faithful from heresy, they seem to prey on people for petty reasons. Sadism rather than love motivates their actions. The Inquisition becomes associated with the pit and the pendulum, while the secular French soldiers who rescue the protagonist are associated with light, suggesting much about Poe's attitudes towards organized religion.

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What is the symbolism in "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

The narrator describes the ceiling of his cell as having a panel painted with a figure of Father Time, a traditional anthropomorphized representation of the passage of time. Traditionally, he is a bearded figure who carries a scythe and some timekeeper, like a clock or an hourglass.  In the story, however, there is a moving pendulum, as if symbolically marking off the time the prisoner has left. At closer inspection, the pendulum does not simply swing, it is a large razor, which will ultimately, and literally, take the life of the prisoner.

The pit, the other threatening feature of the cell, is a yawning abyss meant to symbolically represent the abyss of hell.

As the pendulum moves ever closer to the prisoner, he stops struggling and begins to think of it as a "bauble"—or toy—as if his torturers are symbolically toying with him psychologically.

The fact that the prisoner is being tortured in the context of the Inquisition might be symbolic in that it could reveal attitudes Poe had about religion. Poe scholars tend to agree that he was not a practicing Christian in most periods of his adult life, and by revisiting the horrors of the Inquisition, Poe could be reminding readers of the Church's brutality.

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What is the symbolism in "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

There are several symbols in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum":

  • The candles - At first the seven candlesticks resemble angels who may have come to help the narrator as they surround the seven black robed judges; however, they soon fade from his view. They may, then, symbolize his flickering, waning life as he is condemned by the judges.
  • The pit - At first the narrator escapes the pit, but after he is able to escape from the pendulum, the walls push him toward the pit, much like the fall into Hell. 

"The pit, typical of hell, and regarded by rumour as the Ultima Thule of all their punishments."

  • The pendulum - The swinging pendulum represents the inexorable passage of time. Shaped like a scythe of Father Time, the rhythm of this pendulum resembles the heart beat of the narrator.
  • The moving walls - The walls seems to close in on the victim, pushing him toward the pit. This pit symbolizes the unknown horror of the Inquisition. Its depth does not permit the victim from seeing its shape or knowing what is inside it.

Only at the last second is the narrator saved by the French.

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What is the symbolism in "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

This story is full of symbolism.  One could view the entire story as one man's descent into hell (the pit functions as a symbol obviously), then his progression into purgatory (the pendulum serving as a way to pass time or work off his sins), and then finally his ascension into heaven (the French soldiers freeing him symbolic of heaven by the sudden light shining into the gloom and the sound of horns heralding his release).

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Can you summarize "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

This question has been asked here at enotes before.  Please check out the links below for help with any part of this story.

Good Luck! 

http://www.enotes.com/pit-pendulum/q-and-a/hello-everyone-would-like-2-ask-someone-could-give-40589

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What is the problem in the story "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

There are two main problems, or conflicts, in the story of "The Pit and the Pendulum."  

The first conflict is a man vs. "something else" conflict.  I don't feel comfortable saying that it's man vs. man, because the narrator isn't really fighting another human.  It's not quite man vs. nature either, because he's in a man made environment (cell).  It's also not quite man vs. supernatural, because he is fighting to survive against human torturers.  So, man vs. something else it is.  The narrator is fighting to save his life, or at least extend his life.  The problem is that his torturers want the narrator dead.  They want him to fall into a really deep pit, to be cut in half, or to be squished by burning hot walls.  

The other main conflict is man vs. self.  The narrator must battle with his own mental state in order to find the will to live.  That's especially true at the end of the story, when he starts contemplating jumping into the pit to avoid the crushing hot walls.  

Amid the thought of the fiery destruction that impended, the idea of the coolness of the well came over my soul like balm.

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In "The Pit and the Pendulum", what is inside the pit?

We know, from the narrator's description, that it is very deep pit with water at the bottom, for when he throws a rock down it, "for many seconds I hearkened to its reverberations as it dashed against the sides of the chasm in its descent; at length there was a sullen plunge into water".  He narrowly misses falling into it, and is worried that more than just drowning would be at stake:  "Neither could I forget what I had read of these pits—that the sudden extinction of life formed no part of their most horrible plan."  So, it would be a slow, tortuous death somehow.

Not only is there water in the pit, the narrator later hints that rats have lived down there, and thinks, "“To what food...have they been accustomed in the well?”, insinuating that they are used to eating human flesh.  Altogether, not a very sunny situation, and enough to scare the most stalwart of people...

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What is the theme of "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

A theme is a universal truth that permeates the entire story.  Some are more obvious than others, but you can essentially find them by filling in the following blanks:____________________(name of story) is a story about______________________________(first few things that come to mind).The Pit and the Pendulum is about war, the Inquisition, politics, human cruelty, freedom, torture, fear, life, death, mental and physical strength of the individual, and so on.The narrator suffers greatly in this story--how do all these themes listed above apply throughout?  This is a story that has an absolute historical setting--the Spanish Inquisition--so that gives some background understanding.  How is the narrator tortured?  Isolation, darkness, lack of proper food and drink, the danger of the pit, rats, the pendulum in bright light.  The pit in the light is not as dangerous, and the pendulum in the dark would not be as fearful.  As in all of Poe's stories, psychology is involved.  The story is definitely a test of the narrator's mental strength and fortitude.
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What is the theme of "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

This story by Poe is one of sheer terror because it concerns a man who is at the mercy of other people.  The narrator has been accused of something by the Spanish Inquisition and is being tortured to confess.  The horror continues because the man will feel that he his agony will be over by dying, but then he'll wake up again and some new torture awaits him.  He is tortured, then revived, then tortured again - horrible mental games are played upon him.

As far as a theme, I would say that the theme of this story is the horror of torture and being at the mercy of cruel people.  Fortunately, the man is saved at the end when Toledo is captured, but he has to undergo some horrible things prior to this happening.  His isolation and utter dependence on other people is definitely a theme within this story that should be further explored in a close read of the tale.

Be sure to check the links below - Good luck!

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What are the elements of "The Pit and The Pendulum"?

The setting of the story is Toledo, Spain, during the Spanish Inquisition. The narrator has been arrested, tried, condemned, and imprisoned in a cruel and inhumane way.

The conflict, I think, is that of character vs. self. The narrator loses consciousness as a result of his fear several times, and he struggles to control that fear and to remain calm so that he can retain consciousness as well as sanity. He talks about the "agony" of his imprisonment and each of the new terrors prepared for him. He might have opted to jump into the pit, or he could have lapses into unconsciousness due to fear while under the pendulum, but he fights feelings of hopelessness and keeps his head, and this is what enables him to survive.

There is mainly only one character: the unnamed narrator. His judges come and go fairly quickly at the beginning of the story, and General Lasalle, his savior, appears for just a moment to save him at the very end.

The point of view is first-person objective: this means that the narrator is a participant in the events of the story (and uses the first person pronoun "I") and that he narrates the events after they occur (instead of while they occur). You can see that he uses past-tense verbs, which indicate this timing.

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What are the elements of "The Pit and The Pendulum"?

The elements of a story are the setting, plot, conflict, characters, point of view and the theme.  In Pit and The Pendulum we have one lone character.  A man taken prisoner, tried, and convicted by unseen men in black robes.  The setting is in a prison, the conflict is how the man can get free from his all most certain death from the pendulum.  The story is written in the first person point of view and the theme is Life vs Death or the struggle for survival.  You can find more details in the link below.

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How would you analyze and interpret "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

Any interpretation of a given work of literature leaves itself open to massive debate, so I can present one of the central ways in which this classic horror story can be interpreted, but please do not let this analysis prevent you from exploring other ways of "reading" this great example of Poe's Gothic fiction.

Key to this analysis is a symbolic interpretation of the events contained within. The story is set during the final days of the Spanish Inquisition, and the first-person narrator hears judges condemn him to death. What he suffers in his prison cell causes massive terror, especially the pendulum, which forces him to watch his death sink lower towards him, literally inch by inch.

These torture methods by some are viewed symbolically, which leads some critics to argue that this short story is really all about a man who dies and almost loses his soul in the pit of hell but is saved by God at the very last minute. Such critics argue that the intense fear the man feels at falling into the pit indicate that it represents hell. The pendulum and scythe represent the time running out for the prisoner and death coming to claim him. The rats that crawl over him symbolise death and decay, as they horrify and disgust the prisoner. Lastly, the trumpet blasts and other apocalyptical sounds eat the end of the short story are strongly suggestive of Judgement Day:

There was a discordant hum of human voices! There was a loud blast as of many trumpets! There was a harsh grating as of a thousand thunders! The fiery walls rushed back! An outstretched arm caught my own as I fell, fainting, into the abyss.

Such descriptions make us think of the action in deeper, more profound, symbolic terms that help us to see the possibility that Poe could using the sufferings of one prisoner during the Inquisition to talk more widely about the eternal dangers that await us beyond the grave.

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What is the rising action in "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

Background: During a time when the Spanish Inquisition was taking place, prisoners were being tormented. Poe's narrator is undergoing torture by the Spanish inquisitors.

In "The Pit and the Pendulum," there seems to be one climax after another. The prisoner is in a dungeon. There is a pit at its center. He nearly falls into the pit. Then, as the rats pervade the apartment or dungeon, the smell of the spicy meat attracting them, the prisoner develops an idea to prevent his death from the slowly, lowering, swinging pendulum.

While the reader eagerly anticipates what the prisoner's idea of escape is, the tension or rising action grows. With the pendulum upon him, the prisoner smears the meat on the ropes that bind him, and his ingenious idea liberates his very soul and physical being. While this would appear to be the climax--this moment of scarce escape--the metal walls of the dungeon begin to heat like a fire, forcing the prisoner to the edge of the pit.

The prisoner contemplates putting his body to the walls to burn himself alive. Anything but the pit would be a welcomed death. The prisoner comments that he would rather die in any way other than the pit:

I could have clasped the red walls to my bosom as a garment of eternal peace. "Death," I said, "any death but that of the pit!" Fool! might I have not known that into the pit it was the object of the burning iron to urge me? Could I resist its glow? or, if even that, could I withstand its pressure.

Again the action is rising. Will the prisoner burn himself alive or will he descend to the hell of the abyss? At this very moment, with only and inch of floor beneath him, the prisoner is falling toward the abyss, the hellish pit. The story is at its highest point of interest, the climax, when General Lasalle comes to his rescue and grabs the prisoner as he is falling:

An outstretched arm caught my own as I fell, fainting, into the abyss. It was that of General Lasalle. The French army had entered Toledo. The Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies.

The falling action begins as the prisoner is saved from his torment, from his horrible death. He escaped the pit and the pendulum.

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