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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Horrific elements and extreme settings in "The Pit and the Pendulum"


In "The Pit and the Pendulum," horrific elements include the fear of the unknown, the looming threat of death, and the gruesome imagery of torture devices. The extreme setting of a dark, oppressive dungeon heightens the terror, emphasizing the narrator's sense of hopelessness and dread.

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What sets the horrific scene in "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

The narrator begins his story by speaking of his sentence of death. The narrator then notes how he recalls the "inquisitorial" voices who convicted and sentenced him. The adjective "inquisitorial" indicates a reference to the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition was a particular part of a broad movement to enforce Catholic doctrine and influence; part of this enforcement required Catholic monarchs to find, suppress, and sometimes banish, torture or kill heretics (those who did not follow the Catholic faith). 

Later in the story, the narrator refers to the "Inquisition" and the reference to the Spanish Inquisition becomes more clear: 

And the death just avoided was of that very character which I had regarded as fabulous and frivolous in the tales respecting the Inquisition. To the victims of its tyranny, there was the choice of death with its direst physical agonies, or death with its most hideous moral horrors. 

So, the narrator is one of these victims of the Spanish Inquisition. Evidently, he was accused of heresy and imprisoned in this dungeon. His sentence was death but that death was to be preceded by psychological and physical torture. The dungeon itself is in total darkness with the pit in the center which the narrator narrowly avoids falling into. Part of his psychological torture was to place him in an utterly dark dungeon with a pit that he could not see. Having avoided falling into the pit, the narrator was then subjected to the pendulum. 

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What are some extreme situations or settings in "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

Arguably, the whole situation of the Pit and the Pendulum is extreme in its entirety, as it is about death by torture. But within that, there is one situation that sticks out in how extreme it is: the narrator's escape from the pendulum. The narrator can only watch as the pendulum swings lower and lower with more and more force, making its way closer to him agonizingly slowly. He tries to escape on his own, but when he realizes that he cannot do that, he lures the rats onto him and, by spreading the last of his food upon the bonds that hold him down, makes them chew through the only thing holding him in place. The suspense of whether or not he will escape is heightened when he feels the blade actually cut his skin, but then the rats finally break all the bonds, and when the pendulum has passed him, he manages to move out of the way.

The setting of this story is also extreme in its entirety, but perhaps most of all when the walls start closing in on him - literally. He describes the characters on the wall as having glowing, demon eyes that stare him down, and the images of blood are all very vibrant. The walls start closing in on him in the shape of a diamond, forcing him towards the pit, and the only reason he escapes is because the French arrived to take over the Inquisition and they saved him. (That is by no means historically accurate - in fact, none of this is really - but that is what Poe decided had happened).

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What are some horrible details of the setting in "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

The narrator describes the "few moments" he spends in "delirious horror," in which he sees the "soft and nearly imperceptible waving of the sable draperies which enwrapped the walls of the apartment." Further, he sees the "seven tall candles upon the table" which seem, at first, like charitable angels who are there to save him, but then they become "meaningless spectres, with heads of flame." It is bad enough when the narrator describes the lips of his judges as "thin even to grotesqueness" and "writh[ing]" as they speak his fate, but to be completely surrounded by black—both from the drapes and from the judges's robes—and to watch the bright and inspiring candles turn into devils from which he can anticipate no mercy makes this scene seem completely horrible.

Later, in his dungeon, the narrator describes how his "worst thoughts . . . were confirmed" by the "blackness of eternal night" that encompassed him. He can hardly breathe because the "intensity of the darkness seemed to oppress and stifle [him]." The walls surrounding him are "very smooth, slimy, and cold," and, though not a tomb, the ground is "moist and slippery" and causes him to fall. When he finds the pit, he realizes that his "forehead seemed bathed in a clammy vapor, and the peculiar smell of decayed fungus arose to [his] nostrils." Thus, the horrible darkness and gross and terrifying surroundings certainly add to the horror of the story.

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What are some horrible details of the setting in "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

The torture chamber in which the narrator finds himself in "The Pit and the Pendulum" has multiple horrors. Here are six:

1. Utter darkness: When the narrator first wakes up in the cell, he finds that "the blackness of the eternal night encompassed me," causing him to gasp for breath.

2. The pit: When he encounters the pit, he is unable to see it. He drops a pebble down, and it falls for about a minute before he hears it splash in the water. The fact that he would have fallen into it if he had not tripped on his robe is petrifying; the thought that there may be more than one pit in the chamber is worse. 

3. Decoration: Later, when he can see, he notices the horrible figures of fiends and skeletons drawn on the walls, and when the walls heat up, they become very bright in color and even scarier.

4. The pendulum: This torture device is terrifying, and part of its terror is that it moves so slowly that the character has time to contemplate his oncoming doom.

5. Rats: Rats are constantly swarming about him when he is strapped to the table, and when he spreads the food on his bonds, hundreds of them are crawling all over him, making "a disgust, for which the world has no name, [swell] his bosom." 

6. The walls: After he escapes from under the pendulum, the walls begin closing in on him and heating up until they are just about to force him into the pit.

The torture chamber designed by Poe is certainly one of the creepiest settings in literature.

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