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

Start Free Trial

In "The Pit and the Pendulum", how does the narrator estimate his prison size and what error does he make?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The prison where the narrator is placed is completely dark, leaving him unaware of the boundaries and dimensions of the cell. Initially, the narrator walks forward with his arms outstretched thinking about the numerous horror stories he has heard regarding the dungeons in Toledo. When the narrator touches a wall, he begins to follow it and realizes that he has no understanding of the dimensions of the prison because he may be walking in a circle. He then tears a long strand of cloth from his robe and places it at a right angle against the wall so that he will feel the cloth when he walks over it. While groping his way around the prison, the narrator becomes excessively fatigued and falls to the floor. When the narrator awakens, he continues walking around the prison until he reaches the cloth. The narrator travels one hundred paces and presumes that the size of the cell is about fifty yards in circuit.

He then attempts to walk directly across the cell and takes ten or twelve steps before tripping over his robe. When the narrator falls on his face, his chin touches the ground while the rest of his head hangs in mid-air. He then stretches his arms out and discovers that there is a massive pit in the center of the cell. When a prison door is opened, a flash of light illuminates the cell and the narrator witnesses the massive pit. Shortly after falling asleep, the narrator awakens and sees the actual size of his cell, which is merely twenty-five yards in dimension. He realizes that he made an error counting his steps the first time. He had initially counted fifty-two steps before he fell and was unaware that he was only a few yards from the strip of cloth, where he started his journey. When he continued his journey, he was simply walking over his initial steps and accidentally doubled the circuit, leaving him to believe that his cell was twice its actual size.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Because he is in total darkness, the narrator must use other means to determine the nature of his prison.  It must have been terrifying to not know where he was, or how big the prison was, or anything about it; such disorientation would be completely horrifying.  However, he gathers strength, and decides to explore.  He does so first of all through feel--he steps forward, arms outstretched, until he hits a wall.  He realizes that if he follows the wall, he could go in a complete circle and not realize where he had begun.  So, he tears part of the robe that he was put in, and makes a sort of rope that he puts on the ground; that way, he will step on it after he makes one round of the prison, and know that he has come full circle.  He walks around the edges, counting his footsteps, concluding "the dungeon to be fifty yards in circuit."  So, that is how he figures out the size of his prison.  However, the entire time that he did this, he was along the edges of the walls; this didn't factor in the great pit looming ominously at the center.  He starts to walk across the prison, and fortunately for him, trips on his robe before he gets to the pit.  He falls, and notices

"my chin rested upon the floor of the prison, but my lips and the upper portion of my head, although seemingly at a less elevation than the chin, touched nothing."

This is how he discovers the pit, and he was very lucky to not have plunged right in; tripping saved him from the mistake of confidently striding across a prison in the dark.  His tormentors, thwarted in their original plan to have him fall, then had to come up with a different plan of torture.

I hope that those thoughts helped; good luck!

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does the narrator of "The Pit and the Pendulum" decide to figure out the size of his cell?

Let me give you the quote from the story first, then explain it:

I tore a part of the hem from the robe and placed the fragment at full length, and at right angles to the wall. In groping my way around the prison, I could not fail to encounter this rag upon completing the circuit. So, at least I thought: but I had not counted upon the extent of the dungeon, or upon my own weakness. The ground was moist and slippery. I staggered onward for some time, when I stumbled and fell. .... Shortly afterward, I resumed my tour around the prison, and with much toil came at last upon the fragment of the serge. Up to the period when I fell I had counted fifty-two paces, and upon resuming my walk, I had counted forty-eight more;—when I arrived at the rag. There were in all, then, a hundred paces; and, admitting two paces to the yard, I presumed the dungeon to be fifty yards in circuit.

What he decides to do is walk around the wall, counting the paces and calculating that every two paces is a yard.  He uses a piece of cloth from his robe to mark the place where he started, so that he knows when to stop.  In total, he walks 100 paces, which tranlates to 50 yards.

This incident lets the audience know that the narrator is intelligent and calculating, and foreshadows that he may be able to "figure" a way out of his current situation.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on