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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Student Question

Give two examples each of psychological and physical agonies in Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum".

Expert Answers

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In "The Pit and the Pendulum," as the narrator realizes he has nearly plunged into the pit, he contemplates the fact that the Inquisition either kills people with the "direst physical agonies" or prolongs death by exposing the sentenced person to the "most hideous moral horrors." Both types of death are possible for the narrator within the torture chamber.

The physical agonies that could kill him include the pit and the pendulum. The pit represents more than just a plunge to one's death. Hundreds of rats live in the pit, and if one were to fall into it and reach the bottom or some ledge without being killed by the impact, then the rats would swarm over the person and eventually eat him alive. When the man is under the pendulum, he realizes that because the pendulum comes down by such a small amount with each swing, he would be fully conscious as the blade slices deeper and deeper into his flesh. The heated walls that begin to move in are another physical agony, but they would not kill him; rather, they would push him into the pit to die there.

The "moral" or psychological agonies the torture chamber holds include the pitch blackness, the figures painted on the walls, the drugs, and the rats. The blackness was a cruel psychological torment because the man did not know if he was buried alive; he also did not know what else was in the cell with him, and his fears of the unknown were torture in themselves. The "figures of fiends in aspects of menace, with skeleton forms" were put on the walls to provide further fear of the afterlife; when the forms become more colorful when the walls heat up, they are even more scary. The drugs caused him to be disoriented, lose track of time, and lose the power of rational thought, all adding to the psychological agonies in his cell. Finally, the rats are horrible; the narrator says they caused "a disgust, for which the world has no name, [to swell] in my throat." 

Through Poe's vivid descriptions of the various torments the main character went through, the reader is able to consider both the physical and psychological agonies of torture.

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