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The Pit and the Pendulum

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Discussion Topic

The narrator's imprisonment, punishment, and experiences following his death sentence in "The Pit and the Pendulum."


The narrator in "The Pit and the Pendulum" faces psychological and physical torment following his death sentence. He is imprisoned in a dark cell with a deep pit in the center, narrowly escapes a swinging pendulum designed to kill him, and finally faces the walls closing in to push him into the pit. He is ultimately rescued by General Lasalle as the Inquisition falls.

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Why is the narrator of "The Pit and the Pendulum" in prison?

In Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Pit and the Pendulum," many details are left unexplained. The narrator, who is never named, is being held by the Spanish Inquisition. The trial and sentencing described in the first paragraph includes "inquisitorial voices" and "black-robed judges," and the narrator mentions the Inquisition in twelfth paragraph.

The Spanish Inquisition operated from 1478 to 1834 in Spain. Its primary purpose was to test the validity of the faith of Jews and Muslims who had ostensibly converted to Catholicism. At the peak of the Inquisition, a grand inquisitor was assisted by a council of five members, so those may be the judges referred to in the story. The reason a person was condemned by the Inquisition was religious heresy--practicing a religion at odds with Catholicism. It is possible any enemy of the Church could also come under the purview of the inquisitor. The fact that the narrator was not immediately burned at the stake in conjunction with the auto-da-fe, a pageant in which heretics were turned over to the secular authorities to be executed, might suggest that he was not a run-of-the-mill heretic but had done something more onerous to the Inquisition, causing him to be held over for a more brutal and psychologically agonizing type of death. 

Poe must have believed the reason for the character's imprisonment was a moot point. No crime, after all, could deserve the type of unwarranted torture that the narrator is subjected to. Not naming the character or his crime means that any reader can more easily put himself or herself in the place of the man who endures these horrors.

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What is the narrator's punishment in "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

Unfortunately, there is no absolute answer to this question, as Poe never specifically states what the narrator is guilty of. However, Poe does leave enough clues for us to make an educated guess: he he gives us the location and the circumstance, thereby telling us the time period, and he tells us the method.

On multiple occasions, the narrator mentions the Inquisition. Now, there were multiple Inquisitions at one point or another; there was also a Portuguese Inquisition and a Roman Inquisition, but by mentioning Toledo, we can know that it is the Spanish. At the beginning, the narrator mentions something called an auto-da-fe, which he says is how those condemned to die were executed. Toledo did have quite a few auto-da-fe, so that confirms things more. And by telling us at the end that General Lasalle saved the narrator, Poe tells us that it is sometime at the beginning of the 19th century.

As for what the narrator was guilty of, the auto-da-fe was usually the penance for condemned heretics and apostates (someone who spoke against the church's beliefs and someone who separated themselves from the church respectively), so we can be fairly certain that the narrator was guilty of one of those things.

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What happens to the narrator in "The Pit and the Pendulum" after his death sentence?

During his sentencing and right after, the narrator is incredibly groggy and confused.  He can't see very clearly, and almost appears to be having hallucinations--he fixates on the candles in the room, thinking they are angels of light coming to save him.  The voices of the judges are distorted.  Then, he "swoons" and goes on for 2 paragraphs about dreams, hallucinations, and a very confused, almost altered state of consciousness before he wakes up in the dark prison.

His descriptions of his state--"I was sick, sick unto death," and "I felt that my senses were leaving me," and "dreamy indeterminate hum," his confused visions and state of mind, all seem to point to him being drugged.  His being drugged, and probably being very emotional and stressed from the situation, led to him swooning, or, fainting.  In this state, eyes closed, partially conscious, he can't see anything anymore, and remains that way until he wakes in his dungeon of a prison.  That is why he can't see anything, and then of course, when he wakes, his prison is pitch black, so he can't see even when fully alert, conscious and looking around.  His persecutors drugged him, and carried him down into his dungeon, to enact further torment.

I hope that those thoughts helped; good luck!

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