The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe

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Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Edgar Allan Poe is best known as the author of numerous spine-tingling stories of horror and suspense. "The Pit and the Pendulum" is a classic example of Poe's ability to keep readers on the edge of their seats with almost nightmarish terror. However, Poe should also be remembered as the American author who helped to establish and develop America's major formal contribution to the world of literature — the short story. Poe was the first writer to recognize that the short story was a different kind of fiction than the novel and the first to insist that for a story to have a powerful effect on the reader every single detail in the story should contribute to that effect. "The Pit and the Pendulum" is a striking example of Poe's ability to follow his own advice about the artistic unity of a short story.

Finally, Poe should be remembered as an artist who had the uncanny psychological understanding of the most powerful, deep-seated fears and anxieties of human beings, as well as the technical skill to write stories which unerringly focused on those fears. "The Pit and the Pendulum," with its emphasis on the terror of absolute darkness, on the fear of falling into a bottomless pit, and on the panic of helplessness, is a singular example of Poe's expertise at creating stories which capture universal human anxieties.

1. The story never explains why the central character has been thrown into the pit. Why does Poe not inform the reader of his crime?

2. There are many details in the story which suggest the state of sleep, such as references to dreams and occasions when the character himself falls asleep. How is it possible to think of this story as a fictional account of a nightmare?

3. The primary dilemma of the narrator is that he is caught between the seemingly bottomless pit and the slowly descending pendulum. What do these two horrors represent?

4. What kinds of methods does the protagonist use to try to save himself? How successful are they?

5. Why is the protagonist finally rescued by some force outside of himself rather than by his own efforts?

6. What is it that keeps the protagonist from simply giving up?

7. Some critics have suggested that the story is an allegory of the basic dilemma of human life, for all the major elements of the story correspond to the universal human dilemma. Can you explain how this might be true?

8. How would you characterize the basic personality of the protagonist? Consider not only his...

(The entire section is 646 words.)