The Pit and the Pendulum Themes

  • Poe continually reminds the reader of the theme of time by depicting the pendulum swinging closer and closer to the narrator. Both he and the reader are acutely aware of the passage of time as he comes closer and closer to death.
  • Death is another important theme in "The Pit and the Pendulum." It hangs over the main character in the form of the pendulum, but is more generally addressed through the narrator's discussion of the Spanish Inquisition. Poe's story might seem excessively brutal to some readers, but these gruesome scenes of death and torture were pretty common during the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Poe uses the Spanish Inquisition to develop the theme of religion. It quickly becomes clear that the Spanish Inquisition, though given the authority to punish "heretics" for their "crimes" against the church, has become an overzealous religious tribunal that convicts and tortures people based on very little evidence. This is a criticism of religious extremism, if not of religion itself.

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

One obvious theme is the inexorable passage of time, ending in death as the final outcome of all life. The pendulum, usually associated with clocks and time, here combines the two elements, for it is one of two possible means of execution, and it is also compared to the scythe wielded by Father Time. The other obvious symbol of death is the pit, a synonym with death or Sheol since biblical times.

The horrors of the Spanish Inquisition are also treated specifically. This is not, however, a diatribe against Spain or a laudatory statement about France. Instead, on a more universal level, it shows the cruelty that humans exercise on their fellow human beings. Edgar Allan Poe uses the historical background solely to render the story more believable and, thus, more frightening. His purpose is to create a nightmare in which the reader becomes a coparticipant with the protagonist, sharing in the terror and the suspense.