The Pit and the Pendulum Themes
by Edgar Allan Poe

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The Pit and the Pendulum Themes

The main themes in "The Pit and the Pendulum" are time, death, and religion.

  • Time: Both the narrator and the reader are acutely aware of the passage of time as the pendulum slowly, tortuously descends on the narrator.
  • Death: The pendulum represents an immediate and direct threat to the narrator's life, but even if he narrowly escapes execution at the end of the story, he will still someday succumb to his inevitable mortality.
  • Religion: The Spanish Inquisition, though given the authority to punish "heretics" for their "crimes" against the church, has become an overzealous organization that convicts and tortures people, oftentimes without evidence.

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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.