The Pit and the Pendulum Summary
by Edgar Allan Poe

The Pit and the Pendulum book cover
Start Your Free Trial

The Pit and the Pendulum Summary

"The Pit and the Pendulum" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe in which the narrator relates how he was tortured and imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition.

  • The Spanish Inquisition imprisoned the narrator in a dark cell positioned over a deep pit.

  • He was then strapped to a table, over which a blade swung like a pendulum, gradually getting closer to him. He escaped by using meat scraps to entice rats to chew through the ropes.

  • His captors attempt to force him into the pit by closing the walls around him. He's saved at the last minute by the French army.

Download The Pit and the Pendulum Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The first-person narrator informs the reader that he is trying to recall and write down everything that happened to him earlier. He describes the Spanish Inquisition’s sentencing him to death, a sentence that he could not understand because of his extremely nervous state. When he regained consciousness temporarily, he felt himself being carried down and down into an apparent abyss. Later, when he was fully conscious, he knew that he was lying on his back in an oppressive, damp environment. Finally daring to open his eyes and finding himself in absolute darkness, he imagined that he was buried alive. Food and drink were provided to him only when he swooned or slept. Later, while investigating his surroundings, he narrowly escaped falling into a deep pit to a certain death. Shaken, but relieved, he fell asleep. When he awoke, some light entering the dungeon made it possible for him to compare the room to his calculations made in the dark.

Soon he discovered that one form of torture and execution had only been replaced with another, for he was strapped to a table so that only his head and left arm could be moved slightly. A large razor-sharp pendulum suspended overhead drew nearer with each pass. The ponderous rate at which it descended increased his agony, for he had to await death for what seemed to be many days. At last he developed a plan: He smeared some scraps of meat on his ropes so that the rats in the cell came to gnaw on them. Just as the pendulum brushed his skin, the ropes were loosened enough to allow him to escape. His relief was again short-lived, for the walls of his cell became hotter and hotter, forcing him toward the pit in the center of the room. When he resisted, his invisible tormentors moved the walls so that he was squeezed toward death by heat or by falling into the pit. At the moment when he was losing his foothold, the machines were suddenly turned off, and the walls receded. Just before he fell into the pit, he was rescued by General Lasalle, the leader of the French army, which had just invaded Toledo.

Extended Summary

First published in 1843 and subsequently revised by Poe for an 1845 issue of The Broadway Journal, "The Pit and the Pendulum" is told by an unnamed first-person narrator whose credibility actually rises even as he is subjected to increasingly fantastic tortures. At the outset, the narrator acknowledges that he is "sick," but we immediately realize that his illness is not a form of insanity, but an hallucinatory condition that can be explained by the physical abuse that he has already undergone. Although he is temporarily deranged, the narrator is nonetheless rational. He is, in fact, a victim of the Spanish Inquisition in Toledo, accused of some unidentified (implicitly heretical) crime, and has been bound for sentencing. The narrator first hears the sound of his judges in a "dreamy hum," but is then unable to hear at all. Instead, he sees the white lips of the black-robed inquisitors as they pass sentence upon him. He focuses his sight on seven tall candles, which at first appear to him as angels, but then dissolve into meaningless forms. The whole scene, including the judges, vanishes before the narrator's eyes. He is now engulfed by utter darkness, and a single sweet note ringing in his ears that he associates with the relief of death. The narrator swoons and lapses into a limbo state of consciousness: he is aware of his own...

(The entire section is 2,065 words.)