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The Pit and the Pendulum | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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Edgar Allan Poe | Biography


Troubled Youth

Edgar Allan Poe's life was short, troubled, and complicated. His parents were both actors. When Poe was born on January 19, 1809, his father David and mother Elizabeth already had one son Henry. After Poe was born, they had a daughter named Rosalie. When Poe was still very young, his parents split up; before the young Poe turned three, both parents died of tuberculosis. Similar losses followed Poe throughout his life. He lost both his brother Henry to tuberculosis or cholera, and his wife Virginia to tuberculosis as well.

Soon after Poe was orphaned, he was taken in by a wealthy merchant named John Allan and his wife Frances, who had known Poe's mother. Poe's brother and sister went to live with other families. Poe started attending the University of Virginia in 1826, but he had to leave after just a year due to drinking, gambling, and excessive debt. He joined the army in 1827, and a year later, he published his first book of poems, Tamerlane, and Other Poems, followed by Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems in 1829. Neither collection brought him much attention or money. Poe entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1830, but the Academy dismissed him when he intentionally broke their rules (one longstanding rumor has it he showed up for drills wearing only a belt and a smile), and Poe never graduated.

Literary Life

After leaving West Point, Poe wrote for several years before landing a staff position at the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia, in 1835. That same year, when he was 27, he married his cousin Virginia, who was 13.

Poe became an influential editor at the literary journal, but his real fame came from his own writing. Although his early poetry didn't win him the praise he wanted, his later poetic creations were highly respected. Works such as "Lenore" (1843), "The Raven" (1845), and "Annabel Lee" (1849) unite technical precision with vivid imagery and an exploration of the darker side of life.

Poe's work follows principles of composition he explored as a literary critic and theorist. In essays such as the 1846 "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe developed ideas about artistic creation and the short story that are still extremely influential. Chief among these are his emphasis on brevity, portraying characters truthfully—as people think, feel, and behave in real life—and making sure every element in a work, from the first sentence to the last, contributes to "unity of effect." For Graham's Magazine, Poe reviewed Nathaniel Hawthorne's first volume of stories, Twice-Told Tales. Hawthorne was little known at the time; Poe's praise for Hawthorne's innovative writing style and "unity of effect" helped change that.

Poe also left his mark on short fiction. His stories about his fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin helped create the modern mystery and directly influenced later detectives such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Stories such as "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall" (1835), which involved a trip to the moon, and "Mellonta Tauta" (1849), which included futuristic transatlantic air travel, shaped science fiction. Finally, Poe is known as the father of modern horror, especially psychological horror. He raised Gothic fiction—fiction that combines horror, death, and sometimes romance—to high art. Stories such as "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842), and "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846) address themes such as live burial or states of consciousness.

"The Pit and the Pendulum" was published in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present for 1843. Critics have called it his finest suspense story. But renowned poet and critic William Butler Yeats was not impressed. Yeats did not believe the story had "permanent literary value of any kind" and that any analysis of the story would reveal "an appeal to the nerves by tawdry physical affrightments." Nonetheless, Poe's body of work has inspired hundreds of adaptations, imitations, and parodies.

A Tragic End

Poe fought depression and alcoholism his entire adult life. These worsened after his wife, Virginia, died in 1847. Poe died just two years later on October 3, 1849, after being found delirious in a gutter. His cause of death remains a mystery; it has been attributed to everything from alcohol poisoning to rabies (a fairly common virus at the time) to pneumonia.

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