The Pit and the Pendulum | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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The Pit and the Pendulum | Context

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Fear of Premature Burial

In Poe's time the fear of premature burial was widespread. This fear stemmed partly from the fact that medical science could not always distinguish between someone who was dead and someone in a coma or in shock. People were sometimes buried very quickly, especially cholera victims, in order to avoid spread of infection, and the concern was that a seemingly dead person might suddenly come alive, as the narrator of "The Pit and the Pendulum" seems to have done early on in the story. An entire industry sprang up to produce "safety coffins," which would allow a supposedly deceased person to alert others, often through the use of bells or other devices, that he or she was still alive. In some European countries, there were even "waiting mortuaries" where dead bodies were monitored for subsequent signs of life.

That Poe was aware of this concern is made clear by the fact that he published a short story titled "The Premature Burial" (1844) just two years after "The Pit and the Pendulum." In this tale the protagonist randomly lapses into a deathlike trance and fears that he may one day be buried while still alive. This fear of unconsciousness can be seen in the struggle with unconsciousness that the narrator of "The Pit and the Pendulum" undergoes, not to mention his initial fear of being buried alive.

Close Circumscription of Space

In many of his short stories, Poe's protagonists are within a clearly defined space: a room, a tomb, or a secret compartment. Poe did this intentionally, feeling that it added power to the story and created a consistency of tone and atmosphere. In his essay "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe wrote that "a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of the insulated incident:—it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention." When there is no possibility of escape, the horror of the impending disaster becomes magnified. Furthermore, confinement in a limited space can work to threaten a character's ability to remain rational. In the case of "The Pit and the Pendulum," not only does the narrator suffer claustrophobia upon awakening in his tomblike cell, but the cells' walls also literally close in on him at the end of the story.

Gothic Tradition

The Gothic novel had its start in the second half of the 18th century and had become commonplace by the time Poe began his literary career. "The Pit and the Pendulum" falls within the Gothic literary tradition, which was known for its focus on strong, irrational emotions, especially horror. Gothic writers created irrational scenes intended to horrify and amaze their readers, and their works included portrayals of death, madness, and internal anguish often set in mysterious medieval buildings, such as old castles and ruins. Gothic literature takes up a concern with the supernatural, and typical ghoulish characters included vampires and ghosts. In "The Pit and the Pendulum," the specter of death haunts the narrator throughout the story and drives him to madness in a setting that is literally a medieval dungeon.

Spanish Inquisition

Poe set "The Pit and the Pendulum" during the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition began with Pope Innocent III in Rome in the early 13th century; the Roman Catholic Church used it as a tool to identify and stamp out heresy. Accused heretics were imprisoned, abused, tortured, and—if they didn't return to the faith—executed. The condemned, as the narrator mentions in the story, were generally burned at the stake. The Inquisition did not come to Spain until 1481, but it arrived with a vengeance. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella used it as a political tactic in their campaign to reunify Spain under their rule and maintain power after reunification. Under the first Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, Tomás de Torquemada, some 2,000 people were burned at the stake. Jews and Muslims had to convert to Catholicism or flee if they wanted to avoid the Inquisition. Although the Inquisition became less ferocious, autos-da-fé, or heretic burnings, were commonplace into the mid–18th century. The Spanish Inquisition continued on and off until 1834—only eight years before the publication of "The Pit and the Pendulum."

Although "The Pit and the Pendulum" portrays a character being tortured by the Spanish Inquisition and then rescued by the French General LaSalle, that scenario is historically inaccurate. It is believed that a French general by that name had taken over what had been a torture chamber of the Inquisition, but that was in 1808, during the Peninsular Wars. At this time such extreme methods were no longer in use. In fact, when Joseph Bonaparte became king of Spain in 1808, he suppressed the Inquisition.

The pendulum may or may not have been used by the Inquisition to extract confessions from prisoners. Some scholars believe it was; others believe it originated with Poe. Critics believe other elements in the story were inspired by Poe's reading. For example, he had read a translation of the Koran in which a fiery pit is mentioned; this may be the source of the pit. Also, Poe may have gotten the idea for the shrinking torture chamber from a story entitled "The Iron Shroud" in Blackwood's Magazine, which he regularly read.

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