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The Pit and the Pendulum | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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The Pit and the Pendulum | Motifs


Darkness and Light

The darkness in which much of this story occurs amplifies the narrator's fear, helplessness, and anxiety, but when light does appear, it, too, turns out to be a threatening element. The story begins in a dark room in which only a few objects are visible: the white lips of the narrator's accusers and then seven, tall, white candles which at first seem benign and then quickly become sinister.

After his initial swoon, the narrator awakens in complete darkness, which at first suggests to him that he is enclosed in a tomb. Once he begins exploring his prison, he realizes it is too big to be a tomb, but the darkness thwarts his efforts and disorients him.

When light does appear, its effect is to reveal to him the torture that lies in store for him. He describes it as a "sulphurous" light, giving it a hellish aura. Finally, he appreciates the menacing source of the light, which heats up the iron walls that are closing around him.

Silence and Sound

The narrator's prison is silent except for the few slight noises that accompany the major elements of his torture. The story begins with the sound of the narrator's sentence and ends with the sounds that accompany his rescue. In between the narrator exists almost entirely in silence, aside from his own mad ravings. After he is condemned, all goes silent and he seems to sink into unconsciousness.

The silence in which he suffers seems to highlight the few quiet sounds he does hear, which only intensify his horror. When he encounters the pit, he identifies its depths through the sounds made by the piece of masonry he drops down into the abyss. Later, when tied to the wooden framework, the "whoosh" of the passing pendulum becomes louder as the pendulum descends, nearly driving him mad.

In fact, as a poet, Poe was adept at using the sounds of language to reinforce his ideas. Thus when writing about the pendulum, he highlights the sibilance of its swing in s-filled phrases such as these:

  • "a descent only appreciable at intervals that seemed ages"
  • "it swept so closely"
  • "struggled to force myself upward against the sweep of the fearful scimitar"

This repetition of similar sounds in words near one another in a text is a literary device known as consonance.

The story culminates in loud sounds, both of horror and of hope: the rumbling of the iron walls as they close in on him and his final scream of despair, followed by the shouts and trumpets of the rescuing army and the rasp of walls as they retreat.

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