The Pit and the Pendulum | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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The Pit and the Pendulum | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

The Epigraph

The Latin epigraph at the beginning of the story translates as: "Here an unholy mob of torturers with an insatiable thirst for innocent blood, once fed their long frenzy. Now our homeland is safe, the funereal cave destroyed, and life and health appear where dreadful death once was."

The Sentence and the Swoon

The story opens with the unnamed narrator hearing his sentence of death pronounced by judges of the Spanish Inquisition. Their voices then seem to merge together, and he ceases to hear them but sees their white lips moving. Next he sees seven tall white candles before everything becomes black and silent.

The narrator explains that he swooned but did not lose all consciousness. He claims to retain from his unconscious state "shadows of memory" involving tall figures carrying his nearly lifeless body on an interminable descent into some dark, damp place.

Suddenly, motion returns to his soul: He feels and hears the beating of his heart. There is a blank pause, and then motion returns, this time with touch. He is aware of his existence without thinking. When thought returns, terror comes with it. Then he recalls the trial, the judges, the sentence, the sickness, and the swoon.

The Discovery of the Pit

Lying on his back, the narrator opens his eyes and is terrified to find himself in pitch blackness. He finds it hard to breathe in that dark, close atmosphere. He then begins to wonder why he hasn't been burned in an auto da fé—or "act of faith"—the usual fate for victims of the Inquisition. Suddenly seized with the fear that he has been enclosed in a tomb, he springs up, feeling around with his arms in all directions. After taking a few steps, he realizes he is not in a tomb. He then wonders what his fate will be; he knows he must die but doesn't know how.

His fingers feel a cold, smooth, slimy wall that appears to be made of stone. He decides to walk along the perimeter of his cell, counting his paces to measure its size. He tears off a piece of his robe in order to mark his starting point so that he will know when he has made a full circuit. However, he slips and stumbles and then falls asleep. Upon waking, he feels a pitcher of water and a loaf of bread, both of which he eagerly consumes. He then continues his walk. Having counted 52 paces before stumbling, he now counts another 48 before coming upon the rag. He concludes that his cell is about 50 yards in perimeter, although the walls have many angles.

He decides to walk directly across the middle of his cell, but the floor is slimy, and he trips on the hem of his robe and falls flat, with the upper part of his face hanging over the edge of a circular pit. He then tests its depth by dropping a small piece of masonry and listening to it hit the side of the chasm and finally plunge into water. At the same moment, an overhead door quickly opens and closes, admitting a momentary gleam of light. Realizing he accidentally avoided plunging into the pit, he begins to tremble at the thought of what lies in store for him. Shaking with fright, he returns to the wall in order to avoid what he imagines to be a number of pits in his cell.

The Cell, Illuminated

After a long time, he falls asleep and wakes to find more bread and water by him. Very thirsty, he drinks the contents of the pitcher immediately and then quickly falls asleep. When he awakens, a "wild sulphurous lustre" illuminates his prison. He can now see that his prison is only 25 yards in perimeter and surmises that when he stumbled and fell asleep in the course of measuring his paces around the cell, he must have begun walking in the opposite direction after waking up.

He also realizes that the cell is basically a square with walls made of metal plates. The joints between these plates had given him the impression of odd angles when he felt them in the dark. The walls also have all sorts of fearful images painted on them, as of menacing fiends and skeletons, and there is one circular pit in the middle of the stone floor.

He has seen all this while lying on his back, bound to a wooden framework by a leather strap that allows only his head and left arm some freedom of movement. He is able to use his left arm to feed himself with spicy food that has been left in an earthen dish, but much to his discomfort there is nothing left to drink, and the food has made him terribly thirsty.

The Terror of the Pendulum

Some 30 to 40 feet above him, he sees an image of Father Time painted on the ceiling, holding what appears to be a pendulum instead of a scythe. After staring at it for a while, he realizes it is slowly moving back and forth. He hears the noise of rats coming up from the pit, attracted by the scent of his food, and does what he can to scare them away. After a while he looks up again and notices that the pendulum seems bigger, is moving faster, and has descended from the ceiling. He can now see it is a very sharp, crescent-shaped blade that is getting closer and closer to him. He realizes the fate the inquisitorial agents have planned for him after his accidental escape from the horrors of the hellish pit.

For what seems like days he lies in terror watching the pendulum slowly descend. Finally, it approaches so closely that he feels the rush of air it makes. He prays, grows mad, and even tries to force his body up to meet the blade. After a brief interval of unconsciousness, he arrives at an idea that gives him hope. Unfortunately, his mental powers have grown so weak that he immediately forgets the idea.

He realizes that the course of the pendulum will cut across his body precisely at the level of his heart. As the blade descends further, he laughs madly and begins to struggle violently against his bonds. He continues to shrink away each time the pendulum approaches him, all the while imagining it cutting through him.

The Escape Plan

When the pendulum comes very close to his chest, he begins to think strategically. He realizes that if the first stroke of the blade would cut any part of the leather strap that binds him, he might be able to unwind it from his body. But when he lifts his head to look at his chest, he realizes that the strap is wound all around his body, except in the path of the descending blade.

Suddenly he remembers the idea he had forgotten. All this time the rats have been swarming around the frame to which he is bound and have eaten nearly all of his food, despite his continual efforts to scare them away. He now takes the remnants of the food with his fingers and rubs the strap wherever can reach it. Then he lies still. After a little while, the rats come swarming up all over his body and begin to gnaw at the strap wherever it has been smeared with food. Soon he feels it loosen. Just as the blade begins to cut through his clothing, he shoos away the rats and carefully slides sideways out of the strap, which has been severed at several points. He is free.

As soon as he escapes the pendulum, it stops and is drawn back up to the ceiling. Realizing he is being watched, he looks around nervously and notices a change in his cell. The sulfurous light coming from a fissure at the base of the walls all around the cell now illuminates the hideous figures painted on the walls. The demon eyes terrify him with their stares.

Smelling heated iron, he realizes that the metal walls are burning hot and glowing red. Gasping for breath, he yearns for the coolness of the pit. Realizing that the intent of his torturers is to force him into the pit, he breaks down and weeps. The heat increases, and the cell walls make a rumbling sound as they change in shape from a rectangle to a flattened parallelogram. As the shape of the cell flattens, the searing hot walls force him toward the pit. He totters on the brink of the pit, screaming in despair. But then he hears human voices and trumpets, and the walls move away again. Just as he is about to faint and fall into the pit, General LaSalle catches his arm and saves him. He realizes the French army has defeated the Inquisition and captured Toledo.

Analysis

The Relevance of the Epigraph

The epigraph purports to have been written as an inscription for a gate to a market intended to be built on the site of a Jacobin clubhouse in Paris. After the French Revolution, the Jacobins were the most notorious and radical revolutionary terrorists. The man most associated with the Reign of Terror, Maximilien Robespierre, was a prominent member. Poe clearly believed that this Latin verse might be applied as easily to any structure built atop the dungeons of the Inquisition as to the Jacobin clubhouse. The epigraph looks to a time long past the narrator's rescue and the Inquisition's defeat.

Narrative Structure

"The Pit and the Pendulum" is thought to be one of Poe's most successful suspense stories, and the structure of the story is carefully crafted to build that suspense. The story makes use of the "rule of three" rhetorical device. The rule of three is based on the principle that a progression of three events (or items) is more memorable than a lower or higher number and builds emotional impact, with the third element packing the most punch. In this case the narrator undergoes three distinct tribulations in his cell, each more clearly deadly and more agonizing than the last:

  1. struggling to find his way through an unknown space in complete darkness and almost falling into the pit
  2. lying tied to a wooden frame while the bladed pendulum comes ever nearer, bringing with it certain death
  3. being forced toward the pit by the red-hot iron walls of his cell as they close in on him

Within each segment, there is also a three-part progression that builds suspense and horror:

  1. Introduction: the narrator's exploration of his circumstances, for example, determining the layout of the cell or figuring out how the pendulum works
  2. Understanding: the narrator's recognition of the intended goal of the scenario, such as his falling into the pit in the dark or being sliced open by the bladed pendulum
  3. Resolution: what happens at the end of the scenario; for instance, stumbling and falling before reaching the pit in the dark or getting the rats to chew through the leather strap and set him free

Here, the rule of three works particularly well because there is nothing the narrator can do to save himself in the third scenario. The walls will keep closing until he falls into the pit. He was saved by accident in the first scenario and by cleverness in the second. The suspense and horror are high at the end of his third tribulation because the rule of three says there must be a resolution. He must either be driven into the pit or be saved by some unexpected agency. The reader's horror rises with the narrator's. Fortunately for the narrator, though, he is saved by General LaSalle.

The Narrator's Identity

The reader learns next to nothing about the identity of the prisoner who narrates the story. Is he a heretic? a political prisoner? an enemy combatant? a common criminal? Poe gives the reader no clues. It's clear the narrator believes in an afterlife because he says "in the grave all is not lost." But this does little to narrow his faith down. As he recounts his trial, it is clear that he has been tied up and has suffered a "long agony," so it is likely he had been tortured. And he is so physically exhausted that he cannot stay awake, which also backs up the idea that he has been tortured. Since the Inquisition used torture to force the accused to confess, the narrator must have been accused of something. But it is unlikely that he confessed, or he would not be undergoing the tribulations Poe describes in the story. He would simply have been executed.

Anxious Tone, Terrifying Mood

The first-person narrator relates his experience during his imprisonment in a tone imbued with fear and anxiety, describing not only what he can perceive with his senses (which at times is very limited) but also, in great detail, what he thinks and feels. So bewildered and terrified is he that for certain portions of the story he conveys only raw emotion or irrational thought—so much so that the reader may well find the narrator unreliable: "After this I call to mind flatness and dampness; and then all is madness."

Poe creates a mood of terror by causing the reader to be as completely focused on the eerily threatening setting as the narrator is. The limited perspective of the narrator means that readers have no more information than he does. Because the initially dark and silent atmosphere in which he finds himself renders the narrator unable to discern any details of the setting, he is induced to pay very close attention to any of the details that subsequently emerge and greets each one with a fresh surge of horror. Each time the narrator feels a slimy surface or slips or feels his forehead "bathed in a clay vapor," readers' horror escalates with his.

Deprivation of Sensation and Free Movement

The story begins with the gradual loss of the narrator's ability to sense what is going on around him. Because the narrator is deprived of light and sound and the ability to move at various times throughout the story, he is in both a literal and a metaphorical state of darkness, ignorant of where he is and what is in store for him. The terrors that the narrator experiences always seem to hinge in some way on the degree to which he cannot see, hear, or move. For example, when he discovers the pit, because he cannot see, he imagines there are many pits. His blindness magnifies the threat. Similarly, his inability to move out of the path of the pendulum is so terrifying that he cannot think straight.

Toward the end, as the story approaches its climax, the narrator's senses and his freedom of movement are fully restored. Instead of lessening his terror, however, this only increases it. He can see the walls begin to glow red, hear them move, and feel their heat as they approach, making his prison brighter, louder, and even more terrifying. Having access to his senses and movement cannot stop him from being pushed into the pit. His terror comes to a climax, culminating in the sound of his own scream. Although he hears other noises—shouts and trumpets and then the walls grating as they move back into their original positions—he is still so confused and frightened that he does not interpret these sounds as rescue until the general grabs his arm.

Torture by Imagination

Imprisoned in a cell whose features and dimensions he cannot fully see, the narrator is not only a prisoner of the Inquisition but also a prisoner of his own imagination. Because the narrator spends so much of his time in the cell both literally and figuratively "in the dark" about his fate, his imagination is unleashed and becomes an instrument of torture to him.

While there is physical torture—imprisonment, sensory deprivation, bondage, withdrawal of drink, excessive heat—the story focuses much more on the mental torture the narrator endures. Because he is deprived of the use of his senses to determine his situation, he must use what empirical evidence he can in order to assess his prison and his fate. Where those fail, he falls back on fears and imaginings and recalls rumors he had heard before being imprisoned. Furthermore, he is tortured by his own anticipation. First, there is the anticipation of the pit, but later there is the anticipation of the pendulum, whose slow descent allows him ample opportunity to envision the sound and sensation of the blade slicing through his clothing and then through his skin. The closing in of the cell's walls at the end once again forces him to anticipate his plunge into the horrors of the pit. The terror that fuels his final scream is a result of all the anguish that has built up throughout his imprisonment.

Consciousness, Unconsciousness, and the Mind

"The Pit and the Pendulum" is not only the story of imprisonment, torture, and release; it is also a metaphorical examination of the various levels of human consciousness.

The story unfolds like a nightmare, interrupted by the blissful unconsciousness of sleep. Throughout the story, periods of sleep alternate with periods of wakefulness, one state suddenly giving way to the other. Even when the narrator is awake, it often seems as if he is sleeping, existing in a dark, silent place whose dimensions and features he cannot determine. What's more, each time he awakens, it is to a slightly different nightmarish scenario.

For much of the story, the narrator is unable to keep himself awake and compares his sleep to being dead. When he awakens the first time, he is afraid to open his eyes for fear that he will see only darkness. And when he does open his eyes in complete darkness, it is as if he were unable to awaken. This struggle to stay awake symbolizes a struggle to stay alive, to retain consciousness.

The narrator's fear of being prematurely entombed—a common fear in the Victorian era—is consonant with his concern about the nature of consciousness, which he discusses when he describes his initial swoon. "I had swooned but still will not say that all of consciousness was lost." He retains vague memories from his swoon but can't be sure if they are true. For him consciousness seems to stand for the eternal soul: "Even in the grave all is not lost. Else there is no immortality for man." The narrator fears unconsciousness and oblivion, which the pit, with its unknowable depths, seems to symbolize.

When consciousness does return after that initial swoon, the narrator seems to be in an irrational or pre-rational state. Completely terrified by his prison, his "nerves [are] unstrung." The circumstances of his torture continue to diminish his mental function. After watching the pendulum descend toward him for a long while, he grows "frantically mad" and tries to force his body up to the scimitar. When he subsequently does come up with an idea for escape, it is only half-formed, and his mind is unable to retain it: "Long suffering had nearly annihilated all my ordinary powers of mind." Only after experiencing complete despair over the pendulum do his mental faculties fully return: "For the first time during many hours ... I thought." He is now mentally capable of conceiving and executing an escape plan and also of fully understanding the intent of his tormentors.

The Pit and the Pendulum Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 The narrator is sentenced by judges of the Inquisition.

Rising Action

2 The narrator tries to measure the perimeter of his cell.

3 The narrator discovers and escapes the pit.

4 The narrator discovers and escapes the pendulum.

Climax

5 The narrator is forced toward the pit by the hot iron walls.

Falling Action

6 Screaming, the narrator begins to faint.

Resolution

7 General LaSalle rescues the narrator.

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