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The Pit and the Pendulum | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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The Pit and the Pendulum | Symbols


Three major factors that incite terror in the narrator—the pit, the pendulum, and the cell itself—are in themselves potent symbols. All can be seen as frightening aspects of human life. On a literal level, these are humankind's threatening environment, the inevitability of death, and death itself. On a psychological level, they represent fear of the loss of self-determination, fear of death, and fear of the unknown.


The first source of terror the narrator is introduced to is the cell itself, which symbolizes the incomprehensible and at times threatening world into which humankind is placed. Unable to see, the narrator cannot ascertain where he is, and as he fears he has been buried alive—a common fear in the Victorian era—the cell comes to symbolize a tomb. His exploration of the cell reveals treacherous, slimy surfaces comprising an irregular, incomprehensible shape. At the end of the story, the cell once again becomes the ultimate source of terror when its walls change shape, become glowing hot, and literally close in on him, relentlessly driving him toward an unknowable fate in the pit. Despite the narrator's meticulous attempts to ascertain the reality in which he has found himself, he is unsuccessful because the world is unknowable through the tools of consciousness.


The most obvious symbol is that of the pendulum. It descends from an image of Father Time—himself an age-old symbol of the passage of time—who usually carries a scythe, a symbol of harvest and therefore of the end of the cycle of growth in the life of a plant. In this context Father Time brings to mind his ghoulish doppelgänger, the Grim Reaper, who wields his scythe to harvest human life. In "The Pit and the Pendulum" it is a literal scythe that slowly descends toward the body of the narrator, bringing his death closer and closer with every swing of the pendulum.


The pit is a symbol of suffering and, even more clearly, of death. Before he entered this cell, the narrator had heard rumors of the pit as the ultimate, most horrifying torture inflicted on victims of the Inquisition. At one point he actually calls it a symbol of hell. This is not only because it threatens destruction, but also because its true nature and what might happen once one falls into it is unknowable. Even after he accidentally saves himself from it by stumbling before he reaches it, the pit becomes an enduring source of terror, at times beckoning him toward a self-destruction he cannot commit. Even at his most hopeless and desperate, the narrator refuses to throw himself into the pit, knowing that such a death would not be instant but slow and agonizing. At the end it is when he is tottering on the edge of the pit that he screams his final scream of despair and defeat.

But the pit also symbolizes the unknowable nature of the unconscious mind. Throughout the story, just as the narrator struggles to understand the location and nature of the pit, he also struggles to know what is real and what is imagined and even to know the difference between waking and dreaming.

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