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The Pit and the Pendulum | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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The Pit and the Pendulum | Themes



From the beginning, the narrator is very concerned with the nature and extent of consciousness. He seems to lose consciousness soon after receiving his sentence, which begins a series of episodes of losing and regaining consciousness. At times he struggles to remain conscious so that he can ascertain the nature of his prison cell, yet the episodes of sleep seem to be welcome interludes of escape from the horrors of his prison.

Furthermore, the narrator takes pains to note the different levels of consciousness he experiences during his imprisonment. At the very beginning, upon hearing his sentence, he seems to lose consciousness gradually, faculty by faculty, until all is black and silent. He then asserts that he did not completely lose consciousness during that swoon and indeed retains vague memories of what happened to him. This point seems important to him because it touches on the nature of the eternal soul. "In the deepest slumber—no! In delirium—no! In a swoon—no! In death—no! even in the grave all is not lost. Else there is no immortality for man." He values consciousness because he fears oblivion.

He goes on to say that in returning from a swoon, one does so in two stages: first a mental stage and then a physical stage. In the first stage, one can recall impressions or memories of what he calls "the gulf beyond," by which he means the unconscious state, which he then compares with death. Indeed, he seems to connect these impressions from the swoon state with the ability to imaginatively engage with the world. His return from this swoon occurs in stages: first physical sensation, then consciousness of existence, and then thought—specifically "earnest endeavor to comprehend my true state." Only after all of this does he actually physically move.

The narrator's fear of oblivion can be seen in his particular abhorrence of the abyss of the pit. Compared to the pit, he labels the pendulum a "milder destruction." He calls the pit "typical of hell" and the "Ultima Thule"—or highest possible—of the Inquisition's punishments; death by the pit is "death with its most hideous moral horrors." As the fiery walls close in on him at the end, he cannot escape to the oblivion of sleep but must face the oblivion of the pit.

Reason versus Madness

Throughout the story, the narrator struggles to empirically understand his situation but is at first unsuccessful and must fall back on rumor and imagination.

When he first tries to understand where he is and what his situation is, he is thwarted in this purpose by his inability to see or accurately to assess the nature of his prison and his repeated episodes of exhaustion leading to sleep. The utter blackness he finds himself in at the beginning of the story prevents him from using empirical observations to assess the situation in which he finds himself. His attempts at measuring his cell ultimately fail: the first time he collapses, exhausted, and falls asleep; the second time he nearly falls headlong into the pit.

Because of his inability to use reason and empirical observation, he tends to rely on rumor and surmise, both of which work to increase his terror. When he falls at the brink of the pit, he recalls the tales he has heard of the Inquisition and is cowed, imagining a number of pits throughout his cell. Later, when there is enough light for him to survey his cell, he discovers that his empirical observations were incorrect: the cell is half the size he had thought it was, and the walls are square, not full of angles.

As his terror increases, he loses his ability to think rationally. Bound to a wooden frame and unable to move as the sharpened pendulum descends toward his chest, he begins to go mad and loses his ability to think clearly. At one point he thrusts his chest up to meet the blade. Later, he comes up with a hopeful idea and then loses it, having lost "all my ordinary powers of mind."

It is only when the blade is close to cutting him that he becomes calm enough to remember his strategy for escape and begins to execute a well-calculated plan to free himself from his bonds. But as soon as he does, the walls of his cell, which he had so painstakingly measured earlier, now begin to shift in shape, causing him to lose his hold on reason and release a scream of despair.


Poe's narrator is continually struggling with confinement and the physical and psychological limitations imposed upon him, which work to increase his terror.

At the beginning his movement is limited by both fear and darkness. When he awakens in the darkness, he at first fears he has been confined in a tomb. Although not entombed, he is confined to a cell whose extent and nature he cannot determine and which he fearfully explores because of the darkness that limits his ability to see. When he does try to measure the cell, he is at first limited by his exhaustion. Later, after he attempts to traverse the cell, his terror of the pit confines him to the walls. Darkness, fear, and exhaustion all limit his ability to act.

When he awakens to see the cell illuminated, he is literally confined to a wooden framework, allowed only limited movement by the leather strap wound around him. Now his confinement works to strike terror into his heart, as he can clearly see the sharpened pendulum descending toward him. Upon finally freeing himself of his bonds, he sees the cell literally closing in upon him so that he has no place to remain standing but must be confined to the bottomless abyss.

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