Poe’s Short Stories – “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1843)

Summary
An unnamed narrator opens the story by revealing that
he has been sentenced to death during the time of the Inquisition—an
institution of the Catholic government in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spain
that persecuted all Protestants and heretical Catholics. Upon receiving
his death sentence, the narrator swoons, losing consciousness. When
he wakes, he faces complete darkness. He is confused because he
knows that the usual fate of Inquisition victims is a public auto-da-fé,
or “act of faith”—an execution normally taking the form of a hanging.
He is afraid that he has been locked in a tomb, but he gets up and
walks a few paces. This mobility then leads him to surmise that
he is not in a tomb, but perhaps in one of the dungeons at Toledo,
an infamous Inquisition prison. He decides to explore. Ripping off
a piece of the hem from his robe, he places it against the wall
so that he can count the number of steps required to walk the perimeter
of the cell. However, he soon stumbles and collapses to the ground,
where he falls asleep.
Upon waking, the narrator finds offerings of water and
bread, which he eagerly consumes. He then resumes his exploration
of the prison, determining it to be roughly one hundred paces around.
He decides to walk across the room. As he crosses, though, the hem
that he ripped earlier tangles around his feet and trips him. Hitting
the floor, he realizes that, although most of his body has fallen
on solid ground, his face dangles over an abyss. To his dismay,
he concludes that in the center of the prison there exists a circular
pit. To estimate its depth, the narrator breaks a stone off the
wall of the pit and throws it in, timing its descent. The pit, he
believes, is quite deep, with water at the bottom. Reflecting upon
his proximity to the pit, the narrator explains its function as
a punishment of surprise, infamously popular with the Inquisitors.
The narrator falls asleep again and wakes up to more water and bread.
After drinking, he immediately falls asleep again and imagines that
the water must have been drugged. When he wakes up the next time,
he finds the prison dimly lit. He remarks that he has overestimated
its size, most likely having duplicated his steps during his explorations.
The narrator discovers that he is now bound to a wooden
board by a long strap wrapped around his body. His captors offer
him some flavorful meat in a dish, but no more water. When he looks
up, he notices that the figure of Time has been painted on the ceiling. Time,
however, has been made into a machine, specifically a pendulum,
which appears to be swinging back and forth. The narrator looks
away from the ceiling, though, when he notices rats coming out of
the pit and swarming around his food. When he returns his focus
to the ceiling, he discovers that the pendulum is constructed like
a scythe and is making a razor-sharp crescent in its descent toward
him. Its progress, however, is maddeningly slow and in a trajectory
directly over his heart. Even though he recognizes how dire the
situation is, the narrator remains hopeful. When the pendulum gets
very close to him, he has a flash of insight. He rubs the food from
his plate all over the strap that is restraining his mobility. Drawn
by the food, the rats climb on top of the narrator and chew through
the strap. As the pendulum nears his heart, the narrator breaks
through the strap and escapes from the pendulum’s swing. When he
gets up, the pendulum retracts to the ceiling, and he concludes
that people must be watching his every move.
The walls of the prison then heat up and begin moving
in toward the pit. The narrator realizes that the enclosing walls
will force him into the pit, an escape that will also mean his death.
When there remains not even an inch foothold for the narrator, the
walls suddenly retract and cool down. In his fear, however, the
narrator has begun to faint into the pit. To his great surprise,
though, a mysterious person latches onto him and prevents his fall.
The French general Lasalle and his army have successfully taken
over the prison in their effort to terminate the Inquisition.
Analysis
“The Pit and the Pendulum” is distinct among Poe’s first-person narrations.
Unlike the hypersensitive characters from other stories, such as
Roderick in “The Fall of the House of Usher” or the narrator in
“The Tell-Tale Heart,” this narrator claims to lose the capacity
of sensation during the swoon that opens the story. He thus highlights
his own unreliability in ways that other narrators resist or deny.
Upon describing his possible loss of sensation, though, the narrator
of “The Pit and the Pendulum” proceeds to convey the sensory details
that he previously claims are beyond him. The narrative pattern
resembles that of other stories, such as “The Tell-Tale Heart,”
to the extent that the narrator says and does the opposite of what
he originally announces. This story diverges from the pattern, however,
in that this narrator’s descriptions are more objectively valid—that
is, less concerned with proving the narrator’s own sanity than with
relaying and accounting for the elements of his incarceration. The
story is also unusual among Poe’s tales because it is hopeful. Hope
is manifest in the story not only in the rescue that resolves the
tale, but also in the tale’s narrative strategy. The narrator maintains
the capacity to recount faithfully and rationally his surroundings
while also describing his own emotional turmoil. Unlike in “The
Tell-Tale Heart,” for example, the burden of emotional distress
does not hinder storytelling.
“The Pit and the Pendulum” also stands out as one of Poe’s
most historically specific tales. Poe counteracts the placelessness
of a story like “The Fall of the House of Usher” with the historical
context of the Inquisition and its religious politics. This historical
frame fills in for a personal history of the narrator. We do not
know the specific circumstances of his arrest, nor are we given
any arguments for his innocence or explanation for the barbarous
cruelty of the Inquisitors. Poe’s description of the pendulum blade’s
descent toward the narrator’s heart is extremely graphic, but Poe
uses the portrayal of explicit violence to create a suspenseful
story rather than to condemn the Inquisition. The tale suggests
a political agenda only implicitly. Poe does not critique the ideological
basis of the tale’s historical context. The narrative examines the
physical and emotional fluctuations of the pure present, leaving
historical and moral judgments to us. “The Pit and the Pendulum”
is a traditional Poe story that breaks from Poe’s conventions: violent
yet ultimately hopeful, graphic yet politically allusive.
In the 1840 preface to Tales
of the Grotesque and Arabesque, a collection of his short
stories, Poe describes his authorial goal of “unity of design.”
In “The Philosophy of Composition,” which was written three years
after “The Pit and the Pendulum,” he proclaims that the ideal short
story must be short enough to be read at a single sitting. Moreover,
he argues that all elements of a work of fiction should be crafted
toward a single, intense effect. These critical theories merge in
“The Pit and the Pendulum”; this short tale ruminates, at every
moment, on the horror of its punishments without actually requiring
that they be performed. Stripped of extraneous detail, the story
focuses on what horror truly is: not the physical pain of death, but
the terrible realization that a victim has no choice but to die. Whether
the narrator chooses to jump into the pit or get sliced in half
by the pendulum, he faces an identical outcome—death.
The horror of this lack of choice is the effect for which
everything in the story strives. The story, however, holds out hope
by demonstrating that true resolve when what someone chooses to
do seems most impossible. When threatened by the pendulum, the narrator does
not succumb to the swooning of his senses. He recruits his rational
capacities and uses the hungry rats for his own benefit. In this
way, the narrator resembles a character like C. Auguste Dupin in
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” who can separate himself from the
emotional overload of a situation and put himself in a position
to draw rational conclusions.