The Pit And The Pendulum Summary & Analysis

Edgar Alan Poe is an American writer, editor, and poet. Nowadays, he is considered to be one of the representatives of the American Romanticism and what is more important, the inventor of the detective fiction genre. Poe’s literary works contributed to the genre of science fiction. He is best known for his spine-tingling horror stories.


The Pit and the Pendulum is a short story published in 1842. The narrator of the story is a survivor of the torture and torment in the condemned cell at Toledo – the Spanish Inquisition prison. By using a great variety of stylistic devices the author manages to keep the reader on the edge of his seat.
The Pit and the Pendulum begins with the epigraph in Latin that was taken from an inscription for the gates of a market built in Paris upon the site of the old Jacobin Club House. The quatrain suggests that the whole story will be about tortures and struggle that will end with the victory over the enemies. The whole story is based on the narrator’s memories of his imprisonment.

The Pit and The Pendulum Summary


The author does not give the description of the narrator, so we can only guess how he looks like, but actually it does not even matter. The only thing we find out about him is that he was convicted of an unknown crime and sentenced to death in a dungeon at Toledo. And during the Inquisition, to be sentenced to death meant to be sentenced to a torturous and painful death. We can presume that he was imprisoned because of some religious beliefs. As during the sixteenth century, the Spanish Inquisition persecuted heretics and members of other churches.

The Pit and The Pendulum Imagery


The story is built on the narrator’s sensations and feelings. Poe aims to convey the character’s emotional state. He puts the emphasis on the stylistic devices that help to express senses and sensations. The narrator is terrified because he does not know where he is, what will happen to him, what is his fate. The fear of the unknown is connected with the fear of darkness. In his detailed descriptions, Poe uses a lot of epithets that help to create a dark atmosphere of horror: “the blackness of darkness”, “deepest slumber”, “delirious horror”, “a hideous dizziness”, “the tumultuous motion of heart” (Poe), “a tingling sensation”, “shuddering terror”, “the blackness of eternal night” (Poe), “physical agonies”, “death with its most hideous moral horrors” (Poe), “painful effort”, “long suffering”, “terrifically wide sweep”, “thrilling sensation” (Poe) and so on. The image of a nightmare is reinforced with the syntactical device – climax: “In the deepest slumber – no! In delirium – no! In a swoon – no! In death – no! Even in the grave, all is not lost” (Poe). It is used to escalate the situation.


As usual, physical tortures in Poe’s short stories are replaced with psychological tortures. And each of these agonies has a symbolic meaning. At first, it is the pitch, darkness and an unknown danger hidden within it. Then it is the figure of Time holding a pendulum with a blade that slowly and inevitably descends to the condemned. It is not the death but the anticipation of it that scares the most. This episode is much more allegorical. Once again the author reminds us of the inexorability of death and time, that nothing on the earth is eternal. At the end of the story, the protagonist falls into the trap of red-hot walls with the pictures of the hell, the eyes of demons on which burn with a real fire. The walls are moving closer and closer. The inquisitors give the narrator a choice – to burn alive or to jump into a pit, of the content of which we can only guess from the presence of rats that are running out of it. But the silence of the author helps to complete the ominous impression.

The Pit and The Pendulum Theme


Interestingly, that in some way these series of torture reflect the fanatically-religious worldview inherent in the Inquisition. At first, we are born to wander in the dark (and incidentally, the hero remembers almost nothing that was before the execution, only vague spots of candles that initially remind him of guardian angels), if we’re lucky and do not stumble on life’s dangers, the scythe of Time will mow us down no matter what. And in the end, Hades awaits us.

This assumption can be supported by the number of symbols the author uses in the short story. The first of them is, of course, the pendulum. It is a symbol of time and inevitable death that approaches – nothing can stop it. But there are people who are afraid of death. It is better for them to commit suicide than to wait for the end in suffering. Here arises the pit – a symbol of a self-willed decision to die. The next symbol is darkness. It represents ignorance and fear, the fear of everything unknown, strange and obscure. The narrator wonders in the dark nearly during the whole story. At the beginning of the tale, the narrator describes the seven tall candles that at first remind him of angels but then turn into “meaningless specters, with heads of flame” (Poe). We are reminded of a passage in the Book of Revelation, where seven candlesticks surround someone who resembles Jesus but who has flames in his eyes. Poe’s Biblical allusion to the Apocalypse is related to the protagonist’s constant sense of impending doom, as he is left with fewer and fewer choices other than death.


In The Pit and the Pendulum, Poe confirmed his title of a master of horror stories. In my opinion, he shows that even in a critical situation, when there is a death threat, it is important not to succumb to emotions, to think rationally and salvation will come.

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