“The Pit and the Pendulum” first appeared in Edgar Allan Poe’s collection of short stories The Gift in 1843. The story is a terrifying tale of suspense in which Poe captures the horrors of confinement and torture. The main character, a prisoner condemned to death by the Inquisition in Spain, awakens to find himself in a chamber of utter darkness. His first impression is that he has been buried alive. Once the prisoner discovers that he is not in a tomb, he proceeds to grope his way around the dungeon to discover his surroundings. His disorientation is perplexing. In groping his way around, the prisoner nearly falls into a deep, rat-infested pit. He then blacks out again, and upon awakening he discovers that he has been tied down. It is not long before he perceives an ominous, razor-edged pendulum swinging back and forth above his body, slowly descending toward his chest. Seconds before he is severed in half, rats chew through his ropes and the prisoner narrowly escapes death.
Still, the prisoner’s torment continues. The hot iron walls of his dungeon begin to close in, forcing him ever closer to the frightening pit. It is here that the carefully crafted, frightening, and suspenseful tale falls fl at. In an abrupt and contrived ending, while the prisoner stands on the edge of the dreadful pit, the French army storms Toledo and rescues him from the murderous hands of the Inquisition. Although the ending is anticlimatic, the tale demonstrates Poe’s unparalleled ability to create nightmarish scenes of horror. Themes of confinement and torture, along with the psychological exploration of repression and emotional fragility, characterize a number of Poe’s other famous stories, particularly “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Cask of Amontillado.”
Hammond, J. R. An Edgar Allan Poe Companion. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1981.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Pit and the Pendulum.” In The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1992.