Poe was controversial in his day. During his lifetime he was more popular as a literary critic than as a fiction writer and poet. Yet even in the 1840s his stories were published and talked about. He was credited with popularizing the short story as a literary format, and his invention of detective fiction won him many devotees. ‘‘He gave to the short story its vogue in America,’’ stated a writer for the 1907 Cambridge History of English and American Literature, who believed that his plots suffered from ‘‘lack of variety in theme and form.’’ ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’’ however, received no specific critical appraisal during Poe’s lifetime.
‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum’’ has never been as popular as some of Poe’s other stories, possibly because of its uncharacteristically happy ending. Yet it shares with all of his stories a tonal quality of dread and despair, evoked through the type of language that is the hallmark of gothic and romantic fiction. In Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales, G. R. Thompson writes that ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum’’ ‘‘is one of Poe’s clearest dramatizations of the futile efforts of man’s will to survive the malevolent perversity of the world and to make order out of chaos.’’
Poe’s reputation has grown steadily in the century and a half since his death. Stuart Levine, in his 1972 book Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman, acknowledges that ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum’’ ‘‘is no doubt sensational . . . but it will be remembered that sensationalism was one of the tenets of [Poe’s] critical theory. . . . The entire story is designed to produce a single effect [and] the pattern presented is Gothic in its complexity and horror.’’ In the end, Levine states that ‘‘the narrator emerges from fear into lucidity, and the lucidity saves him.’’ Other critics have agreed with this assessment. Michael L. Burduck, in Grim Phantasms: Fear in Poe’s Short Fiction, believes that ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum’’ ‘‘demonstrates the ability of rational thought to transcend the fear produced by intense suffering. Although readers might conclude that Poe is recording the process of disintegration, he actually describes how the speaker in the tale achieves salvation through the complete command of his mental faculties.’’
Other critics see the story as one of spiritual redemption, with the narrator descending into the equivalent of hell and being saved at the last minute by the Christlike figure of General Lasalle. Scott Peeples, in Edgar Allan Poe Revisited, credits luck as much as salvation. ‘‘He discovers the pit because he trips at exactly the right moment, and Lasalle similarly arrives in the nick of time,’’ Peeples writes, concluding that, ‘‘given the story’s apocalyptic imagery, it is logical to read the narrator’s deliverance as providential: he helps himself, but ultimately God saves him.’’ However, this explanation rankles some critics, as it appears to violate Poe’s own aesthetic dogma. ‘‘If the narrator is saved through some providential design,’’ Peeples surmises, ‘‘the story itself is flawed, for it violates Poe’s theory of internal coherence or single effect.’’ Such absurdity, according to David H. Hirsch, exhibits Poe’s belief in the randomness of the narrator’s fate in a way that foreshadows the rise of existentialism in the twentieth century. Another event that highlights the meaninglessness of life occurs when the narrator frees himself from his restraints and the pendulum. His freedom is meaningless since he is still in the hands of the Inquisition, and is free only in the sense that he will be able to suffer yet more torture. Peeples concludes that the ‘‘rescue’s randomness makes it consistent with the purposelessness of his suffering, giving the story its disconcerting ‘unity of effect.’’’
Jeanne M. Malloy, writing in the journal Nineteenth-Century Literature, analyzes the story in terms of its apocalyptic imagery, noting that the seven candles at the start of the story correspond to a verse in the Book of Revelation and set the stage for a tale of biblical proportions. The horrors enumerated in Revelation are detailed, numerous, and gruesome, but they are intended for those who have not been saved. In comparison to the tortures, salvation is so much sweeter, as it is for Poe’s narrator. The story would have no power if Lasalle had rescued him at any other moment. In addition, writes Malloy, Lasalle enters ‘‘with blaring trumpets, ‘fiery walls,’ and ‘a thousand thunders’… apocalyptic images that describe the narrator’s deliverance by General Lasalle as a sort of Second Coming of Christ.’’ That there is no foreshadowing of the event—a condition that bothers many critics—is not a concern for Malloy because Lasalle’s entrance mimics Revelation 16:15: ‘‘Behold, I come as a thief.’’ Malloy concludes that Poe’s use of apocalyptic imagery has less to do with religion than with the influence of the English Romantics, who use similar imagery, as he unfurls a tale of psychic destruction and reconstruction. ‘‘Poe, of course, did not have a psychoanalytic vocabulary,’’ Malloy writes. [Sigmund Freud did not begin publishing his ideas of psychoanalysis until fifty years after Poe’s death.] ‘‘What he did have was an intimate knowledge of the Bible and of English Romantic literature, and he used the biblical apocalypse in a typically Romantic way at the conclusion of the tale: to signal psychological and spiritual redemption achieved through suffering and heightened consciousness.’’
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Edgar Allan Poe, Published by Gale Group, 2001.