‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum’’ begins with the narrator sentenced to death by a panel of judges from the Spanish Inquisition. The unnamed narrator is consumed by his fragile mental condition and dreamlike state of consciousness. He does not mention his crime or whether he is really guilty. He does not hear the judges’ words, seeing only their black robes and white lips. He compares seven white candles to angels of mercy, but this thought gives way to the anticipatory peace of death. He knows he will be tortured. Suddenly, everything goes black as he falls into a faint.
During a state of semiconsciousness he senses his physical body being transferred downward. He experiences nausea, horror, and stillness all around him. Finally, he hears his heart beating, and his body begins to tingle. He is lying on his back, unshackled, afraid to open his eyes not because of what he will see but because he fears there is nothing to see. Indeed, he opens his eyes to total, oppressive blackness, which feels claustrophobic.
He tries to keep his thoughts together. He knows he is not yet dead, but he feels that it has been a long time since his sentencing. He recognizes that most of those who receive death sentences from the Inquisition are killed at autos-da-fe´ (public religious ceremonies in which convicted heretics are burned at the stake), and he knows there was an auto-da-fe´ on the night of his sentencing. He briefly considers that he is being held until the next auto-da-fe´, which will take place in several months, and then realizes that such is not the case because leaders of the Inquisition in Toledo, Spain, where is he imprisoned, are killing people just as fast as they can.
He again falls into semiconsciousness. When he recovers, he stands up and waves his arms around to see if he can touch the walls. He is afraid to take a step in case he finds that he has been buried alive in a tomb. He opens his eyes wide, hoping they will adjust to the darkness, and determines his cell is not a tomb. This relieves him somewhat, although he recalls the tortures that supposedly have been committed in the Toledo dungeons. He considers them myths, but he knows he will ultimately die.
He sets about determining the size of the dungeon by counting the steps around the perimeter. He tears a piece of cloth from the hem of his simple, rag-like garment and places it on the ground to mark his starting point. He slowly makes his way around the walls, counting each step. However, the floor is slippery and he falls down. He is overcome with fatigue and falls asleep.
He wakes up and finds a loaf of bread and a pitcher of water next to him, which he consumes eagerly. He continues his trek around the dungeon, counting forty-eight steps until he reaches the strip of fabric, which he adds to the fifty-two steps he counted before he fell. He calculates that the perimeter of the dungeon is fifty yards, but he does not know its shape due to a preponderance of angles. Next, he decides to find out how wide the dungeon is. Ten paces in he trips over the torn hem of his clothing and falls on his face. His head lands on the precipice of a pit, which smells of brackish water. To test the depth of the pit, he pries loose a stone from the wall of the pit and throws it in. It bounces off the sides and finally lands with a splash that echoes loudly. At that moment, a door overhead opens and closes quickly, illuminating him in a flash of light. He congratulates himself for not falling into the pit but realizes that he will simply be subjected to another form of torture. His nerves are frazzled. Though he does not explain why, he fears falling into the pit more than any other form of death. Many hours later he falls asleep again.
He wakes to find more bread and water next to him. He drinks the water quickly, becomes lethargic, and surmises that he has been drugged. The resulting slumber is so deep that he compares it to death. When he wakes up this time, his dungeon is visible thanks to some form of phosphorescent light. He has miscalculated its size. It is only half as large as he thought; that his calculation could be so erroneous puzzles him. Then he realizes he must have nearly made it back to his cloth marker when he fell. Upon waking, he must have reversed his course. He also realizes he misjudged the shape of the cell, which is nearly square. In trying to determine the measurements of his space, he realizes that fatigue and darkness have played tricks on him. The cell is made of metal, not stone. The walls are lined with torture devices, confirming the tales he has heard about the Inquisition.
He is tied to a wooden frame and can move only enough to reach the food left for him, consisting of a plate of spicy meat but no water. Looking upward, he notices that the ceiling of the dungeon is also made of metal and rises roughly thirty or forty feet above him. Father Time is painted on the ceiling, and he is holding a giant pendulum. The pendulum appears to be moving very slowly from side to side. His attention is captured by a multitude of rats climbing out of the well and heading for his meat. A while later—he can no longer estimate time accurately—he notes that the arc of the pendulum is wider and it is swinging faster than before. Even worse, the pendulum has descended closer and he ascertains that it is actually a scythe.
The narrator realizes the hellish punishment he will suffer in return for avoiding the pit. He spends many hours—possibly days—watching the pendulum swing closer and closer until he can smell the steel of the blade as it slices through the air just inches above him. He wishes it would hurry up and kill him already. The waiting drives him to the brink of madness. Eventually he gives up and falls back, calm and happy, like a child staring at a toy. He passes out briefly and wakes up feeling sick. He is about to reach out for his food when he suddenly has an idea that fills him with hope and joy. He struggles to regain a modicum of mental acuity that has been dulled through his relentless suffering. He calculates that the blade is positioned to slice through his heart, but before it does it will slice through his garment. He thinks about what that will feel like; he continues to watch both the pendulum’s downward movement and its movement from side to side. He alternately laughs and screams.
When the blade is three inches from his chest, he tries and again fails to free his left arm. Anticipation of death robs him of his sanity. When he has only ten or twelve swings left before the blade slices his skin, he realizes he is tied down by only one long strip of fabric. If he can break it at any point, he will be able to free himself. Hope is restored; his thoughts resolve themselves into a plan. The rats will help him. He smears the remains of the meat on his bonds and hundreds of rats smother his body as they leap toward it, chewing through the cloth. He gently slides off the wooden platform, away from the blade just as it nicks his skin. Immediately the blade retracts to the ceiling. His every move has been observed. Once again he is free but not free, having only postponed his death.
A few minutes later he discerns a sulfurous light streaming from a seam between the iron walls and the stone floor of the cell. The once faint grimacing figures on the walls now have fiery, glowing eyes and sharp outlines. He smells hot iron. The walls are being heated by some external source. He retreats from the walls toward the center of the cell. He thinks that he could jump into the cool well to save himself from the horrific death of being burned alive. The glowing walls light up the well. As he looks down into it, he sees a vision so terrifying that he cannot describe it. He screams and wails.
The dungeon is changing its shape. Its hinged walls are collapsing. He must now decide whether to be crushed to death by the fiery walls or jump into the pit and drown. The walls continue to flatten until he is perched at the edge of the pit. His agony culminates in a final scream as he looks away and prepares to fall into the pit.
At that instant he hears voices and loud crashing noises. The walls retract and an arm reaches out and catches him as he falls. The last three sentences explain everything: the French army has liberated Toledo from the Inquisition and General Lasalle himself has rescued the narrator.
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.