Poe’s goal in ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum’’ is to create a mood of terror and despair through language. The narrator is condemned to death, and the entire story (save for the last paragraph) focuses on his reaction to this death sentence as it is slowly carried out. The mood is achieved in part by repetition of words such as ‘‘death,’’ ‘‘dying,’’ ‘‘blackness,’’ and ‘‘darkness.’’ The darkness requires the narrator to rely on his sense of touch, taste, smell, and hearing. He feels sick and dizzy; the ground is slimy; he hears his heart beating and a stone hit the water in the well; the water smells brackish; he smells the metal of the blade as it slices through the air; the meat tastes spicy; he feels the cold lips of the rats as they climb over his body; his throat is parched. All of these sensory descriptions coalesce into a mood of horror and agony. Poe contrasts these vivid sensory descriptions with descriptions of nothingness—those moments when the narrator is incapacitated or sleeping and his cell is plunged into total darkness. The lack of sensory information is as horrifying for the narrator as the stimuli he perceives.
The Spanish Inquisition is a real-life historical example of extreme injustice, used nowadays as shorthand for an unwarranted intrusion into a person’s privacy. The leaders of the Spanish Inquisition believed they were seeking justice in the name of God, but their trumped-up charges, sham trials, and swift and brutal executions of people they deemed insufficiently pious were regarded then, as now, as a miscarriage of justice. Though Poe is silent on the narrator’s crime and whether or not he is guilty, his story represents the triumph of justice (reason) over injustice (intolerance). By foregoing the specifics of the charges against the narrator and by not describing the Inquisitors in detail, Poe keeps politics out of the plot in order to highlight the terror of a man condemned to death.
The very title ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum’’ alludes to torture: a pit into which the prisoner could fall into and drown and a pendulum to slice him in half if he avoids the pit. Both reveal the sadistic side of the Inquisitors. They could easily execute him by quicker means, such as burning him at the stake, which was the most common death for those convicted of heresy during the Spanish Inquisition. Instead they choose to observe him as he slowly descends into madness, prolonging his life by providing food and water. Ostensibly they hope he will fall into the pit. When that does not happen (they verify the fact by opening a door in the ceiling and checking on him), they turn to Plan B, which is the slowly descending pendulum. Once again, they could have killed him quickly, but they make him suffer for many hours while he is tied to a board. They must have concocted their torture with an eye toward enjoying it. Such is the very definition of sadism. Lastly, the fact that their torture chamber is rigged with so many ways to kill a person is evidence that the Inquisitors have invested much time and energy in their pursuit of ‘‘justice.’’
‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum’’ is unusual for Poe in that the narrator is saved from death at the last minute. This salvation is made possible because the narrator has kept his wits about him and has twice thwarted the Inquisitors’ plans for his death, long enough for the French army to roll into town and put down the Inquisition. Had the narrator’s mind been completely dulled by his ruthless imprisonment, he would have already met his death by falling into the pit or by being sliced through the heart by the pendulum. His mental acuity has saved him. In Poe’s world, descent into madness leads to death, whereas reason leads to salvation. Ironically, belief in God—the justification for the Inquisition’s persecution—has nothing to do with the narrator’s salvation. Indeed, while the narrator spends much time contemplating death and eternal nothingness, he never once mentions God or heaven. He sees death as an eternal rest, not the beginning of eternal life.
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.