The Inquisitors only appear as black-robed, whitelipped judges in the story’s first scene, yet they play an important role as the narrator’s nemeses. They represent pure evil, although historically the tribunals of the Inquisition believed they were on God’s side. They represent an omniscient force in the story, watching the narrator’s every move and counteracting his ability to thwart his death sentence with new punishments.
The Inquisitors leave food and water, which may be drugged, and at first rely on the narrator to fall into the pit himself. When their prisoner discovers the pit and avoids falling into it, they wait until he falls asleep, tie him to a wooden frame, and launch a slowly descending scythe-bladed pendulum above him. The Inquisitors remain as unseen as God himself. They leave food when the narrator is asleep, and when he escapes death by the blade, the pendulum is immediately retracted back to the ceiling—evidence that someone is closely and silently watching his every move. The final torture—the collapsing walls heated by fire—is launched immediately thereafter. Indeed, even when General Lasalle rescues the narrator, the torture immediately ceases without any visible manifestation of the torturers.
The unnamed narrator of ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum’’ is logical, meticulous, and tries to maintain his sanity in the face of certain death. Even while locked in a pitch-black dungeon, he preoccupies himself with determining the size of his cell and the depth of the pit, seemingly inconsequential details that serve to keep his mind active. When he discovers he has erred in calculating the perimeter of the cell, he is troubled by his failure. His preoccupation with logic keeps him from dwelling on the trial, the guilty verdict, or the crime for which he was accused. He relates nothing of his past and is consumed only with how he is feeling at the moment and how to escape from immediate danger.
He thinks well under pressure. The ultimate test of this comes when the pendulum is within a hair’s breadth of his heart. He summons up the courage to smear the remains of his meat on his restraining bandages in the hope that the rats will chew through them. The plan works.
Unlike other Poe narrators, such as those in ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ and the ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado,’’ the narrator of ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum’’ gives every indication of being mentally fit and up to the challenge of thwarting his tormenters even though he knows he will die one way or another. He exhibits an impressive will to live despite his protestations that he welcomes the grave. However, like the narrators of Poe’s other stories, he begins to crack under pressure, giggling like a child and screaming like a madman. In the end, he pulls himself together long enough to plan an escape from the pendulum.
The narrator is not religious, as evidenced by his lack of prayer or concern about his soul as he is about to die. He barely mentions God, apart from a brief discussion of the candles appearing to him as angels. His religion is rationality; he believes in himself.
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.