‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum’’ is the most unique of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories in that it has a happy ending. The narrator has been imprisoned in a booby-trapped dungeon and sentenced to death by the Spanish Inquisition. He successfully escapes both the pit and the pendulum, only to be threatened by the superheated walls of his cell, which are closing in on him like a trash compactor. As he teeters on the precipice of oblivion, a thunderous commotion arises and he is snatched from the jaws of death by the semidivine general Antoine Lasalle. A discordant hum of human voices and a trumpetlike blast are heard as Poe grants his narrator salvation after pummeling him with intense gothic despair.
The story violates one of Poe’s cardinal storytelling rules outlined in his 1846 essay ‘‘The Philosophy of Composition.’’ Unity of effect— establishing a tone and carrying it through to the end of the story—is, according to Poe, a necessary element for a successful story. Yet the deus ex machina ending of ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum’’ breaks the story’s unity of effect by replacing the tone of madness, despair, and death with a joyous celebration. Why would Poe do this? The answer lies in the reason for the disunity, namely, the depiction of salvation. ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum’’ provides valuable insight into the author’s attitude toward religion, a topic on which Poe was mostly silent.
By all accounts, Poe was not a religious man. He was raised by his unofficial foster parents John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia. They had him baptized in the Episcopal Church, and he attended religious services regularly with Frances. A few years later, when the family moved to England, he was enrolled in the Reverend John Bransby’s Manor House School, where the curriculum no doubt included a hefty dose of religion. Thus, the youthful Poe was as familiar with Christianity as any other educated individual of his time. However, his scandalous expulsion from West Point Military Academy in 1831 was partly due to his refusal to attend daily chapel services. As a writer, his favorite topic was the death of a beautiful woman—romantic but clearly not religious.
This is not to say that Poe did not believe in God. Poe’s copy of the Holy Bible was found in his possession at his death in 1849, and he was known to have attended church in the 1840s with his friend and neighbor Mrs. Marie Louise Shew. As recounted on the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore Web site, when the topic of religion was broached in a written exchange with fellow poet Thomas Holley Chivers, Poe wrote, ‘‘My own faith is indeed my own.’’ He also owned a well-worn copy of On the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as Manifested in the Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man, by Thomas Chalmers, the leader of the Free Church of Scotland, whose religious philosophy centered on missions and reducing poverty. It seems evident that although Poe did not reject Christianity outright, he did not have much use for the dogma of organized religion.
Poe’s rejection of organized religion was in keeping with his antiauthoritarian streak, a trait that caused him a host of problems, not the least of which was keeping a job. His religion could be said to have been English romanticism; he was captivated by the disintegration of the human mind. Such is the foundation of ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’’ A man imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition—his supposed crime is unnamed and irrelevant for Poe’s purposes—is sentenced to death and placed in a torture chamber. In the dark, he discovers the pit and is able to avoid it. Then he is strapped to a board and taunted with a guillotine-like pendulum slowly descending over his heart. His predicament results in the unraveling of his mind, but he retains enough sense to escape from his bonds by smearing them with meat and allowing rats to chew through them. This has bought him some time—enough to be rescued by General Lasalle. The moral of the story is that one must rage against insanity, for the reward is earthly salvation.
If this idea were a religion, it would be an amalgam of transcendentalism and humanism, with a bit of English romanticism thrown in for good measure. As a literary man immersed in the culture of nineteenth-century America, Poe would have been familiar with all three. Horror and the sublime are key elements of English romanticism, and both are at the heart of ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’’ Romanticism was merely an idea in Poe’s day; it did not acquire its formal name until the Victorian writers dubbed it thus. Romanticism was a palpable reaction against the Enlightenment, a craving for beauty and feeling over science and logic. In the United States, romanticism was evident in the tenets of transcendentalism, which espoused a less formal relationship between man and God than earlier religions. Transcendentalism holds that an individual’s spiritual intuition is more truthful than religious doctrine. If the Spanish Inquisition represents religious doctrine at its worst, then the narrator of ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum’’ represents the spiritual intuition that leads to salvation. Humanism, which predates romanticism, is concerned with human dignity and rationality. Trapped within the confines of the dungeon, the narrator suffers from a lack of both—the latter erased by the former— but his salvation at the hands of the swashbuckling romantic hero Lasalle restores them.
Despite his unorthodox view of organized religion, Poe employs several mainstream Christian ideas in ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’’ For example, he sets the story at the historical ground zero of religious intolerance—Toledo, Spain, during the Spanish Inquisition. He does, however, blur facts. The ghastly torture of the Inquisition’s heyday was long gone by the time General Lasalle rode into Spain in 1808 during the Napoleonic Wars. Despite these inaccuracies, the genesis of the narrator’s mental instability is rooted in reality, which represents a departure from many of Poe’s tales, in which the horror stems from something more esoteric (a black cat, a talking bird, a diseased eye). This setup allows Poe to depict a rational man descending into madness, clinging to sanity just long enough to savor the victory of divine intervention.
The narrator is unconcerned with determining his guilt or innocence. Rather, he accepts his fate in the manner of a Christian who believes that all God’s children are guilty due to original sin. The seven white candles, which at first appear as angels to the narrator, recall the image in the Book of Revelation in which seven white candles appear to represent a white-haired God. The latter, stern and threatening, is suggested by the image of Father Time on the ceiling of the torture chamber. Perhaps the narrator has mistaken God the Father—the most punishing member of the Holy Trinity—for Father Time, just as he initially mistakes the swinging scythe for the pendulum of a grandfather clock.
General Lasalle’s outstretched hand calls to mind Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam from the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. More important, it is the ne plus ultra of the deus ex machina: God from the machine. This is the classic Greek literary device by means of which a character facing certain doom is rescued at the last moment by the outstretched hand of a divine presence, who up to that moment has not been an active participant in the story. That Poe cast a notorious cad and womanizer in the role of God indicates his irreverence for religion. The historical Lasalle was a larger-than-life figure; he was a man with a voracious appetite for vice, yet expert with a horse and a sword, whose only religion was adventure. Surely Lasalle rescues the narrator more for his own personal glory than out of concern for the man’s fate. Lasalle is a romantic figure in the classic sense of the word; as such, Poe casts him as God in his romantic, religious vision. His arrival is heralded with the pomp of the Second Coming—with a thunderous clamor that sounds like the trumpets of angels.
The narrator’s religion is one in which his worst fear is nothingness. It is the reason he delays opening his eyes near the beginning of the story. He fears what he will not see if he is, in fact, dead. This suggests that the man was sentenced to death for insufficient piety; never does he mention heaven or hell. Beyond this mortal existence lies nothingness, he supposes. While he fears this at the beginning of the story, after sustained torture he looks forward to the nothingness of the grave.
Thus, both for Poe and his narrator, salvation is not a heavenly reward but rather earthly freedom. What saves him is hope, not faith— hope, against all odds, that he might be saved. A religious person might have spent those hours in prayer while awaiting death beneath the swinging axe. Poe’s narrator uses his rational mind to think of a way to break free from his bonds even as his captors try to undermine his sanity. He holds the key to his own deliverance. Hope is the tool of the humanist, whereas faith is the tool of the Christian. Such is Poe’s religious message in this singularly joyous short story.
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.
Kathy Wilson Peacock, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.