Gothic fiction is characterized by a preoccupation with death, mystery, decay, madness, and terror. Gothic writers strive to stir the reader’s emotions, be it a feeling of the sublime or horror. The gothic tradition began in England around 1764, when Horace Walpole published his novel The Castle of Otranto, which concerns a doomed family cursed by legend and haunted by supernatural events. While gothic fiction often includes elements of romanticism—such as a love of nature, a reverence for beauty, and a rejection of science (which are apparent in Poe’s poems ‘‘Annabel Lee’’ and ‘‘The Raven,’’) there are few if any romantic elements in ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’’ The story’s power is in its ability to evoke horror through the predicament of a protagonist fated to die. The gothic concept of the sublime refers to the psychological state of metaphysical beauty and perfection the narrator describes when the pendulum’s blade is within inches of his chest. While gothic literature originated in Europe, American writers of the early nineteenth century—including Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—incorporated many of its elements into their fiction, although none more so than Poe.
The Latin epigraph that precedes the story (which Poe borrowed from the plans for the Jacobin Club House in Paris) lends the tale an added gothic air. Although Poe did not provide the translation, Latin was still commonly read by educated people in the nineteenth century, and many casual readers would have been able to translate the gothic-tinged phrases ‘‘wicked mob,’’ ‘‘innocent blood,’’ and ‘‘grim death.’’ Uncharacteristic of gothic fiction is the last phrase of the translation, ‘‘life and health appear,’’ which hints at the story’s positive outcome.
Deus ex machina
Deus ex machina literally means ‘‘God from the machine.’’ It was a favorite literary device of the ancient Greeks, who often ended their plays by having the hero rescued by a god, who descended to the stage by means of a crane (machina), rather than by having the characters work things out for themselves. In more modern literature, deus ex machina refers to plots that are solved by a previously unknown, outside force. Many consider it a device that weakens a plot because it is an artificial rather than an organic character-driven solution. In ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’’ the narrator’s last-minute reprieve by General Lasalle is a classic example of deus ex machina. Until the very end, the reader has no clue that anyone is about to put down the Inquisition. Lasalle’s outstretched arm reaching for the narrator just as he is about to plummet into the pit is symbolic of the outstretched hand of God descending from the heavens.
First-Person Point of View
Many of Poe’s stories are written in the first person. It is an effective way of limiting information and filtering it through one person’s perceptions and emotions. Some of Poe’s narrators view the action from a distance, such as in ‘‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’’ in which a levelheaded narrator reports the actions of Roderick Usher as he descends into madness. In other stories, such as ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’’ much of the story’s power comes from being inside the head of a mentally unbalanced narrator. In all first-person stories, the reader must determine if the narrator is reliable or not in terms of telling the truth and divulging all the information at his or her disposal. In ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’’ the narrator seems to give an accurate account of his alternating madness and mental clarity. Because the story is in the first person, the reader feels as helpless as the narrator against the unseen Inquisitors and suffers the same anxiety of not knowing what they are thinking.
Alliteration, Repetition, Metaphor, and Simile
Poe was also a poet, so it is not surprising that he uses techniques commonly found in poetry as a way to establish mood in his stories. He uses repetition of words and phrases multiple times in ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum’’ to signify the relentlessness of the narrator’s torture and to emphasize his unpleasant thoughts. These words sometimes take the form of interjections, such as ‘‘oh,’’ ‘‘free,’’ ‘‘down,’’ and ‘‘no.’’ This repetition gives added force to ordinary words and creates a discordant rhythm, adding to the overall tone of the story.
Alliteration abounds in the story as well. This technique involves repeating the same sounds throughout a sentence to achieve a sonorous quality. Poe constructs phrases with repeating ‘‘v’’ sounds and a hissing ‘‘s’’ sound numerous times as a way to heighten the feeling of horror. Other sentences repeat an ‘‘f’’ sound to noticeable effect, evincing a harsh sound on the ears. Like repetition, alliteration used effectively gives additional power to otherwise ordinary words and is yet another tool used to establish the dark tone of the story.
Poe loved similes. A simile compares one thing to another in order to describe it better. In ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’’ Poe states that the Inquisitors’ voices sound like a mill wheel. This gives readers an image—the judges’ voices are as grinding, harsh, and destructive as a stone wheel that turns wheat into flour. The narrator says the judges’ lips are as white as a sheet of paper—a vivid image that denotes their bloodless contempt for their prisoner. Another simile occurs when the narrator compares the seven candles to angels, an example of religious imagery that vanishes in a wave of nausea. Other similes abound: sleep is compared to death; the pit is compared to a set of jaws; the unceasing pendulum is compared to an avalanche. Poe compares otherwise innocuous things to objects weighted with negative connotations as a way to heighten the mood of the story. A metaphor exists when an object is described as something else. The ‘‘like’’ or ‘‘as’’ of the simile is replaced by ‘‘is.’’ Although Poe uses metaphor more sparingly than simile, several examples appear in the story. The narrator says the sharp metal smell of the pendulum’s blade is sour breath and his torturers are demons.
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.