The Pit and the Pendulum (1832) is one of Edgar Allan Poe's best known gothic tales, offering plenty of literary allusions and a particularly graphic narrative. We hope this study guide is useful for teachers and students to more fully appreciate the story.
Read the story: The Pit and the Pendulum, Character Analysis & Plot Summary, Genre & Themes, Symbolism, Epigraph & Vocabulary, Inaccurate Historical Context, Quotes, Discussion Questions, Paired Readings, Useful Links, and Notes/Teacher Comments
Unnamed Prisoner - The narrator is condemned to death by sinister judges, supposedly during the Spanish Inquisition, who incarcerate him in a hellish prison cell, where he experiences terror after terror.
Judges - The seven judges who condemn the prisoner to torture and death.
General Lasalle - Napoleon's general who rescues the Inquisition prisoner from his torturers just in the nick of time.
The Rats - The unlikely heroes of the story, who chew the prisoner's bindings loose so he can escape the descending pendulum before it slices him to death.
The Cell - OK, the prison cell isn't a character per se, but it is a mysterious, transformative (and shrinking) torture chamber that makes for an interesting dynamic in the story. Nevermind the most terrifying feature, a glowing pit of fire.
The story is about the elevated terrors experienced by an unnamed prisoner in a torture chamber, sentenced to death by sinister judges of the Spanish Inquisition. In complete darkness, he tries to measure the slimy cell's dimensions with a torn section of his robe, sees a mural of Father Time and a knife-edged pendulum from the ceiling that gradually descends to his seemingly certain death. He's completely bound to a wooden board, except for his left elbow to hand, enough to drink a beverage and eat, before scattering the rancid meat on the straps to entice rats to gnaw his way to freedom, just as the pendulum makes body contact. The walls become red-hot, the room shrinks him so he has nowhere to go but the molten pit of iron, when all of a sudden trumpets sound and the French Army, General Lasalle at the helm, rescues him from the evil Inquisition prison. Happy ending? As good as can be expected in Poe's sensory horror thriller-- or is it all a hallucination tripped by mental illness?
Poe's story is in the darkest reaches of Dark Romanticism, in the genre of Gothic Literature due to its focus on pure terror, utter despair, and physical torture. Poe brilliantly applied his personal experience suffering from mental illness to his canon of works, so readers become emersed in his senses of madness, obsession with death, and the supernatural. His gift for writing about his own pain-- both physical and metaphysical-- keeps his readers coming back for more.
Physical torture: Unlike many of Poe's stories, The Pit and the Pendulum focuses on physical terror and torturing of the senses, much more so than the supernatural or psychological horror, for which he is revered as a master.
Religious persecution (Spanish Inquisition) vs. Political persecution (French Revolution): Both time periods in history are references, because Poe wants us to remember that persecution can be for many reasons. Maybe that's why he doesn't clearly define the reason for the sentence. Perhaps it's the mental persecution in the prisoner's head that's the real story?
Obsession with Sound: Poe employs the art of vivid physical and sensory descriptions to keep his readers on the edge of our seats reading this story. We can feel the texture of the floor and ground while crawling around the perimeter of the cell with him, feel the panic of the descending, hissing pendulum, his forced utter stillness and the sound of the gnawing rats loosening the rancid meat-scented straps, the horror at discovering what's contained in the pit, the shrinking molten-hot torture chamber, and "my soul found vent in one loud, long, and final scream of despair."
We feel, see, smell, and particularly hear as he does... and it never stops... until we hear the rescuing trumpets!
Symbols: Poe uses a number of symbols and allusions, see next section
Consonance: Repetition of identical or similar consonants are peppered through the story, which heightens our awareness of sound. Examples: "deep sleep," "hum of human voices," "descent of the crescent"
ALL CAPS: Poe's demonstrative technique of highlighting key words for us in all capital letters is very effective. Comparable to screaming, the affect is a heightened sense of OUR senses along with the prisoner's!
The following are in their order of appearance in the story. See what you make of them:
REVOLUTION THOUGHT NOTHING SUDDEN HISSED HERE HOPE THOUGHT UNIQUE SAVE IN THE PATH OF THE DESTROYING CRESCENT STILL FREE I WAS FREE UNREAL! FORM INTO THE PIT
Poe employs many symbols or allusions that are helpful to understand their purpose.
Rats represent hope and the potential for freedom when all hope seemed lost. The prisoner saw their potential; the vermin were transformed from assailants of terror to abetting agents of his escape.
Candles: Represent the judges and time; they turned from symbols of angels to "meaningless spectres" that will burn down as does any hope of escape or survival from the torture chamber.
Pendulum: The torture device designed to slowly descend until it kills its victim represents Time (Poe's mention of the Father Time mural on the ceiling makes this easy), and also capitulation, or mood "swings"-- from hope to hopelessness which "vibrate" his feelings of terror. He personifies the device making a "hissing" noise, synonymous with his human torturers. Finally, a pendulum is very similar to a guillotine in its design and function where gravity does the killing in both cases.
Pit: Could be a symbol of Hell, the greatest torture of all to be burned in a molten pit of iron. The prisoner mistakes the pit for a well at first (cool), only to discover "it burned itself in upon my shuddering reason."
Spanish Inquisition & judges: Could his persecution be a symbol of the narrator's mental illness? Indeed, the morphing torture chamber, being sentence on unknown charges, the inaccurate historical account, could be Poe's way of expressing the whole story is the struggle, fear, and valiant effort to break free of mental illness. This point is a reach, but we'll throw it out there for you to ponder.
What's the opening quote called? First, let's rule-out an "epigram" which is a concise, short, clever saying, which this is not; neither witty nor concise. The difference between an "epitaph" and "epigraph": Both are profound quotes, poems or statements, the difference relates to where they appear. An "epitaph" is inscribed on a tombstone or plaque; an "epigraph" appears at the opening of a literary composition. In this case, the Latin phrase at the beginning of the story is an epigraph, because even though Poe claimed it would be engraved on the gates of the Jacobin Club (see "Inaccurate Historical Context" section for more), it never was (if it had been, that would make it an "epitaph"). Now, onto its meaning.
Poe chooses to write the epigraph in Latin, which was common for works of literature from the Renaissance through the 19th century. His intent may have been to convince his readers the story was set during the Spanish Inquisition, even though it was at least three centuries later (see the section below: "Inaccurate Historical Context").
Here an unholy mob of torturers with an insatiable thirst for innocent blood, once fed their long frenzy. Now our homeland is safe, the funeral cave destroyed, and life and health appear where dreadful death once was.
The "unholy mob of torturers" refers to the radicalized French Jacobin Club, which led the Revolutionary government named "The Reign of Terror." Foes of both the Church and atheists, they persecuted their enemies by guillotine, and were eventually defeated by unified republicanism in France. We can assume the "funeral cave" refers to their persecution, and that prisoners were finally freed after they were subdued ("life and health appear"). While the epigraph seems to provide a "CliffsNotes" of the story, Poe intentionally keeps the specifics of the prisoner's charges, conviction, and reason for torture from the reader.
surcingle: A side strap, usually referring to what would run under the belly of a horse to keep a blanket in place. In this case, the straps are used to render the prisoner immobile on the board
scimitar: a short word with a curved blade, Poe compares the swinging pendulum to a scimitar
crescent: again, describing the pendulum, a "razor-like crescent...designed to cross the region of the heart."
a fit of the ague: malaria or some other illness with symptoms of fever and shivering
insuperable: two meanings that imply hopeless and hopeful at the same time: 1) impossible to overcome, or 2) incapable of being defeated
The story's historical references of torture span three centuries and two countries, which Poe mixes together for great dramatic affect. Poe expertly employs the technique of The Unreliable Narrator.
The Spanish Inquisition began in 1470s in Spain and its territories to enforce conversion to Catholicism, brutal torture to those who did not obey. Some 150,000 people were charged, 3,000 - 5,000 were believed to be executed. Literary references may have exaggerated the extent of the torture, which makes it an effective reference in this story.
Toledo: Poe references his location as Toledo, (example at end: "The French army had entered Toledo.") This was an infamous Spanish Inquisition prison of torture.
The Jacobin Club assumed power in the 1790s after the French monarchy fell during the Revolution, they became more radical and executed their enemies by guillotine, referred to as "The Reign of Terror." Note: Poe's reference to the "unholy mob of torturers" in the epigraph was to oppressors of The Jacobin Club, not the Spanish Inquisition judges (see "Epigraph & Vocabulary" section above).
General Lasalle who came to the prisoner's rescue with French calvary and trumpets sounding, served under Napoleon in the Napoleonic Wars (France, Egypt Spain, Prussia). He had a short career as a daring adventurer, fought on every front, executed many enemies, and died in the Battle of Wagram in 1809. Could he really have been in Spain to rescue our prisoner? Maybe, but not during the Spanish Inquisition, that's for sure.
So did Poe purposefully mislead his reader with good "buzz words" for torture references, or was he demonstrating that the prisoner might not have a grasp on reality, his narrative may not be reliable because of his mental illness-- torture inside his head, rather than his physical body?
Explain what the following quotes mean and how they relate to the story:
"I saw the lips of the black-robed judges. They appeared to me white--whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words--and thin even to grotesqueness; thin with the intensity of their expression of firmness, of immovable resolution, of stern contempt of human torture."
"Then my vision fell upon the seven tall candles upon the table. At first they wore the aspect of charity, and seemed white slender angels who would save me: but then all at once there came a most deadly nausea over my spirit, and I felt every fibre in my frame thrill, as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery, while the angel forms became meaningless spectres, with heads of flame, and I saw that from them there would be no help. "
Perhaps evidence that his "sentence" is madness? "These shadows of memory tell indistinctly of tall figures that lifted and bore me in silence down--down--still down--till a hideous dizziness oppressed me at the mere idea of the interminableness of the descent. They tell also of a vague horror at my heart on account of that heart's unnatural stillness. Then comes a sense of sudden motionlessness throughout all things; as if those who bore me (a ghastly train!) had outrun, in their descent, the limits of the limitless, and paused from the wearisomeness of their toil. After this I call to mind flatness and dampness; and then all is MADNESS--the madness of a memory which busies itself among forbidden things."
" In other conditions of mind I might have had courage to end my misery at once by a plunge into one of these abysses; but now I was the veriest of cowards. Neither could I forget what I had read of these pits--that the SUDDEN extinction of life formed no part of their most horrible plan."
"Still I quivered in every nerve to think how slight a sinking of the machinery would precipitate that keen glistening axe upon my bosom. It was hope that prompted the nerve to quiver--the frame to shrink. It was HOPE--the hope that triumphs on the rack--that whispers to the death-condemned even in the dungeons of the Inquisition."
"It was HOPE--the hope that triumphs on the rack--that whispers to the death-condemned even in the dungeons of the Inquisition."
"The result of the slightest struggle, how deadly! Was it likely, moreover, that the minions of the torturer had not foreseen and provided for this possibility! Was it probable that the bandage crossed my bosom in the track of the pendulum? Dreading to find my faint, and, as it seemed, my last hope frustrated, I so far elevated my head as to obtain a distinct view of my breast. The surcingle enveloped my limbs and body close in all directions save SAVE IN THE PATH OF THE DESTROYING CRESCENT."
"With a more than human resolution I lay STILL. Nor had I erred in my calculations, nor had I endured in vain. I at length felt that I was FREE."
"'Death,' I said 'any death but that of the pit!' Fool! might I not have known that INTO THE PIT it was the object of the burning iron to urge me? Could I resist its glow? or if even that, could I withstand its pressure?"
"There was a discordant hum of human voices! There was a loud blast as of many trumpets! There was a harsh grating as of a thousand thunders!"
1. What is the meaning of the epigraph and how does it relate to important aspects of the story?
2. Why does Poe offer disjointed historical references, leading us to believe the prisoner is being tortured during the Spanish Inquisition (started in the 1470s), when the reference to the Jacobin Club and General Lasalle's rescue would have been during the Napoleonic wars, no earlier than the 1790s?
3. Describe the chronology of the prisoner's ever-changing torture chamber, starting with pitch-black, when he uses a piece of his robe as a marker to assess its perimeter, all the way to its shrumken, molten form before his rescue.
4. Why did Poe choose a pendulum and not a guillotine, which was a more common instrument of torture (in both historical time periods)? For extra credit: identify the many ways Poe describes the pendulum (examples: a glistening axe, the destroying crescent)
5. Analyze Poe's use of CAPITAL words throughout the story, analyze their importance, meaning, and significance of order (if any).
6. How is this story representative of Dark Romanticism? How is is representative of Gothic Literature?
7. Identify and discuss Poe's use of symbols in the story. Include the rat, candles, pendulum, pit and any other symbols you discover (perhaps the surcingle/straps).
8. Discuss Poe's use of senses, particularly sound, as a literary device and its role in the prisoner's torture (moreso than the other senses). Provide textual evidence.
9. Is there any spiritual component to the story, or it all secular life and death? Be sure to discuss the use of "soul" references.
10. Explain the "King of Terrors" reference (second to last paragraph).
Essay prompt: Discuss the "math" in the story-- calculate the initial cell's shape and perimeter (53 or 54 paces or yards?),its volume based on what you know about the ceiling's shrinking height, the shrunken area when the walls flatten to acute angles, shifting form to a "lozenge." Also discuss the arc of the pendulum, its sweep (30 feet or more), its position (at right angles to prisoner's length), guess its rate of descent, and any other mathematical speculations that catch your fancy. (Feel free to diagram your findings). If you'd prefer to talk about the physics, discuss the friction coefficient of the pendulum.
Compare and contrast the gothic literary elements in The Pit and the Pendulum with:
Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher is more of a journey of psychological terror, rather than this story's physical terror of the senses.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge uses the pendulum as a symbol representing both time and an instrument of torture and death. Compare its symbolism in both stories.
You Choose: Pick a gothic story by a different author (try our Gothic, Ghost, Horror & Weird Library) and compare its genre, theme & literary elements of terror with The Pit and the Pendulum.
Movie tie-in: Watch the 2012 movie The Raven, starring John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe, with a Pit and Pendulum sequence, compare it affects of terror with the story.
Compare the epigraph in this story with the one offered as the opener for A Descent Into the Maelstrom's in tone, theme, and affect on the reader as an "appetizer" for the story.
Biography and Works by Edgar Allan Poe
Overview of The Pit and the Pendulum
Analysis of the epigraph in The Pit and the Pendulum
French General Antoine Charles Louis de Lasalle
The Jacobin Club and the French Revolution
Overview of the Spanish Inquisition
Lesson Plan: Intro to Gothic Literature Through Poe
Gothic Literature and its Origins
Gothic, Ghost, Horror & Weird Library
20 Great American Short Stories
Visit our Teacher Resources for recommended works, supporting literacy instruction across all grade levels
American Literature's Study Guides
Return to American Literature Home Page