The Pit and the Pendulum Notes from Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

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Stories of Edgar Allan Poe The Pit and the Pendulum

Latin words taken from an inscription for the gates of a new marketplace in Paris to be built upon the site of the old Jacobin Club House begin this tale, "Impia tortorum longas his turba furores/Sanguinis innocui, non satiata, aluit./Sospite nunc patria, fracto nunc funeris antro,/Mors ubi dira fuit vita salusque patent, [meaning]...'Here the impious clamor of the torturers, insatiate, fed its rage for innocent blood. Now happy is the land, destroyed the pit of horror; and where grim death stalked, life and health are revealed'" Poe, pg. 264. This phrase suggest that the following story addresses the topic of "torturers" who have since been conquered. An unnamed narrator appears to be in a strange place, adding that he has recently been untied after some unnamed individuals sentenced him to death. Lying a dingy room somewhere, some men wearing black robes talk about the narrator while he cringes in fear, as if he were shocked by a galvanic battery; the seven white candles burning on a nearby table are extinguished, while the narrator embraces death as a pleasant escape to the present situation.

Fainting for awhile, he awakens later on in the darkness and ponders what things he was dreaming about, analyzing the connection between dream and reality, "He who has never swooned is not he who finds strange palaces and wildly familiar places in coals that glow; is not he who beholds floating in midair the sad visions that the many may not view; is not he who ponders over the perfume of some novel flower; is not he whose brain grows bewildered with the meaning of some musical cadence which has never before arrested his attention" Poe, pg. 266. The narrator is still very disoriented about where exactly he is, recalling that he had been carried down to some deep room far from where he was before and how he is merely waiting to die there in Toledo. Opening his eyes, nothing is visible and darkness is all around him; something damp and hard lies nearby, which his hand touches briefly. He stands up, staggering because his body is so weak, and explores the room he is in cautiously, expressing some fears that it could be a tomb where he has been buried alive. The room appears to be safe, and no disasters await him while walking around in the darkness. Abruptly, he remembers horror stories of booby trapped dungeons at Toledo.

Eventually, he finds what feels like a stone wall, seeking to test its material with a knife he had upon arriving at Toledo, but it is no longer in his pocket; his old clothes have been replaced by some kind of robe. He decides to tear his robe apart, fastening one end to the wall and holding onto the other, in order that he can explore the room without getting lost, since he can just follow the cloth scrap back where he started at since it's so dark. In the middle of this task, he trips, falls, and is knocked unconscious yet again. Awakening, he feels a pitcher of water and some bread lying next to him, which he consumes eagerly and resumes his exploration of the room, estimating its size to be about one hundred yards all the way around the perimeter. In the midst of this, the clumsy narrator falls yet again, this time after his legs are entangled by the cloth scrap. His chin on the ground, but there is nothing beneath his upper face, realizing that there is an enormous pit in this section of the room that reeks of pungent fungus and death. He drops a piece of stone into the pit, noting that there is no sound for awhile, before the pit echoes with the sounds of water splashing below, as it finally lands.

To his horror, the narrator realizes that he would have fallen into this pit had he not tripped; rather than being a hindrance, this clumsy act had saved his life! He stays awake, frustrated and upset, before several hours before falling asleep yet again. When he awakens this time, a loaf of bread and pitcher of water are nearby, but soon after he consumes these items he becomes extremely drowsy, assuming them to have been drugged, and passes out. When he wakes up, the room is dimly lit from an unknown source, and he notes that the room looks much smaller than he had first thought, being about only twenty-five yards all around. The room is oddly shaped, somewhat like a square but with rough angles here and there, and the walls are visibly made of metal and not stone at all! Along the room are scary pictures of skeletons and other frightful figures, and the large pit is now fully visible as well, filling the center of the room. The narrator is tied completely to a large wood frame, but he manages to maneuver his body to reach a dish of spicy meat that lies nearby, but to his dismay the narrator discovers that there is no fluid this time to wash down his meal, since the meat has made his mouth feel dry.

Gazing above, the prison is visibly about forty feet tall, and the ceiling has a painted picture of Father Time bearing in his hands a long swinging pendulum high above instead of the customary scythe. Some rats are scurrying around the room after climbing out of the pit, no doubt attracted by the meat that he had eaten; in spite of being bound hand and foot, the narrator manages somehow to frighten these rats away for the time being. An hour passes, and the man sees that the pendulum has lowered by about a yard from the ceiling and now swings faster than before, "I now observed -- with what horror it is needless to say -- that its nether extremity was formed of a crescent of glittering steel, about a foot in length from horn to horn; the horns upward, and under the edge evidently as keen as that of a razor. Like a razor also, it seemed massy and heavy, tapering from the edge into a solid and broad structure above. It was appended to a weighty rod of brass, and the whole hissed [sic] as it was swung through the air" Poe, pg. 273. Recalling that this is the worst punishment that "they" use there at Toledo, the poor man suddenly realizes that this bladed pendulum soon will descend upon his immobilized body, slicing him to pieces!

He wishes that he had fallen into the pit initially, rather than having to endure this terrible fate. Days go by, and the narrator lays there staring at the swinging pendulum, since he can't really go anywhere anyway due to the straps that bind him, until he just accepts his imminent death and stares at the blade above him "as a child at some rare bauble." Having awoken from one of his slumbers, only a little bit of meat is left that his captors had brought, devoured hungrily by the monstrous rats. The narrator nibbles the tiny bit that is left, suddenly filled with joy that he can somehow survive this terrible ordeal. He observes that the pendulum will cut at a right angle to his body directly into his chest, where his heart is located, thus cutting him into two pieces. He vainly wishes that to reach up and stop it from swinging; the pendulum gets to be only three inches above him and still descends; that painful end is near! He tries to break the straps somehow, but to no avail! Then he sees that in about twelve more swings back and forth, the pendulum will be cutting his robe; noting that he is tied using the same piece of strap, if he can maneuver his body so that the pendulum cuts a piece of the binding in half, then his entire body should be able to come free. In struggling to move around, the narrator discovers to his utter horror that the pendulum's cutting path will not intersect with these bindings at all!

The rats scurry around ravenously, and the narrator realizes that they are waiting to devour his warm, dead flesh. Inspired, he soaks his fingers in the crumbs and juices from the plate of meat, and rubs them all over those straps; the result is tremendous, as hundreds of rats swarm across his body to eat the meat, biting into the straps as well in the process of doing this, "The measured movement of the pendulum disturbed them not at all. Avoiding its strokes, they busied themselves with the anointed bandage. They pressed -- they swarmed upon me in ever-accumulating heaps. They writhed upon my throat; their cold lips sought my own; I was half stifled by their thronging pressure; disgust, for which the world has no name, swelled in my bosom, and chilled, with a heavy clamminess, my heart. Yet one minute, and I felt that the struggle would be over" Poe, pg. 277. As expected, the strap soon came free due to this vigorous activity, even as the pendulum began severing the cloth of his robe and grazed the surface of his skin. The narrator deftly leaps off of the wooden frame, lunging away from the swinging pendulum, noting that he is free from that but still captured by the Inquisition, thus explaining why he has been imprisoned at Toledo in the first place.

Examining the room, he follows the light source that still illuminates the room to a small crack all around the walls of the room near the floor; he decides to look at it more closely. Gazing through it, bright light alone greets his eyes, and he realizes that this is a mechanical chamber, and the metal walls soon become hotter and hotter. The skeletal pictures around the walls now glow with a frightful brilliancy, as "Demon eyes" surround the room! The smell of "heated iron" fills his nose, and the narrator becomes very afraid, lamenting "oh, most demonaic of men!" as he tries to quell these fears. Afraid of being burned by this brilliant light, he runs to the deep pit in the middle of the room, recalling its watery bottom. He hesitates suddenly and breaks down into tears, uncertain of whether he should jump or be burned by the heated walls, with the room becoming hotter and hotter, and now the walls begin to move more closely. The dungeon is changing shape, becoming more circular to enclose him! The narrator now has a choice, to touch those burning iron walls or to dive into the pit. Desperately, he stands as close to the edge of the pit as possible without falling in, but the hot walls continue to press in, closer and closer, until there is no room left upon which to stand, and the wall completely surrounds the pit. His body reels backwards, releasing "one loud, long, and final scream of despair."

At that very moment, voices and trumpets echo throughout the chamber, and the burning walls reverse, returning to their original position, but it is too late to prevent the narrator's own descent into the pit! In midair, as his body prepares to drop down to the depths below, an arm catches him and pulls him back to safety, as the narrator joyfully notes how "It was that of General Lasalle. The French army had entered Toledo. The Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies" Poe, pg. 279. After experiencing the most torturous ordeals such as starvation, hungry rats, falling into a frightening pit, being burnt by heated walls, and having his body sliced into two by a swinging pendulum, this man is ready to go home and return to a life of normalcy. The conclusion reflects the opening phrase, that peace is restored to a place once overrun by wicked torturers, as the Spanish Inquisition is disrupted here by triumphant French soldiers. Only their unexpected arrival prevents the narrator from becoming yet another victim of the pit and the pendulum.

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