Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Commentary
This descriptive story about one man's sufferings during the Spanish Inquisition was first published in The Gift of 1843, which was actually released in September of 1842. Later appearances of "The Pit and the Pendulum" include the Broadway Journal on May 10, 1845, and a posthumous collection of short stories Works, in 1850. Written while Poe was still residing in Philadelphia, his wife Virginia had already been diagnosed with tuberculosis after spitting blood while singing in January of that same year; surely Edgar was felt a biting concern for her suffering which would only grow worse as the years wore on. Other stories composed at this time reveal a similar preoccupation with pain and death, as does the narrator here in "The Pit and the Pendulum." These stories include "The Tell-Tale Heart" (January 1843), "The Masque of the Red Death" (April 1842), "The Black Cat" (August 1843), and a second murder story featuring Dupin, "The Mystery of Marie Roget," published in October and November of 1842, shortly after this tale was published.
Edgar Allan Poe's unique style and outlook upon the world are strongly revealed in "The Pit and the Pendulum" not only in the general theme of death that characterizes many of his other grotesque and arabesque stories, but also by the specific language he chooses to employ. Phrases such as "galvanic battery" will reappear later on when creating "The Premature Burial," which reflects a similar theme as this. The narrator of that story desperately fears being buried alive, going so far as to install special devices into his tomb to avoid this from happening. With that in mind, it is interesting to point out that the narrator in "The Pit" refers to his dungeon as a "tomb" at one point, wondering if he has been buried alive. Other subtleties include how at one point the narrator awakens and hears "the tumultuous motion of the heart and, in my ears, the sound of its beating" (266). The swinging pendulum is also destined to cut into his heart; these patterns reflect similar sensations described by the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart," as the narrator mistakes his own beating heart for that of the old man.
Additionally, the very concept of descending into an abyss and the narrator's intense fear that accompanies it is shared by "MS Found in a Bottle" written nearly ten years earlier and "A Descent into the Maelstrom" published in April of 1841. In the spirit of this latter story, the narrator in "The Pit" is saved from falling in part by his own ingenuity causing the rats to free him, just as the old man from "A Descent into the Maelstrom" wisely lashes himself to a water barrel. "MS" featured a narrator who did descend into the abyss and was not heard from again, aside from the manuscript that he hurled into the ocean in the moments before those same waters swallowed him. Like the cross-combinations of stories which "The Pit and the Pendulum" utilizes, it is a tale that mixes both the horrific, vivid, and gory elements that characterize such work as "The Tell-Tale Heart," and the supernatural, mysterious, and intriguing elements of "MS" and "The Descent into the Maelstrom." It is both grotesque and arabesque, referring to the two categories in which Poe's work is usually placed.
In regard to the actual events of this story, many interpretations may be made. It is a vivid recounting of one man's suffering at the hands of the Inquisition, yet uncharacteristically for Poe, it ends on a hopeful note, with the narrator being saved from certain death at the last moment. Even the old man in "Descent," who was nearly pulled into the Norwegian "Moskoestrom" must live out his life not believed by the other fishermen and with a rapidly deteriorating health. The narrator here is not only saved individually, but the entire political machine that had wreaked this suffering is destroyed as well, assuring that no one else will experience such pain. Hope pervades this entire work as the narrator fights to survive, until the very last moment when he screams out still in vain, as if his voice could still save him even then. One must wonder if this utterance even had a hand in calling the General Lasalle to his aid, suggesting that perhaps even this move saved his life. Rather than being a murderous psychotic or doomed skeptic, the narrator here is filled with ingenuity. He uncoils his robe upon initial imprisonment, in order to retrace his steps after exploring the place; he barely manages through good luck to avoid falling into the pit because this cloth tripped his legs during this exploration.
Later, he is able to get meat into his mouth in spite of his arms and legs being bound to a wooden frame; he develops the insightful idea of raising the straps in such a way that the pendulum will perhaps slice them, setting him free. When this plan fails, however, it is replaced by yet another, as he spreads meat juices onto the straps and has the rats chew the straps free, and then in investigating the room, he figures out that the room is mechanized by observing the glowing walls. Even then, as the walls close in to encapsulate him and force him into the pit, the narrator resists until there is no floor remaining for him to stand upon, doing the last thing he can possibly do: scream. With these events in mind, it is extraordinary that a man with his limited resources, loss of sleep, lack of nutriment, and high levels of psychological stress performs so brilliantly. At no point does the urge to die completely consume him; in such fleeting moments when the idea of jumping into the pit emerges, he suppresses these quickly, embracing instead an overwhelming need to survive. These survival instincts do prove very successful after all, enduring until the very end before his final slip backwards into the pit.
Like the narrator whose fleeting moments accept death as an inevitability, as when he stares helplessly as the pendulum descends like a "child at some bauble," or wishes he had jumped into the pit rather than suffer the death by that swinging blade, Poe reveals his own inner struggle against Death, which had already claimed his mother Eliza, stepmother Fanny Allan, and now, one day, his wife Virginia. Poe shows a man stripped of all his luxuries, reduced to the same instinctual behaviors as these ravenous rats, seeking immediate gratification: food and hence, survival. When the narrator allows hundreds of rats to climb atop his body, he becomes one with them and is later restored to humanity only after releasing a final, primal "scream of despair." Thus, although he begins with the freedom to move and uses this freedom to explore his dungeon, assess, evaluate, and calculate such things as the size of the room, these acute observations are later replaced by rapid thoughts as he becomes trapped like a rat. This trend suggests that the narrator undergoes a transformation from man to beast, as reason is replaced by instinct, and logic is abandoned for fear. The ending reasserts that hope exists in the worst of conditions, even if it is from an outside and unexpected force such as that of the French army.
Finally, in recalling the historical significance of 'The Pit and the Pendulum," Edgar Allan Poe draws upon actual historical events that occurred in the Spanish city of Toledo, the central command from which the religious persecution of all Jews, Muslims, and accused "heretics" would be put on trial. Initiated in Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella with the Pope Sextius IV's blessing in 1478, the Inquisition would not be abolished until the capture of Toledo and attack of Spain by Napoleon Bonaparte, who appointed his elder brother, Joseph, to rule over the area in 1808. It is most likely this event that the narrator experiences in the tale, as the French army overruns his prison, freeing him at the last moment. "General Lasalle," whose name is French for "the room," likely represents one Napoleon's more flamboyant generals. As Poe mimics Charles Dickens' style in "The System of Doctor Tarr and Prof. Fether," as well as that of Thomas Monck Mason in "The Balloon-Hoax," so too has he employed a style here very similar to author Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly: Or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker, published in Philadelphia (where Poe lived) forty years earlier, in 1799.
Chapter Sixteen of this novel features an episode remarkably familiar to this tale, as a man is lost within a sea of emotions after falling into a pit in the woods outside of Philadelphia; the language and theme are similar, and a detailed description is provided of how a panther's eyes resembled a "fixed and obscure flame," mirroring the mention of "demonic eyes" around the narrator in Poe's story. This chapter of Brown's book also ends with hope, as the man sees a campfire burning ahead of him, just as Poe's narrator is pulled out of the pit just in time. In regard to historical information about the Inquisition and fall of Toledo, Poe reportedly used Critical History of the Spanish Inquisition by Juan Antonio Llorente and Thomas Dick's Philosophy of Religion. Indeed, the Inquisition continued after the end of Bonaparte's regime in 1812 and did not reach a formal conclusion in Spain until 1834, less than a decade before this tale would be published. In addition to its vivid descriptions of a man seeking survival in the face of adverse circumstances, "The Pit and the Pendulum" is a blend of history, contemporary literature, current events, and Poe's innate skill to unite these pieces into one.