As is often the case with other Edgar Allan Poe stories, the first-person narrator in “The Pit and the Pendulum” is unnamed, and what he has done, and whether he is guilty of a wrongdoing or not, is not known. As we are introduced to the beginning of this particular story, we soon learn of the horrifying dilemma faced by the teller of the tale; in this case, the sufferings of unrelieved mental torture.
Set during the time of the Spanish Inquisition, the narrator in The Pit and the Pendulum is sentenced to death by a tribunal. Upon receiving his sentence he faints, eventually waking up in a pitch-black room that leaves him frightened and confused as to what happened after he lost consciousness. Afraid that he may be locked in a tomb, his initial terror subsides in time, and he starts to explore the room.
The narrator uses a piece of the hem from his robe to try to measure the room, but before he is able to circumnavigate the cell, he trips on his robe and collapses to the ground, where, upon his ‘excessive fatigue,’ he falls asleep. Upon waking, he notices food that had been left for him, so he consumes it eagerly and resumes his exploration. After counting his paces and figuring the approximate size of the dungeon, he crosses the area again with more deliberate steps – but trips on the hem he ripped earlier. After hitting the floor, he realizes that he had fallen ‘at the very brink of a circular pit.’ To estimate its depth, he throws a stone into the hole and deduces that it is quite deep, hearing a ‘sullen plunge into water, succeeded by loud echoes.’
‘Agitation of spirit’ keeps the narrator awake for ‘many long hours’ but he eventually falls asleep again. When he wakes, he discovers more food awaiting him. After eating and drinking, he surmises that he must have been drugged as he immediately becomes ‘irresistibly drowsy.’ When he awakes, he finds the cell dimly lit and, to his horror, he discovers that he’s now tied to a wooden plank. A pendulum shaped like a scythe swings back and forth above his chest, slowly descending toward him. Meanwhile, rats have gathered from the pit and eaten the food left for him.
As the pendulum’s descent leaves it only ‘ten or twelve vibrations’ away from initial contact, the narrator thinks of an idea. Able to reach back and dip his hand into the remains of the ‘oily and spicy viand which now remained,’ he ignores the rodents biting his fingers in order to return his hand to the strap that’s restraining him and rub the food residue over it. Drawn by the scent, a few rats leap on top of the narrator until ‘Forth from the well they hurried in fresh troops,’ in order to gnaw on the meat flavored strap. As the pendulum nears his heart, the rats chew through the ropes and the narrator escapes. When he gets up, the pendulum retracts to the ceiling, and he concludes that people must be watching his every move.
Shortly after this near death experience, the narrator notices another change in the room – the walls of the cell are heating up and moving inward, leaving him with the realization that he’s being pushed toward the pit with no chance for escape. However, seconds before contact, the walls retract and a mysterious person latches onto him, preventing his fall. The French general Lasalle and his army have successfully taken over the prison in their effort to terminate the Inquisition. The narrator is saved.
In “The Pit and the Pendulum”, like the descending scythe above him, the narrator swings back and forth between hope and despair as well as sanity and insanity. The examples of this kind of mental (and physical) torture are exemplified by the three choices of death he faced: Plunging into the pit to his death, being sliced to death in the pit; or being crushed by the burning walls closing in on him.
What makes “The Pit and the Pendulum” different from other works of Poe is the “happy ending.” This is perhaps the most unexpected aspect of the story despite the line early on that states how the black-robed judges have lips “whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words,” showing that he survived the nightmarish events he describes.
Pit and the Pendulum via Wikimedia Commons