20 pages 40 minutes read

Edgar Allan Poe

The Pit and the Pendulum

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1842

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Pit and the Pendulum”

“The Pit and the Pendulum,” Edgar Allan Poe’s agonizing tale of terror and suspense, was first published in 1842. One of Poe’s many horror stories, “The Pit and the Pendulum” became famous for its depiction of pure dread. This guide refers to the 1992 Modern Library edition of Poe’s Collected Tales and Poems.

The story begins with shocking suddenness: “I was sick—sick unto death with that long agony” (246). The narrator, we soon discover, is a prisoner: Hauled before the Spanish Inquisition, he’s about to be condemned to death, and now has to suffer the agonizing moments before his sentence is passed. He’s immersed in the horror of this moment, hypnotically fascinated by the stark-white lips of his judges and the steady grind of their voices.

As he casts around for some comfort, his eye falls on seven white candles standing before him on the table. At first, he sees them as little angels, there to offer solace or even rescue; then, a “most deadly nausea” comes over him and makes him feel that the candles are only inanimate objects, unfeeling and uncaring (246). Desperate, he turns instead to thoughts of the peace and quiet of the grave—until, overcome by fear and suspense, he faints.

Here, the narrator pauses for a brief disquisition on what’s left of human consciousness when one is unconscious. He didn’t exactly lose all consciousness, he insists, for “even in the grave all is not lost. Else there is no immortality for man” (247). And the deepest sleep contains dreams—even if you don’t remember them when you wake up. Sleep and death, he reflects, must have a lot in common—and fainting is somewhere between those two, putting you closer to the mysterious world of the dead than sleep alone can. A person who has never fainted, he says, has not fully experienced the outer reaches of the human experience, and isn’t the kind of guy who makes complete use of his imagination.

Case in point: even though he was unconscious, the narrator has memories of what happened next. He dimly recollects being carried down deep into the earth by mysterious figures, the awful slowness of his own heartbeat, a pause accompanied by flatness and dampness, and then a fit of utter madness.

The narrator awakes gradually, by fits and starts, and resists opening his eyes. He doesn’t know where he is, but he knows it can’t be anywhere good. He is terrified that he might even be surrounded by pure nothingness. When he finally takes a peek, it’s exactly as he feared: There’s a dark emptiness so profound that it feels like it might suffocate him.

After his initial panic, he starts to think his situation through. He’s sure he’s not dead—why, then, didn’t the Inquisition burn him at the stake? They were just about to hold a burning when he was convicted, and there was no reason for them not to throw him on the pyre. Perhaps, he fears, they’ve decided to bury him alive instead. He gets up to check if he’s in a tomb, but can’t bear to move, in case he finds that’s exactly where he is. At last, he takes a few steps, and is relieved to find that he at least has a little space to move around in.

He thinks back to rumors he’s heard about the Inquisitorial dungeons. Whatever they’re planning for him in this dark room, he knows it’s going to end in his gruesome death.

At last, he gropes his way to a wall. He tears a rag from his clothing and sticks it into a crevice. This way, he can feel his way around the room and know when he comes back to where he started. As he gets a sense of his prison’s dimensions, the room seems much bigger than he expected. He edges along the wall for a while, but before long, he slips and falls. He’s so exhausted and traumatized that he stays where he is and eventually falls asleep.

When he wakes up, he finds that someone has left bread and water for him, and he’s so hungry that he devours them without wondering how they got there. Refreshed, he continues making his way around the wall, and calculates that his prison is about fifty yards around—though there are too many angles in the wall for him to get a sense of the cell’s shape.

Having gotten so far, he decides to try to walk straight across the dungeon—moving very slowly and carefully, as the ground is slick with slime. He only makes it a few steps when his torn clothes trip him up, and he falls flat on his face. In this fall, he makes a dreadful discovery: “my chin rested upon the floor of the prison, but my lips, and the upper portion of my head, although seemingly at a less elevation than the chin, touched nothing […] I put forward my arm and shuddered to find that I had fallen at the very brink of a circular pit, whose extent, of course, I had no means of ascertaining at the moment” (250). As he throws a stone into this pit to see how deep it is, there’s a brief flash of light overhead: someone has opened and then quickly shut a door high above him.

The narrator understands the Inquisitors’ plan for him: they’re going to kill him not with “direst physical agonies,” but with death’s “most hideous moral horrors,” torturing him with terror and uncertainty (250). Shaking, he retreats to the wall, and vows to stay there in fear that the floor is full of these pits. He’s too frightened and horrified to throw himself into a pit and end it all quickly. Besides, maybe the pit wouldn’t provide such a quick death: he’s heard terrible rumors about such pits, and knows that “the sudden extinction of life formed no part of their most horrible plan” (250).

Again, the narrator falls asleep, wakes up, and finds bread and water beside him. This time, they’re drugged; he falls into a deathlike sleep, and wakes after an incalculable amount of time to find that he can now dimly see what’s around him.

He’s surprised to find that his prison is much smaller than he expected, only about half as big as he thought. He realizes that, when he was measuring his cell, he must have been just about to come back to his starting point when he fell down, and thus counted the same steps twice when he started again the next day. He was also mistaken in thinking the prison was full of sharp angles: instead, it’s basically square, but paneled in metal, with seams that passed for corners in the dark. These panels are painted all over with demons, skeletons, and monsters, faded and smeared by the dampness rising from the pit.

He also finds that he’s been tied to a wooden frame. He can move only his head and one arm, with which he can feed himself from a dish that’s been left at his side. He’s disturbed to find that there’s no water now, and that the food is sharply seasoned meat that will only make him thirstier.

The prison ceiling, he notices, is painted, too: There’s a picture of Father Time carrying a scythe directly above him. As he watches, he notices that this scythe is a real object, not a painting. It moves like a pendulum, swinging slowly back and forth overhead.

Right as he notices this, rats come to steal his food, and he has to focus on driving them away. When he looks up again, he observes, to his horror, that the pendulum has started sweeping more widely—and that it’s gotten lower. Now that it’s closer to him, he can see that its glittering steel blade cuts the air with a hiss.

For days and days, the speaker watches in anguish as the blade descends, inch by interminable inch. After an agonizing span of time, the pendulum is so close that he can smell the steel as it swings by. At first, he prays for it to come faster, and even tries to force himself closer to the blade; finally, though, he finds himself watching it with strange calm, until he faints again.

When he awakes, he’s astonished to find that he’s still somehow hungry. As he reaches out for a last morsel of food, he has a sudden idea that gives him hope—he realizes that the pendulum moves so slowly, perhaps he can get it to cut his restraints, a single winding piece of fabric. But he finds that his captors have thought of this too. The blade’s path doesn’t cross his bindings.

The narrator is about to fall back into despair when he has another idea. As the pendulum has gotten nearer, the room has begun to swarm with rats, ready to feast on the narrator’s corpse when he’s dead. The narrator reaches out to his last scraps of food and rubs them on the ropes that bind him. The rats swarm the bindings and the narrator. Weighed down under a heap of writhing rats, paralyzed with horror and disgust, the narrator is nevertheless electrified to find that the bindings are indeed coming loose.

By the time the rats totally gnaw through the ropes, the blade is sweeping so close it slices his skin. Taking advantage of the upswing, the narrator eases himself off the wooden frame, free. But the instant he stands up, the pendulum withdraws speedily into the ceiling, and he realizes he’s being constantly watched. As he waits for whatever’s coming next, he observes a strange “sulphurous light” coming into the cell through the seams in the metal walls, and realizes that intense fires are roaring behind them (256).

Understanding he’s about to roast to death, the narrator runs to the edge of the pit, and looks down, considering whether to jump. What he sees there is so horrific he can’t even put it into words: he merely falls to his knees and weeps.

The blazing walls of the cell begin slowly to close in on him, and he sees that his torturers intend to force him into the pit. Teetering on the very edge, he screams—

And suddenly, the walls rush back, he hears human voices, and General Lasalle himself (the leader of the French forces who oppose the Inquisition), grabs him by his arm. The French have invaded Spain and rescue the narrator at the very last possible second.

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