The Edgar Allan Poe Website

The Pit and the Pendulum.

by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum

The Pit and the Pendulum - Summary

The Pit and the Pendulum is a short story of gothic horror set during the Spanish Inquisition written by Edgar Allan Poe. On one level it is a simple story of horror and impending doom as the narrator awaits a grisly end. On another level it is a story of reversal of fortune, as his tormentors fall into the hands of their enemies. However it is also a stupidly unrealistic story. While the Inquisition did torture people, it was to elicit confessions. And no Inquisitor would have devoted such elaborate mechanical contrivances to achieve his end. Some hot pokes and pliers always did the trick. Plus, the Inquisition had ended a long time before the era of Napoleon. Poe does not seem to have known anything about history. But for some reason this story has become a staple in American and Canadian high school English classes.

The story begins with a trial in Toledo, Spain, during the Spanish Inquisition. The first-person narrator (also the main character),in whose thoughts the reader participates, is sentenced to death and then faints. After an indefinite period of time, he wakes up, lying on a damp stone floor, in an initially completely dark room. After some time in the twilight state, in which the protagonist even thinks he is already dead in the meantime, he suspects that he has to wait for his execution in a dungeon deep in the catacombs of Toledo, if it does not even become his grave. After some time, he tries to orient himself: he feels his way along the cold, smooth stone walls of his prison until he returns to his starting point and estimates the total circumference of the strongly winding room at 50 yards. He then tries to cross the room. He stumbles and falls longitudinally with his face in front on the floor. Since only the chin, but not lips or forehead, touches the ground, he suspects that there is a shaft leading vertically into the depth in the middle of the room. With the help of a stone, which he drops into the round shaft, he tries to fathom its depth. It turns out that there is water far below him at the bottom of the shaft, and the protagonist realizes that by his stumbling he has just escaped death by falling into this well.

After a short refreshment with a little bread and water, he falls asleep and realizes after awakening that he must have been wrong in the size of his cell: its circumference is only 25 yards, the floor plan is a square. In addition, he was tied up during sleep. After the eyes get used to the darkness, a structure emerges in the ceiling, which the first-person narrator identifies as a pendulum. He estimates the height of the ceiling at 30 to 40 feet. Rats appear, attracted by meat that was handed to him for food in the dungeon. A little later, he notices that the ceiling does not seem to be as high as initially believed. The apparently metal pendulum seems to be very large and heavy.

The narrator now realizes that one is apparently looking for another way to put an end to his life: In the following days, it becomes clear that the pendulum, which is now recognizable as a sharp, crescent-shaped blade, lowers further and further in oscillating movements, until finally even the smell of its steel is perceptible. The narrator fears that sooner or later he will be cut off by the pendulum. At the last moment, the saving idea comes to him: he rubs his shackles with the sparse remnants of his meal, which the rats had not yet eaten. After a brief moment of terror, they fall over him and gnaw at his shackles until they finally give in and the protagonist can free himself at the last second. The pendulum has already cut his clothes at the level of his chest by this time.

The pendulum is then pulled upwards again, and a narrow gap through which light penetrates into the interior of the chamber appears. The walls of the cell suddenly begin to glow reddish "like a thousand eyes". The prisoner quickly realizes that they are trying to kill him by scorching heat. The walls begin to move towards each other and narrow the space. His tormentors try to drive the narrator towards the well in order to plunge him into it and finally carry out the execution. But suddenly the walls recede and the protagonist is grabbed by an arm. It is the arm of General Lasalle. The story ends with the words: "The French army had entered Toledo. The Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies."

The story takes place in Toledo at the time of the occupation by the troops of Napoleon Bonaparte,1808, during the Napoleonic Wars on the Iberian Peninsula. General Lasalle is believed to be Antoine Charles Louis Lasalle.

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You can read the online text of the Pit and the Pendulum here.