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The Pit and the Pendulum [an essay] (1 Viewer)

I wrote this essay on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" and was wondering if anyone familiar with the story would just tell me if you think my ideas are too much of a stretch or not. It's too late to change it, because the paper is due tomorrow, but I'd like to know if my interpretation is just totally off the wall or what...LOL, it makes sense to me, but I'm an atheist.

Jonathan Hirt
Dr. Stelly
English 231W
6 December 2007
Etched on a Dungeon Wall​

Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Pit and the Pendulum" is a tale of a man facing torture for an unnamed crime. At first reading it seems like a straightforward Poe story, one featuring the dark themes of death and torture alongside suspense. However, a close examination of the words and imagery throughout the story reveal a political message, one seemingly opposed to religion, hidden behind the captivating story.​

The Spanish Inquisition are trying the narrator of the story for an unnamed crime, but likely a crime against their religion. It's possible that the narrator opposed their religion, and that is why he stands before the judges. The first appearance of Poe's (exterior) message appears with the word "unbound" being used in the very first sentence. It is an ironic choice because it would seem that the Inquisition are trying to restrain the narrator, and force him to come to trial before their religion, with no consideration of other views. Shortly afterward the narrator describes the judges as having an expression "of immoveable resolution [sic]" and explains their lips were "whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words" (62). This seems to comment on the Inquisition's lack of open mindedness toward other views, and their white lips seem to lack life.​

The next significant imagery is of the "seven tall candles" which "seemed white slender angels who would save me" (62).The reference to angels solidifies a religious connection in the story, and the fact that the angels "became meaningless spectres" and the narrators realization "that from them there would be no help" reveals the narrator's lack of religion (63). He sees the angels as they should be, signs of hope, but they do not intervene, and confirm his own beliefs that they are only "meaningless spectres."​

The word "descent" appears for the first time in comparison to a soul's fall "into Hades" seems to confirm that Poe wants religion to be an important part of the story. Descent appears often later in the story, and the connection here will help to discuss the later occurrences. The association between the word descent and a fall to hell also helps to foreshadow events later in the story. The importance is also reiterated by the foggy descent into the dungeon "down--down--still down", and this relates to the falling of the pendulum in the dungeon (63). This "interminableness", or seemingly forever lasting descent also describes the infinite fall of the pendulum toward the narrator later in the story.​

One of the most significant passages of Poe's religious commentary occurs after the discussion of the narrator's fainting. The narrator comments on the act of "swooning" and the "return to life", noting that there is a "mental or spiritual" return, and then a "sense of physical, existence" (63). He delivers an emotional rant about people who have failed to "swoon".​

He who has never swooned, is not he who finds strange palaces and wildly familiar faces in coals that glow; is not he who beholds floating in mid-air 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 (63).​

"Swooning" can be interpreted as thinking without any outside factor, such as religion, interrupting. This would explain the ability to faint without losing consciousness. It would be losing touch with the world, and truly believing in oneself. From this interpretation, Poe seems to comment through the narrator that someone who hasn't, or who refuses to "swoon" will never enjoy what the physical world has to offer. If they put too much emphasis on their spiritual views, then they will shape the world around them according to their views, rather than letting the world around them shape their views. The narrator lives by the latter.​

When the narrator wakes inside his new dungeon, his way of perceiving the world is revealed. The narrator comments "I had not opened my eyes [...] I longed, yet dared not to employ my vision" (64). Although he does wonder where he might be, he makes no guesses until opening his eyes which reveals that his senses are most important to his view of the world, rather than spiritual beliefs. When his vision fails to illustrate his dungeon he moves onto trying to map out the dungeon by "groping [his] way around the prison" (65), again showing that he needs to perceive his world physically. Shortly later when the narrator trips and falls at the edge of the previously hidden pit, his chin rests on the ground, but the rest of his face is not touching any surface. The imagery of everything above his chin floating above the pit conveys his fear of a loss of his senses. Four of his five basic senses lie right above a pit that could make them useless, and his fifth (touch) is taunted by the "clammy vapor" which brushes his forehead (66). His fear of losing his only means of connection to the world, and the promise of losing them slowly, drives his fear of the pit even when later in the story it would serve as a method of relief.​

The pendulum was aimed to cross the region of the narrator's heart when it finally fell. The choosing of the heart reveals that the design of the pendulum was not simply to kill the narrator, but to trouble his heart. He would have to change his heart (his view on religion), or his heart would be severed. This is made clear after the narrator states "And then I felt suddenly calm, and lay smiling at the glittering death", for after this smile the blade stopped it's downward movement (69). Like the pit, this was not a method of instant death, but one designed to trouble the mind of the inmate, possibly with hopes to break their mind. This would allow the victim plenty of time to relive their crimes, and ultimately admit to wrong, or in the narrator's case, accept the religion of the Inquisition. The method of a slow death would also serve to ease the Inquisition's hearts, for the victim wasn't killed simply for the sake of killing them, but was taught a lesson and may receive forgiveness before it is too late.​

While the narrator is strapped to a table beneath a descending scythe destined for his heart, he thinks about how he got into the situation. "Having failed to fall" he remarks about the pit (69). This also raises the thought of his falling to hell, as descent earlier suggested, and he has failed to do so. He has not admitted his actions or beliefs were wrong, and hasn't put his soul into hell in the way the Inquisition wanted him to. The narrator then remarks "The odor of the sharp steel forced itself into my nostrils", and here he refuses to perceive his reality because he has difficulty accepting that a (possibly) harmless crime of religion put him on that table (69). When the pendulum seemed to stop it's journey toward him, the narrator realizes that "there were demons who took note of my swoon", now comparing his captors to demons. This is the first time he expresses hostility toward the Inquisition, and he later expresses "human nature craved food", seeing himself as human (69). This comparison is troubling, because the Inquisition likely sees the narrator as being demon like, and this kind of thinking is what Poe critiques through the narrator. The narrator now believes his views are the superior ones, and by calling the captors demons, he seemingly wishes them harm for acting out their beliefs. Certainly torture isn't justified, but the narrator's new attitude may turn away some who started to sympathize with his beliefs.​

Descent is strongly emphasized with the three paragraphs detailing the pendulums fall. "Down--steadily down it crept [...] Down--certainly, relentlessly down! [...] Down--still unceasingly--still inevitably down!" (70). These paragraphs serve to increase tension toward the end of the story, but they also further the commentary on religion that has been present throughout the story. The pendulum has been slowly descending, taunting the narrator for possibly days, but now the pace seems to quicken as the scythe gets ever closer. The narrator still has not willingly put his soul in hell by admitting his wrong, and accepting his punishment, so now the blade will do so for him. By being killed, and never repenting, his soul will be forced into the Inquisition's belief of hell, even though the narrator doesn't hold the belief himself. In fact, instead of asking for forgiveness, the narrator "wearied heaven with my prayer for its more speedy descent" (69). When confronted with the pain of impending death, which inched closer only over days, the narrator becomes desperate and wishes for death to come sooner. These prayers were likely empty, only wishes, and it's not clear whether he expected his appeals to be answered. The act of this praying conflicts with his views on religion, though if it were an honest act it would seem he would have performed the act earlier. Therefore his prayers must have been an unconscious act brought on by his fear of waiting for death.​

The final image worth mentioning is that of the narrator's enlisting of rats to help him escape. When the image of the angels gave the narrator a sliver of hope early in the story "their flames went out utterly", yet as the pendulum was about to reach his chest it was a swarm of rats that unbound him for the final time (63). Rats are pictured as filthy rodents which are disgusting to see, and serve only as pests, while angels are pictured as beautiful objects that radiate brightly. It doesn't seem like a coincidence that both were seen by the narrator as possible saviors, and only one delivered. The angels were described by the narrator as ghosts because he only believed in the physical world that he could sense, and therefore the rats were the only ones capable of saving him.​

"The Pit and the Pendulum" is a wonderful thriller story on it's own, with impending death creeping ever closer, or stalking around every corner in the shape of a pit in total blackness. The story works perfectly to keep a reader 'on the edge of their seat', frantically flipping pages to find out the fate of the narrator. This story of creeping death is precursor to the SAW movies, in which victims are thrust into dark places where death creeps in on them, and they know it. However, like the movies, the story isn't simply for entertainment, but it hides a message just below the surface. The religious connection between candles and angels early on hints at a message, and the tying of descent (which plays an enormous role in the story) to hell brings it to the surface. Once these clues were decoded, many more made themselves visible, and surprisingly they all seemed to fit together perfectly. Did the narrator learn a lesson during his days of near-death thought under the swinging of the pendulum? If so, the only way to find proof might be looking for etchings on his dungeon wall.​

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Pit and the Pendulum." The Gold Bug and Other Tales. Ed. Stanley Applebaum. New York: Dover Publications, 1991. 62-73.​
What movie? Was it good?

I saw a movie based on The Raven and was going to rent it, but I think it was only very loosely based on it (I mean it's a short poem)... It was about some supernatural killer and a girl obsessed with the poem...LOL