Summary of "The Pit and the Pendulum" by Edgar Allan Poe

by Ginger Voight Google

"The Pit and the Pendulum" was written by master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe, in 1842, and published a year later. This first-person account of the Spanish Inquisition depicts the acute mental torture of a condemned man as he awaits his death sentence in the confined darkness in an unknown space.

The Setting

The narrator of "The Pit and the Pendulum" is a recusant of the Spanish Inquisition, which took place in 15th and 16th century Spain. The Catholic government took it upon itself to punish and persecute all heretical Catholics as well as Protestants. Most faced public hangings, but upon hearing his sentence, the narrator swoons. The story begins as he wakes, confused, in a dark, confined area instead, where he believes himself to be imprisoned in Toledo, Spain. As the story progresses, the narrator concludes he is in a pit of the prison.

The Protagonist

Since the narrator had swooned initially, and the story takes place after he awakens, it makes the subsequent account of what takes place in the pit somewhat unreliable. The narrator continues to sleep and awaken, even concluding at one point he had been drugged. His being subjected to mostly darkness also affects his perception of events, including the size of the pit in which he is held. This confusion and uncertainty drives the suspense of the story, which opens up with greater detail and subsequently more horror.

The Antagonist

The antagonist of "The Pit and the Pendulum" is time. Since the narrator has been sentenced to death, each moment between the sentence being issued and ultimately carried out carries a mounting terror. Each minute in the darkness is symbolic of the narrator not knowing how or when his sentence will be carried out. This uncertainty gives way to a certain doom, as illustrated by the pendulum that swings over his head and draws precariously closer to where he is bound on a wooden board.

The Tone

Because of this uncertainty and the ticking clock of the narrator's mortality, the tone of the piece is one of growing terror matched only by the resilience of the human spirit. Despite his dire circumstances, the narrator continues to hope, and fight, for his survival. In the claustrophobic and violent atmosphere, this man is able to eloquently narrate the horror of realizing one's own certain death. Yet he also displays, and is ultimately rewarded for, the human will to survive beyond the bleakest circumstances.

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