The Pit and the Pendulum
Overview
 
"The Pit and the Pendulum" is a short story
Short story
A short story is a work of fiction that is usually written in prose, often in narrative format. This format tends to be more pointed than longer works of fiction, such as novellas and novels. Short story definitions based on length differ somewhat, even among professional writers, in part because...

 written by Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was an American author, poet, editor and literary critic, considered part of the American Romantic Movement. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective...

 and first published in 1842 in the literary annual The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present for 1843. The story is about the torments endured by a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition
Spanish Inquisition
The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition , commonly known as the Spanish Inquisition , was a tribunal established in 1480 by Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. It was intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms, and to replace the Medieval...

, though Poe skews historical facts. The narrator of the story describes his experience of being tortured. The story is especially effective at inspiring fear
Fear
Fear is a distressing negative sensation induced by a perceived threat. It is a basic survival mechanism occurring in response to a specific stimulus, such as pain or the threat of danger...

 in the reader because of its heavy focus on the senses, such as sound, emphasizing its reality, unlike many of Poe's stories which are aided by the supernatural
Supernatural
The supernatural or is that which is not subject to the laws of nature, or more figuratively, that which is said to exist above and beyond nature...

.
Encyclopedia
"The Pit and the Pendulum" is a short story
Short story
A short story is a work of fiction that is usually written in prose, often in narrative format. This format tends to be more pointed than longer works of fiction, such as novellas and novels. Short story definitions based on length differ somewhat, even among professional writers, in part because...

 written by Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was an American author, poet, editor and literary critic, considered part of the American Romantic Movement. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective...

 and first published in 1842 in the literary annual The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present for 1843. The story is about the torments endured by a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition
Spanish Inquisition
The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition , commonly known as the Spanish Inquisition , was a tribunal established in 1480 by Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. It was intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms, and to replace the Medieval...

, though Poe skews historical facts. The narrator of the story describes his experience of being tortured. The story is especially effective at inspiring fear
Fear
Fear is a distressing negative sensation induced by a perceived threat. It is a basic survival mechanism occurring in response to a specific stimulus, such as pain or the threat of danger...

 in the reader because of its heavy focus on the senses, such as sound, emphasizing its reality, unlike many of Poe's stories which are aided by the supernatural
Supernatural
The supernatural or is that which is not subject to the laws of nature, or more figuratively, that which is said to exist above and beyond nature...

. The traditional elements established in popular horror
Horror fiction
Horror fiction also Horror fantasy is a philosophy of literature, which is intended to, or has the capacity to frighten its readers, inducing feelings of horror and terror. It creates an eerie atmosphere. Horror can be either supernatural or non-supernatural...

 tales at the time are followed, but critical reception has been mixed. The tale has been adapted to film several times.

Plot

The story takes place during the Spanish Inquisition
Spanish Inquisition
The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition , commonly known as the Spanish Inquisition , was a tribunal established in 1480 by Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. It was intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms, and to replace the Medieval...

. At the beginning of the story an unnamed narrator
Narrator
A narrator is, within any story , the fictional or non-fictional, personal or impersonal entity who tells the story to the audience. When the narrator is also a character within the story, he or she is sometimes known as the viewpoint character. The narrator is one of three entities responsible for...

 is brought to trial before various sinister judges. Poe provides no explanation of why he is there or for what he has been arrested. Before him are seven tall white candles on a table, and, as they melt, his hopes of survival also diminish. He is condemned to death and finds himself in a pitch black compartment. At first the prisoner thinks that he is locked in a tomb, but he discovers that he is in a cell. He decides to explore the cell by placing a hem from his robe against a wall so he can count the paces around the room; however, he faints before being able to measure the whole perimeter.

When the prisoner awakens he discovers food and water nearby. He gets back up and tries to measure the prison again, finding that the perimeter measures one hundred steps. While crossing the room he slips on the hem of his robe. He discovers that if he had not tripped he would have walked into a deep pit with water at the bottom in the center of the cell.

After losing consciousness again the narrator discovers that the prison is slightly illuminated and that he is bound to a wooden board by ropes. He looks up in horror to see a painted picture of Father Time
Father Time
Father Time is usually depicted as an elderly bearded man, somewhat worse for wear, dressed in a robe, carrying a scythe and an hourglass or other timekeeping device...

 on the ceiling; hanging from the figure is a gigantic scythe
Scythe
A scythe is an agricultural hand tool for mowing grass, or reaping crops. It was largely replaced by horse-drawn and then tractor machinery, but is still used in some areas of Europe and Asia. The Grim Reaper is often depicted carrying or wielding a scythe...

-like pendulum
Pendulum
A pendulum is a weight suspended from a pivot so that it can swing freely. When a pendulum is displaced from its resting equilibrium position, it is subject to a restoring force due to gravity that will accelerate it back toward the equilibrium position...

 swinging slowly back and forth. The pendulum is inexorably sliding downwards and will eventually kill him. However the condemned man is able to attract rat
Rat
Rats are various medium-sized, long-tailed rodents of the superfamily Muroidea. "True rats" are members of the genus Rattus, the most important of which to humans are the black rat, Rattus rattus, and the brown rat, Rattus norvegicus...

s to his bonds with meat left for him to eat and they start chewing through the ropes. As the pendulum reaches a point inches above his heart, the prisoner breaks free of the ropes and watches as the pendulum is drawn back to the ceiling.

He then sees that the walls have become red-hot and begun moving inwards, driving him into the center of the room and towards the brink of the pit. As he gazes into the pit, he decides that no fate could be worse than falling into it. It is implied by the text that the narrator fears what he sees at the bottom of the pit, or perhaps is frightened by its depth. The exact cause of his fear is not clearly stated. However, as the narrator moves back from the pit, he sees that the red-hot walls are leaving him with no foothold. As the prisoner begins to fall into the pit, he hears human voices. The walls rush back and an arm catches him. The French Army has taken Toledo
Toledo, Spain
Toledo's Alcázar became renowned in the 19th and 20th centuries as a military academy. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 its garrison was famously besieged by Republican forces.-Economy:...

 and the Inquisition
Inquisition
The Inquisition, Inquisitio Haereticae Pravitatis , was the "fight against heretics" by several institutions within the justice-system of the Roman Catholic Church. It started in the 12th century, with the introduction of torture in the persecution of heresy...

 is in the hands of its enemies.

Historicity

Poe makes no attempt to describe accurately the operations of the Spanish Inquisition, and takes considerable dramatic license with the broader history premised in this story. The rescuers are led by Napoleon's General Lasalle (who was not, however, in command of the French occupation of Toledo) and this places the action during the Peninsular War
Peninsular War
The Peninsular War was a war between France and the allied powers of Spain, the United Kingdom, and Portugal for control of the Iberian Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars. The war began when French and Spanish armies crossed Spain and invaded Portugal in 1807. Then, in 1808, France turned on its...

, centuries after the height of the Spanish Inquisition and at a time when it had lost much of its power. The elaborate tortures of this story have no historic parallels in the activity of the Spanish Inquisition in any century, let alone the nineteenth. The Inquisition was, however, abolished during the period of French intervention (1808–13).

Poe places a Latin epigraph
Epigraph (literature)
In literature, an epigraph is a phrase, quotation, or poem that is set at the beginning of a document or component. The epigraph may serve as a preface, as a summary, as a counter-example, or to link the work to a wider literary canon, either to invite comparison or to enlist a conventional...

 before the story, describing it as "a quatrain composed for the gates of a market to be erected upon the site of the Jacobin Club
Jacobin Club
The Jacobin Club was the most famous and influential political club in the development of the French Revolution, so-named because of the Dominican convent where they met, located in the Rue St. Jacques , Paris. The club originated as the Club Benthorn, formed at Versailles from a group of Breton...

 House at Paris
Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

". The epigraph was not Poe's invention; such an inscription had been reported, no later than 1803, as having been composed with the intention (possibly facetious) of having it placed on the site, and it had appeared, without attribution, as an item of trivia in the 1836 Southern Literary Messenger
Southern Literary Messenger
The Southern Literary Messenger was a periodical published in Richmond, Virginia, from 1834 until June 1864. Each issue carried a subtitle of "Devoted to Every Department of Literature and the Fine Arts" or some variation and included poetry, fiction, non-fiction, reviews, and historical notes...

, a periodical to which Poe contributed. It does not appear, however, that the market was ever built as intended. Charles Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire was a French poet who produced notable work as an essayist, art critic, and pioneering translator of Edgar Allan Poe. His most famous work, Les Fleurs du mal expresses the changing nature of beauty in modern, industrializing Paris during the nineteenth century...

, a noted French writer who translated Poe's works into French and who was largely inspired by him, said that the building on the site of the Old Jacobin Club had no gates and, therefore, no inscription.

Analysis

"The Pit and the Pendulum" is a study of the effect terror has on the narrator, starting with the opening line that suggests he is already suffering from death anxiety ("I was sick—sick unto death with that long agony") and, shortly thereafter, when he loses consciousness upon receiving the death sentence. Such anxiety is ironic to the reader, who knows of the narrator's implicit survival: the text refers to the black-robed judges having lips "whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words", showing that he himself is writing the story after the events have happened. What makes the story particularly effective at evoking terror is in its lack of supernatural
Supernatural
The supernatural or is that which is not subject to the laws of nature, or more figuratively, that which is said to exist above and beyond nature...

 elements; the action taking place is real and not imagined. The "reality" of the story is enhanced through Poe's focus on sensation: the dungeon is airless and unlit, the narrator is subject to thirst and starvation, he is swarmed by rats, the closing walls are red-hot metal and, of course, the razor-sharp pendulum threatens to slice into the narrator. The narrator experiences the blade mostly through sound as it "hissed" while swinging. Poe further emphasizes this with words like "surcingle", "cessation", "crescent", "scimitar", and various forms of sibilance. "The Pit and the Pendulum" can be considered a serious re-telling of the satirical
Satire
Satire is primarily a literary genre or form, although in practice it can also be found in the graphic and performing arts. In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement...

 "A Predicament
A Predicament (short story)
"A Predicament" is a humorous short story by Edgar Allan Poe, usually combined with its companion piece "How to Write a Blackwood Article." It was originally titled "The Scythe of Time".-Plot summary:...

". In that story, a similar "scythe" slowly (and comically) removes the narrator's head. That action has been re-imagined with a pendulum preparing to slice through the narrator's chest.

Inspiration

Poe was following an established model of terror writing of his day, often seen in Blackwood's Magazine (a formula he mocks in "A Predicament
A Predicament (short story)
"A Predicament" is a humorous short story by Edgar Allan Poe, usually combined with its companion piece "How to Write a Blackwood Article." It was originally titled "The Scythe of Time".-Plot summary:...

"). Those stories, however, often focused on chance occurrences or personal vengeance as a source of terror. Poe may have been inspired to focus on the purposeful impersonal torture in part by Juan Antonio Llorente
Juan Antonio Llorente
Juan Antonio Llorente was a Spanish historian and liberal activist....

's History of the Spanish Inquisition, first published in 1817. It has also been suggested that Poe's "pit" was inspired by a translation of the Koran
Qur'an
The Quran , also transliterated Qur'an, Koran, Alcoran, Qur’ān, Coran, Kuran, and al-Qur’ān, is the central religious text of Islam, which Muslims consider the verbatim word of God . It is regarded widely as the finest piece of literature in the Arabic language...

 (Poe had referenced the Koran also in "Al Aaraaf
Al Aaraaf
"Al Aaraaf" is an early poem by American writer Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1829. It is based on stories from the Qur'an, and tells of the afterlife in a place called Al Aaraaf...

" and "Israfel") by George Sale
George Sale
George Sale was an Orientalist and practising solicitor, best known for his 1734 translation of the Qur'an into English. He was also author of The General Dictionary, in ten volumes, folio....

. Poe was familiar with Sale, and even mentioned him by name in a note in his story "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade". Sale's translation was a part of commentary and, in one of those notes, refers to an allegedly common form of torture and execution by "throwing [people] into a glowing pit of fire, whence he had the opprobrious appellation of the Lord of the Pit." In the Koran itself, in Sura (Chapter)
Sura
A sura is a division of the Qur'an, often referred to as a chapter. The term chapter is sometimes avoided, as the suras are of unequal length; the shortest sura has only three ayat while the longest contains 286 ayat...

 85, "The Celestial Signs"
Al-Burooj
Sūrat al-Burūj is the 85th sura of the Qur'an with 22 ayat. According to Ibn Ishaq, whom most tafsirs follow, the "people of the Ditch" whose persecution it condemns are the Christians of Najran killed by Dhu Nuwas.-Arabic Verses:...

, a passage reads: "...cursed were the contrivers of the pit, of fire supplied with the fuel... and they afflicted them for no other reason, but because they believed in the mighty, the glorious God." Poe is also considered to have been influenced by William Mudford
William Mudford
William Mudford , was a British writer, essayist, translator of literary works and journalist. He also wrote critical and philosophical essays and reviews. His 1829 novel The Five Nights of St. Albans: A Romance of the Sixteenth Century received a good review from John Gibson Lockhart, an...

's The Iron Shroud
The Iron Shroud
"The Iron Shroud" or less commonly known as the "Italian Revenge" is a short story of Gothic fiction written by William Mudford in 1830 and published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine and also as a twenty four page chapbook....

, a short story about an iron torture chamber
Torture chamber
A torture chamber is a room where torture is inflicted.- Methods of coercion :According to Frederick Howard Wines in his book Punishment and Reformation: A Study Of The Penitentiary System there were three main types of coercion employed in the torture chamber: Coercion by the cord, by water and...

 which shrinks through mechanical action and eventually crushes the victim inside. Poe apparently got the idea for the shrinking chamber in the "Pit and the Pendulum" after Mudford's story was published in Blackwood's magazine in 1830.

Publication and response

"The Pit and the Pendulum" was included in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present for 1843, published by Carey & Hart. It was slightly revised for a republication in the May 17, 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal
Broadway Journal
The Broadway Journal was a short-lived New York City-based periodical founded by Charles Frederick Briggs and John Bisco in 1844. A year later, the publication was bought by Edgar Allan Poe, becoming the only magazine he ever owned, though it failed after only a few months under his...

.

William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet and playwright, and one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature. A pillar of both the Irish and British literary establishments, in his later years he served as an Irish Senator for two terms...

 was generally critical of Poe, calling him "vulgar." Of "The Pit and the Pendulum" in particular he said, "[it does] not seem to me to have permanent literary value of any kind... Analyse the Pit and the Pendulum and you find an appeal to the nerves by tawdry physical affrightments."

Adaptations

  • Several film adaptations of the story have been produced, including the early French language
    French language
    French is a Romance language spoken as a first language in France, the Romandy region in Switzerland, Wallonia and Brussels in Belgium, Monaco, the regions of Quebec and Acadia in Canada, and by various communities elsewhere. Second-language speakers of French are distributed throughout many parts...

     film Le Puits et le pendule in 1909 by Henri Desfontaines
    Henri Desfontaines
    Henri Desfontaines was a French film director, actor and scriptwriter.- As director :* 1908 : Hamlet* 1909 : Le Puits et le pendule* 1910 : Un invité gênant...

    . The first English language
    English language
    English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

     adaptation was in 1913, directed by Alice Guy-Blaché
    Alice Guy-Blaché
    Alice Guy-Blaché was a French pioneer filmmaker who was the first female director in the motion picture industry and is considered to be one of the first directors of a fiction film.-Early years:...

    .

  • The 1961 film The Pit and the Pendulum
    The Pit and the Pendulum (1961 film)
    The Pit and the Pendulum is a 1961 horror film directed by Roger Corman, starring Vincent Price, Barbara Steele, John Kerr, and Luana Anders. The screenplay by Richard Matheson was based on Edgar Allan Poe's short story of the same name. Set in 16th century Spain, the story is about a young...

    directed by Roger Corman
    Roger Corman
    Roger William Corman is an American film producer, director and actor. He has mostly worked on low-budget B movies. Some of Corman's work has an established critical reputation, such as his cycle of films adapted from the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, and in 2009 he won an Honorary Academy Award for...

     starring Vincent Price
    Vincent Price
    Vincent Leonard Price, Jr. was an American actor, well known for his distinctive voice and serio-comic attitude in a series of horror films made in the latter part of his career.-Early life and career:Price was born in St...

     and Barbara Steele
    Barbara Steele
    Barbara Steele is an English film actress. She is best known for starring in Italian gothic horror films of the 1960s. Her breakthrough role came in Italian director Mario Bava's Black Sunday , now hailed as a classic.Steele starred in a string of horror films, including The Horrible Dr...

    , like the other installments in the Corman/Price "Poe Cycle", bears minimal resemblance to the Poe story: the torture apparatus of the title makes its appearance only in the final 10 minutes of the film. A novelization of the film was written by Lee Sheridan adapted from Richard Matheson
    Richard Matheson
    Richard Burton Matheson is an American author and screenwriter, primarily in the fantasy, horror, and science fiction genres. He is perhaps best known as the author of What Dreams May Come, Bid Time Return, A Stir of Echoes, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and I Am Legend, all of which have been...

    's screenplay in 1961 and published by Lancer Books in paperback.

  • In 1983, Czech
    Czech people
    Czechs, or Czech people are a western Slavic people of Central Europe, living predominantly in the Czech Republic. Small populations of Czechs also live in Slovakia, Austria, the United States, the United Kingdom, Chile, Argentina, Canada, Germany, Russia and other countries...

     Surrealist Jan Švankmajer
    Jan Švankmajer
    Jan Švankmajer is a Czech filmmaker and artist whose work spans several media. He is a self-labeled surrealist known for his surreal animations and features, which have greatly influenced other artists such as Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, the Brothers Quay, and many others.- Life and career :Jan...

     directed a 15-minute short film called The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope
    The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope
    The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope is a 1983 Czechoslovak animated short film directed by Jan Švankmajer, adapted from Edgar Allan Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum....

    , based on this story and the short story "A Torture by Hope" by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. It is a fairly faithful adaptation of both stories, featuring a unique first-person camera perspective and segments of Švankmajer's trademark stop-motion and cut-out animation (in an otherwise live action film). Most of the art design was done by his wife, Eva Švankmajerová
    Eva Švankmajerová
    Eva Švankmajerová was a Czech surrealist artist. She was born Eva Dvořáková. A native of the Czech town of Kostelec nad Černými lesy, she moved to Prague in 1958 to study at the Prague School of Interior Design and later the Academy of Performing Arts...


  • In 1991 a film version of the story
    The Pit and the Pendulum (1990 film)
    The Pit and the Pendulum is a 1991 horror film directed by Stuart Gordon and based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe....

    , directed by Stuart Gordon
    Stuart Gordon
    After the University of Wisconsin demanded future theatrical productions by Screw Theater be overseen by a University Professor, Gordon cut his University ties to form Broom Street Theater. Its first production, the new translation of the risque Lysistrata, premiered in May 1969. Gordon is...

     and starring Lance Henriksen
    Lance Henriksen
    Lance James Henriksen is an American actor and artist best known to film and television audiences for his roles in science fiction, action, and horror films such as the Alien film franchise, and on television shows such as Millennium....

    , was released. The plot was altered to a love story set in Spain
    Spain
    Spain , officially the Kingdom of Spain languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Spain's official name is as follows:;;;;;;), is a country and member state of the European Union located in southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula...

     in 1492.

  • In 2006 an award-winning stop-motion animated adaptation of the story was produced under the 'Ray Harryhausen Presents' banner.

  • The 2009 horror film directed by David DeCoteau bears little resemblance to the original story but, like the 1961 version, utilizes the large swinging pendulum in the penultimate scene. The film follows a group of university students who visit a hypnotherapy institute lorded over by a sinister hypnotist who wants to use the students to experiment with the possibility of breaking the pain threshold.

External links

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