"The Pit and the Pendulum" is a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe and first published in 1842. The story is about the torments endured by a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition, though Poe skews historical facts. The narrator of the story is deemed guilty for an unnamed crime and put into a completely dark room. He passes out while trying to determine the size of the room. When he wakes up, he realizes there is a large, deep pit in the middle of the room. He loses consciousness again and awakens strapped on his back, unable to move more than his head. He soon realizes there is a large blade-like pendulum hanging above him, slowly getting closer to cutting through his chest. He finds a way to escape but the walls of his prison start to move and close in on him, pushing him closer and closer to falling into the pit.
The story is especially effective at inspiring fear 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. The traditional elements established in popular horror tales at the time are followed but critical reception has been mixed.
At the beginning of the story an unnamed narrator
is brought to trial before various sinister judges. He provides no explanation of why he is there or what he has been arrested for. 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 near by. He gets back up and tries to measure the prison again, finding that the perimeter measures one hundred steps on each side. While crossing the room he slips on the hem of his shirt. He discovers that if he had not tripped he would have walked into a seemingly bottomless pit 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 on the ceiling; hanging from the figure is a gigantic scythe-like pendulum swinging slowly back and forth. The pendulum is inexorably sliding downwards and will eventually kill him. However the condemned man is able to attract rats 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 and the Inquisition is in the hands of its enemies.
In fact, Poe takes dramatic license with Spanish history 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
, centuries after the height of the Spanish Inquisition
and at a time when it had lost much of its power. The elaborate (and presumably costly) 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).
Additionally, Poe's opening epigraph preceding the story, "a quatrain composed for the gates of a market to be erected upon the site of the Jacobin Club House at Paris", is also inaccurate. Charles Baudelaire, 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.
"The Pit and the Pendulum" is really 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 teeth "whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these pages", 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
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
." 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.
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
"). 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
'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
(Poe had referenced the Koran also in "Al Aaraaf
" and "Israfel
") by George Sale
. 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 included 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)
85, "The Celestial Signs"
, 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.
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
issue of the Broadway Journal
William Butler Yeats 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.
The Gothic music band Nox Arcana made a piece on their album "Shadow of the Raven," a musical dedication to Edgar Allan Poe, based on "The Pit and the Pendulum" called "The Pit and the Pendulum".
The Symphony X song "King of Terrors", which is on the album The Odyssey, is based on "The Pit and the Pendulum".
On the new album of the symphonic heavy metal band Nightwish, Dark Passion Play, the title of the song "The Poet and the Pendulum" is inspired by the short story.
The heavy metal band Rage has recorded a song called "The Pit and the Pendulum" for their album The Missing Link. It retells the plot of the story.
Likewise, Japanese musician Ikue Mori recorded the track "The Pit and The Pendulum" for her album Garden.
Film and television
- Several film adaptations of the story have been produced, including the early French language film Le Puits et le pendule in 1910. The first English language adaptation was in 1913, directed by Alice Guy Blanche.
- The 1961 film The Pit and the Pendulum directed by Roger Corman starring Vincent Price and Barbara Steele, 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.
- Czech surrealist animator Jan Švankmajer made a movie short called The Pit, the Pendulum and the Hope, loosely based on this story.
- In 1991 a film version of the story, directed by Stuart Gordon and starring Lance Henriksen, was released. The plot was altered to a love story set in Spain in 1492.
- In 2006 a stop-motion animated version of the story "The Pit and the Pendulum" was completed under the 'Ray Harryhausen Presents' banner. The film was executively produced by Ray Harryhausen and Fred Fuchs, directed by Marc Lougee, and produced by Susan Ma and Marc Lougee.
- In 1995, the computer video game Phantasmagoria adopted the pendulum trick as one of Carno's torture devices.
Other references to the story
- The University of British Columbia's Student Union Building contains both a pub called 'the Pit' and a restaurant called 'the Pendulum.' While the Pit was opened and named first, the Pendulum was later named to allude to this story.
- There is a Gothic bar in the British city of Nottingham called 'The Pit and Pendulum', which features a mock pendulum suspended from the ceiling. It is run by the Eerie Pub Company.
- In a Peanuts strip, Charlie Brown is flying a kite, and is attached to the kite when it's hanging from a tree. Meanwhile, Lucy is Talking to Linus about The Pit and the Pendulum and after, Charlie Brown says "That Edgar Allan Poe was a riot"