THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM

First published in The Gift, 1842, this has always been one of Poe's most-read tales, a skillful exercise in suspense with. an undercurrent of something much more complex than most readers fully understand, although they may sense it. Poe's source was probably a paragraph in Thomas Dick's Philosophy of Religion (1825): "On the entry of the French into Toledo during the late Peninsular War, General Lasalle visited the palace of the Inquisition. The great number of instruments of torture, especially the instruments to stretch the limbs, and the drop-baths, which cause a lingering .death, excited horror, even in the minds of soldiers hardened in the fields of battle." Other background, as well as some of the incidents found here, was probably drawn from Anales de la Inquisici6n de Espana, written by Juan Antonio Llorente (1756-1823) in 1812 and published in English in 1826. The Spanish Inquisition was independent of the medieval Inquisition, which began in 1233, when Pope Gregory IX commissioned Dominicans to investigate heresy among the Albigenses, in southern France. Established by Ferdinand V and Isabella in 1478 with the reluctant approval of Pope Sixtus IV, the later Inquisition was entirely controlled by the Spanish kings, and the popes were never reconciled to the institution, which they regarded as usurping a church prerogative. Like the Commti.nist hysteria in the American fifties, the original purpose of the Inquisition was soon overshadowed by political witch-hunting, so that even St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Theresa of Avila were investigated for heresy. The Spanish Inquisition was not abolished until 1820. Films include Le Puds et le Pendule (1910), directed by Henri Desfontaines (1910), a 1913 English version directed by Alice Guy Blanche, and a Roger Corman production in 1961. The latter film, with Vincent Price, John Kerr, and Barbara Steele, stretches the story by adding a wholly new framework about an Englishman (Kerr) who arrives at a Spanish castle to investigate the mysterious death of his sister. The acting is atrocious, but the shocks are good, especially the final shot of Steele locked in the Iron Maiden as Price unknowingly seals her inside the Inquisitional torture chamber forever. Plot elements from Poe's story also have made their way into Avenging Conscience, a 1914 D. W. Griffith film with Henry B. Walthall, Dorothy Gish, Donald Crisp, Blanche Sweet, and Mae Marsh; as well as The Raven (1912), Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) (the title speaks for itself), and The Snake Pit (Blood Demon), a 1967 West German film with Christopher Lee. Basil Rathbone narrates a superb recorded version (Caedmon lll5); Martin Donegan also reads one (CMS 652).

in July of 1794. aluit. What of it there remained I will not attempt to define. but still will not say that all of consciousness was lost. I felt that my senses were leaving me. and I was permitted to sit. In Blackwood's. and the cave of death demolished. I saw them fasion the syllables of my name. supervened. like that occasioned by the rapid revolution of a rnillwheel. with a loud humming or vibrating sound. The [acobins were the political club of the French Revolution. the tall candles sank into nothingness. the soft and nearly impercetible waving of the sable draperies which enwrapped the walls of the apartment. Mors ubi dira fuit vita salus que patent. while the angel forms became meaninglesss spectres. from before me. in Revelation 1:13. the figures of the judges vanished. but. July 1826. and night were the universe. I saw. the very mansion of death. non satiata. over my spirit. and seemed white slender angels who would save me. yet all was not lost. and I saw that from them there would be no help. And then there stole into my fancy. and when they at length unbound me. responsible for the Reign of Terror (1793). I saw." There is also the suggestion of the sensation often experienced when a person loses consciousness-as if one were on a huge wheel. The notorious Inquisition of 1483 reputedly saw two thousand persons burned at the stake. and dimly lighted by candles placed in candlesticks fastened to the wall. everything being calculated to inspire terror. Then silence. At one end. Bobespierre. like a closet.The Pit and the Pendulum Impia tortorum longos hie turba furores Sanguinis innocui. and I felt every fibre in my frame thrill as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery. (so frail may that web have been) we remember 1 "Here the wicked mob. They appeared to me white--whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words-and thin even to grotesqueness. . with heads of flame. the great romantic French poet and author. but then. Found in a Bottle": "As I placed my foot upon the upper step of the companion-ladder I was startled with a loud humming noise. and certainly no inscription. Muslims) who were not true believers." note :25· . Honore. like a rich musical note. Else there is no immortality for man. had no gates. long cherished a hatred of innocent blood. and it seemed long before it attained full appreciation." (Compare with the rooms of "Ligeia" and "Masque of the Red Death. And then my vision fell upon the seven tall candles upon the table. I saw that the decrees of what to me was Fate. In "Shadow" he also speaks of the "Hames of the seven lamps. but just as my spirit came at length properly to feel and entertain it. the sound of the inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum. there came a most deadly nausea . and around. I saw them writhe with a deadly locution. where grim death has been. This only for a brief period. there was an enclosed place. which was built on the site of the old [acobin Club. but who fell with their leader. 4 5 4 Poe may have in mind the seven candlesticks in the midst of which sits God the Judge. for a few moments of delirious horror. After that. In the deepest slumber-no! In delirium-no! In a swoon-no! In deathno! even in the grave all is not lost. their flames went out utterly. The sentence--the dread sentence of death-was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears. fracto nunc funeris antro." According to Baudelaire. too. 2 3 2 The Spanish Inquisition was begun to discover and punish converted Jews (and later. Sospite nunc patria. the blackness of darkness . It conveyed to my soul the idea of revolution-perhaps from its association in fancy with the burr of a millwheel. the Marche St. but with how terrible an exaggeration! I saw the lips of the black-robed judges. Yet in a second afterward. At first they wore the aspect of charity.") 5 See "Loss of Breath. Arousing from the most profound of slumbers. life and health appear. so that the place seemed . unappeased. for presently I heard no more. all at once. down. where the Inquisitor in attendance and the notary sat at a table. Yet. vaulted. all sensations appeared swallowed up in a mad rushing descent as of the soul into Hades. it is a symbol for pain. among others. and I shuddered because no sound succeeded. and stillness. spinning down. were still issuing from those lips. or even to describe." note 1:2). I had swooned. we break the gossamer web of some dream. Poe may have read: "This was a large apartment under ground. The thought came gently and stealthily. . as if magically. 121 [Quatrain composed for the gates of a market to be erected upon the site of the [acobin Club House at Paris. for a while. 3 Compare with "MS. Now that the fatherland has been saved. thin with the intensity of their expression of flrmness=-of immoveable resolution-of stern contempt of human torture." The number seven has many interpretations (see "The Masque of the Red Death. hung round with black cloth. the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave.J 1 I was sick-sick unto death with that long agony.

Yale. and touch-a tingling sensation pervading my frame. existence. are not. And now a full memory of the trial. when the revival is attended with remembrance of visions (as is now and then the case." CCIX) Thus. 7 According to [ung. of the swoon.. unbound. 7:3) Thus the narrator does not understand his dreams and wonders why he has them. to swoon and awake in utter consciousness of any lapse of time during the syncope would demonstrate the soul to have been in such condition that. the limits of the limitless. that of the sense of mental or spiritual.. then the soul is to be considered in such condition as would ensure its existence after the bodily death-the bliss or wretchedness of the existence to be indicated by the character of the visions. the language of dreams is archaic. because they stir up the "forbidden things" of the unconscious. annihilation would have followed. of the intentions and conscious aims of the ego. in fact). I had not opened my eyes. that of the sense of physical. So far. Then again sound. These shadows of memory tell. Then the mere consciousness of existence." note :30)." (Psychology of C. do they not come unbidden. There I suffered it to remain for many minutes. the sound of its beating. and motion. for Poe. is not he who find strange palaces and wildly familiar faces in coals that glow. It is involuntary. there have been moments when I have dreamed of success. Amid frequent and thoughtful endeavors to remember. of the judges. But when some traces of consciousness are left. thought.122 The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe not that we have dreamed. we could recall the impressions of the first. and it fell heavily upon something damp and hard. of tall figures that lifted and bore me in silence down-downstill down-till a hideous dizziness oppressed me at the mere idea of the interminableness of the descent. and earnest endeavor to conprehend my true state. After this I call to mind flatness and dampness. I reached out my hand. Then. secondly. of the sable draperies. p. in their descent. "Marginalia. it is the key to the subconscious. we should find these impressions eloquent in memories of the gulf beyond." (Poe. as if those who bore me (a ghastly train!) had outrun. and. Then a pause in which all is blank. And that gulf is-what? Howat least shall we distinguish its shadows from those of the tomb? But if the impressions of what I have termed the first stage. while I strove to imagine where and what 6 " . yet. I felt that I lay upon my back. Then entire forgetfulness of all that followed. 194:3. on account of that heart's unnatural stillness. first. there have been brief. at will. It seems probable that if. It is a definite functioning which is independent of willing and wishing. Very suddenly there came back to my soul motion and sound-the tumultuous motion of the heart. Then comes a sense of sudden motionlessness throughout all things. J. recalled. In the return to life from the SWOOn there are two stages. like everything that happens in nature. Then a rushing revival of soul and a successful effort to move. after long interval. very suddenly. 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 6 which has never before arrested his attention. of the sentence. upon reaching the second stage. symbolic. had death occurred. a perilous state. and prelogicalin other words. They tell also of a vague horror at my heart. indistinctly. . without thought-a condition which lasted long. as the narrator here clings to. and shuddering terror. of the sickness. and paused from the wearisomeness of their toil. "The dream cannot be explained with a psychology taken from consciousness. a fall into utter unconsciousness would indicate that the soul itself was near death. amid earnest struggles to regather some token of the state of seeming nothingness into which my soul had lapsed. Then a strong desire to lapse into insensibility. very brief periods when I have conjured up remembrances which the lucid reason of a later epoch assures me could have had reference only to that condition of seeming unconsciousness. is not he who beholds floating in mid-air the sad visions that the many may not view. of all that a later day and much earnestness of endeavor have enabled me vaguely to recall. Note the parallel with astral projection-the idea that the soul can leave the body during unconsciousness (see "William 'Nilson. [ung. and then all is madness--the madness of a memory which busies itself among forbidden 7 things. while we marvel whence they come? He who has never swooned. there is still sufficient strength for the person to recover. On the other hand. in my ears.

yet dreaded to move a step. and details his sensations as he attempts to find his way out. Ormond (1799) tells of a woman who murders the man who tried to rape her. and light was not altogether excluded. I followed it up. Was I left to perish of starvation in this subterranean world of darkness.The Pit and the Pendulum I could be. and they wore a yellow miter. This process. His Wieland (1798) deals with hypnotism. An important commercial center for centuries. and Gothic fiction in general. although there was one in Mexico as late as 1815. My worst thoughts. It seemed evident that mine was not. to be buried alive. I brought to mind the inquisitorial proceedings. seemingly of stone masonry-very smooth. with my arms extended. there came thronging upon my recollection a thousand vague rumors of the horrors of Toledo. My outstretched hands at length encountered some solid obstruction. I longed. awaited me? That the result would be death. 10 I. and a sermon. I dreaded the first glance at objects around me. the Inquisition was involved in only two major tasks: to force an admission of heresy or sin from the accused (by torture.-but where and in what state was I? The condemned to death. a yellow penitential garment with a red cross on the front and back (grotesquely embroidered for the unrepentant).character of my judges to doubt. Victims had been in immediate demand. The Church itself did not execute anyone. The blackness of eternal night encompassed me. The sentence had passed. to await the next sacrifice. is that he led the way away from "puerile superstitions. however. it declined in the sixteenth century but gained as the spiritual capital of Spanish Catholicism. But in Portuguese auto means a public ceremony. the most hideous of fates. and for a brief period. And now. The agony of suspense grew at length intolerable. but that I grew aghast lest there should be nothing to see. I felt nothing. and a murdering religious fanatic. I knew. and Poe all admired Brown's work. yet dared not to employ my vision. The atmosphere was intolerably close. and cold. 11 . Mass. 9 Toledo is the capital of Toledo province. His most immediate importance. Cooper. I at once started to my feet. were confirmed. Had I been remanded to my dungeon. between 1483 and 1498. usually by burning. my dungeon. A fearful idea now suddenly drove the blood in torrents upon my heart. Heretics were dressed in the ceremonial San Benito. and one of these had been held on the very night of the day of my trial. Hawthorne. 10 11 In Chapter 16 of Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly (1799). I knew too well the . I proceeded for many paces. and I cautiously moved forward. and stands on a granite hill surrounded on three sides by a gorge. Arthur Mervyn (1800) chronicles a case of mistaken identity wrapped around a yellow-fever epidemic. it is most often applied to the ceremony of the Spanish Inquisition at which. I struggled for breath. which would not take place for many months? This I at once saw could not be. I breathed more freely." Although the word originated in Lisbon. in the hope of catching some faint ray of light. notwithstanding what we read in fiction. The intensity . Most of the great autos-da-fe took place when Tomas de Torquemada was head of the Inquisition. spontaneous combustion. Hawthorne. or what fate. stepping with all the careful distrust with which certain antique narratives had inspired me. is altogether inconsistent with real existence. involving a hero who walks in his sleep. as well as all the condemned cells at Toledo. Such a supposition.e. and stood in cold big beads upon my forehead. especially among the readers of Poe. I still lay quietly. sentences were read and the convicted person executed. Yet not for a moment did I suppose myself actually dead. perished usually at the autos-da-fe. and it appeared to me that a very long interval of time had since elapsed. after a procession. afforded me no means 123 8 9 8 Auto-da-fe is often translated as "act offaith. as I still continued to step cautiously onward. Keats." perhaps referring to the age-old demonstration of faith or truthfulness in which one places a hand in a fire. At length. in central Spain. Of the dungeons there had been strange things narrated-fables I had always deemed them-but yet strange. I quickly unclosed my eyes.. at least. lance more relapsed into insensibility." as he phrased it. and a death of more than customary bitterness. and my eyes straining from their sockets. Scott. Upon recovering. but still all was blackness and vacancy. The mode and the hour were all that occupied or distracted me. translating the European Gothic tradition into American terms. and too ghastly to repeat. so that a better translation would be "A public ceremony offaith. and made effort to exercise my reason. had stone floors. marauding Indians. if necessary) and to save his or her soul by the purification of death by fire. I thrust my arms wildly above and around me in all directions. and attempted from that point to deduce my real condition. trembling convulsively in every fibre. perhaps even more fearful. and Van Wyck Brooks calls him a precurser of both Melville and Henry James. Actually. Edgar Huntly may be the best. It was a wall. however. It was not that I feared to look upon things horrible. Those sentenced to death were handed over to the civil authorities for execution within five days. Brown (1771-1810) is one American writer who should be better known than he is. with a wild desperation at heart. Perspiration burst from every pore. Shelley. lest I should be impeded by the walls of a tomb. the hero finds himself in a pitch-black cave. Moreover. slimy. The last in Spain was at Seville in 1781. and some effective Gothic touches all Brown's own. then. of the darkness seemed to oppress and stifle me. save in a whisper. Gothic castles and chimeras.

endeavoring to cross in as direct a line as possible. although seemingly at a less elevation than the chin. although seemingly of solid material. Shortly afterward. I found beside me a loaf and a pitcher with water. a hundred paces. I had met. there is a strong parallel between "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. I therefore sought the knife which had been in my pocket. admitting two paces to the yard. was treacherous with slime. but it was gone.124 The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe of ascertaining the dimensions of my dungeon. QUitting the wall. as I might make its' circuit. and with much toil. So. The ground was moist and slippery. so as to identify my point of departure. been connected with Hell and destruction. at least I thought: but I had not counted upon the extent of the dungeon. I took courage. I was too much exhausted to reflect upon this circumstance. and . I had counted forty-eight more. was but trivial. the last apostle of New England Puritanism. I staggered onward for some time. 12 but a vague curiosity prompted me to continue them. then. and at right angles to the wall. and fell Violently on my face. and sleep SOon overtook me as I lay. however. and stretching forth an arm. and while I still lay prostrate. in a few seconds afterward. This is important. of course. he can't foresee one moment whether he shall stand or fall the next. for it shows he has both brains and imagination. but my lips and the upper portion of my head. There were in all. I did not immediately apprehend a somewhat startling circumstance. I had little object-certainly no hope-in these researches. as does the narrator of "A Descent into the Maelstrom. but ate and drank with avidity. At first I proceeded with extreme caution. and shuddered to find that I had fallen at the very brink of a circular pit. I resumed my tour around the prison. when the remnant of the torn hem of my robe became entangled between my legs. I tore a part of the hem from the robe and placed the fragment at fun length. How are they brought into desolation. for vault I could not help supposing it to be." that remarkable tract by Jonathan Edwards (1703-58). however. although. At length." He is an example of Poe's "passive" narrators. my clothes had ben exchanged for a wrapper of coarss serge. 13 The image of the pit has. In groping my way around the prison. with many angles in the wall. nevertheless. and upon resuming my walk.and that he can combine "trivial" discoveries with creative thought and come up with solutions to his predicament. whose survival in a hostile environment is based on their willingness to forgo old assumptions and meet a new world on its own terms. . I had advanced some ten or twelve paces in this manner. and. At the same time my forehead seemed bathed in a clammy vapor. thou castedst them down into destruction. for the floor. when I stumbled and fell. My excessive fatigue induced me to remain prostrate. so perfectly uniform seemed the wall. and did not hesitate to step firmly. which yet. and return to the point whence I set out without being aware of the fact. when led into the inquisitorial chamber. I had no means of ascertaining at the 12 The narrator has literally circumscribed his world. and thus I could form no guess at the shape of the vault. While Poe was an alien to the New England tradition." According to Edwards. I resolved to cross the area of the enclosure. it seemed at first insuperable. as in a moment!" These lines are also part of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. touched nothing. I had thought of forcing the blade in Some minute crevice of the masonry. I could not fail to encounter this rag upon completing the' circuit. in the disorder of my fancy. Upon awaking. came at last upon the fragment of the serge. I put forward my arm. I presumed the dungeon to be fifty yards in circuit. I stepped on it. for centuries. and the peculiar smell of decayed fungus arose to my nostrils. whose extent.-when I arrived at the rag. The difficulty. or upon my own weakness. It was this-my chin rested upon the floor of the prison. As he that walks in slippery places is every moment liable to fall. as in Psalms 73:18-19: "Surely thou didst set them in slippery places. the quotation from Psalms implies that sinners "were always exposed to sudden unexpected destruction. arrested my attention. ' In the confusion attending my fall. Up to the period when I fell I had counted fifty-two paces.

By "wild." 14 15 16 16 His sleep "like that of death" ends. but the mere pleasure of God. As he that stands or walks on slippery ground. succeeded by loud echoes. and upon awaking. I must then have been within a pace or two of the fragment of serge. there was the choice of death with its direst physical agonies. Upon arousing. 17 17 Like the narrator of "A Descent into the Maelstrom. psychological 15 The abyss is associated with nothingness. metaphysically ambitious correlative of the soul. of course. up to the period when I fell. when he is let go he immediately falls and is lost. God won't hold them up in these slippery places any longer. But Poe. The observation from the words that I would not insist upon is this. .. The truth at length flashed upon me. Another thing implied is that they are liable to fall of themselves. while a faint gleam of light flashed suddenly through the gloom. and don't fall now. . than the mere dimensions of my dungeon? But my soul took a wild interest in trifles. . And the death just avoided. of which my imagination now pictured many in various positions about the dungeon.. out of Hell. I had nearly performed the circuit of the vault. and then. I know not.. In its size I had been greatly mistaken. the objects around me were visible. "There is nothing that keeps wicked men." writes Ernest Renan in a memorable passage from Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse (1883). That the reason why they are not fallen already. in Major Writers of Early American Literature (Wisconsin. before I became irresistibly drowsy. To the victims of its tyranny." the narrator alludes to the burning of sulfur (brimstone). and as suddenly faded away. His words could just as easily refer to Poe. and the world had seen me no more. as before. 1972. The whole circuit of its walls did not exceed twenty-five yards. I found by my side. but at length I again slumbered. chaos. although that flame is usually blue and yellow. and I busied myself in endeavors to account for the error I had committed in my measurement. I had been reserved for the latter. I saw clearly the doom which had been prepared for me. that when that due time." Poe. "An immense river of oblivion is sweeping us away into a nameless abyss. without warning . both writers say. but will let them go. and had become in every respect a fitting subject for the species of torture which awaited me. they shall fall into destruction. and as rapid closing of a door overhead. I unclosed my eyes. By long suffering my nerves had been unstrung. is only that God's appointed time is not come. . By a wild sulphurous lustre. suggests that there is an appointed time. Groping about the masonry just below the margin. and annihilation. like Edwards. at length there was a sullen plunge into water. and I emptied the vessel at a draught. was of that very character which I had regarded as fabulous and frivolous in the tales respecting the Inquisition. a loaf and a pitcher of water. . Shea. I groped my way back to the wall. "However close we sometimes seem to that dark and final abyss. at that very instant. Shaking in every limb. In my first attempt at exploration I had counted fifty-two paces. not the red that one would expect of hellfire. I must have returned upon my 125 13 when he does fall. [r. without being thrown down by the hand of another. Found in a Bottle. p. 14 Mental. It must havebeen drugged.." says Daniel B. needs nothing but his own weight to throw him down . sulphurous lustre. A deep sleep fell upon me-a sleep like that of death. the origin of which I could not at first determine. who is "Calvinistic" in his belief that the universe was created by a "fall" from unity and that man is estranged from God's ideal world. In other conditions of mind I might have had courage to end my misery at once by a plunge into one of the abysses. and President Kennedy in 1962 said. Edwards was a highly original thinker who moved "out from an intense and sometimes fatalistic subjectivity to construct a vast. 200). is no Puritan. Neither could I forget what I had read of these pits-that the sudden extinction of life formed no part of their most horrible plan. Another step before my fall. or appinted time comes. Man. once again. kept from destruction only by the whim of God/Fate. . I succeeded in dislodging a small fragment. under the terrible circumstances which environed me. for scarcely had I drunk. but now I was the veriest of cowards. A burning thirst consumed me. At the same moment there came a sound resembling the quick opening. as he that stands in such slippery declining ground on the edge of a pit that he can't stand alone. is a passive element in the universe. their foot shall slide ." it is this "wild interest in trifles" that saves him. and let it fall into the abyss. The narrator escapes the pit-this time. and he awakens in something very much like Hell. but if we substitute "fate" for "God"-or even Poe's concept of the Godhead-the similarities become clearer. vain indeed! for what could be of less importance. resolving there to perish rather than risk the terrors of the wells. at anyone moment. until I trembled at the sound of my own voice. .The Pit and the Pendulum moment." Despite his Puritan theology. Agitation of spirit kept me awake for many long hours. Writers after Poe have continued to use it in this manner. in fact. For many seconds I hearkened to its reverberations as it dashed against the sides of the chasm in its descent. as there is for the narrator of "MS. For it is said. he falls at once. but when. I was enabled to see the extent and aspect of the prison. and congratulated myself upon the timely accident by which I had escaped. or death with its most hideous moral horrors. How long it lasted of course. For some minutes this fact occasioned me a world of vain trouble. I then slept. let no man of peace and freedom despair.

on a species of low framework of wood. The entire surface of this metallic enclosure was rudely daubed in all the hideous and repulsive devices to which the charnel superstition of the monks has given rise. 19 A belt or girth around the body of a horse to keep a saddle or pack on the animal's back. Time can also be seen as a sort of sword of Damocles. and thus deduced an idea of great irregularity. In an instant afterward the fancy was confirmed. In feeling my way I had found many angles. My confusion of mind prevented me from observing that I began my tour with the wall to the left. and it is so constructed as to become longer with every movement. clothed in fire were breathing. who. which hangs over our heads. 1820!!!" . as if from the effects of a damp atmosphere. in the appearance of this machine which caused me to regard it more attentively. leaving at liberty only my head. It was some thirty or forty feet overhead." Poe mentions Melmoth in a letter of July 1836 and in a review in Graham's of January 1842. on perceiving myself surrounded by demons. What I touched was cold . supply myself with food from an earthen dish which lay by my side on the floor. and of course slow. by Charles Robert Maturin: "I started up with horror ." Poe may have also been inspired by a description in Chapter Six of Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). This. In the centre yawned the circular pit from whose jaws I had escaped. His punishment was to be death by the Pendulum. which was of stone. The method of thus destroying the victim is as follows:-the condemned is fastened in a groove. I saw. . . I observed that the outlines of these monstrosities were sufficiently distinct. Looking upward. I surveyed the ceiling of my prison. I turned my eyes upon the other objects in the cell.. and constructed much as the side walls.. to my horror. he held what. but it was the only one in the dungeon. but more in wonder. I say to my horror. I had been deceived. or niches.The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe steps-thus supposing the circuit nearly double what it actually was. In one of its panels a very singular figure riveted my whole attention. with skeleton forms. This thirst it appeared to be the design of my persecutors to stimulate: for the food in the dish was meat pungently seasoned. and I comprehended that these were hideous figures scrawled in phosphorous to terrify me. carries an hourglass and a scythe. in lieu of a scythe. I now noticed the floor. What I had taken for masonry seemed now to be iron. that the pitcher had been removed. It may be doubted if the holy office in its mercy ever invented a more humane and rapid method of exterminating heresy. The wretch sees this implement of destruction swing to and fro above him. . The figures of fiends in aspects of menace. at a casual glance. While I gazed directly upward at it (for its position was immediately over my own) I fancied that I saw it in motion. so potent is the effect of total darkness upon one arousing from lethargy or sleep! The angles were simply those of a few slight depressions. in respect to the shape of the enclosure. Poe no doubt borrowed the idea from the preface to Llorente's History of the Inquisition (1826). I now lay upon my back... so that two symbols of Time are combined. according to tradition. or cincture. or ensuring confiscation. forth clouds of it around me. whose sutures or joints occasioned the depression. reprinted in a review in the Philadelphia Museum.D. but that the colors seemed faded and blurred. somewhat in fear. April 1827= "One of these prisoners had been condemned. It was the painted picture of Time as he is commonly represented save that. by dint of much exertion. and was to have suffered on the following day. There was something. too. I supposed to be the pictured 20 image of a huge pendulum such as we see on antique clocks. upon a table. on his back. steady marking off of one's lifetime. and gradually cuts on. It passed in many convolutions about my limbs and body. but also the girdle. All this I saw indistinctly and by much effort: for my personal condition had been greatly changed during slumber. or some other metal. too. for a priest's cassock. The scythe is the instrument by which Time "cuts down" all things according to their allotted span. the edge of which is sharp. Here the scythe is a pendulum. and at full length. with intolerable thirst. and my left arm to such extent that I could. for I was consumed. at odd intervals. and other more really fearful 18 images. The general shape of the prison was square. however. looking to the floor. I watched it for some minutes. A slight noise attracted my notice. A. Wearied at length with observing its dull movement. To this I was securely bound by a long 19 strap resembling a surcingle. is actually that of Saturn. until life is extinct. 20 The figure of Time. and every moment the keen edge approaching nearer and nearer: at length it cuts the skin of his nose. suspended above him is a Pendulum. let it be remembered. overspread and disfigured the walls. Its sweep was brief. 18 Compare with the bedchamber of "Ligeia. and. in huge plates. as we now know it. who. and ended it with the wall to the right. with the pendulum adding the idea of slow. was a punishment of the Secret Tribunal.

"end. they came up in troops. for I knew there were demons who took note of my swoon. it was no part of the demon plan to hurl me into the abyss. and Mela take it for Iceland. The plunge into this pit I had 21 avoided by the merest of accidents. tapering from the edge into a solid and broad structure above. With painful effort I outstretched my left arm as far as my bonds permitted. while I gazed. I felt very-oh. 25 Lethargy caused. and regarded by rumor as the Ultima Thule of all their punishments." Poe mentions it again in his poem Dream-Land. The sweep of the pendulum had increased in extent by nearly a yard. formed an important portion of all the grotesquerie of these dungeon deaths. (for I could take but imperfect note of time) before I again cast my eyes upward. as if through long inanition. At the same time. At last the devil himself. still more appalling. for. and struggled to force myself upward against the sweep of the fearful . by lack of food and water . as a child at some rare bauble. and lay smiling at the 23 glittering death. during which I counted the rushing vibrations of " the steel! Inch by inch-line by line-with a descent only appreciable at intervals that seemed ages-down and still down it came! Days passed-it might have been that many days passed-ere it swept so closely over me as·to fan me with its acrid breath. with hoof. But what mainly disturbed me was the idea that it had perceptibly descended. Bochart says it is a Syrian word and that the Phoenician merchants who traded to the group called it Gezirat Thule. It might have been half an hour. and eyes ofinfernal lustre. and .~il. but it could be the Gothic Tiule. it was brief. And then Hell suddenly calm. accoutred. What I then saw confounded and amazed me. the human nature craved food. Solinus. consider it to be Shetland. Even amid the agonies 25 of that period." "To look at the object was bitter as death. Like a razor also. My cognizance of the pit had become known to the inquisitorial agents-the pit whose horrors had been destined for so bold a recusant as myselfthe pit. and the under edge evidently as keen as that of a razor. Even then. 22 Avails or profits (obsolete usage) 23 Compare with Thomas Mann's (a pseudonym for William Maginn) "The Man in the Bell" (1821). which glare down on him "with terrifying frowns. with ravenous eyes. Thule was the most northern point known to the ancient Romans. no doubt." but he cannot keep his eyes from it. perhaps even an hour. scimitar. Pliny." the narrator tells how "Every moment I saw the bell sweep within an inch of my face. or entrapment into torment. It was appended to a weighty rod of brass." not uncommon in previous centuries. typical of hell. and thus (there being no alternative) a different and a milder destruction awaited me. its velocity was also much greater. I prayed-I wearied heaven with my prayer for its more speedy descent. 24 He seems to be mesmerized by the moving. and took possession of the small remnant which had been 127 21 The end of the world. which Poe pokes fun at in "How to Write a Blackwood Article. the horns upward. it seemed massy and heavy. 24 There was another interval of utter insensibility. What boots it to tell of the long. as in the common description of the evil spirit. and the whole hissed as it swung through the air. As a natural consequence. too. They had issued from the well. like Camden. made his appearance. where it is to be pronounced "Thuly. and who could have arrested the vibration at pleasure. upon again lapsing into life there had been no perceptible descent in the pendulum. "The bell pealing above and opening its jaws with a hideous clamor" seems to be "a ravening monster raging to devour" him. I grew frantically mad. glittering object. Having failed to fall. But it might have been long. long hours of horror more 22 than mortal.The Pit and the Pendulum I saw several enormous rats traversing it. inexpressibly sick and weak. allured by the scent of the meat. about a foot in length from hom to hom. which lay just within view to my right. meaning "the most remote land." and connected with the Greek telos. or with grinning mockery. Milder! I half smiled in my agony as I thought of such application of such a term. or Isles of Darkness. while others. The odor of the sharp steel forced itself into my nostrils. the cavern in which he is trapped seems to be full of hideous faces. In that tale. horn. Upon my recovery. Its etymology is unclear. From this it required much effort and attention to scare them away. I now observed-with what horror it is needless to say-that its nether extremity was formed of a crescent of glittering steel. I could no longer doubt the doom prepared for me by monkish ingenuity in torture. hurriedly. and I knew that surprise. the last extremity.

I could reach the latter. p. 25). I could arrest here the descent of the steel. I would have seized and attempted to arrest the pendulum. I dared not go farther than this reflection. to free my left arm. in so dwelling. sufficient to sunder these very walls of iron. he did not overlook the possibility that sanity can be more terrifying than madness" (James Lundquist. It would fray the serge of my robe-it would return and repeat its operation-again-and again. I saw that some ten or twelve vibrations would bring the steel in actual contact with my robe. Down-certainly. . I forced myself to ponder upon the sound of the crescent as it should pass across the garment-upon the peculiar thrilling sensation which the friction of cloth produces on the nerves. The vibration of the pendulum was at right angles to my length. I pondered upon all this frivolity until my teeth were on edge. glistening axe upon my bosom. I saw that the crescent was designed to cross the region of the heart. 2. I was an imbecile-s-an idiot. to my heart with the stealthy pace of the tiger! I alternately laughed and howled as the one or the other idea grew predominant. this paradox suggests that while Poe ordinarily remained true to his conception of the torture of the disordered personality. For the first time during many hoursor perhaps days-I thought. as I say. And at this thought I paused. It was hope-the hope that triumphs on the rackthat: whispers to the death-condemned even in the dungeon 26 of the Inquisition. it would accomplish. Long suffering had nearly annihilated all my ordinary powers of mind. although death would have been a relief. Poe Newsletter. Yet what business had I with hope? It was. relentlessly down! It yibrated within three inches of my bosom! I struggled violently. oh! how unspeakable! Still I quivered in every nerve to think how slight a sinking of the machinery would precipitate that keen. This was free only from the elbow to the hand.to my mouth. I shrunk convulsively at its every sweep. furiously. still the fraying of my robe would be all that. To the right-to the left-far and wide--with the shriek of a damned spirit. and with this observation there suddenly came over my spirit all the keen. every act of balance or sanity only leads to a worsening of his situation. there rushed to my mind a half formed thought of joy-of hope. collected calmness of despair. Down-steadily down it crept. I took a frenzied pleasure in contrasting its downward with its lateral velocity. . they closed themselves spasmodically at the descent. from the platter beside me. 1969. In vain I struggled to perfect-to regain it. As I put a portion ofit within my lips. I felt that it was of joy-of hope. It now occurred to me that the 26 "Because of the limitations imposed upon him by an inquisitionary force. Could I have broken the fastenings above the elbow. I might as well have attempted to arrest an avalanche! Down-still unceasingly-still inevitably down! Ivgasped and struggled at each vibration.128 The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe spared me by the rats. Notwithstanding its terrifically wide sweep (some thirty feet or more) and the hissing vigor of its descent. but no farther. My eyes followed its outward or upward whirls with the eagerness of the most unmeaning despair. for several minutes. Vol. a half formed thought-man has many such which are never completed. I dwelt upon it with a pertinacity of attention-as if. with great effort. It was hope that prompted the nerve to quiver-the frame to shrink. but I felt also that it had perished in its formation.

was unique. when there flashed upon my mind what I cannot better describe than as the unformed half of that idea of deliverance to which I have previously alluded. which enveloped me. I 27 was tied by no separate cord. or surcingle. The first stroke of the razor-like crescent athwart any portion of the band. the proximity of the steel! The result of the slightest struggle how deadly! Was it likely. Illustration by Jules Descartes Ferat. and of which a moiety only floated indeterminately through my brain when 28 I raised food to my burning lips. in that case. Scarcely had I dropped my head back into its original position. But how fearful. The whole thought was now 28 A half Still I quivered in every nerve to think how slight a sinking of the machinery would precipitate that keen. and. that the minions of the torturer had not foreseen and provided for this possibility? Was it probable that the bandage crossed my bosom in the track of the pendulum? Dreading to find my faint.The Pit and the Pendulum bandage. would so detach it that it might be unwound from my person by means of my left hand. The surcingle enveloped my limbs and body close in all directions-save in the path of the destroying 27 All in one piece (archaic) 129 crescent. glistening axe upon my bosom. nineteenth century . my last hope frustrated. moreover. as it seemed. I so far elevated my head as to obtain a distinct view of my breast.

They were wild. It had divided the serge of the robe. I proceeded at once. many sought the well." I thought. all but a small remnant of the contents of the dish. The measured movement of the pendulum disturbed them not at all. at length. The animal also represents plague. ravenous. or wave of the hand about the platter: and. Twice again it swung. Forth from the well they hurried in fresh troops. Yet one minute. Observing that I remained without motion. decay. with the nervous energy of despair. when the motion of the hellish machine ceased and I beheld it drawn up. They writhed upon my throat. and slow-I slid from the embrace of the bandage and beyond the reach of the scimitar. as well as Robert Southey's verses "God's Judgment on a Wicked Bishop. Avoiding its strokes they busied themselves with the anointed bandage. through the ceiling.The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe present-feeble. by some invisible force. But the moment of escape had arrived. With a more than human resolution I lay still. sidelong. their cold lips sought my own. I lay breathlessly still. to attempt its execution. Nor had I erred in my calculations-nor had I endured in vain. . At a wave of my hand my deliverers hurried tumultuously away. I was free. bold. had been literally swarming with rats. scarcely definite. I was half stifled by their thronging pressure. swelled 30 my bosom. They pressed-they swarmed upon me in ever accumulating heaps. For the moment. andappropriately here-the underworld. and chilled. 31 and a sharp sense of pain shot through every nerve. one or two of the boldest leaped upon the framework. raising my hand from the floor. At first the ravenous animals were startled and terrified at the change-at the cessation of movement. I thoroughly rubbed the bandage wherever I could reach it. Poe may have had this in mind. I had not counted in vain upon their voracity. their red eyes glaring upon me as if they waited but for motionlessness on my part to make me their prey. who was supposedly eaten by mice in the tower he had built as a refuge. In their voracity the vermin frequently fastened their sharp fangs in my fingers. and so the rat's kiss is horrifying beyond mere sanitary reasons. and smelt at the surcingle. I at length felt that I was free. Freel-and in the grasp of the Inquisition! I had scarcely stepped from my wooden bed of horror upon the stone floor of the prison. 30 Rats are traditional symbols of infirmity ad death. But this was only for a moment. The surcingle hung in ribands from my body. "have they been 29 accustomed in the well?" They had devoured. With the particles of the oily and spicy viand which now remained. This seemed the signal for a general rush. at least. This was a lesson which I took desperately to 29 A poem published in Knickerbocker Magazine of November 1837 tells the legend of Archbishop Ratto II of Mainz. and I felt that the struggle would be over. for which the world has no name. my heart. disgust. I had fallen into an habitual see-saw. 31 The narrator does not escape unscythed. with a heavy clamminess. the unconscious uniformity of the movement deprived it of effect. For many hours the immediate vicinity of the low framework upon which I lay. But the stroke of the pendulum already pressed upon my bosom. They shrank alarmedly back. "To what food. It had cut through the linen beneath. With a steady movement--cautious. . Plainly I perceived the loosening of the bandage. then. scarcely sane. in spite of all my efforts to prevent them. They clung to the wood-they overran it. shrinking.-but still entire." . I knew that in more than one place it must be already severed. and leaped in hundreds upon my person.

completely separated from the floor. I rushed to its deadly brink. had taken place in the apartment. and there was to be no more dallying with the King of Terrors. I endeavored. The room had been square. The heat rapidly increased. Free!-I had but escaped death in one form of agony. that gave to the spectral and fiendish portraitures an aspect that might have thrilled even firmer nerves than my own." about a man working inside a boiler who is trapped when someone. the mystery of the alteration in the chamber broke at once upon my understanding. There had been a second change in the cell-and now the change was obviously in the form. but of course in vain. to look through the aperture. These colors had now assumed. which thus appeared. This torture device is not only elaborate but fantastic. Amid the thought of the fiery destruction that impended. I had observed that. only a pit. My every motion was undoubtedly watched. 32 As I· arose from the attempt. extending entirely around the prison at the base of the walls. and once again I looked up. comprehends is annihilation. unconnected conjecture. At length it forced. it was in vain that I.-Oh! for a voice to speak!-oh! horror!oh! any horror but this! With a shriek. With that thought I rolled my eyes nervously around on the barriers of iron that hemmed me in. But not long was I left in doubt. about half an inch in width. 33 The room has truly taken on the aspect of Hell. shuddering as with a fit of the ague. For many minutes of a dreamy and trembling abstraction.The Pit and the Pendulum heart. where none had been visible before. to be delivered unto worse than death in some other. of the origin of the sulphurous light which illumined the cell. As before. 131 32 He apparently sees the light from' the furnace that heats the iron. "How to Write a Blackwood Article" mentions a tale entitled "The Involuntary Experimentalist. for a wild moment. glared upon me in a thousand directions. I threw my straining vision below. I busied myself in vain.34 it wrestled its way into my soul-it burned itself in upon my shuddering reason. but what he . I saw that two of its iron angles were now acute-two. I became aware. and were. not knowing of his presence. and were momentarily assuming. although the outlines of the figures upon the walls were sufficiently distinct. Demon eyes. 34 What he sees is. endeavored to appreciate or understand what was taking place. I could not appreciate distinctly-it was obvious. fires the thing up. I rushed from the margin. I panted! I gasped for breath! There could be no doubt of the design of my tormentors-ohl most unrelenting! oh! most demoniac of men! I shrank from the glowing metal to the centre of the cell. The Inquisitorial vengeance had been hurried by my two-fold escape. at first. a startling and most intense brilliancy. and buried my face in my hands-weeping bitterly. 33 Unreal/-Even while I breathed there came to my nostrils the breath of the vapour of heated iron! A suffocating odour pervaded the prison! A deeper glow settled each moment in the eyes that glared at my agonies! A richer tint of crimson diffused itself over the pictured horrors of blood. Something unusual-some change which. Yet. since heat would have to be provided on all four sides and somehow not interfere with the movement of the walls. at first. the idea of the coolness of the well came over my soul like balm. During this period. yet the colors seemed blurred and indefinite. and gleamed with the lurid lustre of a fire that I could not force my imagination to regard as unreal. of a wild and ghastly vivacity. for the first time. did my spirit refuse to comprehend the meaning of what I saw. of course. It proceeded from a fissure. The glare from the enkindled roof illumined its inmost recesses.

to be delivered into worse than death in some other." (P. 592) In Jungian analysis. its greatest width.' abandons him to the existential dilemma: the agony of the prostrate individual. It was that of General Lasalle. "Death. 25-26) 37 It is only when we think about it afterward that we realize that the sudden. . "Feeling. intellect. long. The Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies.. His arrival parallels the announcement of the Second Coming in Browning's Childe Hamid: "He that endureth to the end shall be saved. and the hero escapes the pendulum-but he escapes into a more restricted and horrible situation.. . However. but the agony of my soul found vent in one loud. Harry Levin sees the tale as an existential parable: "The hero is not less heroic because he suffers rather than acts. entered Toledo during the Peninsular War of 1808. charging that the moving walls are stolen from "The Iron Shroud. I shrank back-but the closing walls pressed me resistlessly onward. At length for my seared and writhing body there was no longer an inch offoothold on the firm floor of the prison." by William Mudford (Blackuiood's. There. pp. Through his feeling.. for no adjustment of the faculties can help him. could I withstand its pressure? And now. within the context of the tale. 'The Pit and the Pendulum. quite unlike Poe's. into the abyss. His climactic adventure. August 1830). and recoiling from both. Its centre. his intellect. came just over the yawning gulf. Even though the three faculties are perfectly unified when the glowing walls begin to close in. with a rapidity that left me no time for contemplation. obtuse. the pit or hole is seen as symbolic of the passage from temporal to nontemporal existence. "any death but that of the pit!" Fool! might I have not known that into the pit it was the object of the burning iron to urge me? Could I resist its glow? or. But the alteration stopped not h~re-I neither hoped nor desired it to stop. 1969. is indicativeof Poe's suppressed homosexual nature. His escape is "the supreme wishphantasy of Poe. and for Poe that is frightening merely because we do not 35 36 37 38 . accuses Poe of plagiarism. In an instant the apartment had shifted its form into that of a lozenge. He is completely limited in time. surrounded by watchful rats. 153-54) Marie Bonaparte sees Poe as heing caught between the male force (the pendulum) and the female (the pit). if even that. Vintage. " (James Lundquist. I could have clasped the red walls to my bosom as a garment of eternal peace. and which has visualized the ordeal of life itself-through the apprehensive eyes of Franz Kafkaas an arbitrary trial. an unjust imprisonment. he comprehends the predicament and wants to escape. It is typical of Griswold's obsessive degrading of Poe that he trumps up this criticism but says nothing about the countless other borrowings that can be found in Poe's works (all of which have been throughly reworked). sanity can no longer help the hero. His previous escapes have worsened his condition to the point where he gives up hope and yields at last. and of course. he was always to be tossed between these poles of his bisexuality with never a hope of escape. but there is no alternative left. This.' he says as he enters the third and most horrible crisis.. she says. and final scream of despair. seem worse than their alternatives: the pit or the pendulum. it works beautifully. the frying-pan versus the fire . 'I had but escaped death in one form of agony." The man who wants to enter Heaven must first go through Hell (or at least Purgatory) . The fearful difference quickly increased with a low rumbling or moaning sound. pp. The French army had entered Toledo. 36 The narrator would rather die by the red-hot walls than be cast into oblivion. 1958. Poe Newsletter. upon confrontation. flatter and flatter grew the lozenge. 35 Griswold. however. For Poe the will is constrained to choose between evils which." and he cannot enter the pit-the female sexual organ--either. I felt that I tottered upon the brink-I averted my eyes-There was a discordant hum of human voices! There was a loud blast as of many trumpets! There was a harsh grating as of a thousand thunders! The fiery walls rushed back! An outstretched arm caught my own as I fell. 38 General Antoine Chevalier Louis Colbert. and impelled toward a gaping abyss. nor is he less contemporary in an epoch which has so vastly multiplied the sentence of political imprisonment. fainting. Comte de Lasalle. the room is huilt of blocks that are removed a few at a time. He cannot let the scimitar "enter and split his heart-the scimitar replacing the phallus. in his memoir of Poe (1850). and his will. swift retreat of the walls-just in time to save the narrator-is impossible." (The Power of Blackness.132 The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe consequently. 2. I struggled no more. to lose once and for all his sole claim to existence. isolated and immobilized. and will function together." I said. for. threatened by an encroaching mechanism. in effect. and an unjustified condemnation.

Thus "The Pit and the Pendulum" can be read as a simple tale of terror.The Pit and the Pendulum 133 know what lies beyond. 234) Still another interpretation can be stated in purely Christian terms: only when the narrator admits that his predicament is beyond his power to escape. and surrenders himself completely to God. The ego will then find an inner power that contains all the possibilities of renewal. While physical death by the pendulum is terrifying. Yet the Jungian self does at least have a hope of saving itself: "Whenever a human being genuinely turns to the inner world. or as Christian allegory. Man and his Symbols. but by following the expressions of his own objective nature such as dreams and genuine fantasies-then sooner or later the Self emerges. can he be saved. a representation of the emergence of the self." (M. p. an unconscious reworking of Poe's ambivalent sexuality.-L. and tries to know himself-not by ruminating about his subjective thoughts and feelings. as symbolized by the pit. the death of the self. von Franz. . a parable of man's existence. Poe seems to offer something for everyone. is even more so.

Notes. and a Bibliography by STEPHEN PEITHMAN Doubleday & Company. New York 1981 .. lnc. Garden City.he nnotated Talesof LL Edited with an Introduction.

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