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).

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

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

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

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

I succeeded in dislodging a small fragment. is only that God's appointed time is not come. let no man of peace and freedom despair. "There is nothing that keeps wicked men." writes Ernest Renan in a memorable passage from Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse (1883). And the death just avoided. and annihilation. suggests that there is an appointed time. Another step before my fall. sulphurous lustre. as before. and upon awaking. both writers say. was of that very character which I had regarded as fabulous and frivolous in the tales respecting the Inquisition. and don't fall now. at anyone moment. His words could just as easily refer to Poe. I unclosed my eyes. By long suffering my nerves had been unstrung. under the terrible circumstances which environed me. but when. At the same moment there came a sound resembling the quick opening. needs nothing but his own weight to throw him down . and let it fall into the abyss. and then. and I emptied the vessel at a draught. Shaking in every limb. Agitation of spirit kept me awake for many long hours. of course. By a wild sulphurous lustre. or appinted time comes. psychological 15 The abyss is associated with nothingness. and the world had seen me no more. 17 17 Like the narrator of "A Descent into the Maelstrom. their foot shall slide . Writers after Poe have continued to use it in this manner. "An immense river of oblivion is sweeping us away into a nameless abyss. . but will let them go. before I became irresistibly drowsy. A burning thirst consumed me. 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. the objects around me were visible. For it is said. 14 Mental. By "wild. For many seconds I hearkened to its reverberations as it dashed against the sides of the chasm in its descent." Despite his Puritan theology. for scarcely had I drunk.. is a passive element in the universe. that when that due time. when he is let go he immediately falls and is lost. a loaf and a pitcher of water. and he awakens in something very much like Hell." it is this "wild interest in trifles" that saves him." Poe. The whole circuit of its walls did not exceed twenty-five yards.. I must then have been within a pace or two of the fragment of serge. The truth at length flashed upon me. 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. I must have returned upon my 125 13 when he does fall. The observation from the words that I would not insist upon is this. while a faint gleam of light flashed suddenly through the gloom. resolving there to perish rather than risk the terrors of the wells. As he that stands or walks on slippery ground. succeeded by loud echoes. without being thrown down by the hand of another.. but at length I again slumbered. out of Hell.The Pit and the Pendulum moment. is no Puritan. and congratulated myself upon the timely accident by which I had escaped. I saw clearly the doom which had been prepared for me. Found in a Bottle. . than the mere dimensions of my dungeon? But my soul took a wild interest in trifles. I had been reserved for the latter. once again. and President Kennedy in 1962 said. How long it lasted of course. The narrator escapes the pit-this time. I groped my way back to the wall. Man. not the red that one would expect of hellfire. Shea. kept from destruction only by the whim of God/Fate. the origin of which I could not at first determine. and had become in every respect a fitting subject for the species of torture which awaited me. . Groping about the masonry just below the margin. p. A deep sleep fell upon me-a sleep like that of death. up to the period when I fell. metaphysically ambitious correlative of the soul. he falls at once." the narrator alludes to the burning of sulfur (brimstone). as there is for the narrator of "MS. 1972. and as rapid closing of a door overhead. they shall fall into destruction. I then slept. of which my imagination now pictured many in various positions about the dungeon. but the mere pleasure of God. I had nearly performed the circuit of the vault. . but now I was the veriest of cowards. "However close we sometimes seem to that dark and final abyss. I found by my side. Edwards was a highly original thinker who moved "out from an intense and sometimes fatalistic subjectivity to construct a vast. at that very instant. in fact. at length there was a sullen plunge into water. For some minutes this fact occasioned me a world of vain trouble. [r. and I busied myself in endeavors to account for the error I had committed in my measurement. In its size I had been greatly mistaken. . Another thing implied is that they are liable to fall of themselves. Upon arousing. I was enabled to see the extent and aspect of the prison. and as suddenly faded away.. as he that stands in such slippery declining ground on the edge of a pit that he can't stand alone. In other conditions of mind I might have had courage to end my misery at once by a plunge into one of the abysses. chaos." 14 15 16 16 His sleep "like that of death" ends. 200). To the victims of its tyranny. . but if we substitute "fate" for "God"-or even Poe's concept of the Godhead-the similarities become clearer." says Daniel B. or death with its most hideous moral horrors. like Edwards. although that flame is usually blue and yellow. But Poe. I know not. . It must havebeen drugged. That the reason why they are not fallen already. until I trembled at the sound of my own voice. God won't hold them up in these slippery places any longer. in Major Writers of Early American Literature (Wisconsin. there was the choice of death with its direst physical agonies. vain indeed! for what could be of less importance. In my first attempt at exploration I had counted fifty-two paces. without warning .

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

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

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

was unique. 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. 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. would so detach it that it might be unwound from my person by means of my left hand. and of which a moiety only floated indeterminately through my brain when 28 I raised food to my burning lips. which enveloped me. in that case. and. I 27 was tied by no separate cord. glistening axe upon my bosom. my last hope frustrated. moreover. I so far elevated my head as to obtain a distinct view of my breast. The first stroke of the razor-like crescent athwart any portion of the band.The Pit and the Pendulum bandage. 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. as it seemed. 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. But how fearful. or surcingle. Scarcely had I dropped my head back into its original position. Illustration by Jules Descartes Ferat. nineteenth century . the proximity of the steel! The result of the slightest struggle how deadly! Was it likely.

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

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

The fearful difference quickly increased with a low rumbling or moaning sound. and which has visualized the ordeal of life itself-through the apprehensive eyes of Franz Kafkaas an arbitrary trial. upon confrontation. 592) In Jungian analysis. "Feeling. Harry Levin sees the tale as an existential parable: "The hero is not less heroic because he suffers rather than acts. and will function together. its greatest width. long. 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. the room is huilt of blocks that are removed a few at a time. an unjust imprisonment." (The Power of Blackness. This. Vintage. and his will. and recoiling from both. 2. threatened by an encroaching mechanism. His escape is "the supreme wishphantasy of Poe." and he cannot enter the pit-the female sexual organ--either. In an instant the apartment had shifted its form into that of a lozenge. For Poe the will is constrained to choose between evils which. swift retreat of the walls-just in time to save the narrator-is impossible. obtuse. 153-54) Marie Bonaparte sees Poe as heing caught between the male force (the pendulum) and the female (the pit). His previous escapes have worsened his condition to the point where he gives up hope and yields at last.. His climactic adventure.' abandons him to the existential dilemma: the agony of the prostrate individual. quite unlike Poe's. the frying-pan versus the fire . in effect. "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. There. . but the agony of my soul found vent in one loud. Its centre. it works beautifully. in his memoir of Poe (1850)..132 The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe consequently. accuses Poe of plagiarism. but there is no alternative left. Through his feeling. fainting. however. 'The Pit and the Pendulum. " (James Lundquist." by William Mudford (Blackuiood's. Comte de Lasalle. His arrival parallels the announcement of the Second Coming in Browning's Childe Hamid: "He that endureth to the end shall be saved. his intellect. August 1830).. 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). But the alteration stopped not h~re-I neither hoped nor desired it to stop. into the abyss. charging that the moving walls are stolen from "The Iron Shroud. Poe Newsletter. the pit or hole is seen as symbolic of the passage from temporal to nontemporal existence. to be delivered into worse than death in some other. 38 General Antoine Chevalier Louis Colbert. He cannot let the scimitar "enter and split his heart-the scimitar replacing the phallus. Even though the three faculties are perfectly unified when the glowing walls begin to close in. pp. he was always to be tossed between these poles of his bisexuality with never a hope of escape. with a rapidity that left me no time for contemplation. nor is he less contemporary in an epoch which has so vastly multiplied the sentence of political imprisonment. could I withstand its pressure? And now. 36 The narrator would rather die by the red-hot walls than be cast into oblivion. 'I had but escaped death in one form of agony. and the hero escapes the pendulum-but he escapes into a more restricted and horrible situation. entered Toledo during the Peninsular War of 1808." I said. I could have clasped the red walls to my bosom as a garment of eternal peace." (P. 1958. and final scream of despair. flatter and flatter grew the lozenge. came just over the yawning gulf. The French army had entered Toledo. he comprehends the predicament and wants to escape. At length for my seared and writhing body there was no longer an inch offoothold on the firm floor of the prison. and impelled toward a gaping abyss. she says. He is completely limited in time. I shrank back-but the closing walls pressed me resistlessly onward. However. 1969. and of course. .' he says as he enters the third and most horrible crisis. for. 25-26) 37 It is only when we think about it afterward that we realize that the sudden. sanity can no longer help the hero. 35 Griswold. pp. within the context of the tale. to lose once and for all his sole claim to existence. intellect. The Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies. "Death. is indicativeof Poe's suppressed homosexual nature.. surrounded by watchful rats. It was that of General Lasalle. seem worse than their alternatives: the pit or the pendulum. for no adjustment of the faculties can help him. and for Poe that is frightening merely because we do not 35 36 37 38 . I struggled no more." The man who wants to enter Heaven must first go through Hell (or at least Purgatory) . isolated and immobilized. if even that. and an unjustified condemnation.

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

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

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