Thursday, September 16, 2010

Poe's Inquisition Story: The Pit and the Pendulum

"The Pit and the Pendulum" is a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe and first published in 1842. The story is about the torments endured by a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition, though Poe skews historical facts. The narrator of the story describes his experience being tortured. The story is especially effective at inspiring fear in the reader because of its heavy focus on the senses, such as sound, emphasizing its reality, unlike many of Poe's stories which are aided by the supernatural. The traditional elements established in popular horror tales at the time are followed, but critical reception has been mixed.

Plot summary

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

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

After losing consciousness again the narrator discovers that the prison is slightly illuminated and that he is bound to a wooden board by ropes. He looks up in horror to see a painted picture of Father Time on the ceiling; hanging from the figure is a gigantic scythe-like pendulum swinging slowly back and forth. The pendulum is inexorably sliding downwards and will eventually kill him. However the condemned man is able to attract rats to his bonds with meat left for him to eat and they start chewing through the ropes. As the pendulum reaches a point inches above his heart, the prisoner breaks free of the ropes and watches as the pendulum is drawn back to the ceiling.

He then sees that the walls have become red-hot and begun moving inwards, driving him into the center of the room and towards the brink of the pit. As he gazes into the pit, he decides that no fate could be worse than falling into it. It is implied by the text that the narrator fears what he sees at the bottom of the pit, or perhaps is frightened by its depth. The exact cause of his fear is not clearly stated. However, as the narrator moves back from the pit, he sees that the red-hot walls are leaving him with no foothold. As the prisoner begins to fall into the pit, he hears human voices. The walls rush back and an arm catches him. The French Army has taken Toledo and the Inquisition is in the hands of its enemies.


Poe takes dramatic license with history in this story. The rescuers are led by Napoleon's General Lasalle (who was not, however, in command of the French occupation of Toledo) and this places the action during the Peninsular War, centuries after the height of the Spanish Inquisition and at a time when it had lost much of its power. The elaborate tortures of this story have no historic parallels in the activity of the Spanish Inquisition in any century, let alone the nineteenth. The Inquisition was, however, abolished during the period of French intervention (1808–13).

Poe places a Latin epigraph before the story, describing it as "a quatrain composed for the gates of a market to be erected upon the site of the Jacobin Club House at Paris." The epigraph was not Poe's invention; such an inscription had been reported, no later than 1803, as having been composed with the intention (possibly facetious) of having it placed on the site [1], and it had appeared, without attribution, as an item of trivia in the 1836 Southern Literary Messenger, a periodical to which Poe contributed [2].

It does not appear, however, that the market was ever built as intended. Charles Baudelaire, a noted French writer who translated Poe's works into French and who was largely inspired by him, said that the building on the site of the Old Jacobin Club had no gates and, therefore, no inscription.[3]


"The Pit and the Pendulum" is really a study of the effect terror has on the narrator,[4] starting with the opening line that suggests he is already suffering from death anxiety ("I was sick—sick unto death with that long agony") and, shortly thereafter, when he loses consciousness upon receiving the death sentence.[5] Such anxiety is ironic to the reader, who knows of the narrator's implicit survival: the text refers to the black-robed judges having lips "whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words", showing that he himself is writing the story after the events have happened.[6] What makes the story particularly effective at evoking terror is in its lack of supernatural elements; the action taking place is real and not imagined.[7] The "reality" of the story is enhanced through Poe's focus on sensation: the dungeon is airless and unlit, the narrator is subject to thirst and starvation, he is swarmed by rats, the closing walls are red-hot metal and, of course, the razor-sharp pendulum threatens to slice into the narrator.[8] The narrator experiences the blade mostly through sound as it "hissed" while swinging. Poe further emphasizes this with words like "surcingle," "cessation," "crescent," "scimitar," and various forms of sibilance.[9] "The Pit and the Pendulum" can be considered a serious re-telling of the satirical "A Predicament." In that story, a similar "scythe" slowly (and comically) removes the narrator's head. That action has been re-imagined with a pendulum preparing to slice through the narrator's chest.[10]


Poe was following an established model of terror writing of his day, often seen in Blackwood's Magazine (a formula he mocks in "A Predicament"). Those stories, however, often focused on chance occurrences or personal vengeance as a source of terror. Poe may have been inspired to focus on the purposeful impersonal torture in part by Juan Antonio Llorente's History of the Spanish Inquisition, first published in 1817.[11] It has also been suggested that Poe's "pit" was inspired by a translation of the Koran (Poe had referenced the Koran also in "Al Aaraaf" and "Israfel") by George Sale. Poe was familiar with Sale, and even mentioned him by name in a note in his story "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade." Sale's translation included commentary and, in one of those notes, refers to an allegedly common form of torture and execution by "throwing [people] into a glowing pit of fire, whence he had the opprobrious appellation of the Lord of the Pit." In the Koran itself, in Sura (Chapter) 85, "The Celestial Signs," a passage reads: "...cursed were the contrivers of the pit, of fire supplied with the fuel... and they afflicted them for no other reason, but because they believed in the mighty, the glorious God."[12] Poe is also considered to have been influenced by William Mudford's The Iron Shroud, a short story about an iron torture chamber which shrinks through mechanical action and eventually crushes the victim inside.[13] Poe apparently got the idea for the shrinking chamber in the "Pit and the Pendulum" after Mudford's story was published in Blackwood's magazine in 1830.[14][15][16]

Publication and response

"The Pit and the Pendulum" was included in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present for 1843, published by Carey and Hart. It was slightly revised for a republication in the May 17, 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal.[17]

William Butler Yeats was generally critical of Poe, calling him "vulgar." Of "The Pit and the Pendulum" in particular he said, "[it does] not seem to me to have permanent literary value of any kind... Analyse the Pit and the Pendulum and you find an appeal to the nerves by tawdry physical affrightments."[18]


Film and television

Several film adaptations of the story have been produced, including the early French language film Le Puits et le pendule in 1909 by Henri Desfontaines. The first English language adaptation was in 1913, directed by Alice Guy Blanche.[19]
The 1961 film The Pit and the Pendulum directed by Roger Corman starring Vincent Price and Barbara Steele, like the other installments in the Corman/Price "Poe Cycle," bears minimal resemblance to the Poe story: the torture apparatus of the title makes its appearance only in the final 10 minutes of the film.
In 1983, Czech Surrealist Jan Švankmajer directed a 15-minute short film called The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope, based on this story and the short story "A Torture by Hope" by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. It is a fairly faithful adaptation of both stories, featuring a unique first-person camera perspective and segments of Švankmajer's trademark stop-motion and cut-out animation (in an otherwise live action film). Most of the art design was done by his wife, Eva Švankmajerová
In 1991 a film version of the story, directed by Stuart Gordon and starring Lance Henriksen, was released. The plot was altered to a love story set in Spain in 1492.
In 2006 a stop-motion animated version of the story "The Pit and the Pendulum" was completed under the 'Ray Harryhausen Presents' banner. The film was executively produced by Ray Harryhausen and Fred Fuchs, directed by Marc Lougee, produced by Susan Ma and Marc Lougee, and funded by Bravo!FACT.[20]
The 2007 Nightwish album Dark Passion Play includes a song inspired by "The Pit and the Pendulum." It's called "The Poet and the Pendulum." Nightwish songwriter Tuomas Holopainen said it's his favorite Nightwish song.
The 2009 horror film directed by David DeCoteau bears little resemblance to the original story but, like the 1961 version, utilizes the large swinging pendulum in the penultimate scene. The film follows a group of university students who visit a hypnotherapy institute lorded over by a sinister hypnotist who wants to use the students to experiment with the possibility of breaking the pain threshold.


3.^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001. ISBN 081604161X p. 188-9
4.^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. p. 359. ISBN 0801857309
5.^ Kennedy, J. Gerald. Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing. Yale University Press, 1987. p. 53. ISBN 0300037732
6.^ Kennedy, J. Gerald. Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing. Yale University Press, 1987. p. 32. ISBN 0300037732
7.^ Fisher, Benjamin F. "Poe and the Gothic Tradition" as collected in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, Kevin J. Hayes, ed. Cambridge, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002. p. 84 ISBN 0521797276
8.^ Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991. p. 204 ISBN 0060923318
9.^ Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991. p. 206 ISBN 0060923318
10.^ Goddu, Teresa A. "Poe, sensationalism, and slavery", as collected in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, Kevin J. Hayes, ed. Cambridge, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002. p. 104 ISBN 0521797276
11.^ Alterton, Margaret. "An Additional Source for Poe's 'The Pit and the Pendulum'" from Modern Language Notes, Vol. 48, No. 6 (Jun., 1933), p. 349
12.^ Murtuza, Athar. "An Arabian Source for Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" from Poe Studies, vol. V, no. 2, December 1972, p. 52
13.^ The Iron Shroud from Project Gutenberg
14.^ Online Biography of William Mudford from the Dictionary of Literary Biography hosted by BookRags p. 2
15.^ Oxford Journals Critique of William Mudford Notes and Queries July 31, 1943 p. 83
16.^ Title The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, and Related Tales The world's classics Oxford World's Classics Author Edgar Allan Poe Editor J. Gerald Kennedy Edition reissue, illustrated Publisher Oxford University Press, 1998 ISBN 0192837710, ISBN 9780192837714 Length 336 pages Quote: "Explanatory Note #254: Poe apparently got the idea for his shrinking chamber from an 1830 Blackwood's story titled the 'Iron Shroud'"
17.^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001. ISBN 081604161X p. 188
18.^ Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1992. ISBN 0815410387 p. 274
19.^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001. ISBN 081604161X p. 189
20.^ 2006 stop motion short film The Pit and the Pendulum

Edgar Allan Poe's The Pit And The PendulumThe Pit and the PendulumThe Pit and the PendulumThe Fall of the House of Usher /The Pit and the Pendulum

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