The aim of the torturers, the tomb-like dungeon and symbols in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

22 Pages, Grade: 2 (B)



1. Introduction

2. The aim of the torturers and how the victim defies them
2.1 The three lethal obstacles
2.2. Physical torture and death that never came about

3. The dungeon as a tomb
3.1. The will to live on and never give up
3.2. Being a victim of inquisition: dream or reality?

4. Symbols

5. Conclusion

Works cited


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1. Introduction

Edgar Allan Poe´s “The Pit and the Pendulum” was first published in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present (1843) and revised for publication in The Broadway Journal of 17 May 1845. Although by this time the Spanish Inquisition was officially over, the American public was still interested in such topics.

During the nineteenth century a fascination with death evolved. People were interested in gothic novels, were fascinated by horror stories, they loved tales that included elements of magic, supernatural and torture. This morbid fascination with death received its most intensive literary treatment at the hands of Edgar Allan Poe. In The Pit and the Pendulum Poe uses all the elements people were fond of: adventure, supernatural, horror, death, being helpless etc. He moves the sensibility of the reader and evokes a certain emotional reaction.

In this term paper I am going to concentrate on how Poe achieved a certain effect with his story. First I will take a closer look at the prisoner´s constant escapes, point out that most of these escapes are unbelievable and try to find out what the aim of his torturers might be. I will speculate on possibilities, what could have happened to the prisoner if he had made other choices during his stay in the dungeon. Then I will illustrate that there are certain parallels between a tomb and the dungeon in which the prisoner has to endure humiliation and agony, so the victim appears to be buried alive. Hope is the most important "property" he has, it seems as if nobody could take it away from him, and with the help of hope he survives his stay in the dungeon. Whether the story is based on a real or on a dream experience is pointed out shortly. Finally I will present and analyze the symbols that can be found in the story. These symbols underlie and develop the aforementioned theories further, it seems as if the prisoner is not only buried alive in a tomb, but he seems to be in hell already.

The individual elements of this short story can not be separated totally from each other, as these said elements often overlap. Sometimes, I feel, it is not possible to discuss something in full detail in one part of this work, as the same elements appear later again in another context, where the discussion can assume new and different aspects.

After the quotations from the short story itself, I will only give the number of the line or lines where it comes from.

Furthermore, besides books about the Spanish Inquisition, American literature and books on Poe´s work, I have also used Wörterbuch der Symbolik and The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary to round off my work. These books are a necessity for my work to explain not only certain words but also their symbolic meaning.

2. The aim of the torturers and how the victim defies

Right at the beginning of the short story, in the second sentence the reader gets to know about "[t]he sentence - the dread sentence of death" (251) which the narrator has to face. This is the last bit of the inquisitorial voices the narrator hears clearly, then they "seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum" (251). Interestingly, "they", (the judges, accusers, torturers, inquisitors) do not simply execute him, as if it would be usual after declaration of the sentence of death. Instead of this they start to torture him. Not physically but mentally.

Usually the Spanish inquisitorial tortured the victims physically to get them to talk and make a confession. In “The Pit and the Pendulum” the reader does not know anything about the past of the narrator, it is not clear whether the victim is guilty or not and whether he has to make a confession of any kind. In the eyes of the torturers the narrator is guilty, he has been sentenced to death but instead of executing him he has to undergo mental torture. The aim of the torturers is the death of the narrator, but they combine his execution with torture. The narrator realizes this shortly after he was put into his cell:

Was I left to perish of starvation in this subterranean world of darkness; or what fate, perhaps even more fearful, awaited me? That the result would be death, and a death of more than customary bitterness, I knew too well the character of my judges to doubt (255).

Keeping in mind that the reader does not know anything about the victim's past, the reason for what he has to suffer such agonies can only be explained by the sadistic intentions of the torturers. There is no logical reason to maltreat somebody who has been sentenced to death anyway, as sadism. Therefore the intention of the sadistic accusers is to keep the victim on tenterhooks and then kill him. It seems to be some kind of nasty game in the eyes of the torturers. They watch the victim suffering and they observe with much interest, how he tries to escape the dangers of possible death during his stay in the cell: the pit, the pendulum and the red hot iron walls.

2.1 The three lethal obstacles

Drei Hindernisse todbringender Art stellen sich dem Eingekerkerten entgegen. Ironischerweise überwindet er das erste, die Grube, gerade durch seine Schwäche, sein Stolpern und Fallen im rechten Augenblick. Beim Pendel hilft Ihm seine Überlegung. Es ist das einzige Hindernis, das er handelnd, jedoch nicht ohne die entscheidende Hilfe der Ratten, bezwingt. Beim dritten Mal siegt er nur duch seinen schwindenden passiven Wiederstand, wozu im kritischen Augenblick die Rettung von außen erfolgt. (Lubbers 1961: 105)

The nature of these "obstacles" clearly demonstrate the aim of the torturers: they want the victim to die, any of these obstacles could have caused the death of the victim. Interestingly enough the victim escapes every time. This enables the inquisitors to try out further methods of torture on the victim.

Lubbers describes the first escape of the victim to happen because of his "weakness" ("Schwäche"). The narrator intended to cross his cell in complete darkness, and in doing so, he "did not hesitate to step firmly" (256). The fact that "the remnant of the torn hem of [his] robe became entangled between [his] legs [, he] stepped on it, and fell violently on [his] face" (256) and therefore escaped the death of the pit, can clearly defined as "luck" and not as "weakness" (see also Peeples 1998:101). The fact that he stumbled at the exact right moment, so as to discover the pit but not to fall into it, was coincidence.

The narrator's clothes "had been exchanged for a wrapper of coarse serge" (255). When somebody who is terrified (and sentenced) to death tries to walk around in a complete dark dungeon, where "the ground [is] moist and slippery" (255) it deserves appreciation. Such a person's stumbling can not be devalued as weakness. He stumbled inadvertently, because he was forced to walk on a slippery ground, because he could not use one of the most important senses: his eyes, and because he was forced to wear other clothes but his own that did not fit him properly.

To be more exact, it was the torn hem of his robe that became entangled between his legs and finally saved his life. It was the narrator himself who "tore a part of the hem from the robe" (255) earlier in order to use it as a help to mark a place in the cell. So indirectly and unintentionally the narrator saved his own life by tearing a part of his robe, because later on the torn hem rescues him from falling into the pit. Theoretically the fact that the narrator was thinking logically (marking the cell with the torn part of his robe to calculate its size) saved his life for the first time. If he had not thought of measuring his cell and therefore had not torn a part from his robe, the remnant of the torn hem of his robe could not became entangled between his legs and could not have saved his life. This might be an interesting theory but because the narrator could not have known that the tearing was going to have such consequences the whole case with the hem can be seen as luck. But it is also an interesting coincidence.


Excerpt out of 22 pages


The aim of the torturers, the tomb-like dungeon and symbols in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum"
Martin Luther University  (Anglistics/American Studies)
Edgar Allan Poe
2 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
524 KB
Edgar, Allan, Pendulum, Edgar, Allan
Quote paper
Renate Bagossy (Author), 2004, The aim of the torturers, the tomb-like dungeon and symbols in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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