In “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Poe uses hellish visuals to portray the irony of religious justification for torture and death. His unnamed protagonist first describes his physical response to the “inquisitorial voices” sentencing him to death. His senses fail him before he falls into a mild hallucinatory state, at which time one must consider the possibility that Poe is using his common tool, the unreliable narrator. This works to the benefit of the story, however, allowing one to regard the entire work as an opinion piece.
The narrator describes,
I saw, too, for a few moments of delirious horror, the soft and nearly imperceptible waving of the sable draperies which enwrapped the walls of the apartment; and then my vision fell upon the seven tall candles upon the table. At first they wore the aspect of charity, and seemed white slender angels who would save me: but then all at once there came a most deadly nausea over my spirit, and I felt every fibre in my frame thrill, as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery, while the angel forms became meaningless spectres, with heads of flame, and I saw that from them there would be no help.
The narrator falls into a fugue state, which he can only compare to death. Poe writes,
I had swooned; but still will not say that all of consciousness was lost. What of it there remained I will not attempt to define, or even to describe; yet all was not lost. In the deepest slumber -- no! In delirium -- no! In a swoon -- no! In death -- no! Even in the grave all was not lost. Else there is no immortality for man. Arousing from the most profound of slumbers, we break the gossamer web of some dream. Yet in a second afterwards (so frail may that web have been) we remember not that we have dreamed.
The narrator, upon gaining full consciousness, finds himself in a pitch-black dungeon, which he describes as difficult to gauge in shape and dimension. This, of course, works as a parallel to the indeterminate size and shape of our universe (which remained an enigma at the time of this story’s creation), his imprisoned world suddenly reduced to the same level of uncertainty. He clarifies the nature of his prison, however, after again falling unconscious and waking to find the dungeon lit just enough for him to gauge his surroundings. He describes it as “a wild sulphurous luster” with an “origin of which [he] could not at first determine.” By describing the vague light source as having “a wild sulphurous luster,” he incorporates sensations most often associated with Hell, and by adding that the origin was one “of which [he] could not determine,” he makes clear the ethereal ekphrasis intended.
When Poe introduces the pendulum, he provides an interconnection between time and death, insinuating the finiteness of all life. He describes the pendulum as “a painted figure of Time as he is commonly represented, save that in lieu of a scythe he held as a casual glance I supposed to be the pictured image of a huge pendulum, such as we see on antique clocks.” By meshing the traditional images of (pendulum) and death (scythe), he alludes to the association between the two; both are inescapable and both play against one another in the eventual mortality of all humans. Many attempt to diffuse their fears over the two through faith, but again, perception and reality do not always go hand in hand.
Poe further alludes to this connection when his narrator describes, “there had been no perceptible descent in the pendulum.” Like watching a child grow or a person age, the perception is not one that can be viewed in one moment to the next. One might as well attempt to watch the grass grow. Old age creeps upon us all, and youth falls to the wayside before it can be fully appreciated. Death, as inevitable as it is, often seems distant until nearly the moment it strikes. Most of us think little about our mortality, or the finality that may come with death, until we’re forced to, as Poe’s narrator exemplifies, “For the first time during many hours, or perhaps days, I THOUGHT.” It isn’t until the pendulum has nearly reached him that he is able to ponder both its implications and his possible escape.
Poe returns to allusions of the battles resulting from the Inquisition when he brings the rats inhabiting the dungeon to the forefront. The narrator describes,
I had not counted in vain upon their voracity. Observing that I remained without motion, one or two of the boldest leaped upon the frame-work and smelt at the surcingle. This seemed the signal for a general rush. Forth from the well they hurried in fresh troops. They clung to the wood, they overran it, and leaped in hundreds upon my person.
I had scarcely stepped from my wooden bed of horror upon the stone floor of the prison, when the motion of the hellish machine ceased and I beheld it drawn up by some invisible force through the ceiling. This was a lesson which I took desperately to heart. My every motion was undoubtedly watched. Free! I had but escaped death in one form of agony to be delivered unto worse than death in some other.
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When the torturers are finally revealed, the narrator describes “Demon eyes, of a wild and ghastly vivacity, glar[ing] …in a thousand directions where none have been visible before, and gleamed with a lurid luster of a fire that I could not force my imagination to regard as unreal.” The description here is more ethereal than it is earthly, turning men into demons, meshing the imagined with inescapable reality. Those trusted with the position of punishing the condemned are no better than those deemed the heathens they have sentenced; human and demon become one in the same. Poe ensures his message is clear by describing his torturers as “most demoniac of men,” and by transforming the stone walls of the narrator’s prison as “burning iron” ever closing in on his protagonist.
When he rouses from his imagined hell, the protagonist realizes “the fiery walls rushed back” and he is still on the battlefield, fighting alongside General Lasalle of the French army, driving those fighting for the Inquisition into submission. This reversal of roles here is key to the story. By shifting the narrator’s hell into reverie, Poe merely shows that he portrays one side of a complicated story. More importantly, he illustrates the atrocities that might exist due to something as menial as a difference in belief. The enemy is always the demon, and his domain is always Hell, and it is only human nature to dehumanize he whom one currently fights against.
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