An unnamed narrator opens the story by revealing that he has been sentenced to death during the time of the Inquisition—an institution of the Catholic government in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spain that persecuted all Protestants and heretical Catholics. Upon receiving his death sentence, the narrator swoons, losing consciousness. When he wakes, he faces complete darkness. He is confused because he knows that the usual fate of Inquisition victims is a public auto-da-fé, or “act of faith”—an execution normally taking the form of a hanging. He is afraid that he has been locked in a tomb, but he gets up and walks a few paces. This mobility then leads him to surmise that he is not in a tomb, but perhaps in one of the dungeons at Toledo, an infamous Inquisition prison. He decides to explore. Ripping off a piece of the hem from his robe, he places it against the wall so that he can count the number of steps required to walk the perimeter of the cell. However, he soon stumbles and collapses to the ground, where he falls asleep.
Upon waking, the narrator finds offerings of water and bread, which he eagerly consumes. He then resumes his exploration of the prison, determining it to be roughly one hundred paces around. He decides to walk across the room. As he crosses, though, the hem that he ripped earlier tangles around his feet and trips him. Hitting the floor, he realizes that, although most of his body has fallen on solid ground, his face dangles over an abyss. To his dismay, he concludes that in the center of the prison there exists a circular pit. To estimate its depth, the narrator breaks a stone off the wall of the pit and throws it in, timing its descent. The pit, he believes, is quite deep, with water at the bottom. Reflecting upon his proximity to the pit, the narrator explains its function as a punishment of surprise, infamously popular with the Inquisitors. The narrator falls asleep again and wakes up to more water and bread. After drinking, he immediately falls asleep again and imagines that the water must have been drugged. When he wakes up the next time, he finds the prison dimly lit. He remarks that he has overestimated its size, most likely having duplicated his steps during his explorations.
The narrator discovers that he is now bound to a wooden board by a long strap wrapped around his body. His captors offer him some flavorful meat in a dish, but no more water. When he looks up, he notices that the figure of Time has been painted on the ceiling. Time, however, has been made into a machine, specifically a pendulum, which appears to be swinging back and forth. The narrator looks away from the ceiling, though, when he notices rats coming out of the pit and swarming around his food. When he returns his focus to the ceiling, he discovers that the pendulum is constructed like a scythe and is making a razor-sharp crescent in its descent toward him. Its progress, however, is maddeningly slow and in a trajectory directly over his heart. Even though he recognizes how dire the situation is, the narrator remains hopeful. When the pendulum gets very close to him, he has a flash of insight. He rubs the food from his plate all over the strap that is restraining his mobility. Drawn by the food, the rats climb on top of the narrator and chew through the strap. As the pendulum nears his heart, the narrator breaks through the strap and escapes from the pendulum’s swing. When he gets up, the pendulum retracts to the ceiling, and he concludes that people must be watching his every move.
The walls of the prison then heat up and begin moving in toward the pit. The narrator realizes that the enclosing walls will force him into the pit, an escape that will also mean his death. When there remains not even an inch foothold for the narrator, the walls suddenly retract and cool down. In his fear, however, the narrator has begun to faint into the pit. To his great surprise, though, a mysterious person latches onto him and prevents his fall. The French general Lasalle and his army have successfully taken over the prison in their effort to terminate the Inquisition.
“The Pit and the Pendulum” is distinct among Poe’s first-person narrations. Unlike the hypersensitive characters from other stories, such as Roderick in “The Fall of the House of Usher” or the narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” this narrator claims to lose the capacity of sensation during the swoon that opens the story. He thus highlights his own unreliability in ways that other narrators resist or deny. Upon describing his possible loss of sensation, though, the narrator of “The Pit and the Pendulum” proceeds to convey the sensory details that he previously claims are beyond him. The narrative pattern resembles that of other stories, such as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” to the extent that the narrator says and does the opposite of what he originally announces. This story diverges from the pattern, however, in that this narrator’s descriptions are more objectively valid—that is, less concerned with proving the narrator’s own sanity than with relaying and accounting for the elements of his incarceration. The story is also unusual among Poe’s tales because it is hopeful. Hope is manifest in the story not only in the rescue that resolves the tale, but also in the tale’s narrative strategy. The narrator maintains the capacity to recount faithfully and rationally his surroundings while also describing his own emotional turmoil. Unlike in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” for example, the burden of emotional distress does not hinder storytelling.
“The Pit and the Pendulum” also stands out as one of Poe’s most historically specific tales. Poe counteracts the placelessness of a story like “The Fall of the House of Usher” with the historical context of the Inquisition and its religious politics. This historical frame fills in for a personal history of the narrator. We do not know the specific circumstances of his arrest, nor are we given any arguments for his innocence or explanation for the barbarous cruelty of the Inquisitors. Poe’s description of the pendulum blade’s descent toward the narrator’s heart is extremely graphic, but Poe uses the portrayal of explicit violence to create a suspenseful story rather than to condemn the Inquisition. The tale suggests a political agenda only implicitly. Poe does not critique the ideological basis of the tale’s historical context. The narrative examines the physical and emotional fluctuations of the pure present, leaving historical and moral judgments to us. “The Pit and the Pendulum” is a traditional Poe story that breaks from Poe’s conventions: violent yet ultimately hopeful, graphic yet politically allusive.
In the 1840 preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, a collection of his short stories, Poe describes his authorial goal of “unity of design.” In “The Philosophy of Composition,” which was written three years after “The Pit and the Pendulum,” he proclaims that the ideal short story must be short enough to be read at a single sitting. Moreover, he argues that all elements of a work of fiction should be crafted toward a single, intense effect. These critical theories merge in “The Pit and the Pendulum”; this short tale ruminates, at every moment, on the horror of its punishments without actually requiring that they be performed. Stripped of extraneous detail, the story focuses on what horror truly is: not the physical pain of death, but the terrible realization that a victim has no choice but to die. Whether the narrator chooses to jump into the pit or get sliced in half by the pendulum, he faces an identical outcome—death.
The horror of this lack of choice is the effect for which everything in the story strives. The story, however, holds out hope by demonstrating that true resolve when what someone chooses to do seems most impossible. When threatened by the pendulum, the narrator does not succumb to the swooning of his senses. He recruits his rational capacities and uses the hungry rats for his own benefit. In this way, the narrator resembles a character like C. Auguste Dupin in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” who can separate himself from the emotional overload of a situation and put himself in a position to draw rational conclusions.