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.