The Pit and the Pendulum
by Edgar Allan Poe
We really don't know much about our narrator. Yes, we know he's been sentenced to death and locked in a cell. We know he's more than a little bit, shall we say, unstable – but, then again, who wouldn't be in this situation? We know, too, that he's a bit of a philosopher – that he's able to think deeply about his experience.
Okay, so that's what we don't know. But think of all the things we don't know: namely, his name and why he's been locked away. That first bit of information – or lack of it – is simply disorienting. It's hard to relate to this guy when we don't even know what to call him. What's a bit more troubling is that we don't know the nature of his crime (or supposed crime). Did he even do it? Was it awful? Does he deserve what's coming to him? How can we sympathize with a character without knowing if he's innocent or guilty? This is a bit complicated.
Even though the trials and tribulations the narrator goes through are right there on the page, screaming for our attention, we have to do a little sleuthing if we want to figure out what makes this guy tick.
A good place to start is with his punishment: if his torture is unique and undeniably special, then, we must assume, he is himself unique and special. Our narrator gives us a clue while puzzling over his fate:
My cognizance of the pit had become known to the inquisitorial agents – the pit, whose horrors had been destined for so bold a recusant as myself – the pit, typical of hell and regarded by rumor as the Ultima Thule of all their punishments. (22)
Translation: whatever this guy did was pretty darn bad, because he's getting a punishment that's barely ever used. (If you want to really prove your literary dorkiness, bring this up at your next dinner party: the phrase ultima thule was coined by Virgil – it basically means the farthest reaches of the known world.) So yeah, our guy's a total rebel.
Now, in the Inquisition, people were punished (i.e. tortured and killed) for being heretics. This means they did, said, wrote, thought, or sneezed something that was anti-Catholic Church or anti-God. So can we assume that our narrator has done something blasphemous? That he's not a faithful Catholic man?
Well, not quite. If we look closely, he hasn't totally renounced his belief in God. As he writes early in the story, "…even in the grave all is not lost. Else there is no immortality for man" (3).
What, then, has gotten him in trouble with the Inquisition if he still believes in the afterlife? Perhaps it's precisely the thing that best defines his character: his ability to think deeply about issues of life and death, his ability to question, and his desire to understand. Even in the middle of all the horror, our narrator seeks to find fragments of truth. And during the Inquisition, that kind of mentality could get you into quite a bit of trouble.Timeline