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Teaching Guide

Teaching The Pit and the Pendulum

Let the spookiness begin.

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"The Pit and the Pendulum" is classic Poe…which means it fills you with dread from the pit of your stomach to the ticking of your tell-tale heart. But teaching Poe doesn't have to fill you with that same dread.

In this guide you will find

  • an activity examining horrific images (related to the story; not like bad plastic surgery or anything).
  • a lesson about unreliable narrators (trust us).
  • additional resources about Gothic terminology, the historical context of the 1880s, and everyone's favorite science guy, Bill Nye.

And much more.

Our teaching guide won't torture you or your students, we promise.

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Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes for every chapter, act, or part of the text.
  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop's teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the text and how you can overcome the hurdles.

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Instructions for You

Objective:

Okay. There's a reason most courts these days reject testimony that arises from torture. And it's not just the human rights angle. When under duress, the mind can do all kinds of kooky things, including playing tricks.

The mind of our narrator is definitely under duress. He is trapped in a dungeon with a giant pit and a sharp, swinging pendulum, after all. Plus the rats. Still, he's our narrator, and we get the whole story from his perspective.

That brings up an interesting conundrum. If our storyteller is under a whole lot of stress, can we actually trust what he says? In other words, are we dealing with an unreliable narrator in "The Pit and the Pendulum"?

It's a fair question to ask, since Poe was famous for them. And that's just the question you'll pose to your students in this activity. First, they'll examine what makes someone—anyone, including a narrator—trustworthy. Then they'll apply that definition to "The Pit and the Pendulum"'s narrator, with the goal of thinking critically about what we can and can't know about what really goes down in this story.

Expect to spend about 45 minutes on in-class discussion, followed by a 60-minute homework assignment.

Materials Needed: Internet-capable computer, Shmoop handout

Step 1: First thing's first. In order to lay the groundwork for a discussion about the reliability of the narrator in "The Pit and the Pendulum," you'll have a brief discussion about trustworthiness in general with your students.

Start by writing the following questions on the board:

  • Whom do we trust? And how do we know we can trust them?

Then, pose this question to your students. As they answer, you might want to create a t-chart on the board, with the trustworthy folks on the left (folks like grandparents, ministers, teachers, siblings etc.), and the reasons to trust them on the right (they're authority figures, they're kind, they're honest, etc.). As your students brainstorm aloud, you might have them consider the following questions:

  • Do all these trustworthy people have something in common? Can we group them together in different ways?
  • Are the reasons they're trustworthy similar? How many different reasons can we come up with?
  • What might these people do to lose your trust?

As you wind down the discussion, transition the theme of trustworthiness back to the wonderful world of fiction. Narrators, just like friends and family, need to earn our trust. And if they don't, well that can make for some very interesting storytelling.

Step 2: The time has come at last to get real about the unreliable narrator of "The Pit and the Pendulum."

Start by reviewing the concept of the unreliable narrator. You might project Shmoop's definition of the term up on the board or read it aloud.

Then explain that Poe is famous for his unreliable narrators, the most famous of which is the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart." Click on over to Shmoop's analysis of the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart," and read your students the following quote:

Most Poe narrators are unreliable first person narrators. This doesn't necessarily mean they don't show up when they say they will, but rather that they either can't or won't tell us what really happened.

Now ask your students the following:

  • Would the narrator of "The Pit and the Pendulum" fall on our list of trustworthy folks? Or do you think he's an unreliable narrator?

As students talk it over, use the t-chart from Step 1 as a reference.

  • Does the narrator share any qualities with these trustworthy folks? If so, which ones? 
  • If he doesn't, what makes him untrustworthy?

In response to this last question, students might respond that our narrator leaves things out, he doesn't tell us his crime, and we never fully understand his rescue. Plus, he's under a ton of stress, so he might not be thinking too clearly.

Step 3: Using your students' answers to that last question as inspiration, in the next question, you'll have your students make a t-chart on their own. In the left column, they should list the reasons the narrator of "The Pit and the Pendulum" is unreliable. On the right, they'll rewrite a quote that supports that reason. Shmoop's got a handy-dandy handout for your students to work with, complete with an example, to get them started.

Step 4: As the final step, you and your students will pull this whole conversation together and do some creative and critical writing while they're at it.

For homework, students will now write a formal letter that defends the narrator of "The Pit and Pendulum," using one of two possible arguments. To get them started, give them the following prompt:

"You are an attorney from Toledo, Spain. Your newest case involves the narrator from "The Pit and the Pendulum," and you have to choose a side—defense or prosecution—and write an open letter to the court, pleading your case.

  • If you choose to be an attorney for the defense, you should plead insanity. In other words, your letter must argue that the narrator is, in fact, criminally insane, and is therefore unable to speak in his own defense, and should not be put to death.
  • If you choose to prosecute, you need to argue that this man is totally sane and reliable in the information he gives us, and therefore he should be put to death for his crimes.

In both cases, be sure to include plenty of evidence (that means quotes) from the story to prove your case. 1-2 pages, please."

Step 5: When your students hand those letters in, ask for some volunteers to share their cases. You should have at least one for the defense, and one for the prosecution. Which argument is more convincing?

Instructions for Your Students

Do you ever feel like you just can't trust someone? Maybe they're giving you the runaround, or they're leaving out some key information. Maybe they just don't seem to be thinking straight. No matter what it is, you just know you can't quite buy what they're selling.

Well, that can happen in fiction, too. And it happens in Poe all the time. In fact, Poe is famous for what are called unreliable narrators, and you can absolutely argue that the narrator of "The Pit and the Pendulum" is no exception.

Step 1: We've got a really big question for you:

  • Whom do we trust? And how do we know we can trust them?

To answer, let's create a t-chart on the board, with the trustworthy folks on the left (say, your grandma, or your sister, or your best friend etc.), and the reasons to trust them on the right (they're authority figures, they're kind, they're honest, etc.). As you and your classmates brainstorm away, you might ponder the following questions:

  • Do all these trustworthy people have something in common? Can we group them together in different ways?
  • Are the reasons they're trustworthy similar? How many different reasons can we come up with?
  • What might these people do to lose your trust?

Guess what? Narrators, just like friends and family, need to earn our trust. And if they don't, well that can make for some very interesting storytelling. That's something Poe knew well.

Step 2: The time has come at last to get real about the unreliable narrator of "The Pit and the Pendulum."

Just what is an unreliable narrator? Check out Shmoop's definition of the term. And then be sure to click on over to Shmoop's analysis of the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart." As you skim through it, zero in on the following quote:

Most Poe narrators are unreliable first person narrators. This doesn't necessarily mean they don't show up when they say they will, but rather that they either can't or won't tell us what really happened.

After reading that excerpt, here are a few key questions to discuss with your classmates:

  • Would the narrator of "The Pit and the Pendulum" fall on our list of trustworthy folks? Or do you think he's an unreliable narrator? 
  • Does the narrator share any qualities with these trustworthy folks? If so, which ones? 
  • If he doesn't, what makes him untrustworthy?

As you ponder these pickles, you might want to jot down a few notes. They'll come in handy come homework time.

Step 3: Using your answers to that last question as inspiration, its time to make your very own t-chart, using Shmoop's handy-dandy handout. In the left column, you'll jot down all the reasons the narrator of "The Pit and the Pendulum" is unreliable. On the right, rewrite a quote that supports that reason. There's even an example to get you started.

Step 4: Now that you've got this whole unreliable narrator concept under your belt, let's get creative for homework.

You are an attorney from Toledo, Spain. Your newest case involves the narrator from "The Pit and the Pendulum," and you have to choose a side—defense or prosecution—and write an open letter to the court, pleading your case.

  • If you choose to be an attorney for the defense, you should plead insanity. In other words, your letter must argue that the narrator is, in fact, criminally insane, and is therefore unable to speak in his own defense, and should not be put to death.
  • If you choose to prosecute, you need to argue that this man is totally sane and reliable in the information he gives us, and therefore he should be put to death for his crimes.

In both cases, be sure to include plenty of evidence (that means quotes) from the story to prove your case. 1-2 pages, please.

Step 5: When you hand your assignment in, you might want to volunteer to share your letter. As you and your classmates share letters for the defense and the prosecution, ask yourselves, which argument is more convincing?

WANT MORE HELP TEACHING THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM?

Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.

Intro    Summary    Themes    Quotes    Characters    Analysis    Questions    Quizzes    Flashcards    Best of the Web    Write Essay    
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