Study Guide

The Pit and the Pendulum Death

By Edgar Allan Poe


Yet not for a moment did I suppose myself actually dead. Such a supposition, notwithstanding what we read in fiction, is altogether inconsistent with real existence; – but where and in what state was I? The condemned to death, I knew, perished usually at the auto-da-fes, and one of these had been held on the very night of the day of my trial. (6)

Toward the beginning, our narrator questions both the notion of death in general <em>and</em> its usual presentation in fiction. Considering that what we're reading (Poe's story) is fiction, how should we interpret this?

To the victims of its tyranny, there was the choice of death with its direst physical agonies, or death with its most hideous moral horrors. I had been reserved for the latter. By long suffering my nerves had been unstrung, until I trembled at the sound of my own voice, and had become in every respect a fitting subject for the species of torture which awaited me. (13)

The narrator's captors are not simply executioners. They are philosophers too, intensely aware of the ways in which death – its whole process, from anticipation to fulfillment – works upon the psyche. We must wonder, though, why this particular, nutso mode of execution was chosen for our protagonist.

In other conditions of mind I might have had courage to end my misery at once by a plunge into one of these abysses; but now I was the veriest of cowards. Neither could I forget what I had read of these pits – that the <em>sudden</em> extinction of life formed no part of their most horrible plan. (14)

Here we see that the inquisitors' methods have already begun to take effect, turning our narrator into a coward and forcing him to acknowledge the fate that has been prepared for him.

The plunge into this pit I had avoided by the merest of accidents, and I knew that surprise or entrapment into torment formed an important portion of all the grotesquerie of these dungeon deaths. (22)

Here, again, we see our narrator coming to grips with his fate; it's as if we're watching him slowly put together the pieces of a puzzle.

The odour of the sharp steel forced itself into my nostrils. I prayed – I wearied heaven with my prayer for its more speedy descent. I grew frantically mad, and struggled to force myself upward against the sweep of the fearful scimitar. And then I fell suddenly calm and lay smiling at the glittering death as a child at some rare bauble. (23)

It's as if our narrator has gone into shock. On the brink of death, having reached the limit of madness, he reverts to an oblivious, child-like state.

It was <em>hope</em> that prompted the nerve to quiver – the frame to shrink. It was <em>hope</em> – the hope that triumphs on the rack – that whispers to the death-condemned even in the dungeons of the Inquisition. (28)

Perhaps there's some truth to the phrase "hope springs eternal." Because boy, if you have hope in this moment, you can have hope any time.

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