Study Guide

The Pit and the Pendulum Versions of Reality

By Edgar Allan Poe

Versions of Reality

The sentence, the dread sentence of death, was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears. After that, the sound of the inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum. It conveyed to my soul the idea of <em>revolution</em>, perhaps from its association in fancy with the burr of a mill-wheel. This only for a brief period, for presently I heard no more. Yet, for a while, I saw, but with how terrible an exaggeration! I saw the lips of the black-robed judges. They appeared to me white – whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words – and thin even to grotesqueness; thin with the intensity of their expression of firmness, of immovable resolution, of stern contempt of human torture. (1)

Our narrator's thoughts are restless – he can't help but make associations. His inquisitors' voices become an "indeterminate hum" which becomes an <em>idea</em> of "revolution," an idea that is, itself, based on an analogy between sound and word. Confusing stuff, but then again, our narrator's a pretty confused guy.

I saw, too, for a few moments of delirious horror, the soft and nearly imperceptible waving of the sable draperies which enwrapped the walls of the apartment; and then my vision fell upon the seven tall candles upon the table. At first they wore the aspect of charity, and seemed white slender angels who would save me: but then all at once there came a most deadly nausea over my spirit, and I felt every fibre in my frame thrill, as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery, while the angel forms became meaningless spectres, with heads of flame, and I saw that from them there would be no help. (1)

Here, again, it's hard to tell if the narrator is just making a visual association – "the candles reminded me of angels" – or if he's actually hallucinating. Perhaps he's "seeing" the candles morph into angels and then, just as quickly, into "meaningless spectres." What do you think?

And then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave. The thought came gently and stealthily, and it seemed long before it attained full appreciation; but just as my spirit came at length properly to feel and entertain it, the figures of the judges vanished, as if magically, from before me; the tall candles sank into nothingness; their flames went out utterly; the blackness of darkness supervened; all sensations appeared swallowed up in a mad rushing descent as of the soul into Hades. Then silence, and stillness, and night were the universe. (1)

Poe creates a super vivid depiction of sound, thought, and sight. The thought of "sweet rest" comes into his mind like a musical note. In this case, though, the note resolves into nothing and nothingness. All of the narrator's perceptions are essentially weak and unstable; they are, in fact, able to be totally "swallowed up."

A fearful idea now suddenly drove the blood in torrents upon my heart, and for a brief period I once more relapsed into insensibility. Upon recovering, I at once started to my feet, trembling convulsively in every fibre. I thrust my arms wildly above and around me in all directions. I felt nothing; yet dreaded to move a step, lest I should be impeded by the walls of a <em>tomb</em>. (7)

In this case, the narrator is unwilling to or afraid of confronting reality; he's already come up with the worst case scenario. And while it might be nice to disprove his theory, he's equally afraid of having his suspicions confirmed.

How long it lasted of course I know not; but when once again I unclosed my eyes the objects around me were visible. By a wild sulphurous lustre, the origin of which I could not at first determine, I was enabled to see the extent and aspect of the prison.

In its size I had been greatly mistaken. The whole circuit of its walls did not exceed twenty-five yards. For some minutes this fact occasioned me a world of vain trouble; vain indeed – for what could be of less importance, under the terrible circumstances which environed me than the mere dimensions of my dungeon? But my soul took a wild interest in trifles, and I busied myself in endeavours to account for the error I had committed in my measurement. The truth at length flashed upon me… I had been deceived too in respect to the shape of the enclosure. In feeling my way I had found many angles, and thus deduced an idea of great irregularity, so potent is the effect of total darkness upon one arousing from lethargy or sleep! (15-16)

There is a sense of desperation in the narrator's thoughts here. To be so clueless, so totally "in the dark" about something so basic, is a frightening feeling. It makes us feel like we're dreaming, right?

These colours had now assumed, and were momentarily assuming, a startling and most intense brilliancy, that give to the spectral and fiendish portraitures an aspect that might have thrilled even firmer nerves than my own. Demon eyes, of a wild and ghastly vivacity, glared upon me in a thousand directions where none had been visible before, and gleamed with the lurid lustre of a fire that I could not force my imagination to regard as unreal.

Unreal! – Even while I breathed there came to my nostrils the breath of the vapour of heated iron! A suffocating odour pervaded the prison! A deeper glow settled each moment in the eyes that glared at my agonies! A richer tint of crimson diffused itself over the pictured horrors of blood. I panted. I gasped for breath! (36-37)

This is the moment when the narrator simply can't continue deceiving himself any longer. Even the most nightmarish aspects of his situation are real, and he has to deal with that fact whether or not he likes it.

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