Dark Origins – Nursery Rhymes, Fairytales and Stories: The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan PoePosted: January 25, 2023
I am kicking off Dark Origins 2023 with an analysis of the origins and historical accuracy of The Pit and the Pendulum. This short story by Edgar Allan Poe is set at the height of the Spanish Inquisition.
The story begins with the unnamed narrator being condemned to death. As the judges announce his fate, the narrator focuses on seven tall candles. The light of the candles initially appears to him like angels and he feels comforted. He is soon, however, overcome by horror at his fate and the candles disappear when he collapses into semi-consciousness.
When the narrator awakes, he is initially to scared to open his eyes. When he does open them, he finds himself in complete darkness and spends some time imagining the tortures of the Inquisition. After some time has passed, he musters the courage to start moving and tries to make sense of his surroundings by using his sense of touch. Falling asleep at one point during his navigation of the cell walls, he wakes up to find water and bread which he consumes. After completing his tour of the cell walls, he attempts to walk across the chamber and almost falls into a deep, circular pit. He discovers more bread and water and falls asleep again.
Awaking from his second sleep, he realises that his water is drugged and also that his prison is much smaller than he thought. He also discovers that the walls are made of metal and not stone and that he is now tied on his back to a piece of wood with only his left hand up to his left elbow free. He is very thirsty due to the salty food but the water pitcher has been removed. Looking up at the ceiling, the narrator sees a painting of Father Time holding a large and slow moving pendulum.
The narrator is distracted by rats scurrying about the floor of his prison and when he looks up thirty minutes later, he realised that the pendulum has a razor-sharp blade attached to it and it is moving down towards his body. The author’s intention with this depiction of Father Time holding a deadly weapon is to remind readers that we are all fighting against the clock which ticks steadily towards our inevitable ending.
The narrator devises a clever plan to escape death by being chopped by the pendulum which was designed to cut into his heart.
The pendulum is withdrawn from the room after his escape from his bonds and death by the pendulum, making it obvious that his torturers are watching his every move. The next torture is a mixture of heat and the walls closing around him and forcing him towards the pit. As death gallops towards him, he lets out a piercing scream and there is a blast of trumpets and the walls roll back. The narrator is rescued and the torture of the Inquisition is over.
The Pit and the Pendulum is about the torments endured by a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition. It is interesting that Poe made no attempt with this story to be historically accurate and there are three areas where his short story differed significantly from historical facts, as follows:
- The narrator’s rescuer – the narrator is rescued by General Lasalle who was a French cavalry general during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, in particular, the Peninsular War which took place between 1808 and 1814. The Spanish Inquisition was at its height between 1480 and 1530, centuries before this war. The detailed tortures described in Poe’s story have no historic parallels in the activity of the Spanish Inquisition at any time, and particularly not at the beginning of the 19th century when only four persons were condemned under this regime.
- The original source of the pendulum torture method is one paragraph in the preface of The history of the Inquisition of Spain published in 1826 by Spanish priest, historian and activist, Juan Antonio Llorente. The paragraph detailed the second-hand account by Llorente of the release of a single prisoner from the Inquisition’s Madrid dungeon in 1820. Llorente included a description by said prisoner of the pendulum torture method. This description has been dismissed as factually inaccurate by modern historians. It is believed that Llorente misunderstood what he heard and that the prisoner was actually referring to the strappado (garrucha), a common Inquisition torture in terms of which the prisoner’s hands are tied behind his back and he is hoisted of the floor by a rope tied to his hands. This method is also called the “pendulum”.
- Poe places a Latin epigraph (phrase, quotation or poem) before the story describing it as “a quatrain composed for the gates of a market to be erected upon the site of the Jacobin Club House (the Jacobin Club was the most influential political club during the French Revolution of 1789) at Paris”. Poe did not invent this epigraph as this inscription was composed with the intention of placing it on the site, but the market was not built as intended and did not have any gates and, thus, no inscription.
Poe’s intention with this short story appears to be to capture the horrors of confinement and torture and the terrible realization by the victim that he is going to die regardless of the choices he makes i.e. the pit or the pendulum. The Spanish Inquisition setting would thus appear to be merely a convenient setting for the tale. Consequently, Poe was not limited by historical accuracy with his descriptions of the torture chamber and methods or the rescue of his hero.
Quotes from The Pit and the Pendulum
The Pit and the Pendulum is one of the most famous of Poe’s works together with The Tell-Tale Heart, The Cask of Amontillado, The Fall of the House of Usher and the Masque of the Red Death.
Famous quotes from The Pit and the Pendulum are as follows:
“And then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave.”
“I call to mind flatness and dampness; and then all is madness – the madness of a memory which busies itself among forbidden things.”
“In death – no! even in the grave all is not lost. Else there is no immortality for man. Arousing from the most profound slumbers, we break the gossamer web of some dream. Yet in a second afterward, (so frail may that web have been) we remember not that we have dreamed.”
About Roberta Eaton Cheadle
Award-winning, bestselling author, Roberta Eaton Cheadle, is a South African writer and poet specialising in historical, paranormal, and horror novels and short stories. She is an avid reader in these genres and her writing has been influenced by famous authors including Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, Amor Towles, Stephen Crane, Enrich Maria Remarque, George Orwell, Stephen King, and Colleen McCullough.
Roberta has two published novels and has horror, paranormal, and fantasy short stories included in several anthologies. She and is also a contributor to the Ask the Authors 2022 (WordCrafter Writing Reference series).
Roberta also has thirteen children’s books and two poetry books published under the name of Robbie Cheadle, and has poems and short stories featured in several anthologies under this name.
Roberta’s blog features discussions about classic books, book reviews, poetry, and photography. https://roberta-writes.com/.
Find Roberta Eaton Cheadle
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