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Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1843). Impia tortorum longos hic turba furores Sanguinis innocui, non satiata, aluit. Sospite nunc patria, fracto nunc funeris antro, Mors ubi dira fruit via salusque patent.
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Impia tortorum longos hic turba furores Sanguinis innocui, non satiata, aluit. Sospite nunc patria, fracto nunc funeris antro, Mors ubi dira fruit via salusque patent. Here an unholy crowd of torturers cherish long, mad desires for innocent blood, they could never be satisfied. Now the country is saved, now the cave of death has been broken, and where terrible death was, life and safety lie open. (Quatrain composed for the gates of a market to be erected upon the site of the Jacobin Club House at Paris.”)
1. An unnamed narrator. Sentence of death The Inquisition—an institution of the Catholic government in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spain. Persecuted all Protestants and heretical Catholics. Narrator faints.
Complete darkness. Confusion of the senses Usual fate of Inquisition victims is a public auto-da-fé, or “act of faith” (i.e., hanging). Dungeons at Toledo, an infamous Inquisition prison.
10. Exploration of the “tomb” Sleep. Water and Bread The abyss
14. Punishment of surprise, infamously popular with the Inquisitors. 15.The narrator falls asleep again and wakes up to more water and bread. 16. Drugged water. 17. When he wakes up the next time, he finds the prison dimly lit.
18. Bound to a wooden board by a long strap wrapped • around his body. • Meat in a dish, but no more water. • The figure of Time has been painted on the ceiling. • A pendulum, scythe swinging back and forth.
22. Rats • Rats break him free before he is killed • by the pendulum. • 24. People must be watching his every move.
25. The walls of the prison then heat up and • begin moving in toward the pit. • With a inch foothold the walls suddenly retract and cool down. • The narrator has begun • to faint into the pit.
28. The French general Lasalle and his army save him before he falls into the pit. Here an unholy crowd of torturers cherish long, mad desires for innocent blood, they could never be satisfied. Now the country is saved, now the cave of death has been broken, and where terrible death was, life and safety lie open.
Uniqueness of “The Pit and the Pendulum” • “The Pit and the Pendulum” is distinct among Poe’s first-person narrations. • This narrator claims to lose the capacity of sensation during the swoon that opens the story.
The story is also unusual among Poe’s tales because it is hopeful. • Hope is manifest in the story not only in the rescue that resolves the tale, but also in the tale’s narrative strategy.
The narrator maintains the capacity to recount faithfully and rationally his surroundings while also describing his own emotional turmoil. • We do not know the specific circumstances of his arrest, nor are we given any arguments for his innocence or explanation for the barbarous cruelty of the Inquisitors.
The tale suggests a political agenda only implicitly. Poe does not critique the ideological basis of the tale’s historical context. • The narrative examines the physical and emotional fluctuations of the pure present, leaving historical and moral judgments to us.
In the 1840 preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, a collection of his short stories, Poe describes his authorial goal of “unity of design.” • In “The Philosophy of Composition,” which was written three years after “The Pit and the Pendulum,” he proclaims that the ideal short story must be short enough to be read at a single sitting.
Moreover, he argues that all elements of a work of fiction should be crafted toward a single, intense effect. These critical theories merge in “The Pit and the Pendulum”; this short tale ruminates, at every moment, on the horror of its punishments without actually requiring that they be performed.
Stripped of extraneous detail, the story focuses on what horror truly is: not the physical pain of death, but the terrible realization that a victim has no choice but to die. Whether the narrator chooses to jump into the pit or get sliced in half by the pendulum, he faces an identical outcome—death.
The horror of this lack of choice is the effect for which everything in the story strives. The story, however, holds out hope by demonstrating that true resolve when what someone chooses to do seems most impossible. When threatened by the pendulum, the narrator does not succumb to the swooning of his senses.
He recruits his rational capacities and uses the hungry rats for his own benefit. In this way, the narrator resembles a character like C. Auguste Dupin in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” who can separate himself from the emotional overload of a situation and put himself in a position to draw rational conclusions.