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Literature / The Pit and the Pendulum

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Impia tortorum longas hic turba furores
Sanguinis innocui, non satiata, aluit.
Sospite nunc patria, fracto nunc funeris antro,
Mors ubi dira fuit vita salusque patent.

"The Pit and the Pendulum" is a classic short story by Edgar Allan Poe, originally published in the 1842 anthology The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present for 1843 and subsequently revised in 1845 for the Broadway Journal.

The story is about a man who is brought to trial by The Spanish Inquisition. We do not learn this man's name or what he is being charged with, but it isn't long before he's found guilty of the unnamed crime and condemned to death, after which he promptly faints and awakens in what is soon revealed to be a cell. After fainting again, the man discovers food and water nearby and explores the cell, learning that the perimeter of the chamber measures a hundred steps. While crossing the room he trips on his robe and just barely avoids falling into a deep pit.

After losing consciousness again, the man wakes to find himself strapped to a wooden frame on his back and facing the ceiling, from which a bladed pendulum is swinging back and forth and slowly descending, designed to eventually reach its victim and kill him. In a truly nail-biting sequence, the protagonist manages to free himself just as the pendulum is going to slice into his chest. Then the pendulum retracts, but the walls become red-hot and begin to close in, forcing him toward the center of the room and the pit. As he loses his last foothold and starts to fall into the pit, he is rescued by French soldiers who have captured the city of Toledo and rounded up the forces of the Inquisition.

The story has been adapted for the screen several times, including on film in 1961 and 1991.

Since it's now in the public domain, you can read the story here.

Any death but that of the tropes!

  • Action Survivor: The main character can't do much, but he stills succeeds to hang on until he's saved.
  • Anything but That!: As the walls close in and get hotter, the narrator exclaims, "any death but that of the pit!"
  • Artistic License – History: Poe made no attempt to accurately describe the operations of the Spanish Inquisition, and took considerable dramatic license with the history that was premised in this story.
    • It should probably go without saying that the Spanish Inquisition, despite their reputation as one of the most ruthless Inquisitions of the Catholic Church, never employed the kind of devious Death Traps depicted here to execute those they found guilty of heresy - you were more likely to be turned over to the secular authorities for punishment or burned at the stake than to face the chamber of horrors the protagonist found himself in.
    • The rescue of the protagonist by the French puts the story in the period of the Peninsular War of 1807-14, centuries after the Inquisition's height. Though the Peninsular War spelled the end of the Inquisition in Spain, only four people were condemned to death by the Inquisition during that period. In addition, the leader of the protagonist's rescuers in the story, General Lasalle, never took part in the occupation of Toledo during that period.
    • The epigraph, the quote on top of this page, is said to have been intended for a market to be erected on the site of the Jacobin Club House in Paris, a market which never did get builtnote . According to Charles Baudelaire, a French poet who was very much inspired by Poe, the building on the site of the Old Jacobin Club had no gates and, therefore, no inscription.
  • Broken Tears: The narrator bursts into tears when he realizes what is in the well. He can't even bring himself to describe it.
  • The Cavalry: The protagonist is saved at literally the last moment by French soldiers who have captured Toledo.
  • Death Trap: This story may well be the Trope Maker - featuring, among other nasty things, a Descending Ceiling, Closing Walls and a Bottomless Pit.
  • Denied Food as Punishment: It's implied that the narrator starves since a while, and at one point he's deprived of water.
  • Deus ex Machina: The ending is very abrupt. Our hero is seconds away from falling into the pit when all of a sudden he hears the sounds of trumpets! The walls cool off and rush back and he is saved by members of the French army, who have taken Toledo and captured the members of the Inquisition.
  • Downer Beginning: We open the narration with a sick, traumatized main character who faints from shock and exhaustion when he learns he's condemned to death.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: The narrator is rescued at the end.
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: Let's see: a pit that you can't see in the dark, a giant pendulum, closing walls that burn you...
  • Fainting: The protagonist faints an awful lot during the story. This is understandable, because he's ill, exhausted, and facing the stress of a horrific death trap of a cell. And his captors may have drugged his food and water.
  • Faint in Shock: The unnamed protagonist faints when he learns that he's been condemned to death.
  • Fate Worse than Death: The narrator considers falling into the pit a much worse punishment than burning to death on the red-hot iron walls.
    "Death," I said, "any death but that of the pit!"
  • Foregone Conclusion: There are several reminders through the story that the narrator is writing the story and tries to remember the best he can what happened to him. We know he survived and got away since the very beginning.
  • Guile Hero: Downplayed since the main character has a hard time thinking due to his terror and his poor health, but he still manages to use his wits to survive.
  • Hope Spot: The narrator escaped the pendulum and he's freed himself! And then the walls start closing in.
  • Hope Springs Eternal: So you're bound under a giant pendulum which is about to cut you in half, there is no escape, and you're shaking with fear. Your conclusion is...? Why, that if you tremble, it means you still want to live, of course. Hope lives on. And thinking about it, there might be a chance of survival after all...
    The Narrator: It was hope that prompted the nerve to quiver — the frame to shrink. It was hope — the hope that triumphs on the rack — that whispers to the death-condemned even in the dungeons of the Inquisition.
  • Just in Time: Twice: the rats allow the narrator to escape just before the pendulum was going to cut him in half, and The Cavalry arrives just when the main character was about to fall into the pit.
  • Malevolent Architecture: And that's putting it mildly.
  • Never Trust a Title: Despite both major traps sharing double billing, it's the pendulum that everyone remembers. If the pit wasn't in the title, some people probably wouldn't know it was a plot point at all. Ironic since the narrator is much more afraid of the pit and considers the pendulum to be “a milder death”.
  • Nervous Wreck: We can hardly blame the narrator to be one.
  • No Name Given: The narrator remains unnamed.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: We never do find out what's in the pit. All we get is a vague description of a "decayed fungus" smell and some barely-visible gritty water.
  • Pendulum of Death: This story is the Trope Maker for this particular Death Trap.
  • Primal Fear: Where to begin: the fear of the dark, of the emptiness, of being buried alive, of dying and being helpless to stop it, of the unknown, of being crushed by closing walls, and so on.
  • Sanity Slippage: The narrator has one as he's forced to watch the pendulum which is going to kill him descending very slowly. He gets better.
  • Sinister Surveillance: The narrator knows he's being watched and every move of his is tracked.
  • The Spanish Inquisition: The main bad guys here, depicted in classic Black Legend style.
  • Swarm of Rats: They look menacing at first, but they actually play a big part in saving the narrator.
  • The Walls Are Closing In: Once he's escaped by having some rats chew through his bonds, the protagonist is not out of the woods yet, as this trope proves.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The narrator is honest and tries so very hard to understand what is happening, but his senses failing him make him this.
  • You Wake Up in a Room: We know that the narrator has been arrested and condemned to death by the Inquisition, but we never learn why. When waking up, he finds himself engulfed in total darkness and he has no idea where he is or why he's here.