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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, first published in 1842 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, he discovers food and water nearby and explores the cell, learning that the perimeter of the chamber measures a hundred steps and trips on his robe while trying to cross the room, learning that he very narrowly avoided falling into a deep pit.

After losing consciousness again, the man finds himself strapped to a wooden frame on his back facing the ceiling, where a bladed pendulum is swinging back and forth and slowly descending, designed to eventually reach its victim and kill him. In a truly nailbiting sequence, the protagonist manages to escape just as the pendulum is going to slice into his chest. Then the pendulum retracts, 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 to film several times, including a 1961 film of the same name.

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

Any death but that of the tropes!

  • 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 more 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.
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    • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Fainting: The protagonist does this an awful lot during the story, the most prominent being when he is sentenced 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!"
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Spanish Inquisition: The main bad guys here, depicted in classic Black Legend style.
  • 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.


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