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Michael J. Cummings...©
Latin Quotation Preceding the Story
longas hic turba furores
||Here the wicked mob, unappeased,
non satiata, aluit
||long cherished a hatred
of innocent blood.
|Sospite nunc patria, fracto
nunc funeris antro,
||Now that the fatherland
is saved, and the cave of death demolished;
|Mors ubi dira fuit, vita
||where grim death has been,
life and health appear.
unnamed narrator laments that he is “sick unto death" after agents of the
Spanish Inquisition in Toledo used torture while questioning him. When
they unbind him, they allow him to sit while robed judges sentence him
to death. Thereafter he cannot make out what they are saying; he can hear
only a low hum while their lips move with “immoveable resolution."
the apartment where he sits, the slight movement of the black draperies
unnerves him, but seven burning candles hearten him, like rescuing angels,
until nausea overcomes him as he realizes the hopelessness of his predicament.
He begins to long for the “sweet rest there must be in the grave." Suddenly,
the judges disappear, the candles go out, and darkness and stillness prevail.
had passed out, he says. When he awakens, he remembers that tall figures
had carried him down to a place of flatness, dampness, and madness. He
is lying on his back in darkness, wondering where he is—in a dungeon to
await public execution? On the very day of his trial, an execution had
taken place. Rising, he feels around in all directions, perspiring heavily
from fear, and looks for a single ray of light. But there is only the darkness.
He recalls ghastly stories about the fates of Inquisition victims held
in Toledo dungeons. Would he be starved to death—or worse? This much he
could be sure of: Death awaited him. His hands find a wall. He wanders
around the dungeon on its wet, slippery floor, feeling as he goes and calculating
distances, to determine the size and layout of the place. After he stumbles
and falls, he does not get up but instead falls asleep.
he awakens, he finds bread and water next to him. He eats and drinks eagerly.
Then he resumes walking and feeling, determining that the perimeter of
his cell measures 50 yards. Such information holds no hope of benefiting
him, but out of curiosity he continues to find out more. While walking
around the cell, he again loses his footing on the slimy floor and falls,
ending up at the edge of a circular pit. When he gropes at the edge, a
loose rock tumbles into the chasm, sending back echoes after it strikes
walls and splashes into water. A door opens and closes overhead, admitting
light to the cell for a few seconds.
narrator is now extremely anxious; even the sound of his own voice frightens
him. He crawls back to a wall and remains there, fearing that there could
be other pits in the dungeon. After several hours, he falls asleep again.
Upon awakening, he again finds bread and water. Terribly thirsty, he gulps
down the water. When he feels suddenly drowsy, he assumes the water contained
a drug. He sleeps a long time. When he wakes up, a sulfurous light enables
him to see his chamber, which is only about half as big as he thought.
He attributes his error in calculating its size to unwittingly counting
his steps twice. Also, contrary to his earlier conclusion that his cell
had an irregular shape, he discovers that it is square. He also discovers
that the walls are made of iron plates, not masonry. On the walls are frightful
sights: “Figures of fiends in aspects of menace, with skeleton forms, and
other more really fearful images. . . ." In the center of the floor is
the pit—as it turns out, the only one in the cell.
he observes his surroundings, the narrator is lying strapped to a board
so that he can move only his head and his left arm, which he uses to eat
food from a dish set next to him. Because the food is highly salted, he
becomes very thirsty. But this time, there is no water provided to quench
ceiling of the cell is extremely high, between 30 and 40 feet. On it he
sees a personified painting of Time. But instead of holding a scythe, as
in the traditional depictions, Time is holding a pendulum like the ones
on clocks. Something strange then happens: The pendulum begins to swing
slowly. The narrator becomes frightened at first, but then loses interest
in the sight and shifts his attention elsewhere—in particular to huge rats
coming up from the pit, apparently after detecting the presence of the
narrator through their keen sense of smell.
required much effort and attention to scare them away," the narrator says.
again looks up and notices that the pendulum is descending and sweeping
back and forth at a great speed. The bob of the pendulum is a crescent
blade of gleaming steel. As the pendulum swings, it makes a hissing sound.
For many hours—for many days—the pendulum descends, getting so close that
the narrator can feel it fanning him and smell the odor of the steel. Suddenly,
he becomes calm and accepts his fate.
he faints. When he opens his eyes, he has no idea how long he has been
unconscious. However, the pendulum has descended no further. Raging
hunger overcomes him, and he snatches up a morsel left by the rats. For
a moment, he becomes hopeful.
the pendulum resumes its descent. It is aimed at his heart. When it is
three inches above him, he struggles violently. Then he has new hope: Would
the pendulum cut the strap binding him? It was a single, continuous length
of material enveloping him in all directions.
rats are swarming around him, apparently waiting for his death. He wonders,
"To what food have they been accustomed in the well?" They nip at his left
hand, seeking the spicy residue of the food he had eaten. This activity
gives him an idea, one that could save his life. He passes his fingers
across the food dish to pick up oily food remnants and spices, then rubs
his bindings with his fingers. A moment later, the rats are upon him and
soon nip and bite through the bindings. He is free!
he slides off the board, the pendulum stops swinging, and, the narrator
says, “I beheld it drawn up, by some invisible force, through the ceiling."
Apparently, he concludes, someone has been watching him. Did he escape
the pendulum only to be subjected to another form of torture?
that moment, he notices that the sulfurous light in the cell is coming
through a fissure running around the base of the walls. He also notices
that the images on the wall are now staring at him with fiery demonic eyes
and that the smell of hot metal has invaded the cell. It is the iron walls;
they are heating up. To avoid the intense heat, he moves to the edge of
the pit. Because of the glare from the hot ceiling, he is able to see to
the bottom of the well. The sight “burned itself in upon my shuddering
reason. Oh! for a voice to speak—oh! horror!—oh! any horror but this! With
a shriek, I rushed from the margin, and buried my face in my hands—weeping
the heat in the cell increases, the walls begin to close in, apparently
to force him into the pit, and burn his his back. At the edge of the pit,
he looks away and waits for the end. Then he hears the blare of trumpets,
the hum of voices, and the grating of the walls. They are moving back!
Just as begins to fall into the pit, an arm reaches down and pulls him
to safety. His rescuer is General Lasalle, of the French army. The French
forces—enemies of the Inquisition—have invaded Toledo and taken control.
The action takes place in
the city of Toledo in central Spain. When the Romans conquered the site
in 193 B.C., they named the settlement there Toletum, from which
the name Toledo was derived. Toletum meant "raised high"
or "raised aloft," because the settlement sat on a rocky promontory about
2,400 feet above sea level. It became an important cultural center and
was famous for the skill with which its artisans produced swords. Toledo
is about 40 miles southwest of Madrid.
an unnamed person who tells of the torture inflicted on him by the Spanish
Inquisition. He identifies himself as a recusant (one who refuses to conform
to established rules and refuses to yield to the established authority).
Lasalle, a French army officer who rescues the narrator.
black-robed judges who sentence the narrator. The narrator hears their
voices and sees blurred images of them.
"The Pit and the Pendulum"
is a short story about the horrors of undergoing torture. Poe completed
it in August 1842 and published it the following year. It is written in
first-person point of view.
The climax of "The Pit and
the Pendulum" occurs when the walls close in on the narrator, then retract
just as a hand reaches out to save him from falling into the pit.
Poe carefully makes every
word, every phrase, every sentence in the story contribute to the overall
effect, horror, accompanied by oppressing morbidity and anxious anticipation
of terrifying events. Notice, for example, the tenor of the following paragraph
from the story. I have underlined the words and phrases that underscore
the the mood and atmosphere.
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 tomb. Perspiration burst from every pore,
and stood in cold big beads upon my forehead. The agony of suspense
grew, at length, intolerable, and I cautiously moved forward, with
my arms extended, and my eyes straining from their sockets, in the
hope of catching some faint ray of light. I proceeded for many paces; but
still all was blackness and vacancy. I breathed more freely. It
seemed evident that mine was not, at least, the most hideous of fates.
Use of Alliteration
Alliteration—a figure of
speech involving repetition of a consonant sound—occurs frequently in the
story, in such phrases as the following:
Use of Anaphora
to me white—whiter
than the sheet upon which I trace these words—
I felt every fibre
in my frame thrill
of darkness supervened; all sensation
appeared swallowed up in that mad rushing descent
as of the soul into Hades
And the death
just avoided was of that very character which
I had regarded as fabulous
and frivolous It
passed in many convolutions about my limbs
and body, leaving at liberty only
my head, and my left arm
I still quivered
in every nerve to think how slight a sinking
or slipping of the machinery would precipitate
that keen, glistening axe upon my bosom
In their voracity,
the vermin frequently fastened
their sharp fangs in my fingers.
As in his other short stories,
Poe frequently uses anaphora in "The Pit and the Pendulum." Anaphora is
a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning
of a clause or another group of words. Anaphora imparts emphasis and balance.
Here are boldfaced examples from the story:
I saw that the decrees
of what to me was Fate, were still issuing from those lips. I saw
them writhe with a deadly locution. I saw them fashion the syllables
of my name; and I shuddered because no sound succeeded. 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.
Other Figures of Speech
In the deepest slumber—no!
In delirium—no! In a swoon—no! In death—no! even in
the grave all is not lost.
My cognizance of the pit
had become known to the inquisitorial agents—the pit, whose horrors
had been destined for so bold a recusant as myself—the pit, typical
of hell, and regarded by rumor as the Ultima Thule of all their punishments.
Nor had I erred in
my calculations -- nor had I endured in vain.
Amid frequent and
thoughtful endeavors to remember; amid earnest struggles to regather
some token of the state of seeming nothingness into which my soul had lapsed,
there have been moments when I have dreamed of success.
Examples of other figures
of speech in "The Pit and the Pendulum" are the following:
And there stole into my fancy,
a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must
be in the grave. (Simile)
Arousing from the most profound
of slumbers, we break the gossamer web of some dream. (Metaphor)
In the centre yawned
the circular pit from whose jaws I had escaped. (Metaphor)
Free!—and in the
grasp of the Inquisition! (Paradox)
The idea of the coolness
of the well came over my soul like balm. (Simile)
and stillness, and night
were the universe. (Alliteration and Metaphor)
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(1) The terror a human being
experiences when confined and subjected to mental and physical torture;
(2) the cruelty or unjust treatment suffered by any individual who dissents
from established beliefs or is falsely accused of doing so.:
Was the Inquisition?
The word inquisition
is derived from the Latin word inquiro, meaning to question
or to inquire into. The Roman Catholic Church under Pope Gregory
IX established the Inquisition in 1231 to combat heresy, which was any
belief or opinion that opposed or rejected church doctrine, dogma, or other
important teachings. At that time, Roman Catholicism was the official state
religion in Europe. Opposition to church teaching was looked upon as a
threat to the established order. Accused heretics received an opportunity
to renounce their dissenting beliefs. If they did not, the Inquisition
tried them. The guilty received sentences ranging from mild (such as recitation
of prayers) to severe (such as public execution).
The Spanish Inquisition
Pope Sixtus IV established
the Inquisition in Spain in 1478, permitting the royal court to appoint
and control inquisitors. Its purpose was to investigate Jewish and Muslim
converts to Catholicism who were suspected of recanting their conversion.
However, the Spanish government used its newly authorized power to intimidate
or eliminate its political opponents, as well as to identify and punish
religious dissenters. Government-approved inquisitors conducted unfair
trials and sometimes resorted to torture to extract confessions of heresy.
The Pope attempted to curb the power of the Spanish Inquisition but failed.
Those found guilty sometimes had to forfeit their property to the crown;
not a few had to forfeit their lives. The Spanish Inquisition maintained
19 courts, 16 in Spain and three in the New World (in Mexico, Peru, and
Exaggeration in Accounts
of the Inquisition
Many modern researchers—such
as those who prepared a BBC television documentary, The Myth of the
Spanish Inquisition, which aired in the mid-1990's—maintain that past
accounts of the Inquisition have greatly exaggerated its use of torture
and execution. For more on this subject, you may wish to consult The
Spanish Inquisition : A Historical Revision, by Henry Kamen (Yale University
Press, 1999), Inquisition,
by Edward Peters (University of California Press, 1989), The
Association Studies, by Helen Rawlings (Blackwell Publishers, 2005)
Edgar Allan Poe was born
on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was
taken into the home of a childless couple—John Allan, a successful businessman
in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather.
At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools
there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied
at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S.
Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After
beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his
young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined
the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while,
he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his
poem “The Raven" in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international
fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented
the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an
outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never
really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several
people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble
paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing
cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.