Poe Study Guides
Michael J. Cummings...©
Latin Quotation Preceding
Impia tortorum longas hic
Sanguinis innocui, non satiata,
Sospite nunc patria, fracto
nunc funeris antro,
Mors ubi dira fuit vita
--Quatrain composed for
the gates of a market to be erected upon the site of the Jacobin Club House
Here the wicked mob, unappeased,
long cherished a hatred
of innocent blood.
Now that the fatherland
is saved, and the cave of death demolished;
where grim death has been,
life and health appear.
composed for the gates of a market to be erected upon the site of the Jacobin
Club House at Paris.] .......................
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
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–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.
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.
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).
French army officer who rescues the narrator.
judges who sentence the narrator. The narrator hears their voices and sees
blurred images of them.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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)
(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?
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–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
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 Colombia).
Exaggeration in Accounts
of the Inquisition
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
Spanish Inquisition : A Historical Revision, by Henry Kamen (Yale University
Press, 1999), Inquisition,
by Edward Peters (University of California Press, 1989), The
Spanish Inquisition–Historical Association Studies, by Helen Rawlings
(Blackwell Publishers, 2005)
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.
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.
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.