Edgar Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of indigent actors. At age three, when his parents died, Poe was taken in by John Allan, a merchant from Richmond, Virginia. He attended a private school in England where he lived with the Allans between 1815 and 1820. After returning to America, he continued private schooling until 1826, when he entered the University of Virginia. However, he was forced to leave after less than a year because of gambling debts which John Allan refused to pay.
Edgar Allan Poe is best known as the author of numerous spine-tingling stories of horror and suspense. “The Pit and the Pendulum” is a classic example of Poe’s ability to keep readers on the edge of their seats with almost nightmarish terror. However, Poe should also be remembered as the American author who helped to establish and develop America’s major formal contribution to the world of literature-the short story. Poe was the first writer to recognize that the short story was a different kind of fiction than the novel and the first to insist that for a story to have a powerful effect on the reader every single detail in the story should contribute to that effect. “The Pit and the Pendulum” is a striking example of Poe’s ability to follow his own advice about the artistic unity of a short story.
The entire story takes place inside a pit or prison cell into which the narrator of the story, and indeed the story’s only visible character, has been thrown. Although the pit is the immediate setting of the story, the broader historical context is the Spanish Inquisition during the sixteenth century, when the Inquisition, a court of the Roman Catholic Church, persecuted heretics, so-called witches, and members of other religions with torture and execution.
Although “The Pit and the Pendulum” focuses on a single character, the reader actually discovers very little about him. One does not know his name, what he has done, whether he is guilty, whether he is a criminal, what he misses about life in the everyday world, whether he loves someone-in short, the reader knows none of those things about the character that one might expect to learn if this were a novel in which a man spends several years in prison. In fact, all that is known is that he faces the horrors of mental and physical torture and then inevitable death.
Although Poe often declared that the allegory was an inferior form of fiction, he comes close to creating an allegory in “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Instead of allegory, Poe favored gothic short fiction, a form that was extremely popular in the early nineteenth century in Germany. Many of Poe’s stories reveal that he is familiar with such gothic fiction and is at times parodying the form. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to determine if he is presenting a seemingly horrific story as a serious experience or as a satiric and comic one. Although “The Pit and the Pendulum” seems to fit in the serious category, the miraculous escape at the end makes it very similar to the so-called “inescapable predicament” type of short fiction which he did parody in other stories.
Edgar Allan Poe is a writer often first discovered by readers when they are still adolescents. His stories are seemingly so simple, so direct and straightforward, so little weighted down with philosophical abstractions or social complexities that they are easily readable by junior high students. Moreover, although many of his stories focus on murder, vicious revenge, premature burial, and other violent and nightmarish phenomena, they are usually phrased in such general and abstract terms that they are a far cry from the graphic violence typical of present-day horror films. Thus, instead of creating anxiety and fear in the minds of young readers, they seem to stimulate a pleasurable feeling of admiration for Poe as a writer who can so enthrall and entertain. In fact, many successful writers have said that they first fell in love with literature and decided to write after reading Poe.
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The story never explains why the central character has been thrown into the pit. Why does Poe not inform the reader of his crime?
“The Pit and the Pendulum” is typical of other Poe stories that present horrifying and extreme predicaments. In “A Descent into the Maelstrom” (1841) the predicament is natural rather than man-made. “MS. Found in a Bottle” is also a “predicament” story, although in it the dilemma is seemingly supernatural. Poe also wrote several satires of the “predicament” story, such as “How to Write a Blackwood Article” (1838) and a story entitled simply “Predicament” (1838). “The Pit and the Pendulum” is also similar to such Poe stories as “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Premature Burial” (1844), which focus on the common nineteenth-century theme of being buried alive.