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.

The story does not indicate what the nameless narrator and central character of the story has done to deserve the tortures he endures in the pit, nor does it deal with any of the religious or social implications of the Inquisition. It simply recounts, in excruciatingly exact detail, the step-by-step means by which the torturers try to break the protagonist’s spirit and his own step-by-step attempts to escape each new horror that befalls him.

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