Themes and Characters

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 such a lack of knowledge in a novel might lead to the loss of the reader’s interest, Poe provides all that is necessary to become engaged with this intense story. For this is not a realistic portrayal of an individual caught in an unjust social system, but rather a nightmarish, symbolic story which focuses on deep-seated human fears. The central character functions as “everyman.” What the story is “about,” that is, its central human theme, is everyone’s fear of being accused without knowing what the crime is, being confronted with the blackness of nothingness, being trapped on the brink of a bottomless pit, being crawled over by repulsive rodents, and being a helpless victim of the inevitable and unceasing pendulum of time.

Poe’s story is both a fictional account of one of people’s worst nightmares and an allegory of the most basic human dilemma. The stark details of the story suggest its universal theme. It begins with the protagonist’s being sentenced to death, although he does not seem to be guilty of any crime; his judges are only shadowy, black-robed figures without identity; and he is thrown into absolute darkness, which makes it difficult for him to know whether his experience is a reality or a nightmare. In fact, many aspects of the story suggest that what Poe is trying to create here is a dream experience. Even the conclusion, when the narrator is saved from the pit by the sudden arrival of the French army, seems like the awakening from a nightmare.