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The Pit and Pendulum: To What Degree Can We Judge Literature of Other Times and Places Based on Out Cultural and Contemporary Values?

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"The Pit and the Pendulum" published in 1843, introduces the outstretched arm of General LaSalle to save the narrator from the abyss. The general's arm is not melodrama but an analogy showing that even a strong mind that can think himself out of the problem of the pendulum cannot under pressure resist the impulse to fall into the abyss, and will fall, if there is no outstretched arm to hold him. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," published in January 1843, the nameless feeling that forces the narrator into an abyss is not the pressure of fiery walls, but a ringing in the ears.

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Poe's story is in the darkest reaches of Dark Romanticism, in the genre of Gothic Literature due to its focus on pure terror, utter despair, and physical torture. Poe brilliantly applied his personal experience suffering from mental illness to his canon of works, so readers become emersed in his senses of madness, obsession with death, and the supernatural. His gift for writing about his own pain-- both physical and metaphysical-- keeps his readers coming back for more. The story is about the elevated terrors experienced by an unnamed prisoner in a torture chamber, sentenced to death by sinister judges of the Spanish Inquisition. In complete darkness, he tries to measure the slimy cell's dimensions with a torn section of his robe, sees a mural of Father Time and a knife-edged pendulum from the ceiling that gradually descends to his seemingly certain death. He's completely bound to a wooden board, except for his left elbow to hand, enough to drink a beverage and eat, before scattering the rancid meat on the straps to entice rats to gnaw his way to freedom, just as the pendulum makes body contact. The walls become red-hot, the room shrinks him so he has nowhere to go but the molten pit of iron, when all of a sudden trumpets sound and the French Army, General Lasalle at the helm, rescues him from the evil Inquisition prison

Happy ending? As good as can be expected in Poe's sensory horror thriller-- or is it all a hallucination tripped by mental illness? The "unholy mob of torturers" refers to the radicalized French Jacobin Club, which led the Revolutionary government named "The Reign of Terror." Foes of both the Church and atheists, they persecuted their enemies by guillotine, and were eventually defeated by unified republicanism in France. We can assume the "funeral cave" refers to their persecution, and that prisoners were finally freed after they were subdued ("life and health appear"). While the epigraph seems to provide a "CliffsNotes" of the story, Poe intentionally keeps the specifics of the prisoner's charges, conviction, and reason for torture from the reader.

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The Pit and the Pendulum is one of Poe’s famous short stories that was published in 1842. The narrator of the story is a survivor of the torture and torment in the condemned cell at Toledo – the Spanish Inquisition prison. By using of a great variety of stylistic devices the author manages to keep the reader on the edge of his seat. The Pit and the Pendulum begins with the epigraph in Latin that was taken from an inscription for the gates of a market built in Paris upon the site of the old Jacobin Club House. The quatrain suggests that the whole story will be about tortures and struggle that will end with the victory over the enemies. The whole story is based on the narrator’s memories of his imprisonment. The story is built on the narrator’s sensations, emotions and feelings. Poe aims to convey the character’s emotional state. He puts the emphasis on the stylistic devices that help to express senses and sensations. The narrator is terrified because he does not know where he is, what will happen to him, what is his fate. The fear of the unknown is connected with the fear of darkness. In his detailed descriptions, Poe uses a lot of epithets that help to create a dark atmosphere of horror: “the blackness of darkness”, “deepest slumber”, “delirious horror”, “a hideous dizziness”, “the tumultuous motion of heart” (Poe 5), “a tingling sensation”, “shuddering terror”, “the blackness of eternal night” (Poe 6), “physical agonies”, “death with its most hideous moral horrors” (Poe 8), “painful effort”, “long suffering”, “terrifically wide sweep”, “thrilling sensation” (Poe 10) and so on. The image of a nightmare is reinforced with the syntactical device – climax: “In the deepest slumber – no! In delirium – no! In a swoon – no! In death – no! Even in the grave all is not lost.” (Poe 5) It is used to escalate the situation. As usual, physical tortures in Poe’s short stories are replaced with psychological tortures. And each of these agonies has a symbolic meaning. At first it is the pitch, darkness and an unknown danger hidden within it. Then it is the figure of Time holding a pendulum with a blade that slowly and inevitably descends to the condemned. It is not the death but the anticipation of it that scares the most.

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Altogether, in this story, Poe has shown himself to be a master of achieving the effect of mental torture and horror as the narrator is offered a horrible choice of death: He can plunge to death in a bottomless pit of unknown horrors filled with ravenous rats, or he can wait and be sliced up by the razor-sharp pendulum — or he can wait to be crushed by the burning hot walls closing in on him, or, finally, he can jump into the horrible pit.

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Poe, A. Edgar. The Pit and the Pendulum and Other Stories. Penguin Books: London, UK, 1995. Print.

Wang, Bella. “Summary and Analysis of The Pit and the Pendulum. Short Stories Study Guide”. GradeSaver, 29 July 2009. Web. 28 Oct. 2014. http://www.gradesaver.com/poes-short-stories/study-guide/summary-the-pit-and-the-pendulum

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