Poe’s interest in the macabre side of life led to his unusual but fascinating stories and poems. “The Pit and the Pendulum,” which is set during the Spanish Inquisition, is one of his more powerful stories. During the Spanish Inquisition, the Catholic Church attempted to rid Spain of persons considered to be heretics by the authorities of the church. A heretic was defined as someone who held beliefs in opposition to those of the Catholic Church. The targets of the Inquisition were converted Jews, Muslims, and Protestants, who were thought to have insincerely converted to Christianity out of fear. This was a time of harsh judgements and horrific punishments. Poe recreates this time of terror in this short story. Poe’s use of sensory language makes the experience of the prisoner in the dungeon come alive for the reader. Using vivid sensory imagery of touch, sight, and a combination of senses; Poe brings the horrifying experiences of the prisoner to life.
Poe’s excellent creation of the sense of touch pulls the reader into a realistic experience of the prisoner’s torment. The prisoner’s sense of touch takes over for his vision and all other senses when he is first placed in the pit. Poe introduces the tactile experience, “I reached out my hand, and it fell heavily upon something damp and hard” (6). Through this exclusive sense of touch, Poe makes the reader comprehend the fact that the prisoner cannot see anything or hear anything around him. He tries to expand his understanding of his circumstances, but the only thing he can feel is a damp and hard wall. He becomes horrified and he feels “perspiration burst from every pore, and stood in cold big beads upon my forehead” (4). He is frantic because he does not know where he is or what is going to happen to him next. The next image of touch experienced by the prisoner is “the ground was moist and slippery” (9). The prisoner is trying to walk the area of his confinement searching for a method of escape, but the ground is so slippery he can hardly walk or even stand up. The ground feels solid to his feet but very moist. It occurs to the frightened man that someone or something does not want him to escape. The man’s terror continues as he is locked away, unable to experience or understand anything except through his frantic sense of touch.
Eventually, when the prisoner fears that he will never escape, a tiny light peeps through for a split second, and he catches a glimpse of his surroundings. He is filled with relief: “I saw clearly the doom which had been prepared for me, and congratulated myself upon the timely accident by which I had escaped” (11). At just the last moment, the thankful prisoner has seen the pit and knows that the tiny ray of vision has saved him from falling into the huge pit. The reader imagines the horror of the man’s falling to a certain and horrendous death if he had not been saved by his glimpse of danger. After the prisoner drinks the water left in his cell, he is again unconscious for a time but wakes to find that he has full vision of the objects surrounding him: “By a wild, sulphurous lustre, the origin of which I could not at first determine, I was enabled to see the extent and aspect of the prison” (13). With this ability to see, the man is now more aware of his surroundings than he had been when limited to only what he determined by touch. He finds that he was mistaken about the size and shape of his dungeon and about the material of which it is made. While the increased perceptions of the prisoner bring him more understanding, they do not bring him a great deal of comfort:
The figures of fiends in aspects of menace, with skeleton forms, and other more really fearful images, overspread and disfigured the walls. I observed that the outlines of these monstrosities were sufficiently distance, but that the colors seemed faded and blurred, as if from the effects of a damp atmosphere. I now noticed the floor, too, which was of stone. In the centre yawned the circular pit from whose jaws I had escaped; but it was the only one in the dungeon. (14-15)
The prisoner is now aware of the horrifying details of his confinement. His increasing terror is made vivid to the reader with his realization of the horrible circumstances of his surroundings. Poe’s vivid descriptions of what the prisoner sees when he awakens create a sense of doom and impending death in the mind of the reader.
Throughout most of the story, the prisoner has inclusions of more than one sense. Using dual sensory imagery, Poe increases the sense of terror when the prisoner is tied up under a pendulum and sees enormous rats coming out of a well: “A slight noise attracted my notice, and, looking to the floor, I saw several enormous rats traversing it” (16). The prisoner is alerted by the slight noise and then horrified when he sees the rats pouring into his dungeon. Through incorporation of both senses, the reader feels the intensity of the man’s fear as it builds. The reader’s sense of his terror is intensified with the idea of rats pursuing his food: “Even then, while I gazed, they came up in troops, hurriedly, with ravenous eyes, allured by the scent of meat” (16). The rats have been lured into the prison by the scent of meat or possibly the man himself. The reader cringes with the vividness Poe’s creation of the man’s terror. The prisoner is painfully aware that his death is imminent and comes closer with each sweep of the pendulum. Poe creates a moment of hope for the man, “With painful effort I outstretched my left arm as far as my bonds permitted, and took possession of the small remnant which had been spared me by the rats. As I put a portion of it within my lips, there rushed to my mind a half-formed thought of joy—of hope” (19). The prisoner struggles to stretch and reach a last morsel of food and pulls that bite to his mouth to taste for possibly the last time. This creates an image for the reader of total desperation that is contrasted by the man’s small ray of hope. These mixed senses of the terrified prisoner help the reader to grasp the turmoil of emotions the man experiences in the dungeon as he awaits his certain death.
Poe’s use of sensory imagery brings the terror of the prisoner alive for the reader. The horrors of the injustices done to the Christians during the Spanish Inquisition are experienced through the vivid details given to the prisoner’s confinement. Poe eloquently illustrates these horrors with the sensory details of touch, sight, and the combination of sound/sight, sight/smell, and touch/taste. The reader is pulled into the experience of the prisoner by touching, seeing, hearing, smelling, and tasting the man’s terror. Because of the intensity of Poe’s imagery, the reader is as relieved as the prisoner when he is saved by the general.