Much can be written about Edgar Allan Poe but for the sake of brevity here is a brief introduction to the "brilliant, but erratic" writer who continues to inspire in people a fascination not only with his works but also his life. Poe was an American literary figure and editor who lived in the first half of the nineteenth century and is best known for his gothic fiction and graphic style of writing, which includes themes of murder, macabre, and detailed depiction of the anguish of a troubled mind. He is often credited with being the forerunner in the genre of detective fiction, which was to find eloquent voices later on in the century, and is also considred to have contributed greatly to the genre of science fiction. His oeuvre, penned over two dramatic decades, includes poetry, short stories, a novel, and works of literary criticism. The Pit and the Pendulum
was written during a dark time of Poe's life, the torments of which perhaps, it could be argued, came to be depicted and amplified in his stories of the time, much the same as is said to be the case with Shakespeare, whose tragedies are attributed to the dramatist's darker mood in his later years. Poe's wife Virgina Clemm, previously a cousin thirteen years his junior, was taken ill in 1842, after which Poe resorted to heavy drinking. As Virginia continued to remain ill, Poe's writing came to exhibit as its hallmark the darkness of the human psyche and the fascination with the strange and the macabre that on the one hand earned him encomiums from the public, especially after his death, on the other attracted savage criticism from the literary stars of the day such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Aldous Huxley. Virginia died in 1847 of tuberculosis and Poe joined her two years later when he was only 40, allegedly drunk, depressed, and heavily disorientated. The exact cause of his death, however, has not yet been conclusively established. Alcoholism was thought to be a culprit but according to one report despite Poe's reputation of being a heavy drinker his medical records suggest he had abstained from alcohol for six months prior to his death (http://www.umm.edu/news/releases/news-releases-17.htm)
. Instead, "congestion of brain" was offered as an explanation, or rabies. Some suggested syphillis, some that he was killed, and others that he killed himself. The Pit and the Pendulum
The present story, a short piece of historical fiction published in 1842, can be said to be an anatomy of survival and torture, though more so of survival. A stark and intense narrative, the story bears all the signature Poe themes such as (impending) death, paranoia, fear, fight for sanity, and the graphic depiction of physical and mental trauma set in a captive situation in a dark enclosure.
Despite its short length the story is remarkably rich in themes and imagery. The dominant colour scheme is of varying shades of black; there's darkness all around, inside the mind of the prisoner as well as around him, and in the minds of his tormentors too. This darkness is so vividly depicted by the author that we see it very clearly in our mind's eye as we are taken inside the narrator's mind and tormented psyche.
Following are some of the aspects of the story that could be discussed. Main themes
1. Psychological profile of a man in his darkest hours -- desperately clutching at straws for survival: "my soul was concerned with trifles". Psychological play of a mind trapped between two worlds, that of light and dark, sanity and insanity, deliverance and condemnation, religion and heresy, the pit and the pendulum, life and death.
2. Religious hypocrisy and torture -- The Spanish Inquisition epitomized both these elements, and is specifically known for its torture methods to punish heretics, the recusant, or to extract confessions from its prisoners. While the torture methods of the Inquisition make for blood curdling reading, Poe has primarily dwelt on the psychological effect that the prospect of death does to a man. If anything, the author has gone light on the element of physical torture itself given the historical setting and context of the story.
3. Human cruelty -- Inflicted by the sadist and the self-righteous as observed throughout history, the crimes carried out in the name of "God". Despite not being acquainted with the Bible it was easy for me to see the eternal fight between those claiming to act in the name of God, representing his wrath, and the lesser mortals, though we are not told why the protagonist was chosen to be tortured.
4. Victory of hope -- The defeat of the dark forces in the end is an aspect that has led to the story being considered rather unusual in Poe's collection. The imagery
1. The pit - a representation of hell, on whose brink the narrator was teetering but avoided falling into out of sheer luck. If a pit full of hungry rats waiting to feast on a human was also a torture method during the Inquisition in question than I'm not aware of it, but even without any historical or religious significance it's a poignant device.
2. The pendulum -- As far as the Spanish Inquisition is concerned, the pendulum was "not a lethal torture, but rather a psychological one used to extract confessions before permanently impairing the victim" (Source: http://www.medievality.com/torture.html)
. The device serves the purpose of the story very well, which is to drive the prisoner to death via insanity if he does not tumble into the pit.
What do you make of the razor sharp crescent seeking the prisoner's blood?
3. The dungeon -- the shifting shapes of it. Either it was really shifting or it was an indication of the narrator's tenuous grasp on reality and the strain on his nerves.
Which compels one to ask if the narrator is near hysterical, and is in and out of consciousness, is he strictly reliable? That's debatable, but though it could be argued that a man tottering on the brink of death is prone to exaggeration, that too, at least in this case, would only serve to indicate the depths of his despair and anguish.
4. The rats -- the agents from hell, which ultimately rescued the prisoners from the agents of god, symbolically speaking.
5. The food -- instrument of torture. It was served to keep the prisoner alive only so he could experience the full scale of the torture. The water, which was later withdrawn, further worsened this torture, especially as it was accompanied with the addition of spices to the meat. Research has shown that depriving the brain of water for half-n-hour in a highly thirsty state shrinks it by eight years, confirming that one cannot think in a dehydrated state.
6. The darkness -- There is a co-relation between the darkness surrounding the narrator and the darkness in his own mind, and as the external darkness worsens, so does the one in his mind. But when he is able to control it, even if only for the time being, by concerning himself with "trifles", he is able to bring a certain light to his circumstances in which he can see things somewhat clearly.
7. The light -- Hope. When the narrator begins to see things clearly, that is when he fully realises the hopelessness of his situation, is when, ironically, hope begins to form in him. If he did not have any hope in his heart of escaping his lot, he would not have kept trying till the end to save himself from his impending doom.
The story has been criticised for a lack of historical accuracy; for instance, General Laselle can't have rescued the prisoner from the dungeon as he was not under the command of Napoleon's army that took Toledo (Source wikipedia). But that aspect, it could be argued, is of secondary concern to the story's main purpose, which is to depict the effects of despair in the human mind; the emotions it makes a person feel, the thoughts and hopes it conjures, and all the mind tricks it makes one endure. To that extent, one also finds a beautiful depiction of the very fine line between sanity and insanity in the circumstances the prisoner finds himself in, and that which separates the prisoner from the fate that awaits him should he fall over the edge and into the pit.