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Exploring human nature with “The Pit and the Pendulum”

Illustration by Harry Clarke, printed in 1919

Between so many stories one can read, there are a couple of them that are hard to describe and define in exact terms, as their beauty rests in the mixture of genres. Such is the case of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” a graphic and explicit horror tale that was originally published in 1842.

The general idea is pretty simple at first sight, to describe how it is to be a prisoner during the Inquisition’s times, but the magic resides in the descriptions themselves, which include both the material world, where the main character is, and his inner universe, his emotions, feelings, ideas, thoughts and the darkness that, eventually, takes over him.

For some, this could be a hard tale with a slow pace, for which I recommend for newcomer to read other stories like M. Valdemar or The Fall of the House of Usher. Not that they are better, but have more narrative content, making them more “readable” in those cases than The Pit and the Pendulum.

To only think on finding myself in the same situation and time, knowing how people used to behave and torture prisoners, especially those from the Inquisition, makes believe that, perhaps, Poe wasn’t wrong on his perception on how things may have happened if this story was real.

Not in vain, the core and central element we will find while reading in here resides in the darkest side a soul can show. Mens sana in corpore sano, says the phrase, but now with an altered, different meaning to please Poe, the reader and match the Gothic context to be explored in The Pit and the Pendulum as well.

Like in M. Valdemar’s story, to explore human mind’s and make the reader think on a very uncomfortable topic we often try to avoid: what are we, as humans, as the dominant race, capable to do in order to keep such position as rulers of this planet? How far can we go so we can afford our voice to be louder, stronger and more powerful than others’?

I consider ours to be the an evil per se race. It’s part of what we are, what we are meant to be and do while we dominate this place, something Poe seems to know as well. Just as a simple example, the prisoner, the main character in The Pit and the Pendulum, which remains unnamed until the end, tries to use rats to escape, not thinking or even caring what will be of them.

We often see those around us like that, mere rats, and despite there are some exceptions, there is not in the plot, where all of them are instruments for the man’s salvation. He didn’t care about the animals until it was a matter of life or death, and decided he was more valuable, while they were dispensable.

It is not until we see our very existence in danger, our anything precious enough for us, that we pay attention to the world around us, watching it under a different light, searching for the very last exit we can find. If it hurts or kills anyone else, is not a problem, as we are the center of the universe in that moment. The height of pride, and still the tip of the iceberg.

As a reflection of what it will become of us if that’s the case, or maybe as a prevention, The Pit and the Pendulum highlights the dark side of the man’s feelings, which become dominated by paranoia, desperation and doom, swearing there’s nothing else he can do to be saved and is condemned to be death at the end of the day by the pendulum or falling into the pit, one way or the other.

This is a little free, blank space the author leaves incomplete so the reader is able to chose a position: do we start falling before becoming selfish, or are we meant to fall the moment we become? It’s up to us to see which option resonates the most, but we cannot deny the fact that the message is more than present.

Another idea that Poe explores on The Pit and the Pendulum is the fact that, sometimes, life can crash and come down into ashes, just to rise again and show us a different path. People says that, when we’re at the deepest, where there’s no way out, we have nothing left but to get up and out of the pit we’ve fallen into, and the author reflects it in a different, more metaphorical way, giving a message of hope to the reader, a very unusual, strange thing on his texts, considering the fatalistic nature their tend to use.

There’s darkness in this life, that’s for sure, and being Goth is to accept it, such is the way I see it, but there’s also enough space for hope to be there as a final resource. The Pit and the Pendulum tries to include this final message on the end, not so explicit, not that easy to be seen, maybe, but clear enough so those who are meant to can read between the lines.

Maybe this was one of the few moments in which Poe felt really positive and optimistic about his own kind. However, there’s a reason for this last message to be right that, final, almost hidden: he couldn’t deny his true feelings toward people’s general behavior, his real posture on the topic, and so he may have thought to finish The Pit and the Pendulum this way after a long, comfortable reading.

We cannot know, and will never know for what matters, what he had in mind for sure, but after thinking about it and an attentive reading process, we could be nearer than before. However, we can always try to blind ourselves, chose not to see anything that may displease us and cause any discomfort, and have this is a common, dismal short story. Ignorance can be a precious things in some cases.


Alan D.D.
Writer and Journalist.

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