This happened at lunch the other day:
I WAS sick — sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me. The sentence — the dread sentence of a low rating from my administrative observation— was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears. After that, the sound of the inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum. It conveyed to my soul the idea of termination, — perhaps from its association in fancy with the burr of a scantron machine grading semester exams. This only for a brief period; for presently I heard no more. Yet, for a while, I saw; but with how terrible an exaggeration! I saw the lips of the black-robed administrators. They appeared to me white — whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words, — and thin even to grotesqueness; thin with the intensity of their expression of firmness — of immoveable resolution — of stern contempt of human torture.
I had swooned. Very suddenly there came back to my soul motion and sound. At length, with a wild desperation at heart, I quickly unclosed my eyes. There stood Vincent Price. He handed me lesson plans for “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and gave me water, which had undoubtedly been drugged. When I awoke again, I was under my desk. My lunch break was over. The observation had not happened yet. I had “The Pit and the Pendulum” lesson plans I needed. Vincent Price even left me a “Pit and the Pendulum” summary and a “Pit and the Pendulum” analysis too.
I now share my good fortune with you.
Oh, just in case you don’t believe me, here’s one of the “Pit and the Pendulum” lesson plans he left: Show and Tell Lesson Plan.
Summary of “The Pit and the Pendulum”
The narrative begins with the narrator’s death sentence during the Spanish Inquisition. The narrator swoons and wakes up in pure darkness.
Fearing he’s in a tomb, the narrator circumvents the dungeon. He realizes he’s in one of the dungeons of Toledo, known for its horrible deaths inflicted on prisoners of the Inquisition.
After circling the cell, he decides to walk across the room. He trips on his robe, falls, and discovers the existence of a seemingly endless pit.
The narrator, ruminating over what was meant to be his death, sleeps. He wakes up to food and water. He immediately falls asleep again. When he awakes he finds himself strapped to a board. Next to him lies food, but no water.
He notices a figure of Time has been painted on the ceiling. He looks aside and notices rats flooding out from the pit. He looks up again and notices a pendulum, in the form of a scythe, descending incrementally from the ceiling.
The narrator realizes the scythe-pendulum is meant to slice him to death. The narrator panics, yet remains hopeful.
As the pendulum nears its murderous completion, the narrator comes up with a ghastly and genius idea. He rubs food over the strap keeping him immobile and lays deathly still.
The rats swarm.
Once they chew his restraining band, an instant before he’s sliced in half by a scythe, he moves aside.
The walls of the prison heat up and contract. The narrator is being forced to the pit. Right as the narrator is forced from his last foothold, a man reaches out and saves him. General Lasalle and the French army have liberated the prison.
Here are some items you may wish to discuss as you read or after you read “The Pit and the Pendulum.”
- Suspense. Read this story closely and you’ll be soiling yourself before it’s over. Edgar Allan Poe is a master of suspense. Discuss how he uses foreshadowing, pacing, and dangerous action to create suspense.
- Insanity. The narrator is clearly insane. Although it’s unclear whether or not this actually happens, the mental and emotional suffering of a deranged narrator undoubtedly occurs.
- Sensory Details and Imagery. Poe excels in creating a scene of horror and terror through the use of sensory details.
- Symbolism. The pendulum, the pit, Time, the walls, the judges all symbolize impending death and its inherent suffering.
- American Romanticism. Poe’s chilling tale of imprisonment embodies many aspects of American Romanticism.
- Themes include a fascination with death and the supernatural, the nature of fear, alternate versions of reality, and the fine line between life and death.
- Using Context Clues and Understanding Difficult Passages. If you’re teaching this story, you better slow down and enable understanding.
- Analyzing suspense in “The Pit and the Pendulum.” This lesson is best completed with a 4-column chart that includes a column for evidence and a column for each of the three primary methods of creating suspense (pacing, dangerous action, and foreshadowing).
- Imagery and Sensory Details Lesson. Imagery is often associated with sight. Limiting the study of imagery to sight eliminates four entire senses. Poe, in addition to being a master of suspense, is a master of sensory details that appeal to more than just the eyes. It’s time for a chart.