‘The Pit and The Pendulum’ by Edgar Allan Poe and ‘An Encounter’ by James Joyce Essay
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An analytical study of ‘The Pit and The Pendulum’, ‘An Encounter’ and ‘The Pedestrian’, focusing on the themes of paralysis, entrapment and isolation
The texts chosen for this study are: ‘The Pit and The Pendulum’ by Edgar Allan Poe and ‘An Encounter’ by James Joyce which, I feel, are appropriate as they provide comprehensive coverage of the themes analysed whilst managing to cover a historical period of some seventy years1. Poe’s piece is a dark, Gothic work which deals, in great depth, with the notion of both mental and physical paralysis encompassed in an entrapping and isolated atmosphere.
Joyce, on the other hand, takes a characteristically more diverse and subtle approach to the concept of paralysis, cunningly concealing the theme within the stagnant surroundings of his Dublin. Verbal ‘entrapment’ is furthermore offered in the form of a dubious elderly man.
The story ‘An Encounter’ by James Joyce amply exhibits many stylistic features associated with the modernist author – for example the use of epiphany or writing through first person narrative, with inner monologue to highlight the consciousness of the protagonist and also subtly divulge the feelings of others to the perhaps more ‘aware’ readership. However, Poe, on the contrary, chooses to play the cards of shock and terror in a style which is far more explicit and gruesome in comparison with Joyce’s incorporation of ambiguity.
The theme of paralysis is key to Joyce’s work – the notion is implicit throughout Dubliners as a whole. With this idea comes its antithesis – escape – or with respect to ‘An Encounter’ and many of the other stories, thwarted escape. It is because of the character’s desire to achieve this freedom, that when the day fails to reach its high expectations, the stagnation and restrictiveness of the surroundings are powerfully reinforced – perhaps even confirmed. From the outset of the tale, Joyce ponders the notion of escape. Characters searching for such an escape, often describe how they would wish to travel afar to achieve it. So important, it seems, is this idea that the protagonist of the initial story of Dubliners, can be quoted of aspiring to exotic, foreign fantasy:
‘I felt that I had been very far away, in some land where the customs were strange – in Persia, I thought.’
This feeling is openly exhibited in ‘An Encounter’, as Joyce’s first person narrator states;
‘Real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.’
In the story, Joyce develops the theme in the form of an inner monologue – the thoughts of the protagonist dictating how his ‘Wild West’ adventures ‘opened doors of escape’. The method used is quite customary of the author- the thought processes of the boy (relating to escape) are ultimately what drive the tale, yet Joyce quietly conveys them through subtle, nondescript details. Joyce’s relationship with his hometown appears, like his works, slightly ambiguous. He may often be quoted of his distaste for the stagnant city2, succeeding in displaying it with an absence of enthusiasm, as a moribund, non-eventful hive. However, one feels that on reflection, after reading his work a subtle affection is undoubtedly apparent – perhaps Joyce’s time spent in exile3 incubated an innate longing for the city – Dublin’s entrapment being, perhaps, what fuelled this fascination with the petty happening of the city?
Joyce’s relationship with the theme of entrapment in Dubliners is essential to the text: at times he appears intent, at others repelled. ‘An Encounter’ deals with methods of escape other than exotic foreign adventure, focusing on the attempt of two boys to ‘break out of the weariness’ of their everyday environment. Although, at first the prospect of adventure excites the young boys, there is constant undertone of anti-climax carefully intertwined into the story. Joyce writes from the first person point view, often through analepsis. It is perhaps because of this that a frequent air of frustration pursues the young schoolboys – it is as if the story is being recalled by a man embittered by the ‘restraining’ and ultimately paralysed city of Dublin. Quite often Joyce refuses to commit any fervent emotion to events, preferring to use lacklustre qualifying adverbs or adjectives; ‘… We were all vaguely excited… it was a mild sunny morning’
Joyce intently chooses to focus in on the most insipid details, usually choosing to focus on empirical sense experience – such as Mahoney’s grey suit or the ‘brown4 fishing fleet’- which works to suppress the buoyant atmosphere. This notion is also relative to the descriptive mood, which the author quite purposely generates through negative evocation of certain aspects: ‘… The docile horses… the drivers of groaning carts.’
This process of qualification through modifiers generates a subdued atmosphere parallel to that of the jaded inner-consciousness of the protagonists. The negativity which is now apparent in almost everything encountered appears to be an entrapping agent over the boys, who sulk into a resigned and somewhat resentful state, a state which is furthermore reiterated by the repetition of the adverb ‘too’: ‘It was too late and we were too tired to carry out our project of visiting the Pigeon House.’
Joyce has succeeded in presenting Dublin as an impotent city of circularity and entrapment. He is now anxious to erase the protagonist’s claim; ‘I was very happy’, from the audience’s memories, introducing words such as ‘solemn’, ‘sedulous’ and eventually even denotes the character’s thoughts as ‘jaded’. There is constant, yet suitable repetition of the adjective ‘tired’ – the day has become tedious, adventure and escape have proved elusive, and the encounter of a less than legendary sea-farer has confirmed that the protagonist will not find merriment in Dublin, forever doomed to live in the fantasies of comic book and literature.
However, despite its lack of event, the day does provide the boys with one notable incident. Aspirations of escape having been superseded, Joyce begins a new paragraph focusing primarily on the silence and ‘stillness’ of the eventual situation: ‘There was nobody but ourselves in the field. [We had] lain on the bank for some time without speaking’.
Through creating such an ominous, yet ‘dying’ atmosphere – sentences slowly becoming shorter, more concise (defeating imaginative possibility as displayed by the boys hitherto) and less picturesque use of vocabulary – Joyce signals the need for new themes to be introduced. He achieves this through the introduction of a curious elderly antagonist.
The old man introduces the possibility of in-depth monologue and direct speech. In the conversation with the boys, he seemingly manages to entrap the young protagonist with his reference to literature – a topic of known interest to the boy – and also through cunningly incorporating a sinister ‘circular’ approach. Joyce is very keen to exploit the idea of circularity in his work and in this piece, the ‘monotonous’ voice of the antagonist and the way his voice ‘slowly circles round and round in the same orbit’, help to achieve the spellbinding quality of the man. This technique paralyses the narrator, who seemingly allows the man to give a discourse in the form of a monologue – mainly due to his apparent inability to interrupt.
The politeness evident in the boy’s character is in hindsight, far from being useful. Joyce implicitly airs his personal views on the expensive Jesuit schooling that the protagonist has been subject to by placing the boy in a situation of danger. The resultant irony – learnt social skills being a hindrance – also helps highlight Joyce’s disregard for the church and its establishments.
The worrying feature of the man’s discourse is the implicitly perverse way in which he speaks. He frequently refers to the ‘whipping’ of young boys, with one feels, over-excitable ardour. Joyce establishes the man’s odd approach through primarily using such adjectives as ‘magnetised’ and ‘circle’ in reference to his thought process. This creates the impression that he is intent on the subject. Secondly, a section of reported speech is introduced;
‘When a boy was rough and unruly there was nothing would do him any good but a good sound whipping… what he wanted was to get a nice warm whipping.’
Joyce emphasises the mans positive outlook on the subject through the use of a positive lexical range; there is repetition of the word ‘good’ – firstly as a noun, secondly as an adjective – and also use of the adjective ‘nice’, which appears somewhat misplaced when used in conjunction with the concept of whipping.
The protagonist’s isolation from sympathetic intellectuals due to young age means he is quick to warm to the old man when he talks of literature. In the epiphany, he even appears isolated from his closest friend, Mahoney, and it appears to me that the epiphany of the piece (from the young boy’s perspective) confirms that the older man has had a profound influence on his views – both intellectually and sexually. It appears that after entrapment, the isolation of the naï¿½ve child has left him susceptible to corruption and the ‘encounter’ has left the boy and the audience with the idea (with undoubted authorial intent) that the world is not such an innocent place.
Such mental metamorphosis is more openly explicit in Edgar Allen Poe’s work, no epiphanies are evident, yet a first person narrative works to convey the progressively tortured thoughts of the protagonist to the reader. ‘The Pit and The Pendulum’ is a piece typical of the nineteenth century ‘gothic horror’ genre. The main area of focus is that of psychological terror and mental torture of the protagonist, brought about through natural agents and physical entrapment and isolation. The style is typical of Poe, aesthetic – as opposed to scientific – and wholly grotesque.
The piece is, in its simplest form, an account of the destruction of the protagonist’s psyche. Poe begins ‘in medias res’ by describing the trial of the man, the narrator intently focusing upon his gloomy and confused mental state. Syntax used is complex and verbose, helpfully describing the characters inner consciousness and displaying his tangled, entrapping thought processes. The lexical field and imagery employed is especially exotic and indulgent – Poe uses metaphorical language peppered with adverbs and adjectives as the candles before the man alter from ‘white slender angels’ to ‘meaningless spectres, with heads of flame’. Another technique which is commonly employed by Poe is that of repetition, in this particular story, Poe often relies on the syntactical position of verbs to gradually heighten tension, and prompt his audience. A good example of repetition may be found when the protagonist is awaiting his doom at the hands of the pendulum – each new paragraph commences with the preposition ‘down’:
‘Down – steadily down it crept… Down – certainly relentlessly down!.. Down – still increasingly – still inevitably down!’
This repetition works to give extra strength to the nemesis and increase the tense, anxious and bleak atmosphere. The notion of ‘down’ is the most important in the authors mind, and the layout of the word on the page vividly reflects the terrifying motion of the blades descent and, more importantly, the ever more dejected mental state of the protagonist.
A technique used by Poe – and also exhibited by Joyce- is that of prolepsis. The fact that the protagonist is often left thinking of what ‘may be’ suggests a certain degree of isolation – the surrounding atmosphere offering no apparent subjects for the character to focus on in the present. In ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, Poe incorporates a feeling of perpetual unease into the thought processes of his protagonist. There are frequent examples of this which often come about directly before the ‘ghastly’ prospects of the character are realised; as in the heightened, almost hysterical language and excited syntax of:
‘The result of the slightest struggle, how deadly! Was it likely, moreover, that the minions of the torturer had not foreseen and provided for this probability?
It is characteristic of Poe to use hyperbole, a technique which creates a melancholy, theatrical feeling – often seemingly increasing the grandeur. Hyperbole also escalates the terror and entrapment suffered by the protagonist, the indulgent language used portrays a somewhat exaggerated experience to the audience. This technique is supported by extensive use of adjective and adverb, commonly negative in effect, as when the protagonist is close to death by the pendulum;
‘The odour of the sharp steel forced itself into my nostrils. I prayed – I wearied heaven with my prayer for its more speedy descent. I grew frantically mad, and struggled to force myself upward against the sweep of the fearful scimitar. And then I fell suddenly calm, and lay smiling at the glittering death…’
Psychological entrapment in the story is offered in the form of ‘The Pit’. To accomplish the desired atmosphere for such a tortured fate, Poe begins to describe the physical surroundings of the protagonist in some detail. The ‘subterranean world of darkness’ to which the man is instantly subject to is stereotypically associated with Poe’s genre of writing, the gloom becoming a perfect vehicle to carry an unnerving, mystifying atmosphere. Further concern for the antagonist is drawn from the constant reference to his ‘fatigued’ state and also the dangerously ‘moist and slippery’ characteristics of the chamber. The tension generated relies heavily on Poe’s use of syntax – the protagonist encounters ‘The Pit’ through a sequence of brief sentences:
‘I proceeded for many paces; but still all was blackness and vacancy. I breathed more freely.’
The length of the sentences and the fact that Poe does not feel it necessary to justify or convolute the thoughts of the protagonist – who currently sees his punishment as ‘[not] the most hideous of fates’ – represents relatively calm and clear thought processes. As the narrator becomes evermore aware of the horrific situation, Poe mirrors his mounting terror through increasingly complex syntax:
‘The difficulty, nevertheless, was but trivial; although, in the disorder of my fancy, it seemed at first insuperable.’
Poe’s evidently excessive accentuation of punctuation, creating furthermore verbose sentences, achieves a faster movement of thought and a growing sensation of confusion. Eventually, as the protagonist gradually uncovers the secrets of his confinement, a greater fear of entrapment and danger being incubated inside him is realised. Poe displays this through every quickening pace in complex sentences which are supported with dashes – giving the effect of total bemusement and terror in the protagonist, feelings which almost lead to the making of treacherous mistakes. Quite suddenly, with a simple sentence – perceptibly out of step with the ever-increasing complexity of the syntax – the climax of the character’s investigation is revealed; ‘I stepped on it, and fell violently on my face.’ With the inclusion of this short, astute sentence, Poe signals that complex syntax hitherto has given sufficient insight to the audience and that the tension has peaked.
The fact that the piece is written in the form of a first person narrative always suggests – in a similar style to James Joyce’s reflective, possibly older narrator – that the protagonist is reminiscing about his exploits, and that ultimately the piece will not end in his death. This is, of course, the case when General Lasalle of the French army comes to the rescue. The ending is extremely interesting as Poe chooses, unlike the other events of the story, to dramatically reduce proceedings – deciding to summarise the rescue in a short paragraph. The said paragraph uses more restrained syntax – exclamation is succeeded by a simple statement which, in the context, appears almost bathetic.
‘The fiery walls rushed back!.. The French army had entered Toledo.’
It is not entirely clear why Poe has chosen to end the piece in an almost anticlimactic manner. Perhaps he chooses to condense the singular joyful occurrence of the narrative thus maintaining its stance as a work of horror. Many sources, however, maintain that the story’s closure was dictated by demanding time restrictions implemented by Poe’s publishers5. Another reason for Poe choosing a first person narrator is perhaps that this perspective gives us a stronger feeling of entrapment due to our constant awareness of the innermost feelings of the protagonist. The narrative does not, unlike a third person perspective, allow the audience to transcend the situation, providing direct access to the horror which is occurring on the page. There is also no direct speech in the story. This fact reinforces the idea of isolation in the way that the protagonist has no need to speak due to absolute solitude.
The grotesque element of Poe’s work, which quite frequently works as a perversely aesthetic or romantic catalyst for the mental entrapment of the protagonist, is usually evident in the form of a tormentor drawn from nature.6 In ‘The Pit and The Pendulum’, psychological suffering is brought on by a swarm of rats. These animals bring negative connotation, as they are associated with such horror as The Plague. They are definitely an effective device which works to supplement the physical entrapment already being suffered by the protagonist at this time.
At one point, Poe also uses ‘fearful images’ of skeleton forms and such, which ‘disfigure’ the surrounding walls. It is stated that these figures have been created by monks, suggesting that this environment is some kind of medieval building – not designed specifically for torture. It is therefore interesting to observe how Poe manages to alter these innocent images into emotionally petrifying fiends – working as the author will have wished, to terrify the protagonist and therefore, the readership. By introducing entrapment in the form of the wooden framework and hideous vermin, Poe has realised the importance of including both physical and metaphysical entrapment a work of the Gothic horror genre of which he is undeniably a master.
1 ‘The Pit and The Pendulum’ was first published in 1843 for a collection named The Gift, later (revised) for the Broadway Journal in 1985. ‘An Encounter’ – taken from Dubliners – was written in 1904 yet published 1914.
2 In a letter to his English publisher, Grant Richards, he claimed that his intention was ‘to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis.’ (Letters, II, 134).
3 During the summer of 1904, Joyce and his new-found love Nora Barnacle left Ireland for Europe. At ‘An Encounter’s’ time of writing, it is most likely that Joyce was living in Pola – Croatia.
4 The use of the adverb ‘brown’ is also evident to the same effect in the story ‘Araby’. Entrapment is projected through the ‘brown imperturbable faces’ of the housing.
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