Characteristics Of Romanticism in The Pit and The Pendulum


The short story of “The Pit and the Pendulum”, written by Edgar Allan Poe, is a horror story about a man who is imprisoned during the Spanish Inquisition, and undergoes means of torture which he struggles to escape from but is rescued in the end by the French Army. This story is successful at stimulating fear in readers, and highlights themes of torture, emotions, death, terror, the will to live, fate, and sin of man (to which he is being punished for).

These themes show a variety of characteristics of Romanticism as Poe uses his style, word usage, and subject matter to follow this literary style (while providing the readers with a suspenseful and dramatic effect). Thus, my analysis will cover some of these themes in relation to the devices Poe uses to illustrate them in the Romantic literary style.

The Elements of Romanticism in The Pit and the Pendulum

The first part where Poe showcases Romanticism lies at the beginning of the story, with the focus on the senses and its dark mood.

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“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” (143). With this opening statement, feelings of melancholy and hopelessness are settled upon the scene. Later in the paragraph, the prisoner describes the judges as he sees them: “I saw the lips of the black-robed judges. 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 immovable resolution, of stern contempt of human torture” (143).

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In this quote, the prisoner tells of his fate as being in the hands of these unknown judges, and his condemnation being determined by them, who appear to be somewhat evil and demonic. His sentence to torture by these judges is seen as an example of the sinful nature of man with their lack of mercy towards others. Also, as the prisoner watches the candles melt away, he feels his hope does too. Poe has illustrated the characteristics of terror and evil with these examples.

Use of Romanticism to Instill Fear

Since Romanticism puts emphasis on emotions and powerful feelings, Poe uses first-person point of view in order to stimulate fear, give a frightening effect and to make the reader know exactly what the character is feeling. The character is physically imprisoned in the cell, but fear is the main emotion he felt. For example, as the character is thrown into the dungeon, he describes his thoughts and feelings stating that: “A fearful idea now suddenly drove the blood in torrents upon my heart, and for a brief period, I once more relapsed into insensibility. Upon recovering, I at once started to my feet, trembling convulsively in every fibre” (146). Through this description, Poe attempts to involve the reader into the character’s mind and senses so that they can feel the same horrors as him. In that way, by using a first person narrative, it exposes the readers to feelings of terror and suspense in a way that a third person narrative could not. The readers are able to view the frightening and horrific experience from the character’s perspective rather than a third person’s perspective. Also, using first person narrative in this story makes it more dramatic and suspenseful in a sense that the reader is limited to knowing the same amount about the character’s surroundings as he does, and thus not knowing what to expect next.

Poe also instills fear and horror through the setting in the story. The story takes place in an inescapable prison cell that includes a pit, a sharp pendulum, and unpleasant atmosphere. “The figures of fiends in aspects of menace, with skeleton forms, and other more really fearful images, overspread and disfigured the walls” (150). This description of the interior setting is meant to bring upon dark and gloomy pictures in a reader’s mind. In its boarder setting, Poe specifically chose a time period, which has an unpleasant reputation. The story occurred during the Spanish Inquisition, which would make the reader historically aware of the forms of punishments and tortures that were given out during that time; therefore, foreshadowing and providing the reader with the knowledge that the prisoner is about to receive some type of horrific punishment; hence, giving the reader feelings of suspense. The story does not reveal much information about the prisoner in terms of his name, what his crime was and whether he is guilty or not. It simply describes in detail the means by which the church officials try to torment and break the prisoner, and his own attempts to avoid and escape that excruciating mental and physical torment.

Romanticism: Instrument to Illustrate Nature

Another theme of Romanticism is about the nature of the world, and that theme is acknowledged in the story as dark, evil and mysterious. The sentence that is imposed upon the prisoner is very inhumane as it inflicted mental and physical pain on him. He is left to suffer by the disgusting nature of the prison, the form of death he received in being sliced open, and the psychological torture of the descent of the pendulum. All these types of torment and the vile living conditions he’s in just show the decaying nature of the world and the evil nature in human beings.

Romanticism' Symbolism and Figurative Language

Poe also illustrates features of Romanticism through his effective use of metaphorical representations and symbolism in the story. The pit would be one of the main symbols that are portrayed in the story in where it could represent many things such as emptiness or death. The character described what he had sensed as he fell with his face resting on the floor. “At the same time my forehead seemed bathed in a clammy vapor, and the peculiar smell of decayed fungus arose to my nostrils… I had fallen at the very brink of a circular pit… I hearkened to its reverberations as it dashed against the sides of the chasm in its descent; at length there was a sullen plunge into water, succeeded by loud echoes” (148). With this description, it seems to symbolize ‘hell’ because this pit (in its own way) resembles hell with its deepness, hotness, disgusting and unknown horrors that lay down there. Also, towards the end of the story, the character is being forcefully pushed towards the pit, or in other words being pushed towards destruction, death, and horror.

Another symbol that’s provided in the story is one of the torture devices, which is the pendulum. This pendulum is a symbol of death and it represents time. The pendulum is sharp and it swings like the pendulum of a clock. As the pendulum is swinging closer and closer towards the prisoner, time is passing away and he gets one step closer to death. This device is also a form of psychological torture that the prisoner is sentenced to. The more the bladed pendulum gets closer to slicing him, the more tension, fear, and distress it causes the prisoner, which could possibly lead him to insanity. The rats are also symbols in this story. Though rats are commonly viewed as disgusting, filthy and vulgar creatures, the character used them to his advantage. He spread some of the food left on his bindings and allowed the rats to chew through them, therefore freeing him from bondage and escaping death. In that ways, these rats can represent “freedom” or “a second chance at life” from the torture device.

Hope in The Pit and the Pendulum

Furthermore, there appears to be a manifestation of hope throughout the story. While the prisoner is being tortured, he is able to maintain his capability of thinking fast and rationally regardless of his fear, distress and anxiety. He was also aware and able to describe his thoughts and feelings of hope when he said “As I put a portion of it within my lips, there rushed to my mind a half formed thought of joy -- of hope. Yet what business had I with hope? It was, as I say, a half formed thought man has many such which are never completed” (152). This phrase puts emphasis on his nature on hope. We see a struggle between his weak hope and his growing despair. However, because of the little amount of hope that’s left in him, his mind is able to function and tries to work its way out of his torment, and therefore the feeling of hope prevents him from giving up and feeding his despair. Eventually, when he is rescued by the French army, his hope of freedom becomes real.


Overall, Poe portrays characteristics of Romanticism in his story through his point of view, symbolism, setting, and themes. The nature of the punishment that the character is subjected to (as in it tortures him both physically and mentally) reveals the dark, evil sided nature of the world, and the immorality of man. This gives a heavy sense of death and conveys a very dark and miserable mood, which provides the readers with a dramatic and thrilling sensation that Poe intended to give. The whole main idea of this is that the overall form of the story with its drama, suspense, and tragedy really illustrates qualities of Romantic literary style and context.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Characteristics Of Romanticism in The Pit and The Pendulum. (2024, Feb 02). Retrieved from

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