The story begins at the moment the narrator of "Pit and Pendulum" is sentenced to death at the time of the Catholic Inquisition. The narrator listens to his sentence in a dream-like state, watching the sinister movement of the judges’ lips and the swaying black drapes. Then his senses cut out, and he is filled with a shock-like sensation and the figures around him turn into angel-like ghosts. He faints.
Poe uses the real-life nightmare of the Catholic Inquisition to place his narrator in plausible mortal terror. He adds his own brand of supernatural sensations and visions to the historical detail, making the Inquisition doubly Gothic and mystical.
The narrator of "Pit and Pendulum" tries to describe the strange swoon. It is not like sleep or death, it has its own particular sensations which occur in two stages, the first the return of the spirit, then of the body. He believes that if one is able to remember the first stage during the reawakening of the body, then the gulf that the person who fainted has fallen into will be recalled like the details of a dream. He imagines that the inability to recall this dream is what drives many men into madness.
The first person narration places us, as readers, in such close alignment with the narrator that we are able to follow the physical and mental sensations of fainting and awakening as they occur. The really terrifying thing about the “swoon” is how deep and dangerous it feels to the narrator, as if he might disappear into it and not return.
As the "Pit and Pendulum" narrator’s body awakens, he tries to remember his own descent into this dream world, and imagines silent figures carrying him into darkness and then a terrible stillness as they pause. Then, sound and motion returns and the narrator comes back to consciousness and remembers the details of the trial. He lays still, terrified to open his eyes, not knowing what state he is in. His worst fear is realized – he can see nothing when he opens his eyes, everything is pitch black.
The figures that appear in the narrator’s fainting dream and the judge-like figures of the courtroom together make a ghostly impression of the narrator’s enemy—a many-bodied and many-mouthed but sort of faceless entity that can condemn him to death with overwhelming power.
The narrator of "Pit and Pendulum" tries to figure out what has happened. He can’t possibly be dead. He knows he is condemned to death but doesn’t think they’ve put him in a cell to await his fate because he knows that the hangings of the auto-da-fees happen swiftly, whenever there is a new victim. He notices the stone floors of the prison and panics suddenly that he has been put in a tomb. He flings his arms and walks around and is relieved to find space and air not befitting a tomb. He remembers the nightmares he has heard about the Toledo dungeons. He knows he will die, but the question of when and how torments him.
The fact that the narrator’s state is so ambiguous, even to himself, makes clear how disorienting the process of judgment is and how profoundly the authority is controlling his sensations. He doesn’t even know if he is dead. This description, of the dark and cold, merges with the rumors of the dungeons that he has heard, and creates a setting that is both nightmare and reality.
Stretching out his hands in the dark, the prisoner finds a wall. He attempts to find out the dimensions of his cell by tearing a scrap from the robe that has somehow replaced his own clothes and putting the scrap on the ground so that by following the wall, he will find the scrap again and know the cell’s perimeter. But on his way, he slips and falls into another strange slumber.
Poe gives his narrator qualities of wit and ingenuity, by showing his determination to carefully measure out the dimensions of the cell, but these qualities come to nothing when compared to the power the unknown foe has over him.
When the narrator of "Pit and Pendulum" wakes, a pitcher of water and some bread has been placed beside him. He is so hungry and thirsty that he devours the offering without questioning its source. Then, he resumes the tour of the prison wall, and overall, adding together the steps before his faint and after, he makes the perimeter 100 paces. He finds it impossible to guess the exact area of the cell however, because the walls are jutting and irregular. He now aims to find his way across the cell. He inches his way across the floor but soon trips on the scrap of fabric and falls.
The idea of the narrator’s enemy is stirred again. The fact that the narrator can’t see or know what kind of creature is tormenting him makes the situation even creepier (to him and to the reader). In the darkness, all actions are anonymous and the cell’s owner can do anything without the narrator’s knowledge. The irregularity of the dungeon also exaggerates the idea of the unknown.
As the narrator of "Pit and Pendulum" lands and comes to, he realizes that he is in an extremely precarious position – he is inches away from the edge of some kind of chasm. He loosens a small chunk from the edge and lets it drop and, hearing its descent for several second, knows that the death that had been planned for him was a gruesome one. He has heard about this kind of torture from the rumors of the Inquisition dungeons. He makes his way back to the wall, now imagining numerous other pits dotted across the prison floor.
This pit is a symbol of the deep unknown realm that the Inquisition has created. The rumors of the Inquisition’s torture methods are reigning over its prisoners. It's not even clear whether this room is a cell, or that the pit has an end – it could well be bottomless. In this place, there seem to be no rules.
Eventually the narrator of "Pit and Pendulum" sleeps and when he wakes, another pitcher and loaf has been left. He drinks and thinks the water must have been drugged because he falls into a deathlike sleep. When he wakes yet again, the cell is visible from a light coming from somewhere. He can now see the full size of the cell. It is much smaller than he imagined from his pacing. He realizes he must have counted the room twice over, going back the way he’d come after his fainting spell. The cell is also not so irregular as he’d imagined. The alcoves and juttings that he’d felt must have been enlarged by his sensory deprivation. The walls are hideously decorated with menacing figures.
The transformation of the light in the cell implies a presence outside and some kind of vent or entrance, or at least some kind of source – but this source remains a mystery. Even though the narrator can now see the size of the cell, this outside source now arrives to torment him. He is in the hands of his captors, who are controlling his experience of the cell, and moreover control his mind by drugging him and generating strange effects of the mind so that as readers we are never sure what version of the truth we are getting.
The narrator of "Pit and Pendulum" now realizes that while asleep he has been put on a wooden board and strapped down. There is some very aromatic meat beside the board, but no water this time and he is unbearably thirsty. It is now that the prisoner looks above him and sees that on the cell’s ceiling, the figure of Time has been painted, holding a pendulum. As he looks closer, he sees that the pendulum is moving, in a slow sweep.
Before the narrator was tortured by not being able to see. Now, as he is forced to watch the pendulum descend slowly toward him, swing by swing, the narrator is tortured by being able to see. The narrator’s self control has been removed entirely and he is literally in the hands of the enemy.
The narrator of "Pit and Pendulum" is mesmerized by this motion for a minute but then gets distracted by some huge rats that have entered the cell apparently from the well in the center. When he looks back to the ceiling, he is shocked to find that the pendulum has descended. Its weighty metal blade is sharp as a scythe, and he knows that though he has avoided the well-known doom of the pit, he know must face the pendulum.
Between the downward motion of the scythe, the awful presence of the pit and the scuttling rats, the narrator lies helpless. By creating the scene in this way, Poe focuses everything on the narrator’s mind, as the only outlet he has left, so we become very intimate with his thoughts as he faces death.
The narrator of "Pit and Pendulum" describes the torture of waiting for the pendulum’s slow descent, for days, it seems. One moment, he wishes for it to descend quicker so he can meet his end, the next moment, he struggles to free himself from his restraints. Suddenly, he feels a strange sense of calm, and then the narrator faints again. He wakes paranoid about being watched and sick with hunger, even knowing his impending death. As he strains to reach the meat beside his wooden board, a glimmer of hope occurs to him, a fleeting thought of joy. He struggles to capture this thought but finds his mind is useless with fear.
The narrative follows the twists and turns of denial and acceptance of impending death. What seems a very unnatural circumstance, produces a very natural human response and it is witnessing the human condition awaiting death that causes horror and impatience for the reader. Poe’s use of the psychological side of horror is very effective in bringing a new level of fear to the Gothic mystery genre.
The narrator of "Pit and Pendulum" watches the pendulum swaying back and forth, directly over his heart. He contemplates how the blade would cut through the fabric of his robe, forcing himself to imagine the thrill of feeling the rip. The pendulum keeps coming, down and down, and with each motion, the prisoner’s emotions vary and he laughs and panics alternately in his frenzy. Each time he feels his nerve fight back against death—it is hope that keeps him going. Hope occurs to him again as a half-formed thought.
The pendulum is both a weapon and a time-keeper. It is a symbol of the destruction of time, and the threat of death, which is a recurring theme in Poe’s work. As the pendulum swings, the rhythm mimics the incessant beating of the narrator’s heart and forces him to imagine an end-point when time will stop, when he will die.
The rats are ravenous and have already eaten up the portion of meat beside the bed of the narrator of "Pit and Pendulum". Along with the movement of the pendulum, the narrator lets his hand wave over the empty plate and the rats nibble at it. An idea occurs to him. He wipes the oily residue from the meat along the bandages that restrain him. The rats are slow at first but soon hundreds of rats are upon him, eating through the bandages. The scythe is now almost touching his skin but he manages to duck out of its way at the last moment.
The rats’ devouring of the narrator’s meal forces us to imagine what they will do to his body when he is dead. The rats fuelled only by their desire to eat. But again, the narrator shows his ingenuity and uses the rats to his advantage just in time. In each of these narrow escapes, Poe pushes the narrator right to the last possible minute or inch, pushes him to the bring of death.
Responding to his escape, the pendulum machine stops moving and rises back up to the ceiling, and the narrator of "Pit and Pendulum" knows that his every move is being watched. He looks suspiciously around the cell. He notices that something has changed and tries to distinguish what. It becomes clear that the strange light is coming from a small gap between the wall and the floor going around the perimeter of the cell. He tries in vain to look through it.
The dungeon transforms according to the narrator’s movement and the narrator interacts with it as if it is the enemy. Poe fills these walls and dimensions with a kind of human consciousness giving them a terrifying insight into the narrator’s fears.
There has been another change in the room – the fiends and demons on the walls are now much clearer and brighter. The walls are glowing with these figures and the whole room is full of that metallic light. The atmosphere is quite unreal. Suddenly, the plans of his captors becomes frighteningly clear – the walls are closing in on the narrator of "Pit and Pendulum". As they get closer, the sensation and smell of heat emanates from the glowing walls. He knows that he will be pushed into the pit, and begins to wish for any death but the infamous pit.
The antagonist in this nightmare remains unclear. The narrator’s faceless foe, the Catholic Inquisition, is represented by many threats all at once, the demon faces on the wall, the strange light, a mysterious source of heat, the walls closing in, and behind all of these dangers, the sensation of being watched reminds us that there is a more tangible human presence running the show.
The narrator of "Pit and Pendulum" tries to withstand the pressure of the closing walls but soon he barely has an inch to stand on. When there is nothing more he can physically do, his spirit lets out a final, mournful scream into the pit. As he lets go and is about to fall to his death, the sound of trumpets wakes him. The walls retreat. He is saved! A man enters, General Lassalle, who has come from the French army. They have defeated the Inquisition and the nightmare is over.
It is rare for Poe to bring his narrator to safety at the end, but in this historical tale, the Inquisition is overcome and the mysteries of the pendulum and the pit are swatted aside by the strength of the French. Yet that did not make the narrator's brushes with imminent death any less overwhelming or exhausting. And while the French have abruptly saved the narrator from the inquisition, somehow there is little joy in it, and no celebration. Perhaps it is because, while the French have saved the narrator from this death, they can't, of course, save him from eventual death.