Text: James Lundquist, “The Moral of Averted Descent,” Poe Newsletter­, April 1969, Vol. II, No. 2, 2:25-26


[page 25, column 1:]

The Moral of Averted Descent:
The Failure of Sanity in “The Pit and the Pendulum”

St. Cloud State College

Allen Tate suggests that Poe is “the transitional figure in modern literature because he discovered our great subject, the disintegration of personality ’ ’ (1). Tate here points toward what is certainly a major aspect of Poe’s writing, a preoccupation with what Matthew Arnold called the fragmentation of post-agrarian man. This theme of fragmentation derives in Poe from his tripartite conception of man, a conception that has been noted by several commentators. Edward H. Davidson states that man, to Poe, “is a being formed of three separate and yet interacting forms, body, mind, and spirit” (2). Richard Wilbur stresses how often imagination struggles against the moral sense and the intellect in Poe’s heroes (3). And Poe himself in “The Poetic Principle” divides the “world of mind” into “Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense” (4). But Tate makes a contention that seems more useful in understanding Poe’s fiction than are the schema of Davidson, Wilbur, or even Poe. Tate contends that the kind of disintegration we find in Poe’s characters is the result of a failure to integrate the three classical faculties of feeling, intellect, and will (p. 434). Most Poe characters, Tate suggests, suffer from an excessive development or “hypertrophy” of one of the faculties; Roderick Usher, for example, is afflicted with abnormal feeling, while Ligeia possesses an unusually powerful will. The horror that runs through many of the stories and poems in which such characters appear depends directly upon the hypertrophy of a faculty. It is not merely the death embrace at the end of “The Fall of the House of Usher” that evokes terror, but also the realization that Roderick has heard the first faint struggles of Madeline in her coffin and lacked the will to release her.

In “The Pit and the Pendulum” we have a more complicated kind of horror and perhaps a different kind of horror story. The hero again and again escapes from a terrifying situation only to find himself in worse trouble; but, curiously, the hero is integrated rather than disintegrated — one of the few Poe characters to struggle against his condition with all three faculties functioning together. He is among the sanest of Poe’s characters, but his dilemma is the most terrifying, for when he attains psychic harmony under extreme physical and mental duress he finds that his unified powers of knowledge, feeling, and [column 2:] will reveal, to his great horror, his own hopelessness. Because of the limitations imposed upon him by an inquisitionary force, every act of balance or sanity only leads to a worsening of his situation; this paradox suggests that while Poe ordinarily remained true to his conception of the torture of the disordered personality, he did not overlook the possibility that sanity can be more terrifying than madness (5).

Three crises of sanity confront Poe’s narrator in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” each initially based on a primitive form of feeling or sensation from which a more complex form of feeling (emotional terror) arises. The first crisis occurs after the prisoner awakens in the darkened cell. Because he cannot see, the hero is handicapped in his effort to comprehend his condition; but his will to explore is strong enough to make up for his blindness, and with great ingenuity in manipulating his remaining senses, and with some luck, he discovers the pit. Averting what would have been a fairly sudden death only increases the horror of his situation, however, for after falling asleep in a corner he revives to find that he is strapped down beneath the swinging pendulum. This is the second crisis, and under the impetus of strong emotion (feeling) he pulls himself together in an attempt to escape. His strong will drives him to think of a solution, which becomes apparent the moment he recalls the salty taste (sensation) of the food in the dish beside him. Feeling, intellect, and will function together, and the hero escapes the pendulum — but he escapes into a more restricted and horrible situation. “I had but escaped death in one form of agony, to be delivered unto worse than death in some other” (Works, V, 84) he says, as he enters the third and most horrible crisis. Even though the three faculties are perfectly unified when the glowing walls begin to close in, sanity can no longer help the hero. Through his feeling, his intellect, and his will, he comprehends his predicament and wants to escape, but there is no alternative left. He is completely limited this time, for no adjustment of the faculties can help him. His previous escapes have worsened his condition to the point where he gives up hope and yields at last to an overwhelming hypertrophy of feeling: “the agony of my soul found vent in one loud, long, and final scream of despair” (V, 86).

In “The Pit and the Pendulum,” then, we have the hero paradoxically overcoming his limitations through the integration of his faculties only to find himself more and more limited, and finally reduced to mere feeling. In the darkened cell he is limited by the deprivation of sight; this hampers his ability to know. But his will compensates for this deficiency and he feels his way around the cell until he discovers the pit. Strapped on the wooden framework the hero is limited in his ability to act; but his intellect [page 26:] and senses work together to make action possible. With the glowing walls forcing him toward the pit, however, he is finally limited in his very ability to choose; and feeling, intellect, and will, even if unified, are no help. Each effort by the hero leads to a worse horror; the more adept he becomes at solving problems through the unification of his faculties, the more difficult the problems become, until at last they are beyond his ability to cope with them and the story begins to read like a Kafkaesque parable on man’s fate.

But the crucial point in the story is not in the gradation of horror; it is in the incredible resolution. As supreme as the hero’s efforts are, they only serve to delay his destruction. Ultimate salvation must come from outside himself — and in this, it would seem, lies the moral statement of “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The anonymous hero condemned for an unknown, or at least unstated, crime by a merciless Inquisition apparently represents mankind condemned by a vindictive power for an almost forgotten sin. His sentence is not immediate death but life lived amid horror, which he is limited in his ability to comprehend and from which he can never escape through his own exertion. In the context of a parable of man, the moral purpose of his sentence is seemingly to diminish his faith in his own power. But the moment he gives up and commits himself to the final descent into the pit, the moment he gives up any hope of saving himself, an arm reaches out and saves him. This unexpected salvation gives the story a pattern of moral allegory that would at first seem to contradict Poe’s own critical objections to didacticism. But as Jay L. Halio has shown, Poe did not object to “a moral undercurrent” in literature; and other of Poe’s stories, such as “Morella” and “A Descent into the Maelström,” have a “moral basis” (6). And the way that the story’s turning point is described in eschatological language underscores the allegorical structure: “There was a loud blast as of many trumpets! There was a harsh grating as of a thousand thunders! The fiery walls rushed back!” (V, 86-87). The arrival of Lasalle in Toledo is announced as if it were the second coming (7).

As Davidson writes, “One might make a case for Poe as a religious writer: he employs the form and action of the religious experience” (8). In “The Pit and the Pendulum” the form and action of religious experience centers around the paradox of sanity. Poe’s hero endures the multi-levelled horror that arises out of the limitations imposed upon the fully functioning man who first finds himself limited in his ability to know, then in his ability to act, and finally in his ability to choose. But his perseverance, unlike that of Dupin, while it solves one problem always leads to another, and the integrated personality survives to endure horrors that the disintegrated personality would never have had to face. It is precisely the hero’s ability to survive, however, that leads to his redemption; had he not been able to hold out until the moment of grace, for him, as it is for many of Poe’s other protagonists, there would have been no Lasalle. The moral is similar to that wry explanation Browning gave of “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”: “He that endureth to the end shall be saved.” Or, to put it another way, to enter heaven a man must first go through hell. What Poe achieves in the abrupt narrative twist of “The Pit and the Pendulum” is a perverse vision of hope amid despair; and this, more [column 2:] than the disintegration of personality may be the great subject that he discovered.



(1)  Allen Tate, “The Angelic Imagination: Poe as God,” Collected Essays (Denver, 1959), p. 439.

(2)  Edward H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), p. 195.

(3)  Richard Wilbur, “The House of Poe,” The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Criticism Since 1829, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Ann Arbor, 1966), p. 264.

(4)  Edgar Allan Poe, “The Poetic Principle,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison, XIV (New York, 1902/1965), 272.

(5)  The pendulum itself by Poe’s time was a traditional symbol of balance; but in this story the balance mechanism has its destroying razor-edge, the irony of which is apparent.

(6)  Jay L. Halio, “The Moral Mr. Poe,” Poe Newsletter, I (October 1968), 23-24.

(7)  David H. Hirsch, “The Pit and the Apocalypse,” Sewanee Review, LXXVI (Autumn 1968), 649. Hirsch demonstrates the similarity of language and symbolism between Poe’s description of Lasalle’s intervention and New Testament descriptions of the end of the world in I Corinthians and Revelation. Hirsch also emphasizes the similarity of the hero’s condition to Kahler’s understanding of existential experience, a similarity which Poe’s ending somewhat negates despite Hirsch’s explanation of the deus ex machina in terms of “transcendence upward” (p. 648).

(8)  Poe: A Critical Study, pp. 123-124.


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1969]