Edgar Allan Poe’s Horror Works: The Pit and The Pendulum
Edgar Allan Poe is an expert when it comes to writing horror. He holds over 60 short stories to his name. Poe has a very distinct style of writing. Because of his uniqueness, his stories share many attributes. Poe is obsessed with the macabre and shows that obsession in all of his stories. Some of his most notable works are “The Pit and The Pendulum” and the arguably more well-known “A Tell-Tale Heart.” Both of these stories have many similarities between them. Some of the similarities that can be seen in Poe’s writings are mental illness, death, tone, fear, and point of view. “The Pit and The Pendulum” and “A Tell-Tale Heart” share more similarities than differences.
Death is prevalent in all of Poe’s stories. It is to be expected since he was surrounded by people dying throughout his lifetime. There are three different types of death that Poe usually focuses on. The different forms of dying that he uses are murder, suicide, and disease. Poe prefers to demonstrate murder in most of his stories. In his stories, more often than not, the main character is the murderer, like in “A Tell-Tale Heart.” However, in “The Pit and the Pendulum” the main character is the one who is being murdered, or at least trying to be killed by the inquisition. Poe doesn’t tend to use suicide in his stories. He only uses suicide in one of his novels. In an article by the Atlantic Press, when talking about how Poe uses death, the author states that “to some degree suicide is murder, and its slight difference is that the perpetrator and victim in this process is one” (Xiaobin 176). It actually makes quite a bit of sense. Maybe that is what Poe was going for. When it comes to disease, he portrayed his characters as almost welcoming death. This way of reasoning brings up an anomaly because in “The Pit and The Pendulum” the main character welcomes his own death. If he welcomes his own death, one could say he had a sickness of the mind.
In both stories Poe makes his narrators unreliable. In “A Tell-Tale Heart” the reader cannot trust the narrator. He tries so hard to justify his actions whereas a reliable narrator wouldn’t feel obligated to do so. Plus, his reasoning for killing the old man makes no real sense. He even acknowledges his own mental problems at one point. When talking about himself he states he’s “very dreadfully nervous” (Poe, 2014, para. 1). After that statement, a few other factors help us conclude that the narrator is drifting into madness. Poe does a masterful job at expressing a character’s descent into madness. In a very accurate statement by Chunyan Sun, she states, “Poe’s works are full of suspense and passion. Terror always came in an unguarded moment and the readers experienced an exaggerated excitement because of the terror” (Sun 94). That statement is very accurate when concerning these stories. In “The Pit and The Pendulum,” the narrator is unreliable but is definitely more reliable than the narrator from “A Tell-Tale Heart.” The reason “The Pit and The Pendulum” narrator is unreliable is because he loses consciousness a lot throughout the story and has a couple of hallucinations. In one line he states that his captors have “magically vanished,” which doesn’t sound like a remark of a sane man.
Poe not only puts fear into his readers, but he also puts fear into his characters. Each main character shares one emotion and that is fear. They are scared for different reasons. The narrator from “A Tell-Tale Heart” is scared of numerous things. He is most scared of the old man’s blue eye. It could be argued that the eye is the source of the narrator’s problems. The second thing he is scared of is being seen as mad. He rants that: Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work! (Poe, 2014, para. 3)
He tries desperately to prove he isn’t mad by hiding the body. If he wasn’t mad, he wouldn’t have killed in the first place! The last thing he is scared of is getting caught. He claims the old man’s heartbeat is so loud that it will “wake the neighbors.” In “The Pit and The Pendulum” the narrator is scared of one thing. He is scared of dying. He almost gets murdered quite a few times. He is scared of the different things that are trying to kill him, but it ultimately relates back to his own death. He starts to hallucinate and describes what he sees: Demon eyes, of a wild and ghastly vivacity, glared upon me in a thousand directions, where none had been visible before, and gleamed with the lurid luster of a fire that I could not force my imagination to regard as unreal. (Poe, 2014, para. 35) At this moment he realized his third brush with death is about to come upon him. The fear and panic begin to creep back in on him. Many of Poe’s works have very few characters. This dynamic is prevalent in both of these stories. In “The Pit and The Pendulum” there are only three characters. The first and main character has no name, but we know as a prisoner. The second character only has a brief appearance at the very end. His name is General Lasalle. His only role was to save the narrator by pulling his arm back. The third character isn’t actually one person, but rather a group of people from the inquisition. They are the antagonists of the story. Like General Lasalle, the inquisition does not say a word, but only make appearances.
In “A Tell-Tale Heart” there are a few more characters, but they don’t add much to the story. First there is the main character and narrator. Again, the narrator does not have a name. In fact, none of the characters have names in this story. The second character is called “the old man.” Not much is actually known about this character. The only thing we know about him is that he is staying with the narrator, and that he has a blue eye. The old man and his eye are the ultimate downfall of the narrator. He didn’t even do anything except exist. The third character in this story is another group. The group is made up of three policemen who have no real definition. Even though they have no definition, they still play a key role in the story. The last character in this story might not even be considered a character. The neighbor doesn’t make an appearance or speak. The neighbor is just referred to twice in the story. Other than just being mentioned, the neighbor is a bit forgettable. Perhaps Poe meant for the lack of characters to help the reader focus on the inner turmoil of the narrator.
Every story written by Poe has a level of sadness to them, even the ones that seem to be playful. At first glance, “A Tell-Tale Heart” doesn’t really seem to be that sad, but once one starts to pick the story apart, it becomes apparent the narrator is deeply ill. Thinking about the character like that might very well be more akin to pity than to sadness. Yet, pity is often close enough to sadness. When reading “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the reader feels more connected to the main character. Most people don’t like for others to be in pain, so, in that sense, the reader feels sorry to the main character. Surprisingly, the ending to this story diverges from the norm. The main character lives and, with that sense of success, the reader leaves on a happier note than usual from reading one of Edgar Allan Poe’s Stories. Edgar Allan Poe is a true horror and literary icon. Thanks to his uniqueness, his works will not ever be forgotten. Even though his stories share many attributes, they still hold their own in the world of literature. That much is obvious when comparing “The Pit and The Pendulum” and “A Tell-Tale Heart.” Each of Poe’s stories are memorable just like him.
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