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Imagery in The Pit and the Pendulum

Auditory, Olfactory, and Kinesthetic Imagery: Poe’s use of imagery reveals his expertise as a horror-fiction author. Throughout “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Poe employs auditory, olfactory, and kinesthetic imagery, which engage readers’ senses of sound, smell, and bodily movement, respectively. Words like “hissing” serve as examples of auditory engagement, the alliteration of the s sound mimicking the sibilant sounds of the pendulum. Poe’s vivid use of imagery allows his readers to sense the narrator’s torment from a very intimate position, as if they were experiencing it themselves.

Imagery Examples in The Pit and the Pendulum:

The Pit and the Pendulum

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"There was a loud blast as of many trumpets!..."   (The Pit and the Pendulum)

Poe’s use of auditory imagery, which pervades and controls the entire story, concludes with the sound of trumpets, a symbol of triumph and liberation. Against the sounds of rats gnawing at surcingles and the hissing of a pendulum, the sound of the trumpets comes as a welcome reprieve and signals the narrator’s victory out of the pit.

"Even while I breathed there came to my nostrils the breath of the vapour of heated iron! A suffocating odour pervaded the prison! A deeper glow settled each moment in the eyes that glared at my agonies! A richer tint of crimson diffused itself over the pictured horrors of blood. I panted! I gasped for breath! ..."   (The Pit and the Pendulum)

In a medley of visual and olfactory imagery, the narrator describes the pit as it heats up. The smell of “heated iron” pollutes the space; the light of the bottom of the pit encompasses the area like a “tint of crimson.” The culmination of these different forms of imagery create a sense of panic—seen in the narrator’s use of frantic exclamations.

"Forth from the well they hurried in fresh troops. ..."   (The Pit and the Pendulum)

Poe’s diction and use of the alliterative f sound create rhythm, which in turn mimics the sounds of the rats. Poe’s use of “fresh troops” of rats also suggests that the narrator has been overtaken by an organized military infantry.

"hissing vigor..."   (The Pit and the Pendulum)

The verb “hissing” means to make a sharp, sibilant sound, and connotes the sound a snake or serpent might make; the noun “vigor” refers to an intense action. This combination of words conjures auditory imagery that characterizes the pendulum as a serpent careening powerfully towards the narrator.

"At the same time my forehead seemed bathed in a clammy vapor, and the peculiar smell of decayed fungus arose to my nostrils. ..."   (The Pit and the Pendulum)

The narrator falls short of plunging into the abyss. As he falls forward, his head suspended above the void, he senses a “clammy vapor” and smells “decayed fungus.” Here, the narrator provides both tactile and olfactory imagery: readers can envision the feeling of the damp air and the putrid smell of death arising out of the abyss.

"Perspiration burst from every pore..."   (The Pit and the Pendulum)

Kinesthesia, or kinesthetic imagery, is a literary device whereby the narrator describes physical bodily movement or action. Poe uses this technique frequently to detail how the narrator is physically incapacitated. Here, readers gather a sense of the frenzy of the narrator, whose perspiration bursts uncontrollably “from every pore.”

"supervened..."   (The Pit and the Pendulum)

Here, the narrator notes how the candles vanish and how the “blackness of darkness supervened.” To highlight the utter darkness of the scene, the narrator redundantly pairs the words blackness and darkness together. Both words suggest complete and pervasive nothingness, and when combined compound this overall sense. The word “supervened” means to result as an additional development, suggesting that as the candles extinguish, the blackness enters and envelops the scene.

"like a rich musical note,..."   (The Pit and the Pendulum)

The narrator, so petrified of the situation he finds himself in, wishes desperately for death. Using simile, the narrator claims that the prospect of “sweet rest” appeals to him as a “rich musical note.” He wishes for death, because to him, it is sweeter, gentler, and more welcoming than of the torture he imagines he will face.

"whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words..."   (The Pit and the Pendulum)

The second image readers encounter is that of the “black-robed judges” whose lips are lifelessly, ghoulishly white. The narrator compares the judges’ lips to the whiteness of the pages on which he now writes this story, in turn foreshadowing the outcome: he will survive the torture.

"accentuation ..."   (The Pit and the Pendulum)

The word “accentuation” describes an emphasized sound. As the narrator loses most of his senses—his ability to see, smell, taste, or touch—he retains his capability to hear. The first imagery readers encounter is the auditory imagery of the inquisitorial notice, which the narrator describes as the “dread sentence of death.” The sounds meld together throughout the following lines as the narrator moves in and out of consciousness and the sounds coalesce into “one dreamy indeterminate hum.”

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