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Symbols in The Pit and the Pendulum

Symbols of Terror: Poe’s use of various symbols demonstrates the violence and terror imposed by the Spanish Inquisition: the extinguished white candles demonstrate hopelessness; the grotesque and terrifying pendulum represents the unceasing passage of time; the steaming, glowing pit symbolizes hell; the moving wall represents the closeness of death; and finally, the trumpet at the end of the story symbolizes salvation moments before death.

Symbols Examples in The Pit and the Pendulum:

The Pit and the Pendulum

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"but the closing walls pressed me resistlessly onward...."   (The Pit and the Pendulum)

As the narrator concedes earlier, the pit is a representation of hell. Now, the moving walls symbolize the unknown horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. As the pit morphs and the red-hot walls close in, the narrator is physically and psychologically paralyzed—the unknown, wanton terrors imposed by the inquisition have left him in a state of shock.

"Ultima Thule..."   (The Pit and the Pendulum)

In ancient Greek and Roman cartography and literature, the phrase “Ultima Thule” referred to a northernmost location. This was an imaginative extension of “Thule,” a mysterious island north of England. Later, in medieval literature, the phrase came to mean a distant location beyond the known world. The pit, according to the narrator, is a form of punishment beyond the known world; he even explicitly outlines the way in which the pit is a symbol for hell: “the pit, typical of hell.”

"I now observed—with what horror it is needless to say—that its nether extremity was formed of a crescent of glittering steel, about a foot in length from horn to horn; the horns upward, and the under edge evidently as keen as that of a razor...."   (The Pit and the Pendulum)

The pendulum—described in menacing metaphorical language in phrases like “glittering steel,” “horns upward,” and “keen as that of a razor”—represents the inexorable passage of time. Shaped like Father Time’s scythe, the rhythm of the pendulum mimics the narrator’s heartbeat and brings him closer and closer to death with each passing swing.

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