Shared Emotions: Poe--The Pit and the Pendulum
The MHS Review 410, VOL. 12, NO.14• 1988
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There is probably no author so widely misunderstood as Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). There is a myth that has persisted for years, fostered by both lovers and critics of the author, that Poe himself was some sort of deranged maniac, a man obsessed with the horrible and fantastic, who lived a life straight out of--well, out of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, a man who exhumed dead bodies, feasted on cobwebs, and loved the dark shadows and eery corners of life. In fact, this simple-minded vision of the author overlooks not only Poe's considerable talents as writer and poet, but also his considerable talents as the creator of the modern mystery story, his investigations into scientific theory, and his critical writings on the art of poetry.
Poe himself is part of the problem. In his autobiographical writings, he often takes a purposely fantastic voice, making himself the wild protagonist of his own fantasies. But this hardly means that the real Poe crept through graveyards for amusement, or that Poe's real aim was merely to titillate us.
In fact, Poe selected his subjects with one aim: to stir deep emotions, to create a heightened sense of reality. The greatest writing, he reasoned, should plummet the depths of human feelings. In order to reach into the well of human experience, one naturally should select those areas where feelings are most exposed, where the raw vein of experience can be touched. Thus, horrible occurrences-the death of a loved one, murder, torture, obsessive jealousy or fear-all make ideal subjects for the author interested in exploring the contours of feelings.
"The Pit and the Pendulum" thus is more than a story of the Spanish Inquisition. In fact, the story's setting is incidental to its real subject--how a human being copes with the knowledge that death is slowly, but steadily, approaching. Like all of us, the narrator is condemned to die, slowly rotting in a prison cell which is his body. He is condemned to die, but he does not know how he will die. It is this slow realization--and the increasing tension as death reveals "The Pit and the Pendulum" thus is more than a story of the Spanish Inquisition. In fact, the story's setting is incidental to its real subject-how a human being copes with the knowledge that death is slowly, but steadily, approaching. Like all of us, the narrator is condemned to die, slowly rotting in a prison cell which is his body. He is condemned to die, but he does not know how he will die. It is this slow realization-and the increasing tension as death reveals itself-which makes the emotional core of this powerful story.
The story survives for us today not because we are all fascinated by the horrors of the Inquisition, but because Poe is able to portray the emotional landscape of that time. And those powerful emotions are shared by all of us, all who are condemned to face the painful realities of life and death.
So don't think of cobwebs or organ music when listening to this tape, or of Vincent Price making goo-goo eyes at a corpse. Think of ordinary men trapped in extraordinary circumstances. This is the real world of Edgar Allan Poe.