“The Pit and the Pendulum”

 

In my junior year in high school, as one of our first assignments in English class, we read Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

I took my homework very seriously and was a highly motivated student — in English for certain. I would go to my bedroom upstairs after dinner and pretty much lock myself in for the rest of the evening.

I read the story. It didn’t scare me. I lay down on my bed (does this sound stupid?) and tried to imagine being the character tortured mentally in the story, with an imagined pendulum swinging overhead:

Looking upward, I surveyed the ceiling of my prison. … In one of its panels a very singular figure riveted my whole attention. It was the painted figure of Time as he is commonly represented, save that, in lieu of a scythe, he held what, at a casual glance, I supposed to be the pictured image of a huge pendulum such as we see on antique clocks. … While I gazed directly upward at it (for its position was immediately over my own) I fancied that I saw it in motion. …

… What I then saw confounded and amazed me. The sweep of the pendulum had increased in extent by nearly a yard. As a natural consequence, its velocity was also much greater. But what mainly disturbed me was the idea that had perceptibly descended. 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 story did not have much of an effect on me. In retrospect, I would be inclined to say that Poe the writer never did.

The next day in English class, I raised my hand and said that I had expected Poe’s horror story, to scare me. But it hadn’t.

This was entirely normal, to be expected, our English teacher, Mr. Tighe said. Fiction, he said, is fiction. (This is a paraphrase of what he said.) It’s not supposed to be “real.” We read it from a different, detached perspective.

This seems obvious now, but Mr. Tighe’s observations were very instructive for me at this point in my life, when I was an eager student hoping to be a good student of literature.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

    March 2022

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