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Importance of Dreams in “The Pit and the Pendulum”

In the opening of the story, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, there is a quote. The end

of the quote, “Mors ubi dira fuit vita salusque paten,” says, “where grim death has been,

life and health appear.” Edgar Allen Poe suggests that maybe there is more to life after

death. Poe is a writer that used stories to represent ideas and values he had about life.

Poe does an amazing job by telling a horror story, while incorporating a message he is

trying to make. The allegoric meaning of the story is about death and peoples worst types

of nightmares. Poe says that perhaps life is all just a dream and solid reality could just be

dreams of hope and projection.

In the beginning of “The Pit and the Pendulum”, it opens up, “I was sick-sick unto

death with the long agony…” (Poe 62). Immediately the reader is thrown into the feeling

and sense of death. Poe uses a direct and captivating opening sentence to get the readers

attention immediately. While Poe uses death as a main theme, there is also a theme that

involves the whimsical way the story is told, like the whole story is a dream or nightmare.

Poe refers to dreams in many different parts of the story, like when the narrator is telling

how he got into the dungeon in the first place saying, “the sound of the inquisitorial

voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum.”(Poe 62) Referring to the

dreams, it makes it difficult for the reader to know whether what is happening is reality or

nightmare, which is what Poe was trying to accomplish. Poe wanted the readers to feel

that the principles society has could just be a way of giving people something to have

hope in.

In another paragraph, the Poe writes:
Arousing from the most profound of slumbers, we break the gossamer
web of some dream. Yet in a second afterward, (so frail may that web
have been) we remember not that we have dreamed. In the return to life
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from the swoon there are two stages; first that of the sense of mental or
spiritual; secondly, that of the sense of physical, existence. It seems
probable that if, upon reaching the second stage, we could recall the
impressions of the first, we should find these impressions eloquent in
memories of the gulf beyond. (63)
I got the sense that the narrator is suggesting that we should remember our dreams, but

we don’t. I think Poe is puzzled by this and suggests that we are somehow always in a

dream. The entire story is so whimsical, like this paragraph suggests, I feel like Poe is

trying to say that life is one big dream and that perhaps we cannot look upon our life right

not because we cannot recall the first “stage”. In the paragraph, Poe talks about the two

stages of life. I think this is when Poe is really trying to make his point. I think giving

these two stages is a way of Poe expressing his point to the readers. I think Poe feels like

maybe there is more to life than simply the here and now when he says, “the gulf

beyond”(Poe 63). I think Poe doesn’t want to come out and just say this so he disguises

it in this story and gives the idea to the narrator himself. I think Poe believes that there is

a more dreamlike feel to life than true reality.

Throughout the story, the narrator repeatedly falls asleep. By doing this, Poe

writes about the narrator being thrown into absolute darkness, which makes it hard for the

reader to know whether the story is really happening or if it is only a nightmare. One of

the interesting times was when the narrator awoke for the first time in the prison. The

narrator says, “I longed, yet dared not to employ my vision. I dreaded the first glance at

objects around me. It was not that I feared to look upon things horrible, but that I grew

aghast lest there should be nothing to see.”(Poe 64) To me, Poe was trying to make a

point that the narrator was more frightened to open his eyes and see the real world. The

narrator would rather dream and not know what was really happening to him. The

narrator shows no sense of reason as to why there would be anything there and, to me,
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this kind of makes it sound that Poe doubts that reason will save the world. If the

narrator cannot reason that there is life outside of his closed eyes, how can he reason that

there is real life at all?

When the narrator investigates the dungeon, he miscounts his steps and how big

the room actually was. Poe could have done this to show that the narrator’s perception

doesn’t match reality. This goes back to enhancing the fact that the reader doesn’t even

know whether this story is reality or a dream. The narrator projected that the room was

much bigger with lots of masonry. In reality, it was about half the size he had thought

with iron surrounding the room. Poe was trying to conjure the idea that life is made out

to be bigger and more important than what it actually is: one big dream.

One of the biggest themes of the story is the historical context to the Spanish

Inquisition during the sixteenth century, when the Roman Catholic Church, persecuted

heretics and members of religion with torture and execution. Poe incorporates this

historical event so that the reader could potentially take away the feeling that he is

recalling the Inquisition. I believe Poe did this to, once again, show that if this man had

been convicted of a crime during the Spanish Inquisition, he should be killed. The

narrator is not though. He has hope throughout the story and, Poe believes that the hope

the narrator has is just a dream he has of being someone great and fighting and surviving

the Inquisition.

In the end of the story, Poe seems to emphasize even more that the story is a

dream. When the narrator says:

These colors had now assumed…a startling and most intense brilliancy,
that gave to the spectral and fiendish portraitures…Demon eyes, of a wild
and ghastly vivacity, glared upon me in a thousand directions, where none
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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 72).
This exert from the story seems to just be completely fictional to imagine happening in

real life. It is almost as if it is demonic and satanic. It seems completely unrealistic to

readers and I believe Poe meant to do this. Poe wanted to create a rather out of body

experience to make the reader feel as though this was a big dream and the narrator would

soon snap out of it. When I first read this story in high school, I had guessed that the

ending would reveal that he was in a dream, rather than him being rescued.

The biggest claim one could make to prove that the story could be a dream is the

fact that the story has a happy ending. Poe writes, “There was a harsh grating as of a

thousand thunders! The fiery walls rushed back! An outstretched arm caught my own as I

fell, fainting, into the abyss.”(Poe 73) The whole idea that the French Army came to

rescue the narrator in the exact place at the exact moment was a very far fetched idea.

The idea of this story having a happy ending is so far fetched that it was completely

dreamlike. I believe that Poe used this ending in a way of giving hope to the readers,

which Poe believed is what peoples lives were built off of. I found it rather odd that Poe

drags out the whole book, only to sum up the most interesting part of the story, the

ending, into only four sentences.

Another aspect of the story that could be taken to be a nightmarish theme is the

way the narrator could be killed. The narrator could have been sliced or pushed into the

pit. I thought these were reminiscent of types of dreams people could typically have. A

lot of people have fears of falling or being killed and having no way to prevent this. The

narrator was so overcome by fear at the thought of falling into the pit he says, “Death,

any death but that of the pit!”(Poe 73) Many times people dream of falling. I looked up
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what dream analysis of dreams that involve people falling and it described that it could

mean you feel out of control or power in some aspect of life. Maybe Poe believed that

this falling into the pit kind of represented how the narrator had no control on what the

Inquisition was doing at the time. The narrator could have felt overwhelmed and was

simply dreaming of this situation.

In class, we talked about the pendulum representing time. I think it could

represent time in the fact that the pendulum reminds me of a grandfather clock because it

also has a pendulum. The narrator seems comfortable with the thought of dying to the

pendulum because he would think of other things and didn’t get as fearful as he was

about to die from the pit. When the walls were caving in and the narrator seemed to have

no hope, the narrator says, “I neither hoped nor desired it to stop.”(Poe 73) Poe seems to

suggest that the narrator isn’t really concerned with dying but more concerned with the

realization that the narrator will die no matter what. He had no real hope at that point to

even try to stop the inevitable.

“The Pit and the Pendulum” is a story of tortures and the opposition to the

Inquisition. Poe used many different and vivid details to make readers actually feel like

this could only be a terrible dream. I believe that Poe wanted readers to get the sense that

this was a dream to this narrator. The happy ending of this story is so unlike Poe that I

believe he was trying to prove a point. I think Poe was trying to get his readers to feel

that maybe there is something more than just life here on earth. I don’t know if Poe was

a religious man, but I do believe that he thought there was something bigger and more

realistic then this dreamlike life humans project. I think the way the story is written and

how the reader doesn’t know if the story was actually a dream was Poe’s hidden way of
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trying to relay his message. I think Poe says that perhaps life is all just a dream and solid

reality could just be dreams of hope and projection.

Works Cited

Poe, Edgar Allen. The Gold-Bug and Other Tales. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.,
1991.