Themes & Symbolism in "The Pit and the Pendulum"

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Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in The Pit and the Pendulum


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Activity Overview

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the story, and support their choices with details from the text.


The success of the story comes from its ability to access one fundamental human quality: fear. In the case of the narrator, he is fearful of his sentence, fearful of pain, and in real fear of death. He is able to maintain his rational faculties throughout his ordeal, however, which is notable because he does not become paralyzed by fear, even though his circumstance is completely terrifying. The chamber itself is made to induce fear; the slow descent of the pendulum creates both psychological suspense and mortal terror; and the pit represents the final decision: death, the ultimate fear.

Intolerance and Injustice

The narrator is a victim of the Spanish Inquisition, which sentenced and tortured those who were found guilty of secretly practicing their religions, or who were found to be withholding information. This system of intolerance is based in the Spanish justice system: there is a formal charge, an investigation, a trial, a judgment, and a sentence. The whole system, however, is based on injustice because the basic premises of these trials is people’s inability to practice their own religion freely. Even his sentence is an unjust one, because it is not a simple execution or an opportunity for penance: it is sheer psychological torture and certain death.

The Power of Despair

The narrator gives in to utter despair a few times throughout the story. The first is when he physically loses consciousness after his sentence, knowing that all hope of mercy is lost. The second comes when he almost gives in to the inevitable death that the pendulum seems ready to deliver. However, this “collected calmness of despair” allows him to formulate a plan of escape, which works. Finally, the narrator’s last act of despair comes with his scream as he is about to be pushed into the pit. His scream seems to bring forth General Lasalle at the absolute last moment, who is able to save him from certain death.

The Chamber

The Chamber itself is an instrument of fear. It makes use of complete and disorienting darkness, then mysterious glowing, with pictures of horrifying creatures on the walls to wreak psychological havoc on the narrator. The walls themselves become the instrument of certain death for the narrator, as they push him towards the pit after he escapes from the pendulum.

The Pendulum

The pendulum swings back and forth, much like a grandfather clock. Each moment it swings, the narrator is confronted with the terrifying reality that it’s both getting closer, and it is razor sharp. The pendulum is part of this “just” sentence being issued by the inquisitors, but in reality, it is an instrument of psychological torture. It creates the idea of a game, giving the narrator so much time to formulate an escape, or he loses.

The Pit

The pit is the narrator’s first close call with death, as he almost tumbles headlong into it while stumbling around in the chamber in the dark. The pit becomes his final choice as he is pushed towards it by the enclosing chamber walls which are burning fire-hot. The narrator knows that the pit means certain death for him, and he screams in despair as he finds he has run out of options.

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Template and Class Instructions

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in “The Pit and the Pendulum”. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.

  1. Click "Start Assignment".
  2. Identify the theme(s) from “The Pit and the Pendulum” you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for examples that represents this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.

Template: Theme


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