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The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe

Teacher Guide by Kristy Littlehale

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The Pit and the Pendulum Lesson Plans

Student Activities for The Pit and the Pendulum Include:

“The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allan Poe is a short story of horror that uses detailed sensory imagery in order to instill fear and horror in the reader. The story delves into the very basic human fear of torture, and because of the time period in which it takes place (the Spanish Inquisition), it is also a fear of torture due to religious intolerance. Poe uses the classic characteristics of his usual Gothic genre flair, including a bleak location, an impending threat of violence, a character in physical and psychological torment, and a seemingly otherworldly element in charge of the plot. These elements combined with the characters’ realization of his impending doom by either a razor-sharp pendulum or a cavernous abyss create yet another Poe-ian world of despair, fear, and a yearn for redemption. Poe explores various themes in “The Pit and the Pendulum” along the way, including fear, intolerance and injustice, and the power of despair.

The Pit and the Pendulum Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

“The Pit and the Pendulum” Summary


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A common use for Storyboard That is to help students create a plot diagram of the events from a story. Not only is this a great way to teach the parts of the plot, but it reinforces major events and helps students develop greater understanding of literary structures.

Students can create a storyboard capturing the narrative arc in a work with a six-cell storyboard containing the major parts of the plot diagram. For each cell, have students create a scene that follows the story in sequence using: Exposition, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.



Example “The Pit and the Pendulum” Plot Diagram

Exposition

The narrator is standing on trial and receiving a sentence of death. He does not reveal the crimes for which he has been charged and found guilty. He sees black-robed judges issuing their judgment before he passes out.


Conflict

The narrator is in and out of consciousness, but presently finds himself in a chamber of some sort. It is at first pitch-black so he is disoriented and unable to get a grasp of his surroundings. He does not know where he is, nor why he is there, although he is sure is related to his punishment. He supposes that he is in a dungeon in Toledo, Spain.


Rising Action

The narrator tries to explore the depths of his chamber, and almost slips and falls into a chasm at one end of the chamber. After falling asleep, the narrator awakens to find bread and water next to him, so he knows someone is attending to him. After falling asleep again, the narrator awakens and the chamber is lightly glowing. He sees that it is square, and the metal walls have hideous faces in them.


Climax

The narrator finds himself strapped to a board, leaving only his head and left arm free. He looks up and sees a figure of Time painted on the ceiling, but instead of his scythe, he is holding a razor-sharp pendulum. The pendulum swings back and forth, and which each vibration, comes closer to the strapped narrator’s chest. He realizes that the pendulum will eventually kill him.


Falling Action

The narrator almost accepts his inevitable death when he gets an idea to take the fragrant meat from the basket next to him, and to rub it all over the strap holding him down. The rats, attracted by the smell of the meat, jump up and gnaw at the strap until the narrator is free. As soon as he is freed, however, the walls of the chamber begin to move and become hot, so that they push him towards the chasm.


Resolution

As the narrator again is faced with impending death, he screams in despair. Just as the walls are about to push him over the edge, he hears thundering trumpets. The walls retract, and he is saved by General Lasalle, who is leading the French troops into Toledo.


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Student Instructions

Create a visual plot diagram of “The Pit and the Pendulum”.


  1. Separate the story into the Exposition, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.
  2. Create an image that represents an important moment or set of events for each of the story components.
  3. Write a description of each of the steps in the plot diagram.



(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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Literary Conflict Student Activity for “The Pit and the Pendulum”


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Storyboarding is an excellent way to focus on types of literary conflicts.

Having students create storyboards that show the cause and effect of different types of conflicts strengthens analytical thinking about literary concepts. Have your students choose an example of each literary conflict and depict them using the storyboard creator. In the storyboard, an example of each conflict should be visually represented, along with an explanation of the scene, and how it fits the particular category of conflict.


Examples of Literary Conflict in “The Pit and the Pendulum”

MAN vs. SELF

The narrator is in conflict with himself. He knows that he has been found guilty, and he almost at times seems to accept his punishment. However, this does not stop him from trying to explore his dungeon, or escape from both the pendulum and the pit, suggesting that despite the real human reactions to such horrors, he also knows that he doesn’t deserve to die.


MAN vs. NATURE

The narrator battles the elements – contrived by man, still nonetheless out of his control – in the chamber. First, he must figure out how to escape from the pendulum. While on the board, his fingers are also bitten by rats as he tries to shoo them away from the meat. After he escapes the pendulum, he must try to push back against the walls, which are pushing him towards the pit, which offers nothing but death.


MAN vs. SOCIETY

The narrator is in this torture chamber to begin with because he was found guilty during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. While he does not explain why he was found guilty, common reasons for guilty sentences during the Spanish Inquisition included: practicing another religion in secret; heresy; refusal to convert; and political opposition to the monarchy.


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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows at least three forms of literary conflict in “The Pit and the Pendulum”.


  1. Identify conflicts in “The Pit and the Pendulum”.
  2. Categorize each conflict as Character vs. Character, Character vs. Self, Character vs. Society, Character vs. Nature, or Character vs. Technology.
  3. Illustrate conflicts in the cells, using characters from the story.
  4. Write a short description of the conflict below the cell.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.



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Themes, Symbols, and Motifs Student Activity for “The Pit and the Pendulum”


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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 Pit and the Pendulum” Themes to Look For and Discuss

Fear

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 Pit and the Pendulum” Motifs & Symbols to Look For and Discuss

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.



(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)


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 "Use this Template" from the 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.



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Analyzing the Narrator’s Dilemma in “The Pit and the Pendulum”


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Often in literature, characters have to make important choices, even when the outcomes are equally unpleasant. This is called a dilemma, and many students will be able to identify with being stuck “between a rock and a hard place”, much like characters are in their various conflicts in a story. Have students analyze the dilemma the narrator encounters in “The Pit and the Pendulum” as they read and speculate on the potential outcomes of the narrator’s choices. Have them incorporate their findings into a storyboard like the example below.


Introduction

The narrator has escaped from the pendulum, but he sees that at the moment of his escape, the pendulum stops swinging and is drawn back up to the ceiling. He knows that he is being watched now. He begins to notice the red-hot smell of the burning walls, and the movement of the walls as they change the shape of the chamber. He is afraid of the pit, but to embrace the walls will also kill him.


Problem 1

If the narrator tries to push back against the walls or run into them, he will die, but he won’t die by falling into a dark pit.


Problem 2

If the narrator allows the walls to push him toward the pit, ultimately he will have no other choice but to fall over the side.


(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)


Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that analyzes a dilemma that a character is facing in "The Pit and the Pendulum".


  1. Identify the problem and depict it in the "Introduction" cell.
  2. Show and discuss the character's possible choices under "Problem 1" and "Problem 2".
  3. Save and submit the assignment.



(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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Vocabulary Lesson Plan for “The Pit and the Pendulum”


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Another great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that use vocabulary from “The Pit and the Pendulum”. Here is a list of a few vocabulary words commonly taught with the story, and an example of a visual vocabulary board.


"The Pit and the Pendulum" Vocabulary

  • spectres
  • gossamer
  • swoon
  • auto-da-fé
  • serge
  • chasm
  • daubed
  • aperture
  • insuperable
  • charnel
  • surcingle
  • scimitar
  • moiety
  • voracity
  • abyss

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)


Student Instructions

Demonstrate your understanding of the vocabulary words in “The Pit and the Pendulum” by creating visualizations.


  1. Choose three vocabulary words from the story and type them in the title boxes.
  2. Find the definition in a print or online dictionary.
  3. Write a sentence that uses the vocabulary word.
  4. Illustrate the meaning of the word in the cell using a combination of scenes, characters, and items.
    • Alternatively, use Photos for Class to show the meaning of the words with the search bar.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.



(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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The Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition began under King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I of Spain in 1478. It was meant as a continuance of the Medieval Inquisition, and it lasted in various forms until 1834. The purpose of the Inquisition was to determine the authenticity of Jews and Muslims who had converted to Christianity—in other words, it was to ensure that they really did become Christians, and not just to avoid expulsion from Spain. It quickly became a weapon for monarchs to use against political enemies, much like the Salem Witch trials in the 1690s and the McCarthy trials of the 1950s. It is important to note that while Pope Sixtus IV approved the process, he did so with many misgivings. However, he needed the Spanish military power at the time to protect Rome from the Turks.


Some of the consequences of the Spanish Inquisition included:


For more information on the Spanish Inquisition, have students visit http://www.donquijote.org/culture/spain/history/spanish-inquisition and http://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-figures/spanish-inquisition.htm


Essential Questions for “The Pit and the Pendulum”

  1. Why is it important to be tolerant of other religions and beliefs?
  2. Is torture an ethically or morally correct practice?
  3. When can a punishment become unjust?
  4. How can despair become an important tool for a character to use?
  5. What is a dilemma?


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•   (English) The Pit and the Pendulum   •   (Español) El Pozo y el Péndulo   •   (Français) La Fosse et le Pendule   •   (Deutsch) Die Grube und das Pendel   •   (Italiana) Il Pozzo e il Pendolo   •   (Nederlands) The Pit and the Pendulum   •   (Português) O Poço eo Pêndulo   •   (עברית) הבור והמטוטלת   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) الحفرة والبندول   •   (हिन्दी) पिट और पेंडुलम   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Яма и Маятник   •   (Dansk) The Pit og Pendulum   •   (Svenska) The Pit och Pendulum   •   (Suomi) Pit ja Pendulum   •   (Norsk) The Pit og Pendulum   •   (Türkçe) Çukur ve Sarkaç   •   (Polski) Pula i Wahadło   •   (Româna) Pit și Pendulum   •   (Ceština) Jáma a Kyvadlo   •   (Slovenský) Pit a Kyvadlo   •   (Magyar) A kút és az Inga   •   (Hrvatski) Pit i Pendulum   •   (български) Ямата и Махалото   •   (Lietuvos) Duobę ir Švytuoklė   •   (Slovenščina) Jamo in Pendulum   •   (Latvijas) Pit un Pendulum   •   (eesti) Pit ja Pendulum