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Mathematical Imagery in

“The Pit and the Pendulum”

In “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Poe provides few particulars about the narrator. Although imprisoned by the Inquisition, the character offers no clue to his religious beliefs or the nature of his heresy, if any. Although rescued by the French army, he does not specify his own nationality. Of his features, his social or financial position, the story discloses little beyond the obvious implication that he is an educated man, important enough to justify the elaborate nature of his torture. Commentators on the tale have understandably focused on his response to his experience, seeing it, among other things, as a confrontation with the power of blackness; as an encounter with Nothingness by a mind clinging to the rational and practical; as an existential probing of the absurdity of human freedom; as a struggle to maintain an integrated consciousness until a moment of grace; and as a facing of ultimate states of horror, especially utter darkness, which are recalled in the language of the sublime.(1) But however one formulates the narrator’s experience, there is one characteristic that he brings to it that has not been emphasized in the literature: he has the manner and perhaps the training of a mathematician.

That the narrator is well-versed in the branches of mathematics studied in nineteenth-century universities, both his vocabulary and his deductive processes attest. While probing for memories of his condition after his initial swoon, he defines the madness into which he feels drawn with a term from the calculus:

Shadows of memory tell . . . of a vague horror at my heart . . . then comes a sense of sudden motionlessness
throughout all things; as if those who bore me (a ghastly train) had outrun, in their descent, the *limits *of the *limitless,
*and paused from the weariness of their toil. (*Works*, 1, 683; all italics within quotations are mine unless otherwise noted)

With another phrase from the calculus he denotes the passing of time — “a very long *interval *of time” (684)
and “another *interval *of utter insensibility“ — and the movement of the pendulum: “a descent only
appreciable at *intervals *that seemed ages” (691).

His familiarity with that branch of mathematics known in varying ages as numerology, number theory, or arithmetic is
expressed in his practice of counting, numbering, **[column 2:]** and measuring: the candles are *seven; *the stages of reviving
from a swoon are *two; *the ceiling is *thirty or forty feet overhead. *He counts vibrations of the pendulum: “I saw
that some *ten *or *twelve *vibrations would bring the steel in actual contact with my to be” (693). He sees eyes
glaring from a *thousand *directions; his release is signalled by a “harsh grating as of a *thousand *thunders”
(697). Tortured, imprisoned, and awaiting a terrible death, the narrator repeatedly orients himself by calculating or estimating the
measurements of his cell:

Up to the period when I fell, I had *counted fifty-two paces, *and upon resuming my walk, I had *counted forty-eight *more
. . . . There were in all, then, a *hundred paces; *and, admitting *two paces *to the *yard *I presumed
the dungeon to be *fifty yards *in circuit. (686)

. . . the sulphurous light which illumined the cell . . . proceeded from a fissure, about *half an inch *in
width, extending entirely around the prison at the base of the walls. . . . (695)

At length for my seared and writhing body, there was no longer than an *inch *of foothold on the firm floor of the prison. (697)

Lying bound and helpless, he estimates the measurements of the pendulum descending upon him:

The sweep of the pendulum had increased in extent by nearly a *yard . . . *its nether extremity was formed by a
crescent of glittering steel about a *foot *in length from horn to horn. . . . (690)

*Inch *by *inch — *line by line —. . . down and still down it came! . . . Its terrifically
wide sweep, (some *thirty feet *or more,) and the hissing vigor of its descent, sufficient to sunder these very walls of
iron. . . . It vibrated within *three inches *of my bosom. (691-692)

Jean-Paul Weber considers the narrator’s fascination with the pendulum suggestive, not of the character’s vocation or
avocation, but of Poe’s preoccupation with clocks. To Weber, it is somehow clear that the denouement of the tale symbolizes some
time near five-thirty — approximately five twenty-seven.(2) The narrator, however, is not speaking for Poe, nor is Poe speaking
through him. The narrator is a fictional character, created by an author with a general familiarity with mathematics apparent throughout
his works, especially, of course, in *Eureka*.(3) The narrator’s concern with the periodicity and dimensions of the pendulum
are as suggestive of the character’s own mathematical knowledge as they are of an authorial obsession with time. This is a
character who presumably knew that Galileo’s pendular studies of the swinging lamp led to, not from, the use of pendulums in
clock-making.

Poe’s narrator uses more than the words and contexts of mathematics to describe his simation; his activities are
arithmetical, as well. Imprisoned, drugged, and terrified, he is incapable of what he considers dispassionate thinking until, in the
“keen, collected calmness of despair,” he notes that “For the first time during many hours — or perhaps days
— I *thought*” (693; Poe’s italics). Before this point, however, the narrator has relied upon his mathematical
cast of mind to orient himself; it enables him not only [page 6:] to count, as I
have noted, but also to “deduce his real condition” (684), to ascertain the dimensions of his dungeon, to hearken to the
reverberations of the masonry fragment he has thrown into the abyss, to survey the ceiling of his prison, and to contrast the downward
with the lateral velocity of the pendulum. These mathematical procedures, in which he takes a “frenzied pleasure,” when
allied with detached “thought,” produce the calculation that leads to his solution of the problem of the pendulum. His joy
is a familiar one to all mathematicians: “Nor had I erred in my *calculations . . . *I was *free*” (694;
latter italics Poe’s) .

Not only does his vocabulary and manner of reasoning indicate close acquaintance with mathematics; but the preponderant imagery he
uses also suggests his particular branch of mathematical knowledge — the narrator is apparently a geometer. His very absorption
with geometric “trifles” is a predominant element in his response to the atmosphere of terror which is his prison, although
he remonstrates, “What could be of less importance, under the terrible circumstances which environed me, than the mere
*dimensions *of my dungeon? ” (688) . Indeed, the ideas presented by the geometric progression of his imagery parallel the
development of his awareness of the terror.

In his first description of the chamber, linear imagery abounds. The narrator is horizontal; he recalls how the “agony of
suspense grew *at length *intolerable” (685; the one-dimensional image is strengthened by the occurrence of the phrase *at
length *sixteen times in the tale). The narrator suggests the terror of confinement with such geometric adjectives as *long,
tall, *and *meas.u6red, *and with the nouns *line, paces, *and *length *In a typically Poesque pun, he even declares
that he *“longed, *yet dared not” to open his eyes (684) .

As linear imagery connotes the narrator’s initial, limited awareness of his condition, phrases from plane
geometry accompany the first expansion of that awareness. He early notices the flatness of the floor; he defines another plane as his
hands explore the wall. Then, to ascertain the dimensions of his dungeon, he proposes to make a circuit and return to his point of
origin. In so doing, he becomes aware of “many *angles *in the wall” (686) and is therefore uncertain of the area,
confused as to the shape of the enclosure. An astute geometer, he proposes to measure the diagonal, for only thus can he satisfy his
“vague curiosity” concerning the extent of his predicament.

Tripping on the torn hem of his to be prevents his falling into the loathsome pit, but that fall is not altogether a
fortunate one, for it introduces a third dimension: the depth of terror. The narrator realizes that, when his chin rests upon the plane
of the prison floor, his lips and forehead, at “*less elevation*” than the chin, touch nothing. His first apprehension
of the pit, therefore, is geometric, rather than sensory, for his awareness of the elevation precedes recognition of the significance of
the “clammy vapor” and “peculiar smell” that bathe his forehead (686-687) . Once awakened to the realization of
the depth, as well as **[column 2:]** the length and breadth, of his peril, he notices the door overhead, through which his every
movement is observed, his every attempt to escape foiled. After a *deep *sleep, which lasts he knows not how *long, *the
narrator receives light, and learns that he has been mistaken in his earlier “researches.“(4)

A typical mathematician, the narrator’s first thought is “to *acco‘6nt *for the error
. . . committed in . . . *measu6rement” *(688). Enlightened as to the size of his dungeon, the
geometer’s next concern is with its shape. The cell, he determines, is *square; *the pit is *circu1ar. *In temporary
possession of at least the three geometrical dimensions of his condition, the narrator continues to observe and calculate. He estimates
the *sweep *and the *velocity *of the *pendulum; *he considers its *weight *and *shape. *He measures time,
though imperfectly, and *counts *the “rushing vibrations of steel.” Noting that the “vibration of the *pendulum
*was at *right angles *to [his] *length*” (691), the prisoner eventually contrives the ploy by which the rats free
him.

The final torture he understands in starkly geometric terms: the to om which was *square *is changing its shape. As he watches,
two of the *right angles *become *acute, *and two, consequently, *obtuse. *The cell changes from a *square *into a
*lozenge, *or, in the vocabulary of twentieth-century mathematics, a parallelogram. The *lozenge *becomes flatter and
flatter, its *center *forcing him toward the *circular *pit. Fully cognizant of the size, the shape, the extent, and the depth
of the death ordained him, the prisoner is miraculously rescued when the pit is less than an inch from being tangentially inscribed by
the walls. The protagonist falls, not into the depths of terror but into the arms of his savior.

Since Poe does not use words carelessly, this proliferation of mathematical terms with which the narrator understands and describes his situation can be interpreted only as an intentional artistic device. “The Pit and the Pendulum” is a tale of terror, the terror of confinement. For Poe’s purposes, the details of incarceration and release are insignificant; the details of imprisonment are paramount. In the tale mathematical imagery is counterpointed against the dark uncertainties of what Kent Ljungquist calls “a crucible of painful sensations.” The narrator’s facility with both the language and the concepts of mathematics allows him to grapple with the enormity of his danger, to avoid the disasters prepared for him until help arrives. Since he uses mathematical procedures and skills to find solutions to the problems posed for him by his torturers, since he “busies” himself with calculating the dimensions of his approaches to death and correcting his mistakes when his conclusions seem at variance with new data, Poe’s narrator may be in fact as well as in habit a mathematician. If so, then the predominance of geometric over other mathematical imagery suggests that he is a geometer.

Poe’s knowledge of enough mathematics to create plausible characters versed in the field is neither unknown nor unnoted. In “The Gold-Bug,” the mathematics of cryptography and map-making are significant. In “The

Mystery of Marie to get,” Dupin refers to arithmetic and the “Calculus of Probabilities” (although not without: error). Indeed, as Clarence R. Wylie points out in “Mathematical Allusions in Poe,” all of Poe’s tales of ratiocination “involve in an essential way, reasoning of a . . . character strikingly reminiscent of the logical structure of the demonstrations of Euclid” (p. 227).

In *Eureka *and in “The Purloined Letter,” Poe implies his contempt for the “mere
mathematician,” noting instead his appreciation of the reasoning ability of those who are, like Dupin and the Minister D — ,
both poet and mathematician. In the narrator of “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Poe has, I believe, offered his readers a
sympathetic character who is primarily the mathematician, one whose skills seem a necessary if not a sufficient foundation for dealing
with the terrors he faces.(5)

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**NOTES**

1 - See, respectively, Harry Levin, *The Power of Blackness *(New York: Vintage, 1960); to bert Adams, *NIL: Episodes in the
Literary Conquest of the Void During the Nineteenth Century *(New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 42 ff; David H. Hirsch,
“The Pit and the Apocalypse,” *Sewanee Review, *76 (1968), 632-652, James Lundquist, “The Moral of Averted
Descent: The Failure of Sanity in ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,‘” *Poe Newsletter, *2 (1969), 25-26; Kent
Ljungquist, “Burke’s *Enquiry *and the Aesthetics of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,‘” *Poe Studies*,
11 (1978), 26-29.

2 - Jean-Paul Weber, “Edgar Poe or the Theme of the Clock,” in *Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays, *ed. to bert
Regan (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967), pp. 94-97.

3 - For an extensive overview, see Clarence R. Wylie, Jr., “Mathematical Allusions in Poe,” *Scientific Monthly, *63
(1946), 227235.

4 - An argument that, in fact, the mistake occurs in his subsequent reasoning is made in a forthcoming paper by Alexander Hammond, “Subverting Interpretation: . . . Geometry in ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.‘”

5 - The original version of this essay was delivered as a paper at the 1982 NEMLA meeting at Hunter College, April 1-4.

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** Associated Article(s) and Related Material: **

- None

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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]