Text: Rochie Lawes, “The Dimensions of Terror: Mathematical Imagery in “The Pit and the Pendulum”,” Poe Studies, June 1983, Vol. XVI, No. 1, 16:5-7


[page 5:]

The Dimensions of Terror:
Mathematical Imagery in
“The Pit and the Pendulum”

University of Mississippi

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)



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.


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]