The Pit and the Pendulum is set in Toledo, Spain during the height of the Spanish Inquisition which began in 1478.

In the story, Poe references the Jacobin club, which was an influential political club founded in 1789. There is also reference to General Lasalle (b.1775-d.1809), who was a French general during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

Poe offers disjointed historical references:

Poe makes no attempt to describe accurately the operations of the Spanish Inquisition, and takes considerable dramatic license with the broader history premised in this story. The rescuers are led by Napoleon's General Lasalle (who was not, however, in command of the French occupation of Toledo) and this places the action during the Peninsular War (1808–14), centuries after the height of the Spanish Inquisition. The elaborate tortures of this story have no historic parallels in the activity of the Spanish Inquisition in any century, let alone the nineteenth when under Charles III and Charles IV only four persons were condemned. The Inquisition was, however, abolished during the period of French intervention (1808–13).

Why does Poe lead readers to believe that the prisoner is being tortured during the height of the Spanish Inquisition when the Jacobin club reference and General Lasalle's rescue would have taken place during the Napoleonic wars, which was no earlier than the 1790s?

1 Answer 1


‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ belongs to the Gothic horror genre, in which stories are not expected to be realistic. The story has multiple fantastic elements—for example, the Spanish Inquisition even at its height never built a dungeon with moving red-hot walls—and this unrealism accentuates the horror, because there are no constraints on what might happen next.

The story opens and closes with details that clearly place the setting in the early nineteenth century. At the beginning, the narrator says,

I felt every fibre in my frame thrill as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery

Edgar Allan Poe (1842). ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. Wikisource.

This indicates that the events of the story postdate Luigi Galvani’s publication of his bioelectrical experiments in the 1790s. And at the end, the sudden breaching of the dungeon by General Lasalle and his army symbolically represents the invasion of Spain and the abolition of the Inquisition by the French in 1808.

One of the first acts of the French regime that occupied Spain in 1808 was to abolish the Holy Office on 4 December.†

Henry Kamen (1998). The Spanish Inquisition: a Historical Revision, p. 293. London: Folio Society.

† The abolition was incomplete, and inquisitions resumed in 1814 after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. The last victim to be executed was Cayetano Ripoll in 1826.

The contrast of these bookends with the middle of the story, which descends into the quasi-medieval setting of the torture cell, has the effect of compressing the three-hundred-and-forty-year history of the Inquisition into the compass of a short story.

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