Tag Archives: “The Pit and the Pendulum”

“‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ is an exacerbating story of the struggle of one man’s will to live.”

I loved this Poe story as a kid, and I loved it even more when I read it in college and could appreciate the author’s use of language to ratchet up the suspense and create palpable darkness. I can’t actually tell from this sentence whether or not my student liked it.

Did she mean “exasperating story”? Did reading it make her increasingly angry or frustrated, perhaps because of the sophisticated vocabulary, the lengthy descriptions, or the implacable cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition?

from listverse.files.wordpress.com, but clearly an early illustration of Poe's 1842 story

Did she find “exacerbate” in some thesaurus under “excite”? (I just found “excite” as one of a number of possible alternatives to “exacerbate” in Roget’s.) This is a common student route from sane word choice to some truly bizarre “fancier” words (I will be posting what I call the Roget Trio sometime in the near future).

Or did she think she was saying that each event in the story exacerbates the narrator’s suffering, or the reader’s suspense? That might have been her intention, but it certainly isn’t what her sentence conveys. As far as I can parse it, the sentence says that the story makes something-or-other “more violent, bitter, or severe” (per Webster’s), but what that something-or-other may be is unknown. It cannot make the reader more violent (unless the reader hates the story more and more and finally throws the book across the room); it cannot make the man’s struggle more severe or bitter, since it IS the man’s struggle. Upon what else can a story exert its powers?

Well, Poe was a master of mystery and suspense, and with this sentence my student joins him.

As always, your theories are welcome. What would you have said to this student to help her understand the problem with her word choice, or to get her to explain her reasoning to you?