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The Pit and the Pendulum vs. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment: Not Quite so Different

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The Pit and the Pendulum vs. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment: Not Quite So Different Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” is about a man that is put through torture and Hawthorne’s “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” is about a doctor who gives four elderly people a taste of water from the Fountain of Youth. “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” are definitely different as far as content goes but when examined a little more closely clear similarities can be found. Subtle literary devices and themes tie these two seemingly dissimilar stories and authors together. Both Poe and Hawthorne focused on the use of detailed descriptions of scenery to create a mood for their stories. In fact, in both stories almost half of what is written is a description of the setting. Poe uses the dungeon in “The Pit and the Pendulum” to create a sense of doom and despair that plays a part throughout his story. Near the beginning of the story he writes, “The blackness of eternal night encompassed me.” (2). This sets the mood right away.

He also appeals to the reader’s senses and describes the feel and smells of the dungeon with phrases like”…my forehead seemed bathed in a clammy vapour, and the peculiar smell of decayed fungus arose to my nostrils.” (4). Poe further engages the reader’s senses later in the story, “A suffocating odor pervaded the prison!…A richer tint of crimson diffused itself over the pictured horrors of blood.” (9). By appealing to the senses Poe forces the reader to picture themselves in his story. Similarly Hawthorne describes the scene in “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” early in the story. There is a sense of aged wisdom and mysticism throughout the tale, especially when the four elderly drink the water from the fountain of youth for the experiment, and Hawthorne uses the setting to enhance the mood. “It was a dim, old-fashioned chamber, festooned with cobwebs, and besprinkled with antique dust,” (1) writes Hawthorne. The reader gets a sense of age and a little bit of spookiness and anticipation of what’s to come when he reads this. Unlike Poe, Hawthorne chooses to set the scene in the beginning and doesn’t mention much about Dr. Heidegger’s study for the rest of the story. Another similarity between these two authors is their romantic writing style. Each has parts of his story that are tinged with the paranormal.

For Poe, three examples stood out. First he describes a set of candles in the beginning of the story as if they were alive. Second, Poe describes the skeletons of past victims of the pit and the pit itself as if they are demons coming to life. “Demon eyes, of a wild and ghastly vivacity, glared upon me in a thousand directions where none had been visible before…” (9). Finally the ending of “The Pit and the Pendulum” itself is hard to believe. The idea that the main character is saved from death with fanfare seconds before his demise is hard to believe but realistic at the same time. Hawthorne has more elements of romanticism in “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” than Poe has in “The Pit and the Pendulum.” There are five main examples of romance in Hawthorne’s story. They are a supposedly magic mirror, bust of Hippocrates, skeleton, portrait of Dr. Heidegger’s deceased fiancée, and a black book. Regarding the book Hawthorne writes that “…once, when a chambermaid had lifted it…the skeleton had rattled in its closet, the picture of the young lady had stepped one foot upon the floor, and several ghastly faces had peeped forth from the mirror; while the brazen head of Hippocrates frowned, and said, -‘Forbear!” Clearly these claims are meant to be seen as a type of folklore rather than true fact.

Additionally Hawthorne’s entire premise for “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” is dripping with romanticism. The mere idea that a Fountain of Youth exists is a stretch but at the same time he leaves the reader wondering if maybe there really is one. Finally both authors’ stories are rife with symbolism, specifically dealing with the inevitability of time and age. In “The Pit and the Pendulum” the abyss in the center of the dungeon and the swinging, bladed pendulum represent time. The blade gets closer and closer to the helpless victim and even when he is successful in escaping the pendulum, there is another torture in store. The torture – time- is “most unrelenting.” (9) He cannot avoid his impending death. Likewise the four elderly people in Hawthorne’s story symbolize time and age but try to escape the inevitable by drinking water from the Fountain of Youth. At first they are elated that the water works but the effects fade and “the delirium which it created had effervesced away.” (10). Not even magic water could stop time. Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne are romantic writers and contemporaries of each other; therefore they have similar writing styles and techniques. Symbolism and romanticism is rife in both stories and each author addressed time in his writing. Though there are differences in these two authors and their stories there are also notable similarities as well.

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