"The Pit and the Pendulum" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe that was first published in 1842. The story is about a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition who survives physical and psychological torture until he's rescued by French soldiers. Classroom activities should center on important themes, such as surviving difficult circumstances and facing death, as well as Poe's use of symbolism and imagery. The story is intense and graphic and is only appropriate for high school and college students.
Have high school students create alternate endings for the story. Because Poe keeps readers guessing until the end, a multitude of possible endings can be explored. Have your students stay consistent with Poe's writing style, sentence structure, use of symbolism and word choices so their alternate endings flow with the rest of the story. Encourage students to write with the Gothic fiction genre in mind, using bizarre or horrifying themes to reveal important truths. You might have students start their alternate endings when the scorching hot room turns into a diamond shape and starts to close in on the protagonist, suggests Jacksonville, Florida English teacher Ashley Arnholt.
Ask your class to make movie posters advertising a film version of "The Pit and the Pendulum." They can change the movie title if they choose, but the poster should include the words "Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Pit and the Pendulum'" to credit the author. Provide poster board and markers for the assignment. Instruct students to include a minimum of three symbolic story elements -- such as the pendulum, rats and hell-like cavity -- on their posters. Encourage them to focus on the dark side of the story, including references to the Spanish Inquisition, so their posters resemble ads for Gothic-style horror flicks or psychological thrillers.
Instruct students to write two- to three-minute monologues that could be read during critical scenes in the story. Students should focus on the prisoner's feelings, burdens and perceptions, as if they were writing firsthand journal entries from his point of view. Set the stage by turning off the lights, hanging a cardboard pendulum from the ceiling and having students read their monologues from an old wooden chair at the front of the room. Invite them to use voice inflections and dramatic pauses when reading their monologues aloud to the class.
Create a two-column symbolism chart, as a class, on your chalkboard or white board. List examples of the story's symbolism or imagery in the first column and reasons why Poe likely chose those examples in the second column. Focus on themes like time, death, self-awareness, brutality, imprisonment and reality. You can either fill in the chart yourself as students volunteer information or have students fill in the information themselves. Ask students to discuss which elements were most effective at revealing significant truths. You might provide a brief historical overview of the Spanish Inquisition, so students better understand the underlying messages and historical context.
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