Poe places the narrator/protagonist of "The Pit and the Pendulum" in a situation of bounded isolation: he cannot escape his surroundings nor can he directly communicate with anyone, even his torturers. Like several other characters in Poe's tales, the narrator's situation is one that provides no exit. Given this, some scholars have interpreted the story as an existential allegory about the human condition at large. Even if individuals are fortunate enough the escape the accidental death of the pit, all mortals are subject to the relentless approach of inevitable death from Time.
But Poe also introduces glimmers of hope into the story. Not only is the narrator unexpectedly rescued from the Inquisition, the tale's author uses the narrator's commentary to advance his theory that "even in the grave all is not lost," that consciousness persists after death and can only be relinquished if the individual's will weakens and submits to oblivion. The narrator of this story repeatedly entertains hope even as he confronts a situation that seems to be hopeless.
"The Pit and the Pendulum" is subject to a very wide range of interpretations, including Freudian readings in which the narrator has rebelled against a paternal authority, the fathers of the Inquisition and/or seeks a return to the"womb of the pit. What is perhaps most striking about the tale is the narrator's variable state of consciousness. He allows that his perceptions are faulty or otherwise limited, but at the tale's conclusion, he has full use of his mental faculties and reacts as any normal person would under the horrible circumstances that he describes. This lends some credence to the otherwise miraculous appearance of General Lasalle in the proverbial nick of time.
One obvious theme is the inexorable passage of time, ending in death as the final outcome of all life. The pendulum, usually associated with clocks and time, here combines the two elements, for it is one of two possible means of execution, and it is also compared to the scythe wielded by Father Time. The other obvious symbol of death is the pit, a synonym with death or Sheol since biblical times.
The horrors of the Spanish Inquisition are also treated specifically. This is not, however, a diatribe against Spain or a laudatory statement about France. Instead, on a more universal level, it shows the cruelty that humans exercise on their fellow human beings. Edgar Allan Poe uses the historical background solely to render the story more believable and, thus, more frightening. His purpose is to create a nightmare in which the reader becomes a coparticipant with the protagonist, sharing in the terror and the suspense.