The story depicts the Spanish Inquisition. An unnamed narrator is brought to trial before sinister judges. Poe provides no explanation of why he is there or what he has been arrested for. Before him are seven tall white candles on a table, and, as they melt, his hopes of survival also diminish. He is condemned to death and finds himself in a pitch black compartment. At first the prisoner thinks that he is locked in a tomb, but then he discovers that he is in a cell. He decides to explore the cell by placing a hem from his robe against a wall so that he can count the paces around the room, but he faints before he can measure the whole perimeter. When he reawakens he discovers food and water nearby. He tries to measure the cell again, and finds that the perimeter measures one hundred steps. While crossing the room he slips on the hem of his robe and discovers that if he had not tripped, he would have walked into a deep pit in the center of the cell, with water at the bottom. After losing consciousness again the narrator discovers that the prison is slightly illuminated and that he is bound to a wooden board by ropes. He looks up to see a painted picture of Father Time on the ceiling. Hanging from the figure is a gigantic pendulum with a crescent razor measuring "one feet from horn to horn," and swinging slowly back and forth. The pendulum is inexorably sliding downwards and will eventually kill him. However, the condemned man is able to attract rats to his bonds with the meat left for him to eat and they start chewing through the ropes. As the pendulum reaches a point inches above his heart, the prisoner breaks free of the ropes and watches as the pendulum is drawn back to the ceiling. He then sees that the walls have become red-hot and have begun moving inwards, driving him into the center of the room and towards the brink of the pit. As he gazes into the pit, he decides that no fate could be worse than falling into it: "Neither could I forget what I had read of these pits -- that the sudden extinction of life formed no part of their most horrible plan." As the narrator moves back from the pit, he sees that the red-hot walls are leaving him with no foothold. As he begins to fall into the pit, he hears human voices, a loud trumpeting, and a huge boom as loud as "a thousand thunders." The walls rush back and an arm catches him. The French Army has taken Toledo and the Inquisition is in the hands of its enemies.