Poe’s Short Stories – “MS. Found in a Bottle” (1833)

Summary
An unnamed narrator frames his story by disclaiming connection
to his family and country. He says that he prefers the company of
the German moralist writers, whose flights of fancy he can detect
and repudiate. He admits having a rigidly rational mindset, dedicated
to the truth and impervious to superstition.
The narrator then recounts a voyage from the island of
Java upon a vessel containing cotton-wool, cocoa-nuts, and a few
cases of opium. Soon after departure, the narrator observes a large,
ominous cloud in the distance and fears the signs of an approaching
Simoon, or typhoon. The captain of the ship, however, dismisses
the narrator’s fears. As he retreats below deck, the narrator hears
a loud noise and feels the ship capsizing. When the ship bobs back
up, the narrator realizes that he and an old Swede are the only
survivors. However, the ship remains engulfed in a whirlpool, which
threatens to suck the vessel into the depths of the sea. For five
days, the two men float on the shattered ship, escaping the pull
of the whirlpool. They find their surroundings have grown cold,
and soon complete darkness overwhelms them.
Another hurricane erupts amid this darkness, and the men observe
a gigantic black ship riding on the crest of a large wave. The force
of this ship’s descent into the water rocks the narrator’s ship and
hurls him onto the unknown vessel. He quickly hides in the hold,
where he observes the ancient mariners on the ship speaking an unrecognizable
language. Growing braver, he explores the captain’s private cabin,
in which he finds the paper for the present manuscript. He proposes
to enclose the manuscript in a bottle and toss it to sea.
The narrator then recounts a chance event in which he
playfully dabbles with a tar brush on a folded sail. When spread
out, the sail reads DISCOVERY. This event
causes the narrator to examine the ship more closely. He is unsure
of the ship’s purpose, and its timber is oddly porous. Moreover,
the members of the crew seem incapable of seeing the narrator. Even
the aged captain pays him no attention.The narrator continues on
the ship in eternal darkness and soon discovers that it is heading
due south, perhaps destined for the South Pole. As the excitement
of discovery fills the crew and the narrator, the ice suddenly breaks
apart to reveal a powerful whirlpool. The pull of the vortex is
too powerful for the ship to resist, and it is sucked into the sea’s
black hole.
Analysis
“MS. Found in a Bottle” initially appeared in the October 19, 1833 edition
of a Baltimore newspaper, the Saturday Visiter, as
the winner of a literary contest for the best short tale. Poe had
submitted six tales to the Visiter, and the newspaper
received over one hundred submissions in all. Though the Visiter praised
all of Poe’s entries, it singled out “MS. Found in a Bottle” for
its expansive imagination and its singular demonstration of learning.
The Visiter encouraged Poe to publish the entire
volume. Following this advice, Poe put together Tales of
the Grotesque and Arabesque over the next several years,
and published the collection in 1840.
“MS. Found in a Bottle” was an early bright spot in Poe’s
literary career, and it helped make his reputation, especially in
Baltimore. Poe originally grouped it in a larger volume, Eleven
Tales of the Arabesque, to which he later added the category
of the “grotesque.” This classification points to a distinction
in Poe’s writing between an arabesque story—with themes derived
from Near Eastern literature—such as “MS. Found in a Bottle,” and
a grotesque story—in which “terror arises from the return to life
by the dead”—like “Ligeia.” According to the 1840 preface
to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, the grotesque
relies upon human interaction, even when monsters and figures from
the dead animate the plot. The arabesque, on the other hand, deals
with the horror of ideas and the mysterious allure of cryptic patterns.
“MS. Found in a Bottle” is also one of Poe’s most celebrated
stories of science fiction. Poe was fascinated by the South Pole,
and he obsessively read the journals of Alexander von Humboldt,
a German contemporary of Poe who traveled all over the world as
part of his cosmological research. Poe became interested in the
fantastic notion of a hole in the South Pole that emptied out to
the other side of the globe. The image of the whirlpool—and its
power to shut down the narrative—marks the South Pole as a threatening
region beyond human rationality and knowledge. Poe so enjoyed this
line of narrative that he returned to it in subsequent stories.
He expanded his treatment of the South Pole in his 1838 novel The Narrative
of Arthur Gordon Pym, an adventure story of spying, mutiny,
and exploration that culminates in the irrational engulfing whiteness
of a whirlpool near the South Pole.
The horror of “MS. Found in a Bottle” comes from its scientific imaginings
and its description of a physical world beyond the limits of human
exploration. It emphasizes ideas, calling us back to the introduction
of the story, in which the narrator announces his allegiance to
realism. That realism is lost with the descent into the whirlpool,
as, presumably, is the narrator’s life.
The British Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described
a similar voyage into the unknown in his poem “The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner.” By stepping onto the ship of elderly sailors, Poe’s narrator
participates in a similar journey. Coleridge’s mariner traveled
south into the unknown and returned scarred and altered by the experience,
with greater knowledge of the inner self. Poe’s narrator looks deeper
into his own self through the course of the narrative and grows
ashamed of his former self. We learn nothing, however, of any return
but only receive the manuscript placed in the bottle, where the
narrator’s story survives after he, presumably, is consumed by the
whirlpool.