Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Commentary
Poe's "MS [Manuscript] Found in a Bottle" was first entered into a writing contest during 1833 while he was residing with his Aunt Maria Clem in Baltimore, Maryland, after being expelled from West Point. This story won first prize for its arabesque, or surreal, depiction of events and was then published on the front page of the Baltimore Saturday Visitor's October 19, 1833 issue. Poe later submitted the story for publication again in 1835 for The Gift while serving as assistant editor of The Southern Literary Messenger, and also ten years later while working for New York's Broadway Mirror, in 1845. The story is one of Poe's earliest works, lacking the ominous and consuming preoccupation with death that he infused into his later work such as "The Masque of the Red Death" or "The Fall of the House of Usher." At this time, Virginia was only eight years old; he would not marry for five more years, and Poe no doubt was filled with a certain enthusiasm after having escaped the gloomy ranks of West Point, from which John Allan had refused to let him withdraw.
Most noticeable in "MS Found in a Bottle" [Note: The word "manuscript" traces its etymological origins to the Latin "manus," or hand, and "scriptum" which means written. Thus, the title's meaning simply indicates that this story was found "written by hand" on paper and stuffed into a bottle.] is the creation of a faraway landscape. Although Poe never visited the East Indies, the vivid descriptions of the landscape, specific references to port names, and the implementation of nautical terms are largely the cause of the story being so popular. Rather than focusing upon a central course of events or a plot, where the mystery is explained, as in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," here the reader is left with a sense of bewilderment. Whatever did in fact happen to the story's author? Did he perish in the whirlpool? Who were these strange old men? Why would they purposely steer the ship into certain destruction? Given that the ship's crew appear to be of a certain and exotic intelligence due to their use of ancient scientific instruments, one may draw two potential conclusions.
First, the old men were obviously old and decrepit, at the end of their days. Their bodies are frail and thin, and even their knowledge base is old and outdated -- the narrator notes how ancient their scientific instruments are. The men also appear to be in their own little world, disconnected from reality; they remain unaware and unconcerned about the narrator's presence on their ship, presumably because he does not pose a threat to them, and because they have more pressing concerns. They must reach their destination! Taking all of this into account, that all of the men on the ship do in fact drown in the end could be an acceptable condition, given that all of them seem to be on the threshold of death anyway. Perhaps Poe suggests a fantastic metaphor for the process of death as a natural event of human life. Rather than showing death as a swift heart attack, or a sudden bout of disease, here the experience may be transformed into an oceanic odyssey that leads inevitably towards the same, eventual destination that awaits everyone. The allegory of death as a forward journey across the ocean is at once both beautiful and engaging. The narrator had always been skeptical of everything he encountered in life, but Death becomes an undeniable reality that he can neither ignore nor escape, if this interpretation is to be accepted. Even if the crew is seeking merely to find what the South Pole looks like, there is the lingering idea that there is to be a price to be paid for knowledge as well, that "curiosity killed the cat." Although the men reach their destination after such careful navigation, it is to be the ship's final voyage, if it is assumed again that the men are drowned in these raging waters.
Yet another, more open-ended, analysis of the story lies in the mystery of what exactly happens next. No character is named in the story, and those places names that are mentioned bear the same familiarity to Poe's readership as if he had been discussing a voyage to the moon. Given that these old men are wise, and certainly hold great focus and direction in their task of steering the great black ship, it would be extremely silly to travel for so many thousands of miles only to plunge to their deaths into a whirlpool at the South Pole. This interpretation gives hope to the fact that some greater destiny awaits these seafarers, and the narrator as well after their ship is forced down into the waves. The ship itself appears to bear a certain supernatural quality in its immense size, and in the exotic nature of its crew. To simply decide that they have all drowned may be accepting the story's events at face value, rather than digging into its deeper implications. The reader may thus be as skeptical as the narrator had once been about the plausibility of surviving such a plunge into the sea. Poe challenges the reader, through the narrator's words, to look towards other unexpected conclusions. The narrator undergoes a self-described "rebirth" during his journey, and perhaps this is what Poe urges onto the reader as well, to embrace new understandings, and to find "Discovery" everywhere, recalling the words the narrator inscribed upon the ship's sail. To merely accept that all of the crew and the narrator have perished, may be taking events at face value, from the skeptic's point of view.
The strength in this tale lies in its unresolved ending, where the reader is encouraged to draw his own conclusions, and to wonder at what sort of fate has befallen the ship. Did it go inside of the Earth? Has the whirlpool spared the crew after all? Was another ship waiting inside of the whirlpool to pick them up at the last minute? The ocean of Poe's time was the place of mystery that much of the Outer Space holds for us today, where possibilities seem to be endless. He taps into this human drive for knowledge in crafting this tale of one man's journey from reality into the unexplored regions of human experience. The author's note that Edgar Allan Poe makes afterward is curious as well, as he appears to be almost be apologetic in not representing the Polar regions as Mercator had depicted three hundred years earlier, while at the same time there is a sense of triumph in that he had no knowledge of Mercator when he imagined the Pole to be an area where water is pulled down deeply into the Earth. Poe envisioned a whirlpool, while Mercator had drawn four rushing rivers. Historically, the North Pole would still not be discovered for another eighty years, in 1909, and the South Pole would not be explored until even later, 1911. The author's note written after the story's publication in 1833 again makes clear that areas of the world still remained largely a mystery to the common man, thus dubbing "Discovery" an appropriate theme for this tale and for this entire time period of which Poe was a part.