It is evident while reading the work of Edgar Allan Poe that he greatly valued the powers of human intellect. He also held an enthusiastic interest in the uses and advancements of technology. His appreciation for the powers of an analytical, rational mind can be observed and defined with such characters as C. Auguste Dupin. However Poe also valued aspects of the world which fell outside of humanity’s ability to comprehend. This is expressed in the tales “MS. Found in a Bottle” and “A Descent into the Maelstrom”. Both stories are tales of the sea, and it seems that using such a frontier as the setting is a purposeful choice. In these stories human reasoning is decidedly subordinate to the power and mystery of nature. A singular display of nature’s raw potential serves as the primary focus in “A Descent into the Maelstrom”, and relegates the two narrators to a secondary level of focus. The narrator in “MS. Found in a Bottle” is similarly trapped in a situation beyond his understanding, and finds his powers of reasoning to be of little assistance. Ultimately, the success of these characters hinges on their ability to surrender their adversarial approach to the world around them and submit to its unalienable majesty. This is in contrast to the stories of C. Auguste Dupin, in which success for the venerable investigator is reliant on his unerring ability to interpret and manipulate his foes and surroundings. It is precisely this contrast that Poe intended to evoke when he wrote his sea tales. With these two stories, Poe successfully demonstrates for the reader that despite centuries of advancements of human knowledge and technology, there still exist aspects of our world which are beyond us. Indeed, with these two stories he espouses the insignificance of humanity as compared to the limitless possibilities of the universe.
One facet of the tale “A Descent into the Maelstrom” which is indicative of Poe’s attitude concerning nature is the use of character within the tale. From the outset, the maelstrom itself and the natural formations surrounding it are addressed with more emphasis than the narrator or the old man. The reader is not given an explanation as to who the narrator is or why he is undergoing this expedition to hear the old man’s account. This lack of exposition concerning the narrator is significant. The narrator essentially cancels himself out as a character by presenting the story in a nearly journalistic way. Additionally, it is worth noting that the narrator accompanies the old man to a vantage where he can witness the extraordinary maelstrom for himself, rather than simply listening to the old man’s narrative in a home or restaurant. This allows for a more impactful, and therefore more meaningful, description of the surroundings. There is some explanation regarding the character of the old man, and this serves a purpose as well. The old man explains the he and his two brothers used to own a schooner, which they used to fish in the waters near the maelstrom. He explains the careful timing and precautions they used to avoid the whirlpool. This portion of the tale does serve to elucidate much concerning the livelihood and traits of the old man, but more importantly it illustrates the relationship between humanity and nature. Viewed through this context, statements such as, “In fact, we made it a matter of desperate speculation-the risk of life standing instead of labor…,” (Tales, 131) take on a more profound meaning. Both the narrator and the old man are handled as characters in very specific ways, and Poe’s opinions and emphasis on the power of nature are shown by the fact that the maelstrom itself is the true protagonist of this tale.
More confirmation of Poe’s assessment of the power of nature can be found by scrutinizing the effects of technology and human thought on the progress of the characters in “A Descent into the Maelstrom” and “MS. Found in a Bottle.” The first step in such an examination is to consider the seafaring vessels used in both stories. Maritime science has advanced steadily throughout history, boats and ships often being examples of the pinnacle of technological advancement for the cultures which create them. Of course in both tales the power of the ocean is enough to overtake the vessels used. The whirlpools which bring to pass the end of multiple ships in both tales are representative of those things in nature which are beyond the understanding of humanity and beyond humanity’s ability to conquer with ingenuity. There are other examples of human ingenuity which prove insufficient in their ability to assist the characters in their attempts to defy nature. Depending on a watch is the mistake made by the old man in “A Descent into the Maelstrom”. This simple blunder proves catastrophic and is an example of an even more substantial mistake by the sailor. “By employing a man-made instrument … the sailor seems to expect something of chaos: he expects it to act in a certain way, according to his technologically measured design (Sweeney, 1).” The narrator in “MS. Found in a bottle” finds technology to be similarly useless in his situation. After surviving a debilitating storm and being cast from his ship, he finds himself on an enormous galleon. Searching the new ship he is able to find charts, maps, and navigational tools, but all of these are decayed and obsolete. Poe’s appreciation for the dominance of nature is shown in both stories by the fact that his characters are unable to effectively use technology to seek safety.
The way in which “MS. Found in a Bottle” and “A Descent into the Maelstrom” are lead to conclusion is atypical as compared to much of Poe’s work. There is no scientific or pseudo-scientific explanation offered in regards to the maelstrom itself, and in describing it, the sailor relies on words and phrases such as “magnificent”, “wonderful”, and “God’s power”. There is no sufficient technical analysis of what exactly is occurring. Likewise, in “MS. Found in a Bottle”, there is essentially no explanation of the events whatsoever and the conclusion of the story leaves the reader with many questions and no answers. Additionally, the endings of these tales are more dependent on nature then they are on the actions carried out by the characters. Without the benefit of true understanding or explanation, the characters in these tales achieve their varied levels of success primarily through the act of giving up. The narrator in “MS. Found in a Bottle” is unable to find any way of escaping, but he is able to at least share his story. He is able to do this because he recognizes his insurmountable situation, and resigns himself to the small success of recording his experiences and giving them to the world by stuffing a message into a bottle at the last possible second. The sailor in the maelstrom is able is able to find a way to safety, but only by surrendering to the anomaly first. His decision to literally jump ship is a brave and consequential decision, but the sailor only reaches this decision after first giving up and stopping to truly appreciate what he is witnessing. Contrastingly, the sailor’s brother remains filled with terror and is literally and figuratively unable to let go. This of course leads to his destruction. In this extreme way Poe shows us that sometimes it is valuable to acknowledge that there are things out there beyond our understanding or control.
Much of Edgar Allan Poe’s work celebrates the potential of human understanding. Many of his tales celebrate advances in science, technology, and knowledge. Many of his characters enjoy a sharp wit and cunning. However with stories such as “MS. Found in a Bottle” and “A Descent into the Maelstrom” Poe also displays an appreciation for the idea that humanity has limits. With these tales he exhibits a deep admiration for nature and its power. He does this by showcasing a natural phenomenon as the main character of a story, giving the maelstrom and its surroundings more emphasis than any of the people who encounter it. He also does this by highlighting the dangers of reliance on technology whether the example of that technology is a wristwatch or a sailing vessel. Finally, he does this by indicating that sometimes the only prudent course of action is to simply allow nature to take its course. This is especially showcased by the way the sailor is able to escape from within the maelstrom. All of these elements combine, expressing not only the power of nature itself, but also the importance of taking the time to appreciate nature. However, this admiration of nature does not serve to undermine Poe’s appreciation of human ability. It does highlight the fact that humanity still has a great deal to learn, but also alludes to the vast possibilities of which humanity may yet learn.
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