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.
“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.