“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.