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Evening With Poe
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Comedy of Terrors
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Poe: a Light
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Ms. Found in a Bottle
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site..|..Other Poe Study Guides
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Type of Work
Epigraph
Settings
Characters
Source
Narration
Plot Summary
Climax
Themes
Poe's Writing
Figures of Speech
Vocabulary
Poe's Writing
Biography
Questions, Essay Topics
omplete Free Text
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Type of Work

.......“Ms. Found in a Bottle” is a short sea story in the horror genre. The Baltimore Saturday Visiter (Visitor) published the story in its issue of October 19, 1833. It later appeared in other publications. 

Epigraph

.......A French quotation precedes the story. This epigraph and its translation are as follows:

Qui n'a plus qu'un moment a vivre 
N'a plus rien a dissimuler.
—From the French tragic opera Atys, by Phillip Quinault 

When you have a moment to live, you don't lie.
Or . . .
Whoever has a moment to live has nothing to hide.
—Translations by M.J. Cummings

Settings

.......The action takes place in the early nineteenth century. It begins on a cargo ship sailing from Batavia, Java, to the Sunda Islands. Java and the Sunda Islands are in Southeast Asia in the Malay Archipelago, sometimes referred to as the East Indies. The Archipelago includes twenty thousand islands in present-day Indonesia and the Philippines. In a powerful storm, all the crewmen die, but two passengers—the narrator and an old Swede—survive. The ship remains afloat and the storm sweeps it southward until it collides with a gigantic black ship. The impact of the collision catapults the narrator onto the black ship. The rest of the action takes place on that ship.

Characters

Narrator: Unidentified man who writes an account of his doomed voyage aboard a gigantic ship with a ghostly crew. He places the manuscript in a bottle that he throws overboard when a whirlpool swallows the ship. Before embarking on the voyage, says the narrator, he was a skeptic who believed that seemingly paranormal events had a logical explanation when analyzed according to the principles of science. The narrator embarks on a cargo ship and survives a violent storm that claims the lives of everyone aboard except him and another passenger. When the cargo ship collides with a gigantic vessel, the narrator ends up on the latter—a ghost ship.
Old Swede: The other surviving passenger on the cargo ship. 
Crew of the Cargo Ship: Captain and mostly Malays. 
Crew of the Gigantic Ship: Enfeebled old men who navigate with obsolete instruments and old charts.

Source: The Legend of The Flying Dutchman

.......Poe apparently derived inspiration for "Ms. Found in a Bottle" from one of many versions of a story about a seventeenth-century Dutch ship sailing to or from the East Indies. It was a fast ship, so fast that its captain was said to have received help from the devil. When this "flying Dutchman"—a name that can refer to the ship or the captain—was rounding the Cape of Good Hope off South Africa during a tempest, says one version of the story, the captain vowed that he would weather the storm if he had to sail until doomsday. The ship never returned from its voyage. Over the years, the crews and passengers of numerous ships reported sightings of a "ghost ship" in the cape and sometimes elsewhere, referring to it as The Flying Dutchman. Sailors regard it as an ill omen. Perhaps the most famous sighting was one in 1881 aboard HMS Bacchante, which was carrying George Frederick Ernest Albert (1865-1936), the future king of England. According to the Bacchante's log, the ship glowed red and its masts and sails were clearly visible. When the Bacchante approached the vicinity of the "ghost ship," the image of it disappeared. Scientists theorize that such images are mirages or optical illusions resulting from refraction of light from a distant ship through air of varying densities.

Narration

.......An unidentified narrator tells the story in first-person point of view in a manuscript that records the details of his terrifying voyage aboard a ship. He then places the manuscript in a bottle. When he goes down with the ship, he tosses the bottle into the sea.

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings... 2009
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.......“Ill usage and length of years” have estranged the narrator from his family and forced him to leave his native country. But inherited wealth has enabled him to receive an excellent education, and he now has a formidable store of knowledge committed to memory. When evaluating an occurrence of any kind, he adheres rigidly to scientific principles and applies extreme skepticism in order to discover the truth. No one is less likely than he, the narrator says, to be duped by superstition. For this reason, he says, readers can feel assured that the incredible tale he is about to tell is true. He then begins the story.
.......After traveling widely for many years, the narrator sails from Batavia (present-day Jakarta), on the northwest coast of Java, to the Sunda Islands (part of the Malay Archipelagoas is Java) on a ship carrying oil, coconuts, opium, ghee, and other cargo. One evening, while he is looking out from the taffrail, the moon takes on a reddish hue, the air heats up, and the wind and sea become completely calm. As the ship drifts toward shore, the captain orders the crew of mostly Malays to furl the sails and drop anchor. But the narrator goes below with "a full presentiment of evil" and tells the captain that he believes a simoom (a violent storm) is about to strike. The captain, however, ignores him. 
.......At midnight, unable to sleep, the narrator returns to the deck and hears loud droning. A moment later, a foaming wave rips the ship free of its anchor and turns it on its side. The captain drowns in his quarters and everyone else except the narrator and an old Swede falls victim to the angry waters. Miraculously, the ship rights itself and the narrator escapes injury. The storm, now less intense, carries the ship along for several days at a rapid speed in a southerly direction. The narrator and the old Swede, meanwhile, sustain themselves with food on the ship. On the fifth day, the air becomes extremely cold and the sun rises “with a sickly yellow lustre.” It yields little light. In the evening, pitch blackness descends all around while the storm gains renewed fury. The Swede is terror-stricken. The narrator is wonder-struck. 
.......The two men lash themselves to the stump of a broken mast to keep from being swept away. The narrator believes they have gone farther south than any other sea travelers. He also believes that he and his companion will surely die. Suddenly, they see red light. Then a gigantic black ship, lined with canons along its hull and lanterns on its rigging, appears on the top of a wave. When it descends, it collides with the smaller ship. The impact hurls the narrator onto the rigging of the larger ship. 
.......Frightened by the prospect of facing the crewmen of the ship—whom the narrator says present “many points of vague novelty, doubt, and apprehension"—he makes his way to the hold. In the rough, pitching seas, no one notices him. In the hold, he removes boards and hides himself. Someone then enters the hold. Although the narrator cannot see his face, he is able to observe that his movements—unsteady and feeble—are apparently those of an old man. He rummages through instruments and charts in a corner, mumbles in a strange language, and then returns to the deck. 
.......In time, the narrator leaves his hiding place and discovers to his amazement that the crewmen, preoccupied with their activities, do not see him. So he comes and goes as he pleases. He even enters the captain's cabin and takes paper and writing instruments on which he is recording his entire story. Although he may not have an opportunity to put his diary into the hands of someone, he can at least enclose the manuscript in a bottle and throw it overboard.
.......One day, he ventures on deck and enters the ship's rowboat. There, without quite knowing what he is doing, he writes DISCOVERY on a studding sail, which is later put in place on the ship.
.......From time to time, he examines the ship and its structure. Though it carries many guns, it does not seem to be a warship. Oddly, the vessel's wood—which resembles Spanish oak—is highly porous and thus ill-suited to ship construction. It is as if the wood somehow expanded after the ship was built. 
.......While spending time on deck, he observes a group of crewmen. They do not notice him, of course, but he notices that they are all stooped with age, with gray hair that blows wildly in the wind and rheum issuing from their eyes. Around them are out-of-date mathematical instruments.
.......Meanwhile, the ship sails steadily on through “billows a thousand times more stupendous than any I have ever seen,” the narrator says. “ I must suppose the ship to be within the influence of some strong current, or impetuous under-tow."
.......The captain is like the others on the ship—grayed with age. On the floor of his cabin are obsolete charts, instruments, and clasped folios. When the narrator observes him one day, he is studying a document, perhaps a commission, signed by a monarch. He talks to himself in the same strange language of the man he saw in the hold. 
.......Even stranger than the language is “the blackness of eternal night” surrounding the ship. However, from  time to time there is enough light to see “stupendous ramparts of ice, towering away into the desolate sky, and looking like the walls of the universe."
.......As the narrator suspected, the ship is being carried along by a current, thunderous and powerful.
......."It is evident that we are hurrying onwards to some exciting knowledge—some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction," the narrator says. "Perhaps this current leads us to the southern pole itself. It must be confessed that a supposition apparently so wild has every probability in its favor."
.......Suddenly, the ice gives way on the left and the right. The ship begins whirling.  Round and round it goes in concentric circles, which become smaller and smaller. The narrator says, “[T]he ship is quivering—oh God! and—going down!”

Climax

.......The climax occurs when a whirlpool sucks the gigantic black ship into an abyss in the Antarctic region.

Themes

.......Before embarking on the voyage, says the narrator, he was a skeptic who believed that seemingly paranormal events had a logical explanation when analyzed with the principles of science. His voyage aboard the doomed ship with the ghostly crew convinces him that he was wrong. The central theme, therefore is this: Science cannot explain everything; mysterious and chimerical events do occur.
.......Other themes include terror, the power of nature, man's inability to control his destiny, and man's compulsion to document and report strange phenomena.
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Poe's Writing

.......Poe presents his story with accurate use of nautical terminology and skillful descriptions that undergird the mood of the story. Among those who praised the story was Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), author of  acclaimed novels and short stories about life at sea. In a letter to John Livingston Rowes (1867-1945), Conrad wrote, "E. A. Poe's impressive [story is] a very fine piece of work—about as fine as anything of that kind can be—and so authentic in detail that it might have been told by a sailor of a sombre and poetical genius in the invention of the phantastic.” Lowes published that quotation on page 564 of The Road to Xanadu: a Study in the Ways of the Imagination, a book about Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Constable and Company, Ltd., published the book in London in 1927.
.......Poe's descriptions of light, shifting colors, and darkness enhance the continually building atmosphere of mystery and horror in the story. Consider the following passage:

.......The sun arose with a sickly yellow lustre, and clambered a very few degrees above the horizon—emitting no decisive light. . . . About noon, as nearly as we could guess, our attention was again arrested by the appearance of the sun. It gave out no light, properly so called, but a dull and sullen glow without reflection, as if all its rays were polarized. Just before sinking within the turgid sea, its central fires suddenly went out, as if hurriedly extinguished by some unaccountable power. It was a dim, sliver-like rim, alone, as it rushed down the unfathomable ocean.
.......We waited in vain for the arrival of the sixth day—that day to me has not arrived—to the Swede, never did arrive. Thenceforward we were enshrouded in pitchy darkness, so that we could not have seen an object at twenty paces from the ship.
.......Eternal night continued to envelop us, all unrelieved by the phosphoric sea-brilliancy to which we had been accustomed in the tropics. We observed too, that, although the tempest continued to rage with unabated violence, there was no longer to be discovered the usual appearance of surf, or foam, which had hitherto attended us. All around were horror, and thick gloom, and a black sweltering desert of ebony. Superstitious terror crept by degrees into the spirit of the old Swede, and my own soul was wrapped up in silent wonder. 
And this one:
.......We were at the bottom of one of these abysses, when a quick scream from my companion broke fearfully upon the night. “See! see!” cried he, shrieking in my ears, “Almighty God! see! see!” As he spoke, I became aware of a dull, sullen glare of red light which streamed down the sides of the vast chasm where we lay, and threw a fitful brilliancy upon our deck. Casting my eyes upwards, I beheld a spectacle which froze the current of my blood. At a terrific height directly above us, and upon the very verge of the precipitous descent, hovered a gigantic ship, of perhaps four thousand tons. 
.......Although upreared upon the summit of a wave more than a hundred times her own altitude, her apparent size still exceeded that of any ship of the line or East Indiaman in existence. Her huge hull was of a deep dingy black, unrelieved by any of the customary carvings of a ship. 
.......A single row of brass cannon protruded from her open ports, and dashed from their polished surfaces the fires of innumerable battle-lanterns, which swung to and fro about her rigging. 
Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the story:

  • Our cable had, of course, parted like pack-thread, at the first breath of the hurricane: Simile comparing the cable to thread.
  • All around were horror, and thick gloom, and a black sweltering desert of ebony: Metaphors comparing gloom to a thick object and darkness to a desert.
  • with a fitful and unsteady fury: alliteration.
  • my own soul was wrapped up in silent wonder: alliteration
  • and the colossal waters rear their heads above us like demons of the deep: simile comparing waters to demons; alliteration.
  • His gray hairs are records of the past, and his grayer eyes are sybils of the future: Metaphors comparing hairs to records and eyes to sybils (seers).
  • Their knees trembled with infirmity; their shoulders were bent double with decrepitude; their shrivelled skins rattled in the wind; their voices were low, tremulous, and broken; their eyes glistened with the rheum of years; and their gray hairs streamed terribly in the tempest: anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase in succeeding groups of words.
Vocabulary

aft: at or near the rear of the ship. 
archipelago: Group of islands or a sea with many islands.
Balbec: Baalbek, town in Lebanon famous for its ruins of a colossal Roman temple.
ballast: Weight in the hold of the ship that maintains stability.
beam: Horizontal crosspieces on a sailing vessel. 
bow: Front end of a ship, also called prow.
coir: Fiber from coconut husks. It is used to make ropes and mats.
deck: Floor on a ship.
fathom: Unit of vertical length equal to six feet. Using a rope, a seaman measures the depth of water in fathoms. 
fore: at or near the front of a ship.
forecastle (pronounced FOKE sl): Living quarters for the crew in the front of a ship. Click here to see a forecastle.
ghee: Butter gently heated to remove water, then strained to remove milk solids. It is used in cooking, mainly in  India and nearby countries, and may be kept at room temperature.
hull: Body of a ship excluding masts and rigging. At the front end is the bow, or prow; at the rear is the stern.
hold: Part of a ship below the decks where cargo is stored.
ignes fatui: Plural of ignus fatuus, a Latin term for illusory or unattainable goal, deceptive goal, delusion, or false hope. It also refers to light given off in a marsh by the combustion of gases from rotting organic matter. This light is also called a will-o'-the-wisp or a jack-o'-lantern.
jaggaree: A type of brown sugar.
kraken (pronounced KRAH kihn): Sea monster in Norwegian folk tales.
Lachadive islands: Laccadive Islands, off the southwestern coast of India.
Malabar teak: Type of hard wood found along the Malabar Coast in southwest India. It is used in shipbuilding. 
mast: Vertical pole to which the sails are attached and from which a flag flies. A mast also supports rigging. 
mizen-mast: Mizzenmast. In a ship with three or more masts, it is the third mast from the front of the ship.
poop: On a sailing ship, the raised deck on the stern.
Pyrrhonism: Belief that certainty about anything is impossible, as taught by the Greek thinker Pyrrho (circa 360-270 BC); skepticism about all knowledge.
rheum (pronounced ROOM): Watery discharge.
rigging: Ropes and other gear that manipulate the sales and support the mast.
simoom: Wind that is hot and dry and carries particles of sand or dust.
spar: Vertical or horizontal pole on a sailing ship. 
stern: Rear end of a ship.
Studding-sail (also studdingsail, studding sail): Extra sail set on either side of a square sail for use in light winds. 
Tadmor: City in ancient Syria. 
taffrail: Rail around the rear of a ship. 
topgallant: Tallest mast on a ship with square sails as the main sails.
yawl: Rowboat carried on ships.

Biographical Information

.......Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless couple–John Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while, he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849. 

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • Write an essay about the techniques Poe uses to build suspense.
  • Do you believe the narrator is a reliable witness to the terrifying events?
  • Write an essay about the types of storms sailing ships encountered on long voyages.
  • In a short essay, describe the forecastle of a ship. Include an illustration that shows its location on the ship.

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