Poe Study Guides
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.
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
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
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.
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
The Legend of
The Flying Dutchman
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.
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.
Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
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 Archipelago, as
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
the narrator suspected, the ship is being carried along by a current, thunderous
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."
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
climax occurs when a whirlpool sucks the gigantic black ship into an abyss
in the Antarctic region.
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
themes include terror, the power of nature, man's inability to control
his destiny, and man's compulsion to document and report strange phenomena.
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.
descriptions of light, shifting colors, and darkness enhance the continually
building atmosphere of mystery and horror in the story. Consider the following
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.
And this one:
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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:
my own soul
up in silent
and the colossal waters rear
their heads above us like demons of
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).
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:
the repetition of a word or phrase in succeeding groups of words.
aft: at or near the
rear of the ship.
of islands or a sea with many islands.
town in Lebanon famous for its ruins of a colossal Roman temple.
ballast: Weight in
the hold of the ship that maintains stability.
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
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.
FOKE sl): Living quarters for the crew in the front of a ship.
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.
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.
KRAH kihn): Sea monster in Norwegian folk tales.
Laccadive Islands, off the southwestern coast of India.
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
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.
that certainty about anything is impossible, as taught by the Greek thinker
Pyrrho (circa 360-270 BC); skepticism about all knowledge.
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
studdingsail, studding sail): Extra sail set on either side of a square
sail for use in light winds.
Tadmor: City in ancient
taffrail: Rail around
the rear of a ship.
mast on a ship with square sails as the main sails.
yawl: Rowboat carried
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.
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
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