In Edgar Allen Poe's story "A Descent into the Maelström", why was the narrator able to survive while his brother was not? Are there specific quotations that explain this?

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Edgar Allen Poe's story "A Descent into the Maelström" begins with a narrator, a tourist, meeting a fisherman in Norway who serves as a tour guide, leading the visitor up to the top of a cliff during a storm, so that the tourist can observe the renowned Maelström or whirlpool. This frame introduces the fisherman's story of his own descent into the maelström and how he managed to survive it. The fisherman describes how he and his brothers exploited the good fishing near the maelström, but were always very careful in planning their voyages to avoid the many perils the area held for mariners. 

During the fateful voyage the fisherman narrates, a freak storm sprang up. His younger brother was washed overboard at the start of the storm, and he and his older brother start circling around the edge of the maelström as the eye of the storm passed over it. This meant that there was a temporary calm, allowing the fisherman to observe the details of the maelström by the light of the moon.

The fisherman observes three facts concerning the relative speed of descent of different types of objects into the vortex: 

The first ... the larger the bodies were, the more rapid their descent -- the second, that, ..., the superiority in speed of descent was with the sphere -- the third, that, ... the cylinder was absorbed the more slowly.

The fisherman realizes that these observations imply that the small cylindrical water cask he is grasping will descend more slowly than the boat, and therefore:

I resolved to lash myself securely to the water cask upon which I now held, to cut it loose from the counter, and to throw myself with it into the water.

His brother refuses to do this and insists on staying on the boat. Due to this, the brother dies, swallowed by the maelström but the fisherman survives.

Read the study guide:
A Descent into the Maelström

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