Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 723
A Norwegian fisherman tells a tourist how he was caught during a storm in a maelström three years earlier and how he survived his ordeal. The tourist is the story’s narrator, and he speaks as a reporter who has met an interesting character while traveling in Norway. The story opens...
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A Norwegian fisherman tells a tourist how he was caught during a storm in a maelström three years earlier and how he survived his ordeal. The tourist is the story’s narrator, and he speaks as a reporter who has met an interesting character while traveling in Norway. The story opens with the description of their arrival at a fifteen-hundred-foot cliff on Helseggen mountain, from which the pair may observe the maelström to the south. Though the fisherman seems old and weak, he is rather comfortable on this narrow and windy cliff, where the narrator is unwilling to rise from a crawl in order to observe the sea below. The fisherman coaxes the narrator into looking over the edge; the narrator sees and hears the awesome phenomenon of the gigantic whirlpool that forms there at the changing of the tides.
The maelström is incredible, forming a vast hole, roaring and shrieking far more loudly than Niagara Falls, and shaking the mountain from which they watch. Having described the whirlpool, the narrator quotes from other accounts that find its alleged power to destroy ships and ocean life scarcely credible. For his part, the narrator believes the accounts to be conservative. He also discusses accounts of the causes of the maelström, the most likely of which attribute it to tidal currents. However, his own observation makes the most fantastic account the most satisfying to his imagination. To experience the maelström even at a distance is to believe that it is a vast drain through which water passes, to rise again miles away. The narrator’s observations and reading, both distant approaches to the maelström, are then enriched by the fisherman’s account of his descent into the maelström.
The fisherman tells how he and his two brothers made a practice of fishing near the maelström because the risk of the venture was justified by the richness and the quality of the catch. One day, however, they were caught by a hurricane, which drowned one brother, rendered their ship helpless, and propelled it into the maelström.
Because the center of the storm passed over their ship as it was about to enter the maelström, the whole scene was brightly lit by a full moon, allowing the fisherman to observe the maelström closely. The ship was drawn toward the whirlpool and over its edge. The ship then rode around it as if it were riding water down a drain, except that its forward speed varied, while its speed of descent remained more or less constant. The fisherman concentrated on his unexpected psychological responses to being pulled in and to the descent.
In his first despair, he found much of his terror dissipated. Instead, he reflected on what a magnificent manifestation of God’s power he was seeing and on how wonderful an opportunity it was simply to see it. These attitudes restored the self-possession that his remaining brother had lost permanently. The fisherman relates that he was further calmed by the increasing calmness and regularity of the ship’s motion in what had seemed to be lawless violence of motion. He felt a curiosity to explore this wonder of nature and began to do so. Despite the brightness of the moon, he was unable to see to the very bottom of the vortex because of a mist engendered there, but he did see “a magnificent rainbow, like that narrow and tottering bridge which Musselmen say is the only pathway between Time and Eternity.” Gradually, his observations became cooler and more scientific. Eventually, he noticed that differently shaped objects descend at different speeds. This observation gave him hope that he might survive if he could attach himself to a cylindrical object.
Unable to convince his brother to join him, he lashed himself to a water cask and leaped overboard. This strategy saved his life, while his brother rode the ship down to destruction.
The fisherman says that when he was picked up by his friends and daily companions, they failed to recognize him, for his hair had turned from raven to white in those few hours, and his face, too, had changed beyond recognition. They did not believe his story of having survived the maelström, and he does not expect the narrator to believe it either.