Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“A Descent into the Maelström” appears on the surface to be little more than a realistic tale of adventure, an eyewitness account of a distant natural wonder for Edgar Allan Poe’s American readers. Like several of his adventure tales, this one is constructed in such a way as to be indistinguishable from similar nonfictional reports, which regularly appeared in popular journals of the day. Among the aspects of the story that tempt readers to see more than adventure are the unusual description of the maelström, which suggests that it may be a symbol, and certain patterns that are repeated in other Poe tales.

The maelström as experienced by the fisherman is a whirling storm in the water, which has above it a precisely corresponding whirling storm in the air. At the eye of the storm is the brilliant full moon, which lights and glorifies the maelström, offering the fisherman a doubly unique revelation. Not only is he caught in the maelström, but he is also allowed to see it. The storm seems to allow him this unique vision as a gift. At the corresponding eye of the maelström is the mysterious veiling mist, illuminated by a rainbow that, to the fisherman, seems a bridge between time and eternity. The mist marks a literal entrance to eternity insofar as it marks the point at which a person must die, should he reach that point in the maelström. However, as the vision itself offers a revelation, it may also offer a way for the imagination to bridge...

(The entire section is 528 words.)