Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528

“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...

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“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 time and eternity. This arrangement of storm and maelström indicates a fictional purpose beneath the surface of an apparently nonfictional text; it suggests that the scene may be symbolic, pointing to some meaning beyond itself.

The meaning to which it points is difficult to assert confidently. There are patterns of the story in Poe’s works that are suggestive but do not lead easily to certainty. Stuart Levine, in The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (1976), has placed this tale with “The Pit and the Pendulum” because it exemplifies the theme of salvation through terror. The fisherman moves through stages of terror, despair, wonder, calm, curiosity, cool observation, discovery, action, and salvation. This pattern, or one like it, appears frequently in Poe’s tales of adventure; it is several times placed in the context of a physical journey during which the protagonist approaches a barrier between time and eternity such as the irradiated mist at the bottom of the maelström. One possible meaning suggested by this pattern is that the recognition of the incomprehensible terror and wonder of the physical universe brings the human consciousness ultimately to a kind of heightened reason, in which fundamental truth may be discovered. What truth the fisherman discovers is also difficult to assert with confidence. It may be important to notice how his ease on the windy cliff contrasts with the narrator’s terror at the opening of the story. Perhaps the fisherman has learned not to fear death and, as a result, has come to feel at home with the terrific wonders of the physical universe.

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