(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The narrator begins his frightening tale with a one-paragraph introduction of himself. Although he does not give his age, he is probably middle-aged, for he has spent many years in foreign travel. Time and “ill usage” have estranged him from both his native country and his family. He has been well educated, especially in the natural sciences, but has been accused of “a deficiency of imagination.” He describes himself as a person who cannot be lured from “the severe precincts of truth by the ignes fatui of superstition.”

The narrator sets sail on a merchant ship from Batavia, Java, to the Archipelago Islands, for no reason other than a “nervous restlessness” to which he is addicted. For days the ship rides off the coast of Java, waiting for a favorable wind. One evening, he observes strange changes in the sea and the sky: an unusual cloud to the northwest, a red moon, and an extremely hot, spiral atmosphere. He suspects a simoom, but the ship’s captain does not share his fears. Soon after, the ship quivers; the sea hurls it on the beam-ends and washes over the decks from stem to stern. Despite the whirling ocean, the ship rights itself. The narrator is saved from being washed overboard by being thrown between the sternpost and the rudder. Only he and an old Swedish sailor, however, survive the storm; everyone else on board is lost, many drowning in their cabins. The two survivors cannot control the ship as it flies for five days in violent winds on a course southeast by south. Cold and darkness envelop the ship, which the narrator believes to be farther south than any previous ship has ever been. He loses hope and prepares himself for the death he considers inevitable.

As the ship is trapped in a maelstrom, a huge vessel of four thousand tons is sighted at the top of the abyss, under full sail, with brass cannon and lighted...

(The entire section is 764 words.)