Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This adventure story is suggestive of the unbelievable tale told by the haunted narrator of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). Edgar Allan Poe’s narrator is similar to other misanthropic characters found in his stories, but like Coleridge’s mariner, he experiences physical phenomena that no one else has experienced and lived to tell. Poe bows to reality by having the narrator killed at the end but has provided for the survival of his journal through the ingenious manuscript-in-a-bottle device. The story can be read purely as a fantastic adventure story, full of danger and mystery that cause psychological reactions in the narrator that he finds nearly impossible to describe. It is perhaps for these qualities that the story won for Poe a fifty-dollar prize in a contest conducted by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter in 1833. The three judges of the contest praised all the stories that Poe submitted for their “imagination,” “style,” “invention,” and “learning.” The explorer’s narrative was a popular genre in the 1800’s; the heavens and the depths of the ocean were settings for numerous stories by Poe and other writers.

In addition to its characteristics as an adventure tale, the story can be read as an allegory, according to some critics. In reviewing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1837), Poe has little to say in defense of allegory. He insists that if used at all,...

(The entire section is 510 words.)