By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’ is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, written in 1841. A maelstrom is a whirlpool: the word dates from at least the sixteenth century and was formed from Dutch words malen (meaning ‘grind’) and stroom (meaning ‘stream’). The story Poe weaves out of this natural phenomenon is highly suggestive, leaving itself open to numerous interpretations.
You can read ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’: plot summary
(NB: the story’s epigraph, from a seventeenth-century essay by Joseph Glanvill, references the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus, who though truth could be found at the bottom of a well. This obviously has relevance to the ‘maelstrom’ in Poe’s story.)
The story begins in the North Sea off the Norwegian coast, with a seemingly old man telling the narrator about a harrowing experience he had among the nearby whirlpools. Although his white hair makes him appear to be an old man, he tells the narrator that he is actually not old. His experience and brush with death, however, made his black hair turn white in the course of one day.
Taking the narrator to a cliff, from whose top they can view the whirlpools and the great Maelstrom (or major whirlpool), this white-haired man relates how he and his two brothers were caught in the Maelstrom while in their fishing boat, and how his two brothers were both sucked into its current.
The white-haired man managed to prevent his own descent into the Maelstrom by observing how the various objects from the boat were sucked into the whirlpool and eventually grabbing onto a water cask, and escaping the force of the Maelstrom. Its force gradually subsided, and some fishermen rescued the white-haired man.
The story ends with the white-haired man telling the narrator that none of the other fishermen believed his story.
‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’: analysis
In Scandinavia, there is a phenomenon known as the Moskstraumen or Moskenstraumen, a system of tidal whirlpools found in the Lofoten archipelago in Nordland county (in Norway) between the Norwegian Sea and the Vestfjorden. This Moskstraumen was the inspiration for Poe’s tale. Poe learnt about the maelstrom from several sources, which included an 1834 story in Fraser’s Magazine titled ‘The Maelstrom: A Fragment’.
‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’ is a classic example of Poe’s incorporation of real-life, non-fiction accounts of phenomena into fiction. The story provides us with something that real life almost certainly never could: what would it be like to be caught up in such a powerful force as the Maelstrom and yet live to tell the tale? Much like people who claim to have had near-death experiences in which they have seen the ‘other side’, the white-haired man experienced, and survived, something that nobody else had.
Many of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales focus on protagonists who find themselves in trouble because of their own behaviour: so the murderer in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is driven mad by his own guilt (or, depending on how you read that ambiguous story, by the supernatural beating of his victim’s heart beneath the floorboards), while the cat-killer in ‘The Black Cat’ also brings his subsequent haunting and bad luck upon his own head through his cruelty to his pet.
But ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’ is different, because the trouble which descends upon the white-haired man is outside of his control: he is a victim of nature’s forces at their wildest and most uncontrollable, with his brush with death being the result of natural phenomena rather than some retributive power punishing him for some past crime.
What does the maelstrom represent? Is it just that: the force of nature, what we might – following Edmund Burke – label the Sublime, the terror and awe of something in the natural world that is bigger and more powerful than man? Note the blend of terror and curiosity which the man tells the narrator he felt, even while he was in danger of being swallowed up by the maelstrom:
I have already described the unnatural curiosity which had taken the place of my original terrors. It appeared to grow upon me as I drew nearer and nearer to my dreadful doom. I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company. I must have been delirious, for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below.
It’s worth noting, too, that he goes on to observe that his attempts to guess which object will next be pulled into the whirlpool’s currents all prove to be wrong: ‘At length, after making several guesses of this nature, and being deceived in all – this fact – the fact of my invariable miscalculation, set me upon a train of reflection that made my limbs again tremble, and my heart beat heavily once more.’ Man’s attempt at understanding and second-guessing nature has failed.
Perhaps it is significant, in this connection, that the man who tells the narrator his story had his black hair turned white by the shock of his experiences. We might analyse the maelstrom as a symbol representing the force of time as well as nature. Indeed, critics including Jules Zanger have highlighted that there are other symbols in ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’ which support such an idea: along with the man’s white hair, we might seize upon his watch:
At first I could not make out what he meant – but soon a hideous thought flashed upon me. I dragged my watch from its fob. It was not going. I glanced at its face by the moonlight, and then burst into tears as I flung it far away into the ocean. It had run down at seven o’clock! We were behind the time of the slack, and the whirl of the Ström was in full fury!
The man’s fob watch – a testament to man’s ability to measure and regulate time – mysteriously stops during his encounter with this unstoppable force of nature. He will survive, but only just – and with his hair showing how his narrow escape has prematurely aged him.
We might go deeper than this, though, and many critics have, viewing the maelstrom as a symbol not just for nature but for God, and for cosmological forces beyond our own world. Here, the simultaneous attraction and repulsion that is a central dynamic of the maelstrom – the brothers are drawn towards it but must try to resist its pull – stands for man’s often conflicted attitude to God and the divine.
But since Marie Bonaparte’s (now largely derided) analysis of Poe’s life and work in the 1930s, ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’ has also been analysed in light of Freudian psychoanalysis: the whirlpool represents the eddies and currents of sexual desire, threatening to overwhelm us.
Whereas his two brothers succumb to the maelstrom’s alluring energies, the white-haired man manages to resist, as if he is resisting his own deeper libido or drives, in favour of quick-thinking and rational pragmatism.