‘MS. Found in a Bottle’ is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s sea stories, and one of his earliest works of fiction: it was published in 1833, when Poe was still in his early twenties. The story recounts an unnamed narrator’s experiences at sea, following a storm and shipwreck. One of the most intriguing aspects of the story is the idea that the narrative we are reading was written by a man shortly before he died at sea, and that the narrative miraculously survived at sea in a glass bottle before being found by someone.
You can read ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘MS. Found in a Bottle’: summary
The story is narrated by a man who, as so often in Poe’s stories, is alone, cut off from his family. He boards a ship from Batavia (in Indonesia), but the ship is hit by a simoom or storm during its voyage. The ship capsizes, and only the narrator and one other passenger, a man from Sweden, manage to avoid drowning.
The ship bobs along the water until it reaches the South Pole, crashing into another ship. This time, only the narrator himself survives, and climbs aboard the galleon his ship has collided with.
The ship is manned by old and decrepit men who (for some reason) fail to notice the narrator, and all of the equipment is outdated and not fit for purpose. However, the narrator is able to salvage some paper and ink from the captain’s cabin, and uses that to write his ‘MS.’ (i.e., manuscript) detailing his story, before casting it into a bottle and throwing it into the sea. The ship continues towards Antarctica, where it is sucked into a whirlpool. The narrator’s final entry in his manuscript tells of how he and the ship are ‘going down’, into the concentric circles of the whirlpool.
‘MS. Found in a Bottle’: analysis
Edgar Allan Poe was a pioneer of the short story form. Indeed, he’s even credited with introducing the term ‘short story’ into the language; amazingly, the term didn’t exist before the mid-nineteenth century. Over the course of several dozen classic short tales, Poe pioneered several new genres, most famously science fiction and the psychological horror story. He also wrote Gothic tales and sea stories.
‘MS. Found in a Bottle’ is, along with ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’, the most celebrated example of the latter. Joseph Conrad, himself one of the finest writers of sea stories in the English language, said it was ‘about as fine as anything of that kind can be – so authentic in detail that it might have been told by a sailor of sombre and poetical genius in the invention of the fantastic.’ Praise doesn’t come much higher, or from a much more esteemed place, than that. It’s even been suggested that Herman Melville was influenced by ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’ when writing his classic sea story, the novel Moby-Dick.
Poe’s sea stories demonstrate his interest in some recurrent themes, and both of these stories contain some intriguing shared features: the force of a powerful whirlpool against which man is helpless to defend himself, the extreme ends of the earth (the northern areas around the Arctic in ‘A Descent’, the South Pole in ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’), and the idea of the story’s narrator being the last holdout against these powerful natural forces, whose account of his brush with death (and, in the case of ‘MS.’, eventual presumed death) is preserved for us to read.
Some critics have analysed ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’ as a work of satire on the genre of the sea story, based largely on the fact that the story’s events are wildly improbable: the narrator lurches from one disaster to the next during his voyage, but more improbably still, he manages to document his experiences while all about him is chaos. How likely is it that none of the crewmen aboard the black galleon would be able to see him? Is some magic at work here?
Yet set against this argument, we might point out the lengths to which Poe goes to make an implausible narrative authentic and credible: for instance, the narrator’s jottings on his ‘MS.’ become shorter and shorter as his ship lurches closer to disaster, suggesting that he has less time to keep his diary while all is falling down around him. And Poe’s other tales, dealing with the supernatural as they so often do, strain the limits of credulity. What Poe was especially adept at doing, however, was exploiting the reader’s uncertainty surrounding a narrative, through using an unreliable narrator or else blurring the boundaries between the real and the unreal, the supernatural and the psychological, and so on.
In this connection, then, we might analyse ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’ as a text that is about narrative itself: the narrative is not a means to an end (i.e. telling an exciting and suspenseful sea story), but the very subject of the story. Poe’s title points this up: rather than detailing the events of the story (as ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’ so plainly does), ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’ throws the emphasis onto the manuscript itself, rather than what it contains.
Poe is exploring, perhaps without openly mocking or satirising, the fine line a writer of adventure stories must tread: that is, between extreme plausibility and extreme adventure. If the events of the story are too recognisably real and ordinary, they are unremarkable, and readers of adventure stories expect something out of the ordinary. Conversely, if the events described are too far-fetched, the illusion of reality, or ‘suspension of disbelief’, is destroyed and readers can see they are being manipulated by the author.
What is even less well-known or well-recognised is that ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’ won Poe a prize in a short story competition: he submitted the tale to the Baltimore Saturday Visiter and the judges all agreed that Poe’s story was the best of all of the submissions. Poe won $50 for the story.