[BONUS] A Critique of Poe’s Man vs. Nature in “A Descent into the Maelstrom”

December 1, 2019 § 2 Comments

One would think that a short story with a name as intriguing and powerful as “A Descent into the Maelstrom” would be more than just a literal tale of a sailor who got caught in a hurricane. Disappointingly, the plot of this short story is exactly that, and not much else. For 9 out of the 13 pages, the sailor who tells the story of his survival rambles on in his description of how powerful this storm is. The tale itself is actually quite extraordinary, yet Poe loses his reader when he launches into these wordy descriptions of the maelstrom. He might have been trying to really establish the scene, but I thought his motivation for the descriptions was that he was being paid-per-word. Later, I discovered that he was being paid by the page so interpret that as you will (Ostrom, 37). Having read the other brilliant short stories from Poe, such as “The Murders at the Rue Morgue,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and more, I was disappointed by this rather boring story. “Descent” is described as a “terror” story, but quite frankly, the main emotion I felt while reading it was boredom.

While you may think my criticism is harsh and perhaps coming from a place of unsophistication, literary critics of Poe’s time shared my sentiment. Shortly after the story was published in April 1841 in Graham’s Magazine, the April 28, 1841 issue of the Daily Chronicle called it “unworthy of the pen of one whose talents allow him a wider and more ample range.”(A Descent into the Maelström”, n.d.). The critic’s argument echoes my exact sentiments–that Poe had the capability to write a much more complex and interesting story than “Descent”. 

An artist’s rendition of pirate ships getting caught in a maelstrom

Despite these critiques of “Descent”, there are many merits to this short story. It is regarded as one of the first forms of science fiction and of “ratiocination,” which is the act of using logic to rationalize problems. The sailor discusses how hopeless he felt as he was swirling around in the whirlpool, but he is struck by an idea when he makes crucial observations into the characteristics of the objects that sink the fastest. He noticed that the barrels that were swirling above him sank the slowest, and concluded that his best chance at survival lay in him attaching himself to a barrel and waiting the storm out. In this survival scene, Poe brings up the conflict of science/man vs. nature. He clearly admires the beautiful violence of the storm, as evidenced by his long descriptions of scenery, yet this conclusion where reason overcomes this powerful force of nature seems to be Poe’s way of arguing that man’s ingenuity can overcome even the strongest storms. This argument is enforced when one considers the fate of the sailor’s brothers. Originally, there were three sailors (the survivor and his two brothers) who were caught in the storm. The first one has really bad luck, and the mast that he tied himself to for safety was the first thing that got blown off the ship. The second brother lasted longer, but went wild with fear. He tried to take the narrator’s spot, even attempting to pry his own brother’s hands off of the thing he was clinging to for safety. The narrator describes his brother in this instant as “a raving maniac through sheer fright”(Poe 10). This brother lost his sensibility to his terror, and wasn’t able to rescue himself. The survivor’s ability to use logic to survive juxtaposed against his brother’s mindless fear reveals Poe’s belief that man is the victor in this conflict. 

Sketch of how the sailor survived by attaching himself to a barrel

“A Descent Into the Maelstrom” may not have been Poe’s most shining achievement, but I still recommend reading it for its literary merits such as its symbolism, themes, and characters. If you are a Poe fan though, I would just recommend reading this with lowered expectations.


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§ 2 Responses to [BONUS] A Critique of Poe’s Man vs. Nature in “A Descent into the Maelstrom”

  • karlwithak1 says:

    The ending of this blog post caught me by surprise: as the narrator is put in the position of deciding if him or his brother should survive. It’s interesting that we more or less assume the narrator made the right choice in not allowing his fear struck brother to pry him off of the barrel. But when one really thinks about it, how justified is the narrator in making this decision? Is he justified because he is using logic in what he clings on to? Is he justified just because he grabbed onto the barrel first? or is he justified just because he managed to stay on the barrel and survive? This moral situation really sets my head spinning.


  • Alien Resort says:

    Wordiness is typical of that era. Most books took a while to get started. I can’t imagine wordiness being a formula for success nowadays


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