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A Descent into the Maelström

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Title: A Descent into the Maelström  
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Subject: Maelstrom, Moskstraumen, MS. Found in a Bottle, The Black Cat (short story), Lofoten
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A Descent into the Maelström

"A Descent into the Maelström"
Artist Harry Clarke's 1919 illustration for "A Descent into the Maelström"
Author Edgar Allan Poe
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Science Fiction

"A Descent into the Maelström" is an 1841 short story by Edgar Allan Poe. In the tale, a man recounts how he survived a shipwreck and a whirlpool. It has been grouped with Poe's tales of ratiocination and also labeled an early form of science fiction.


  • Plot 1
  • Analysis 2
    • Major themes 2.1
    • Allusions 2.2
  • Publication history 3
  • Critical response 4
  • Adaptation 5
  • References in literary works 6
  • References 7
  • Sources 8
  • External links 9


Inspired by the Moskstraumen, it is couched as a story within a story, a tale told at the summit of a mountain climb in Lofoten, Norway. The story is told by an old man who reveals that he only appears old—"You suppose me a very old man," he says, "but I am not. It took less than a single day to change these hairs from a jetty black to white, to weaken my limbs, and to unstring my nerves." The narrator, convinced by the power of the whirlpools he sees in the ocean beyond, is then told of the "old" man's fishing trip with his two brothers a few years ago.

Driven by "the most terrible hurricane that ever came out of the heavens", their ship was caught in the vortex. One brother was pulled into the waves; the other was driven mad by the horror of the spectacle, and drowned as the ship was pulled under. At first the narrator only saw hideous terror in the spectacle. In a moment of revelation, he saw that the Maelström is a beautiful and awesome creation. Observing how objects around him were attracted and pulled into it, he deduced that "the larger the bodies, the more rapid their descent" and that spherical-shaped objects were pulled in the fastest. Unlike his brother, he abandoned ship and held on to a cylindrical barrel until he was saved several hours later. The "old" man tells the story to the narrator without any hope that the narrator will believe it.


The story's opening bears a similarity to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798): in both, an excited old man tells his story of shipwreck and survival.[1] The tale is one of sensation, emphasizing the narrator's thoughts and feelings, especially his terror of being killed in the whirlpool.[2] The narrator uses his reasoning skills to survive and the story is considered one of Poe's early examples of science fiction.[3] The maelstrom's attractive power forecasts certain aspects of the Black Hole theory.

Major themes


The story mentions Jonas Danilssønn Ramus, a man from Norway who wrote about a famous maelström at Saltstraumen. The opening epigraph is quoted from an essay by Joseph Glanvill called "Against Confidence in Philosophy and Matters of Speculation" (1676), though Poe altered the wording significantly.[4]

Publication history

"A Descent into the Maelström" first appeared in Graham's Magazine, May 1841.

The story first appeared in the May 1841 edition of [7] Like his other sea adventure works The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and The Journal of Julius Rodman, "A Descent into the Maelström" was believed by readers to be true and one passage was reprinted in the ninth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica – ironically, it was based on a passage that Poe had lifted from an earlier edition of that same encyclopedia.[6] In June 1845, "A Descent into the Maelström" was collected for the first time as part of Poe's Tales, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons Wiley & Putnam, and also included eleven of his other stories.[8]

Critical response

Shortly after its publication, the April 28 issue of the Daily Chronicle included the notice: "The 'Descent into the Maelstroom' [[9]


Pianist Lennie Tristano recorded "Descent into the Maelstrom" in 1953, inspired by the short story. It was an improvised solo piano piece that used multitracking and had no preconceived harmonic structure, being based instead on the development of motifs.[10]

In 1986, American composer Philip Glass wrote music inspired by "A Descent into the Maelström". It was commissioned by the Australian Dance Theatre.

Arthur C. Clarke wrote the short story "Maelstrom II" inspired by Poe's story.[11] It was first published by Playboy magazine, and can also be found in Clarke's anthology, The Wind from the Sun.

References in literary works

In 1970, Czechoslovakian writer Ludvík Vaculík made many references to "A Descent into the Maelström" as well as "The Black Cat" in his novel The Guinea Pigs. In Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, Paul Proteus thinks to himself "Descent into the Maelstrom" as he succumbs to the will of his wife.[12]


  1. ^ Sova 2001, p. 66
  2. ^ Silverman 1991, p. 169
  3. ^ Tresh 2002, pp. 116–117
  4. ^ Sova 2001, pp. 65–66
  5. ^ Bittner 1962, p. 164
  6. ^ a b Meyers 1992, p. 125
  7. ^ Silverman 1991, p. 320
  8. ^ Thomas & Jackson 1987, p. 540
  9. ^ a b Thomas & Jackson 1987, p. 324
  10. ^
  11. ^ Arthur Clarke's Maelstrom II. Retrieved February 26, 2014.
  12. ^ Vonnegut 1952, p. 184


External links

  • Publication history of "A Descent into the Maelström" at the Edgar Allan Poe Society
  • Information about Philip Glass's musical interpretation.
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