1. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Short Story Club (3): MS. Found in a Bottle by Edgar Allan Poe

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by thirdwind, Feb 25, 2013.

    For Short Story Club (3), we'll be reading and discussing "MS. Found in a Bottle" by Edgar Allan Poe. You can find a copy of the story here. I also came across an audio version, which can be found here.
     
  2. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I really really love this story. Strangely it is a lot like Poe's novel, The Narrative of Arthur G. Pym. Also, I always love the way this story flows, and the way the Other Ship and crew is presented. It is a solid ghost story.
     
  3. Sved
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    Sved Senior Member

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    Was the last ship 'The Flying Dutchman?'
     
  4. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    The first thing that caught my attention was the writing itself. It's really old-fashioned (which is expected). It's been a while since I've read anything written so long ago.

    As for the story, it's definitely a horror story, though perhaps not in the traditional sense. It's also depressing because the men never reach their destination (Antarctica I presume).

    I'm not really sure how to interpret the story. On the one hand, it's a story about forbidden knowledge and the dangers associated with trying to acquire that knowledge. But I also see the story as being satirical, and the best evidence for this is the fact that the narrator keeps a journal throughout the entire ordeal. The fact that he's recording his experiences makes me believe that there's an overarching theme of self-sacrifice. Something like 50 years before this story was published, Jeremy Bentham published his theory on utilitarianism, so perhaps there are elements of that in this story as well.

    I'll post more thoughts later.
     
  5. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I don't think so, though I've thought that too. There isn't anything in the story to indicate that this is the case anyway.

    That is a really interesting idea actually, one I'd never ever even considered. I've always seen this story as just a good yarn myself, but I can't help but link it, irrationally with Coleridge's poem 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'. And this story a sort of corruption of that. However, I've always found it strange how, given that this story is an 'MS. found in a bottle' why this 'bottle' was not swallowed up by the sea as well?

    The whole thing about the ghost crew is also interesting because the ghosts of the ship are constantly being contrasted with the narrator, who is something of a ghost himself. He doesn't really tell you anything about himself, and while he says he had an 'education of no common order' his language is very typical of the standard 19th century American short story. There are, for example, at least from what I can see and remember at least, no allusions to classical poetry or the ancient world, or Latin or Ancient Greek; things you really would have expected the character to know about and talk about if he had this sort of education. A 'good education' in those days, was Classics, so as a reader you would have expected something.

    Poe himself was clearly was at least aware of these things. At an early age he had a British education (see 'William Wilson', and it's mentioned in one of the Penguin Classics introductions too) and went to a fine American university. In fact, I think he quotes Latin in a few other short stories, and from his poetry he clearly knew the ancient gods, and about antiquity. The most educated thing you get from the story is the quotation at the start which is in French, merely one of the languages of a good education of the time, and that's not even a part of the story. I can't be the only person to have noticed this anyway.
     
  6. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    He threw it really, really far before dying? Haha, I don't know. I never thought about this until you brought it up. When I was reading about the background of this story, I noticed that the interpretation changed over the years. And little inconsistencies like that are probably why people began seeing this story as satirical.

    I'll have to check out that Coleridge poem. The name of the poem sounds familiar, but I don't think I've ever read it.
     
  7. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Now that I think about it, I want to take back what I wrote earlier about there being a sacrificial element to the story. Though the narrator does want to share what he has written, the contents of the manuscript have very little to do with what's around him. Instead, he focuses a lot of his journal entries on the ship's crew and his own health. That makes me believe that he isn't writing to share some forbidden or unattainable knowledge. Rather, he's writing to preserve himself. He knows death is near, so writing and keeping the manuscript in a bottle is his attempt to achieve immortality. This is pretty much the exact opposite of sacrificing oneself for the greater good. It's a cry from a writer who wants to share with the world a novel experience, which is something we, as writers, can sympathize with.

    This story was written early in Poe's career, so the theme of preserving one's legacy seems fitting.
     
  8. Sved
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    Sved Senior Member

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    The story starts out with the narrator simply telling a story about what happened to him in the past. Then after he came on board the 'ghost ship' he remarks he been there long and then Poe switches to present tense. Perhaps like a subtle way of saying he indeed became a ghost.
     
  9. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    That's a brilliant thought, and it could very easily fit into what thirdwind is saying about the narrator wanting to live forever through his manuscript. I'll have to read it again but I really think you are on to something.
     
  10. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Good catch. I actually didn't realize this until you pointed it out. I interpret this as the narrator starting to write the manuscript while aboard the ghost ship. So everything that happened before he writes about in past tense, as if recalling a story, and everything that happens from that point on he writes in present tense, as if writing diary entries. On the other hand, Poe may just be staying true to the way a diary and a story are traditionally written (present tense and past tense, respectively). There are just so many ways this story can be interpreted.
     
  11. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I really enjoyed this. I love the old-fashioned prose - it generates a really great sense of atmosphere and dread.

    I actually thought the narrator had become a ghost, too. In fact, as I read it I thought the reason the crew didn't notice him was that he was a ghost and they were somehow real, but as the story went on it became clear that wasn't true. Then I thought that, unless the narrator was a ghost who could handle real objects, there's no way his ms. could ever have been found in the bottle in the first place. If he was a ghost, we could not be reading his story. So, on second thought, I became convinced that it was a ghost ship, crewed by ghosts, and he was the only living man aboard.

    But if he was living, what was he eating and drinking? The voyage went on for a significant length of time and he would have needed nourishment of some kind, but he doesn't mention it. So was he a ghost after all? A ghost in a different supernatural reality from the crew? It's clear that the ship isn't affected by the sea or the wind, and that it's borne along by a mysterious current, endlessly south, into icier, colder realms all the time. Is the ship taking him to hell?
     
  12. Sved
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    Sved Senior Member

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    I believe he became a ghost, just like the rest of the crew. It's implied in several places (the old obsolete charts, old chronicles which is explicit stated as 'ancient', the crews appearance, the captains commission which I believe is a 'letter of marque' as it has a royal seal) that the ghost ship been sailing around for ages. The other ghosts are tired of it, that's why they eager to be destroyed in the end.
     
  13. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    That's how I interpreted the story. For me, there isn't enough evidence to suggest that the narrator himself is a ghost.

    You could be right about the hell thing, though I would call it the underworld, which, for me, carries a more positive connotation and makes more sense given the ice (or maybe it is hell, just not the Christian version of hell). Perhaps Poe is paying tribute to Virgil's Aeneid here in a subtle way (Aeneas descends into the underworld to learn about his future).
     
  14. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I think one of the most interesting things about this story is that we can discuss it endlessly, but we can never get at the right answer, because the narrator himself never knew the right answer. He never tells us, because at the time he put his manuscript in the bottle, he didn't know who he was or where he was.

    I don't think I've ever read a story like that before. It's innovative, especially for its time, and still might be unique.
     
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  15. Sved
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    Sved Senior Member

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    That's a very interesting point!
     
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  16. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Does anyone have anything else to add, or should we move on to the next story?
     
  17. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I can't think of anything, though I must say Sved and minstrel have actually taught me a lot about this story. It's amazing how much I didn't know or notice about this story and now I read it in a totally new way. Thanks guys. I'm giving you both rep if I can.
     
  18. Revenant
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    I want to pop in late with an observation about the character's view of superstition. From memory, I think Poe did the same thing with the main character of "the black cat": started with a character who thought superstition was all rubbish, then put him in a situation with some very wierd going-ons and changed his mind. Starting the story with a description of the character's education and no-nonsense opinions was a good way to gain credibility for the character. It's like, "If I hadn't seen it I wouldn't have believed it either, but please hear me out." I don't know much about Poe, but does anybody know if he was superstitious himself at all? As Lemex said before, Poe was well educated, so it seems significant to me when he challenges his educated characters' no-nonsense opinions.

    I also found it interesting that, at the beginning, when the narrator tries to warn the captain that the weather might take a turn for the worse, "he paid no attention to what I said, and left me without deigning to give a reply." Isn't that an odd reaction? Obviously the narrator wasn't invisible or anything then, since the Swede could interact with him, but i just think that's an interesting parallel with the ghost crew.
     
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