A Descent into the Maelstrom: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Joe Ricker
In this tale of terror, Edgar Allan Poe reveals the macabre nature of the ocean and its unforgiving and enormous power. The narrator's guide shares his feat of escaping a whirlpool that nothing else has ever survived.

A Tale of Terror

'A Descent into the Maelstrom' is a story of fear and terror written by Edgar Allan Poe. In this piece, the narrator and his guide ascend a high peak on the coast of Norway, which overlooks a section of ocean where a great whirlpool is formed by the changing tide. On the peak of Helgesen, the narrator is so terrified with the height over the water that he clutches the grass around him while his guide leans over the edge with what seems like a complete lack of fear.

Below the peak, when the tide comes in, the rushing water forms a maelstrom or a whirlpool. The guide's experience with the whirlpool is what practically eliminates his fear of the height from the cliff edge. Eventually, the narrator has gained enough composure to peer over the edge of the cliff to see the water below. After he does this, the guide explains that when he was sucked into the maelstrom, the six hours he spent in the whirling madness changed his hair from 'raven black' to the white that it is.


After this explanation, the guide begins to tell his tale of survival against nature, which reveals the essential conflict as man versus nature. The guide's struggle for survival against the maelstrom, which will be detailed below, exemplifies this type of conflict as it pits the guide against the forces of nature.

Water, as a force of nature, is one of the most significant in literature because of its potential for symbolism. In this case, however, it's much more aggressive with its presence as an element of conflict as you'll see in the next section.

The Maelstrom

The guide and his two brothers set out in their boat one afternoon to fish. There is no apparent danger except for what they already know is there. The men head out on their boat, careful to keep a safe distance from where the maelstrom forms as the tide begins to come in. Unfortunately for them, and at no fault of their own, a hurricane comes in suddenly. The men have no chance to escape or get to shore in time to avoid the storm.

The first brother goes overboard and is lost when the mast of the boat is broken in the storm. In absolute terror, the guide falls to the deck of the boat and grabs a ringbolt. His terror is so great that he thinks his oldest brother has been cast overboard as well. In this moment, the guide's actions are quite similar to the narrator's, who cowered at the top of the cliff and clutched the grass as the story opened. The biggest difference is that the guide endures his terror for six hours.

Much to the absolute and momentary joy of the guide, he realizes that his older brother has not gone overboard. Unfortunately, he realizes this because his older brother shouts into his ear that they're headed directly into the maelstrom. The sky is completely black in the storm. The seas are crashing over the boat and jerking the vessel around in the ocean. To make matters worse, they are headed straight toward what no ship or man has ever survived. It seems that nature will be the sure victor in this conflict.

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