The Oblong Box by Edgar Allan Poe: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote his short mystery story, 'The Oblong Box', in 1850. The narrative is designed so that the reader solves the mystery along with the narrator.

Victorian Mystery Stories

Poe's short stories, like ''The Oblong Box,'' illustrate some characteristics of mystery tales popular in the 19th century. This period is often referred to as the Victorian Period. The style of language is a bit more complex than contemporary speech, which can make the reading slow going for modern readers. You may need to read the story through more than once to get the details of the plot.

If you have read any Sherlock Holmes stories (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), you may recognize the style of narration in ''The Oblong Box.'' The narrator is a curious observer, present at the scene but not a key part of the action. In Poe's story, he is a friend of the male protagonist, who does not share anything about what is actually happening. This is part of the fun, as we get to solve the mystery of the box along with the narrator.

Finally, mystery stories and adventure chronicles from the Victorian period are generally presented as something that actually happened. Of course, both the author and the reader know that the story is fictional. So why the pretense of journalistic truth? Remember that the novel was a fairly new and still developing form during this time. Stories were taken more seriously if presented in the familiar guise of newspaper reporting.

Plot Summary

The narrator begins with booking passage on a ship to travel from Charleston, S.C. to New York. He soon finds that an artist friend, Mr. Cornelius Wyatt, along with Wyatt's wife and two sisters, will be on the same ship. Our narrator reports that there are three rooms booked for this party, and he wonders what the explanation can be. Of course, it must be a servant! But he sees that the word servant had been on the passenger list, but had been crossed out. We also learn at this point that the narrator knows Mr. Wyatt's sisters, but has never met the wife.

When the ship is being loaded for the trip, Mr. Wyatt has with him a large oblong box, which is placed in the artist's own room - not the extra stateroom. The narrator suggests to the reader that this may be a painting in which both men have an interest. Of course, most readers instantly think of a coffin, but this possibility is not mentioned. The box is addressed to Mrs. Wyatt's mother in New York.

A large oblong box is on the ship.
oblong box

Meanwhile, we learn that Mr. Wyatt is in a melancholy mood, and that the two sisters are not their usual lively selves. Mrs. Wyatt, in contrast, seems to be having the time of her life socializing with the other women on board.

The social scene on the ship.
ladies mingling

Soon, though, she seems to fall out of favor, ''far oftener laughed 'at' than 'with'''. The other ladies decide that she does not behave like what might be called at the time a lady of quality. The narrator makes the assumption that his friend must have, for some unknown reason, married beneath him. And we still have no more information about the mysterious box!

When the narrator questions his friend about the box, still thinking that it contains a painting, Mr. Wyatt has a strange reaction. First he laughs in an hysterical manner, and then collapses on the deck. He recovers by the following morning, but the narrator determines to avoid his company for the rest of the trip on the advice of the ship's captain.

Experiencing some insomnia, the narrator next finds out that Mrs. Wyatt is sleeping in the third room. Now he concludes that the couple must be estranged and approaching a divorce. Also during his nighttime wakefulness, the narrator hears Mr. Wyatt open the oblong box. The sound of sobbing soon follows. The assumption of the contents as a painting begins to look unlikely.

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