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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The sea voyages of Edgar Allan Poe Foucault, Barbara Haran

Abstract

The sea tales of Edgar Allan Poe—"MS Found in a Bottle", The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and "A Descent into the Maelstrom"—form an interesting group that has often been overlooked. Together they deal with the problem of the fragmented personality, a theme that lay at the heart of many of Poe's tales. The sea is the arena in which the fundamental struggle against psychic division takes place. In testing a man to his limits, the sea also reveals new possibilities and new knowledge. Poe was a literary sailor coming to the sea not as an experienced hand as Melville and Conrad do, but rather in a symbolic way as the sea and sea experience had come down through the ages. The sea and sea voyage were potent and traditional symbols in literature. Poe approached this symbolic heritage from the view point of his time and place—as a nineteenth century American and Romantic. The sea permeates the "MS Found in a Bottle", The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and "A Descent into the Maelstrom". The loneliness and isolation of the sailor amidst the vast ocean symbolize the alienation of man in the universe and within a divided personality. But the triumph that the sea holds out to the man who can grasp it is an equally fundamental aspect of these tales, and helps to set this group apart from those other tales which explore this breakdown of personality from another angle—such as "The Fall of the House of Usher". Each of Poe's sailors comes to an understanding of his experience and lives and acts upon that new found knowledge, and that knowledge is found in the ebb and flow of the ocean's vast currents. Each of Poe's sailors is dominated by one facet of his personality. Other concerns are abandoned as that one faculty is pushed to its limits. But just as the ship at sea is a world unto itself and an able captain a master of diverse forces, so also do Poe's mariners seek triumph, salvation, and knowledge in the integration of their personalities. In realizing the limitations of the narrowness that dominates their worldview, they see possibilities for new achievement and understanding in the widening of the angle of perception. Poe's mariners grow from that moment of perception. They come to see the interdependence of their separate faculties reflected in the interdependence in the world of nature. In surrendering to the terror and beauty of nature they find themselves anew. They come to appreciate the community that exists among men, and each is at pains to share his new found knowledge.

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