Psychoanalysis of “MS. found in a Bottle”
The opening words of the story “MS. Found in a Bottle” by Edgar Allan Poe are a quote from the French opera Atys, “Qui n’a plus qu’un moment a vivre N’a plus rien a dissimuler” (Poe 1). This translates roughly to the idea that a man who is dying or in the final moments of his life will nothing to hide. Whether the truth comes out voluntarily or involuntarily, the man has no reason to lie. This quote can be interpreted differently in relation to Poe’s story. A man who perceives himself as close to death, or a man who is feeling suicidal and alone has no need to lie. The truth could even feel like a call for help at that point. Outside of the psychoanalytic lens, at the surface level the opening serves as a foreshadow to the narrator’s demise and proves his reliability. Psychoanalytic criticism “attempts to… provide a psychological study of an individual writer” (Smith 304). When a story is analyzed psychoanalytically, it can reveal quite a bit about an author’s mind. “Writers reveal instinctual or repressed selves in their books” (Smith 305). Deep inner feelings come through in the work of an author. Fear, anger, and sadness (in the form of loneliness) are the predominant emotions that the narrator feels throughout the story. Through a psychoanalytic lens, the story “MS. Found in a Bottle,“ reveals to readers that Edgar Allan Poe once survived a trauma in his lifetime that changed him and continued to affect him throughout his lifetime. His subconscious feelings of loneliness, fear, and frustration both during and after the event manifest in the story where he is ultimately writing about himself.
The first hint that the story is actually about a traumatic experience survived by Poe is the fact that the story is about a surviving one. The shipwreck is a terrifying ordeal that the narrator has survived. He experiences it with only one other person, the Swede. “We soon discovered that we were the sole survivors of the accident” (Poe 2). They were together “for five entire days and nights” (Poe 2). This Swede was the only other person who felt the same terror, who lived that same experience. He was the only one that could possibly understand how the narrator felt about it. Then the Swede dies, leaving the narrator alone in the aftermath of the accident. He is the lone survivor of the wreck that he does not expect to survive at all. In fact, he is prepared for death: “I awaited fearlessly the ruin that was to overwhelm” (Poe 4). He survives the trauma but it alters him, and his view of his surroundings. He enters into a new and foreign setting immediately following this. The second ship as “a ghastly thing that inspired [them] with horror and astonishment” (Poe 5). The idea of moving forward seems unfathomable and frightening. On the second ship there are reminders and triggers everywhere. His anxiety is consuming.
Poe writes details about the narrator’s constant and growing state of fear throughout the story which ends in a psychotic break that throws his mind back into the traumatic shipwreck. He focuses considerably on the discomfort the narrator experiences for the entire story. His stress levels are noticeably high from the very beginning and grow into an inescapable terror as the story progresses. He was terrified of the things that seem to foreshadow the destruction of the first ship: “my uneasiness, however, prevented me from sleeping” and he had “a full presentiment of evil” (Poe 8). The obliteration of the ship soon after validated his anticipation. This validation drives his panic higher on the second ship. He begins to relive the moments before the first wreck and recreate that sense of anticipation. The mention of how “the wind is still on our poop” (Poe 8) is almost identical to the earlier “the flame of a candle burned upon the poop without the least perceptible motion” (Poe 2). He starts to have the same thoughts as before when he is triggered. It pushes him into a panic. He writes about how threatening the waves feel: “the colossal waters rear their heads above us like demons of the deap, but like demons confined to simple threats” (Poe 8). These crashing waves seem terrifying to the reader through the narrator’s eyes but in reality, without the menacing nature projected onto them by the timid survivor, they are just waves that do not reach the deck of the ship. In his mind the waves seem like a very serious threat but his mind is blowing them out of proportion as they do not actually pose one. Even small things can be triggering if they are a reminder of the past. He is truly surprised that the ship’s “enormous bulk is not swallowed up at once and forever” (Poe 7). Survival seems like a miracle with all of these supposed threat around him. These dangers are not perceived by those around him. “ I find it impossible to maintain a footing although the crew seems to experience little inconvenience” (Poe 7). He also notes the “whirlpool” in the beginning and the end. All of this shows the reader that the narrator is seeing threats to his safety that nobody else is seeing. There are imagined dangers all around him that bring his mind back into the state of mind from the initial trauma. The striking similarities between start and finish show that Poe has experienced the cyclic nature of a memory induced fear. He wrote the second whirlpool and shipwreck to represent a hallucination or nightmare as a result of the lasting mental effects of the initial tragedy, and exposure to emotional triggers.
The loneliness that Poe writes into the story is possibly the most important aspect to examine. At the beginning of the story the narrator feels separate from his family and his country (Poe 1). He feels quite alone in the world. Though, due to the narrative style, he is actually writing this and feeling this way after the shipwreck occurred, and while he is hiding in the second ship. The shipwreck, a traumatic event that is causing him to have feelings unlike any he has felt before: “A feeling, for which I have no name, has taken possession of my soul -a sensation which will admit of no analysis, to which the lessons of bygone times are inadequate, and for which I fear futurity itself will offer me no key” (Poe 5). Poe is writing about the loneliness and other new feelings he has experienced. His mind is doing things it hasn’t ever done before, in wake of the tragedy. He feels that regardless of how much time he is given, he will not be able to name the feeling. This portrays a feeling hopelessness and an inability to ever feel different or get out of the low place he is in.
Coupled with his loneliness, the narrator feels completely detached from his surroundings as well. This is especially apparent in his interactions with the crew of the second ship. This ship is representative of life among other people after a traumatic affair. He is surrounded by crew members that he paints as some type of ghostly untouchables with “the peevishness of second childhood, and the solemn dignity of a God” (Poe 6). He cannot relate to the people around him. The are unreachable and out of touch with him. He feels thoroughly ignored: “they paid me no manner of attention, and, although I stood in the very midst of them all, seemed utterly unconscious of my presence” (Poe 7). He survived something terrifying but he isn’t finding anyone to speak with about how he is feeling or how he has been affected. He feels that he is not on the same plane as those around him. They are outsiders in his eyes after the shipwreck, similar to how he wrote about having little regard for his family or country. He feels separate from others and unable to connect with them.
In conclusion, Edgar Allan Poe subconsciously writes about his own feelings following a trauma by creating a story about a man who survives a shipwreck. The initial shipwreck in the beginning of the story is a traumatic event that represents the one Edgar Allan Poe survived. After the narrator survives this, he is thrown into a new situation full of triggers and people who he cannot relate to. The narrator perceives threats that do not actually exist. The people around him do not see these threats and seem to be able to function in ways that he cannot. The narrator hides himself away and feels isolated. There are feelings of utter terror every time he sees the ocean or things that remind him of the feeling of doom he once felt. He believes that it is going to swallow him up, this also means that the stress, panic, and possibly the idea of death are overwhelming him. The stress of being surrounded by triggers and with no understanding people or a safe environment leads him to a psychotic break. Poe wrote about these feelings of loneliness, fear, and isolation from a deep subconscious place perhaps without ever realizing that he was actually writing a story about his own emotions and experiences. Though “MS Found in a Bottle” could be read outside of a psychoanalytic lens as a ghost story with a ghost ship and crew, it can also be viewed through the lens. The psychoanalytic criticism ties the work more closely to its creator. This allows the reader to view the narrator not only as a survivor of a terrifying and traumatic ordeal but also as someone suffering from the lasting effects of a mental illness and a character that Edgar Allan Poe created in his own image.
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