Edgar Allen Poe: "The Oblong Box"
A Quick Summary
Edgar Allen Poe has a natural talent for placing doubt in his reader's mind. He presents a number of very obvious details to force his readers into thinking in one direction while, at the same time, sprinkles smaller details in to throw them off track. Poe wants his readers to gather the facts throughout the tale and come to a conclusion; a few of the facts are so minute, the reader tends to dismiss them as irrelevant to the main story. In "The Oblong Box," the mention of "...a strong, disagreeable, ...,a peculiarly disgusting odor" turns out to be one of the most important clues to the contents of the pine box. Another clue to Poe's style is the dark and gloomy words he prefers to use in describing different places and people in his stories.
Poe starts this story by telling his readers that he will be taking a journey on a ship. On a visit to the ship the day before the scheduled sailing date, he discovers that an old friend of his, a Mr. Wyatt, will also be sailing, accompanied by his wife and two sisters. They, too, were to visit the ship on this day. After a long wait, the captain tells Poe that "Mrs. Wyatt was a little indisposed," they would not be coming aboard until sailing time the next day. The following day, Poe receives word that the journey will be delayed for a day or two.
When sailing day finally arrives a week later, Poe sees his friend board and shortly after, the pine box is brought on board. Poe concludes that the extra state-room reserved by his friend must be for this box; he has also concluded that it must contain art work that his friend has purchased. To Poe's surprise, the box is placed in his friend's state-room and not the extra one. Poe thinks this a little strange, but accepts it as just one of his friend's moods.
Individual personalities play a big part in the clues that are presented. Poe describes his friend as being moody, sensible and enthusiastic. While on the ship, the behavior of this friend is described as "...gloomy, even beyond his usual habit - in fact he was morose..." The fact that his friend "avoided" his wife is another clue to the outcome of this tale. Wyatt has told Poe during an earlier meeting that his wife was beautiful and that he has never loved anyone like he loves her.
When Poe meets his wife, he is confused; he describes the woman that he sees as "a plain-looking woman." Later, she is described as "...rather indifferent-looking, totally uneducated, and decidedly vulgar." Poe was sure that Wyatt had been trapped into this marriage because this woman is surely below the standards that Wyatt would have choosen freely. Later in the story, Poe discovers that Mrs. Wyatt leaves his friend's state-room and sleeps alone in the empty room, returning to Mr. Wyatt's room early the next morning. Poe assumes this is the sign of a pending divorce.
During two nights that Poe found it hard to sleep, strange noises were coming from his friend's room. After listening for awhile, Poe decides that part of the sounds were made by his friend prying open the pine box. He could then distinguish the noises of the lid being removed and laid on the empty berth. "After this there was a dead stillness." Poe remembers "imagining" the sounds of "low sobbing, or murmuring sounds"; he decided that this was his own imagination taking over in the long hours. Shortly before daybreak, he would hear the sounds of the lid being replaced on the box.
At this point in the story, Poe describes the extreme change in the weather; it went from "fine" to "a tremendously heavy blow..." which later turned into a hurricane. He describes how the ship is slowly coming apart around them. "All was now confusion and despair..." At sundown, the storm calmed and the passengers "still entertained faint hopes of saving ourselves in the boats." In the long boat, they loaded most of the crew and passengers and sent them off to find safety. Only the captain and about fourteen passengers remained on the ship, including Poe, Wyatt and wife. These remaining passengers would attempt to lower the last long boat so that they, too, would be saved from the sinking ship.
After loading all the remaining passengers and a few necessary provisions onto the small boat, everyone was taken by surprise when Mr. Wyatt stood up and demanded that the captain turn back so that he could retrieve his box. The captain claimed him mad and told him no and to sit down. But before the captain could complete his sentence, Mr. Wyatt jumped overboard. Wyatt, "... by almost superhuman exertion..." swam back to the ship and pulled himself back on board. While their boat "was like a feather in the breath of the tempest..." they watched as "the doom of the unfortunate artist was sealed." The remaining passengers watched as Wyatt dragged the oblong box onto the deck of the ship, tied himself to it, and fell into the sea..."disappearing suddenely, at once and forever." Man and box disappeared into the sea never to be seen again.
A month after this adventure, Poe met up with the captain of the ship; it was at this time that Poe learns the exact details of his friend Wyatt. The captain explains that the woman appearing to be Mrs. Wyatt was in reality Mrs. Wyatt's lady's-maid. Mrs Wyatt had expired the day before the ship was set to sail. The oblong box contained her partially embalmed corpse packed in salt; this way, the box could be loaded on the ship as baggage and no one would be the wiser. A great number of the passengers "...would have abandoned the ship rather that take passage with a dead body." The whole adventure will haunt Poe for the rest of his life.
Poe uses his own active imagination to arouse that of his readers; the mention of the oblong box throughout his story keeps the readers doubting any earlier conclusions about the box. The dark, morose personality of his old friend allows the reader to realize early in the story that something is wrong, with Wyatt in particular. The original dalay of the journey is presented as an omen of the state of things to come. The description of the wife by Wyatt being the opposite of what was presented on the ship; she was not beautiful, but "plain-looking." Poe uses key words to grab the reader's attention and to keep their attention: morose, plain-looking, dead stillness, mad, doom, haunt. All of Poe's tales have a dark side to them; everything that he has written is said to be something, or a relation to something, that has happened in his real life. Poe usually goes into detail about specific people, places and objects that are directly related to his main story. He only gives enough detail so the reader can "picture" what he is talking about, but he always leaves room for doubt and the reader's own imagination. Setting description and a good imagination play a big part in the roles of both the author and the reader.