“The Oblong Box”
Edgar Allan Poe
As he boards a ship from South Carolina to New York, Cornelius Wyatt’s busybody friend is obsessed with what might be inside a mysterious oblong box that the artist Wyatt is transporting. He takes careful note of the box and tells the reader, “The box in question was, as I say, oblong. It was about six feet in length by two and a half in breadth.” Knowing Poe, we might have a pretty good idea what’s inside, but Wyatt’s friend guesses that the box contains “nothing in the world but a copy of Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper.’” He congratulates himself on the deduction, telling us, “I chuckled excessively when I thought of my acumen.”
The friend is consumed with Wyatt’s traveling party, the artist, his new wife and his two sisters. Wyatt had spoken about his bride’s loveliness and grace, but the friend is shocked when he meets her. Her beauty and character are clearly below the standards he had expected. And Wyatt is acting strangely, like a man gone mad, laughing hysterically when his friend mentions the box. Now there are two mysteries. As they sail, the friend is determined to confirm what’s in the box and understand the story behind Wyatt and his new wife.
A hurricane threatens to wreck the ship and the crew and passengers must board a lifeboat. Wyatt, however, is beside himself and insists they return for the box. He shouts to the captain, “By the mother who bore you – for the love of Heaven – by your hope of salvation, I implore you to put back for the box!”
When characters reach this point in a suspenseful story, they act, or they don’t, and the finish is determined by this moment. Within minutes, Wyatt’s desperate decision seals his fate. A month later, the friend finally learns the mystery of the box. He admits to us his foolish mistake, but also confides he is haunted by a hysterical laugh forever ringing in his ears.
What a great story, and it gets better the more you think about it! I did not know about The Oblong Box until I read about it on Jeff’s blog, Stuff Jeff Reads. In his post, he talks about what the story means: “For me, this tale is an allegory of the return to the source, or the Godhead, which is symbolized by the sea.” Jeff goes on to praise Poe’s writing, “I really enjoyed this tale, both because of the symbolism contained within, but also because the writing is so exquisitely crafted.” Want more analysis? Click here to read Jeff’s full post on The Oblong Box. Thanks, Jeff for recommending this story!
I’m so glad I read this story. Not all things are free, but this was. I downloaded The Oblong Box on my Kindle – and you can too, no charge!
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