Sunday, September 20, 2009

This shape was peculiar

Continuing the series of Poe works published in September issues, I realized I almost neglected one of the most interesting and spirited of Poe's tales. "The Oblong Box" was first published in the September 1844 issue of Godey's Lady's Book (and, part of a trend of concurrent publications, similar to "The Raven," it was also published in the August 28, 1844 issue of the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper).

"The Oblong Box" is a mixture of some of Poe's greatest story-telling elements. Set as a variation of the sea adventure tale, the story follows an unnamed narrator traveling by boat (the Independence) from Charleston, South Carolina to New York. On board, he bumps into his old friend Cornelius Wyatt, who is traveling with his wife and two sisters. The narrator is suspicious that his friend has rented three state-rooms, not to mention the cargo he brought aboard: an oblong box, ("this shape was peculiar," we are told) and a fairly large one at that — "about six feet in length by two and half in breadth." The box is made of pine and emits a slight odor. As a reader, you might already know what's in the box, but the narrator sure didn't.

Instead, he assumes (oddly) that the box housed a copy of The Last Supper that Wyatt recently acquired. He grows more suspicious, however, when he realizes how those three state-rooms are being used. One is for the two sisters, the other seems to be empty, and the third is for Wyatt, his wife, and the mysterious box. At night, however, Wyatt's wife leaves the room and spends the rest of the night in the empty room. After she leaves, the narrator hears the box being opened, followed by his friend's audible sobs. When the Independence is caught in a hurricane and breaks apart, Wyatt refuses to get in a lifeboat and leave the box behind. Instead, he goes down with the ship.

Some time later, the narrator meets the captain of the ship, who reveals what was in that box, why Wyatt refused to part with it, and why his "wife" left the state-room every night.

In addition to elements of the sea tale, the ending proves "The Oblong Box" is a horror story. The mystery behind the box, however, also implies it is a part of Poe's developing "ratiocination" method of tale-telling. More than all this, however, is the amazing symbolism in the story. Wyatt refuses to part with his precious cargo while aboard a ship named Independence, of all things. The voyage from South Carolina also echoes Poe's own trip from there via steamboat.

Oddly, Arthur Hobson Quinn notes that Poe offered the tale to Nathaniel Parker Willis, who suggested it be included in a new annual gift-book founded by Rufus Griswold. The Opal, which was edited first by Willis and later by Sarah Josepha Hale, was subtitled "A Pure Gift for the Holidays." Packed with religious or moral tales and poems for Christmas, "The Oblong Box" would have been an odd fit.


Anonymous said...

This is one of my favorite Poe short stories. Why??Well, Wyatt is my last name. So, around Halloween time I email the story to friends, associates, whomever,and tell them that Cornelius is my great great cousin. People that don't know me very well, say, oh Really??? Wow! People that know me well, know how full of shit I am,and they laugh. It's great fun!!!

Rob Velella said...

Now that's funny!

Anonymous said...

hey, it is funny. i love to see people's reaction.
especially the ones that say, that's cool, man, great that you're his cousin, etc.!!

btw, i am your calendar buddy from MO, gary.

take care!