The Oblong Box (short story)

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"The Oblong Box"
AuthorEdgar Allan Poe
CountryUnited States
Short story
PublisherGodey's Magazine and Lady's Book
Publication date1844

"The Oblong Box" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1844, about a sea voyage and a mysterious box.

Plot summary[edit]

The Independence sinks near Cape Hatteras (pictured).

The story opens with the unnamed narrator recounting a summer sea voyage from Charleston, South Carolina, to New York City aboard the ship Independence. The narrator learns that his old college friend Cornelius Wyatt is aboard with his wife and two sisters, though he has reserved three state-rooms. After conjecturing the extra room was for a servant or extra baggage, he learns his friend has brought on board an oblong pine box: "It was about six feet in length by two and a half in breadth." The narrator notes its peculiar shape and especially an odd odor coming from it. Even so, he presumes his friend has acquired an especially valuable copy of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. The narrator has never met Wyatt's wife but heard she is a woman of "surpassing beauty, wit, and accomplishment".

The box, the narrator is surprised to learn, shares the state-room with Wyatt and his wife, while the second room is shared by the two sisters. For several nights, the narrator witnesses his friend's surprisingly unattractive wife leaving the state-room every night around 11 o'clock and going into the third state-room before returning first thing in the morning. While she is gone, the narrator believes he hears his friend opening the box and sobbing, which he attributes to "artistic enthusiasm".

As the Independence passes Cape Hatteras it is caught in a terrible hurricane. Escape from the damaged ship is made via lifeboat, but Wyatt refuses to part with the box. He issues an emotional plea to Captain Hardy but is denied. Wyatt returns to the ship, and ties himself to the box with a rope. "In another instant both body and box were in the sea--disappearing suddenly, at once and forever."

About a month after the incident, the narrator happens to meet the captain. Hardy explains that the box had, in fact, held the corpse of Wyatt's recently deceased young wife. He had intended to return the body to her mother but bringing a corpse on board would have caused panic among the passengers. Captain Hardy had arranged, then, to register the box merely as baggage. As both Wyatt and his wife were already registered as passengers, a maid posed as the wife so as not to arouse suspicion.


In writing "The Oblong Box", Poe recalled his experience while stationed as a soldier at Fort Moultrie many years earlier by setting the ship's embarking point as Charleston, South Carolina to New York.[1] The Charleston area is also referenced in Poe's stories "The Gold-Bug" and "The Balloon-Hoax".[2] Just a few months before the publication of "The Oblong Box", Poe experienced his own sea voyage when he moved to New York via steamboat. His wife, Virginia, had begun showing signs of her illness about two years before in 1842.[3] "The Oblong Box" was in part based on the murder of Samuel Adams by John C. Colt, brother of Sam Colt, a story which dominated the New York press at the time;[4][5][6] John C. Colt disposed of Adams' body by putting it in a crate and filling it with salt.[7] The name of the character Wyatt was likely derived from Professor Thomas Wyatt, an author whose work Poe translated in The Conchologist's First Book.[8]

Publication history[edit]

Poe originally offered "The Oblong Box" to Nathaniel Parker Willis for the New Mirror, but Willis suggested it was better suited for the Opal, a gift book edited by Sarah Josepha Hale.[9] It was first published on August 28, 1844, in the Dollar Newspaper in Philadelphia.[10] It was also published in the September 1844 issue of Godey's Magazine and Lady's Book,[10] also edited by Hale.[9]


Poe biographer James Hutchisson equates "The Oblong Box" with Poe's series of "tales of ratiocination" or detective fiction stories, a series which includes "The Murders in the Rue Morgue".[11] Scott Peeples compares "The Oblong Box" to this genre as well but notes that it is not strictly a detective story because it did not emphasize the character of the detective and his method.[12] He also notes that the protagonist is "bumbling" because he allows his personal opinions to taint the physical evidence, leading him to incorrect conclusions.[12] In On Poe, scholar J. Gerald Kennedy saw the story as a satire. He wrote, "Though not a major work in the Poe canon, 'The Oblong Box' delivers, through the narrator's grotesque misinterpretations, a clever satiric version of the detective hero."[13]


NBC Short Story aired a dramatic reading of "The Oblong Box" in the 1950s. It is available at[14]

A 1969 film directed by Gordon Hessler starring Vincent Price carries the name The Oblong Box.[15] It is a loose adaptation of Poe's story.[16]

The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, which ran from January 1974 to December 1982, did an adaptation of "The Oblong Box" which aired on January 8, 1975. It is available at[17]


  1. ^ Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1992: 35. ISBN 0-8154-1038-7
  2. ^ Poe, Harry Lee. Edgar Allan Poe: An Illustrated Companion to His Tell-Tale Stories. New York: Metro Books, 2008: 35. ISBN 978-1-4351-0469-3
  3. ^ Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. Harper Perennial, 1991. ISBN 0-06-092331-8
  4. ^ Walsh, John (1968). "Poe the detective: the curious circumstances behind The mystery of Marie Roget". Literary Criticism. Rutgers University Press: 2. The Oblong Box" (not a story of crime as Poe told it) is based in part on the murder of the printer Samuel Adams by John C. Colt— which succeeded the death of Mary Rogers as the leading sensational topic for the American press
  5. ^ Vierra, Clifford (1959). "Poe's 'Oblong Box': Factual Origins". Modern Language Notes. 74 (8): 693–695.
  6. ^ Carley, C.V. (1957). Clarence Gohdes (ed.). "A Source for Poe's Oblong Box". American Literature. Duke University Press. 29: 310.
  7. ^ Lawson 1914, p. 460
  8. ^ "Miscellaneous Notes on Poe". Modern Language Notes. Vol. xxviii. Johns Hopkins University Press. March 1913. p. 67. Retrieved February 16, 2019.
  9. ^ a b Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998: 417. ISBN 0-8018-5730-9
  10. ^ a b Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. Checkmark Books, 2001. p. 175. ISBN 0-8160-4161-X
  11. ^ Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. ISBN 1-57806-721-9
  12. ^ a b Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998: 123. ISBN 0-8057-4572-6
  13. ^ Budd & Cady 1993, p. 181.
  14. ^ "The Oblong Box radio drama from NBC Short Story". Internet Archive\. Retrieved 22 October 2017.
  15. ^ Senn 2007, p. 516-518.
  16. ^ Moreland 2007, p. 173.
  17. ^ "The Oblong Box radio drama from CBS Radio Mystery Theater". Internet Archive. Retrieved 22 October 2017.


External links[edit]