The narrator of "Manuscript" begins by describing his background. He is from a wealthy family and has a good methodical mind, which leads him to an interest in the German moralists, not from admiration but from pleasure at being able to prove them wrong. In fact, he is so methodical, that he has often been reproached for it. The reason he's telling us this is so that we don’t suspect that the fantastical tale to follow is a symptom of a fanciful imagination and so that it will impress us all the more.
The narrator inspires trust by telling us about his background and foreshadows the shocking nature of what’s to follow. Note how many of these details echo Poe’s own personal experience of childhood: the influences of the moralists, and the competing spheres of literature, science and religion. It also seems likely that Poe was accused of having a fanciful imagination in his day.
The narrator of "Manuscript" spends many years travelling. One day, he took a trip by boat to the Archipelago Islands, with no better reason than his restless disposition. He describes the ship as a massive vessel, carrying lots of Indian produce, clumsily stowed. The ship sets sail with barely a breeze and goes along for a while without meeting anything. Then, a cloud appears in the sky, remarkable not just for its strange form but because it is the first one they've seen. The narrator watches it turn into a band across the sky and also notices a change in the moon and the sea, and everything becomes very humid. There is no breeze at all.
As with many of Poe’s Gothic locations, the surroundings and weather foreshadow what is to come – here they transform subtly at first, but definitely, into an unfamiliar, exotic atmosphere. The humidity, stillness and the strange colors and forms of the clouds threaten some kind of storm. The ship’s course is lonely, and the narrator lives a solitary, nomadic existence – this, added to the expanse of the sea that surrounds him, brings the Gothic setting from its traditional domestic house to the wide world.
The captain and crew are relaxed but the narrator of "Manuscript" is worried that a storm is coming and can’t sleep. He goes out on deck at midnight. Suddenly he hears a humming noise, and then the whole ship seems to shake. A wave of foam comes over the ship and soaks it. Slowly and heavily, the ship rights itself, but the narrator is stuck between the stern post and the rudder. He gets himself out and dizzily assesses the situation. The ship is in a whirlpool, overwhelmed on all sides by water. The narrator hears the voice of a Swedish ship mate, calls to him and he pulls himself over to the man. They think that the rest of the crew have been taken overboard and have surely perished.
The speed and power of the elements make the narrator standing on deck seem small and powerless. Even the large ship, which was a vehicle for freedom and discovery at the outset of the voyage, is dwarfed by the rushing ocean. This time, Poe creates the horror of the story by making the outside world an antagonist to the narrator. Nature is presented as heartless, uncontrollable, and inhuman.
As the water continues to soar and crash above them, the narrator of "Manuscript" and his shipmate spend five days trying to keep the ship away from the brink of the whirlpool. On the fifth day, the skies and sea become cold. The sun seems sickly and does not give out much light, and then disappears at sunset and leaves a dull moonlight and then darkness. This darkness surrounds them and they await the sixth day in vain. They eventually stop trying to take care of the ship and set themselves up in a nook and watch the storm, unable to calculate time and expecting each new burst of storm.
Poe often uses patterns to create his suspenseful plots, and often numbers days and hours to give a sense of impending doom. The loss of sunrise and sunset, which had marked the narrator’s voyage, makes this pattern of days a dark, otherworldly time, and the impending doom even more suspenseful and unknown.
The ship rises high on some swells, as if into the sky, and the next moment descends low into valleys between waves. It is in one of these depths that the shipmates see a strange red light, flooding their deck, and realize, looking up, that it belongs to another vessel, the biggest ship they’ve ever seen, with a huge, black, bare hull and a row of canons. The ship rises on the pinnacle of ocean in front of them, balanced there for a second and then comes down. The narrator of "Manuscript" is thrown onto the deck of the ambushing ship.
The form of the ocean changes unpredictably. The heights and valleys of the ship’s course go beyond natural limits. This supernatural transformation takes all the familiarity from the sea and leaves the sailors without any control or expertise. The description then of the foreign vessel and its shocking size makes it seem alien and monstrous.
For some reason, the narrator of "Manuscript" doesn’t alert the crew on board this new ship and secretly stows himself in the hold. He cannot explain why he hides himself, other than to say that the crew inspired some kind of awe and curiosity in him that he could not immediately confront. He makes a hiding place by removing some of the boards of the deck and shifting himself into a nook in the hold. Soon the appearance of an old man forces him to use his hidey hole. The man’s extreme age and infirmity surprises the narrator, but the man also has a curious manner, of childishness and godliness at once, and he speaks to himself in an unintelligible mutter.
The narrator has introduced himself to us as a traveler and a sailor, always journeying and using the physical laws of the sea to do it, but as the laws of the sea prove themselves to be less predictable than he thought, his skills are useless and we see him hiding away on the ship, giving his fate to this ancient, oblivious breed of sailors.
The narrator of "Manuscript" tells us that an inexplicable feeling has taken hold of him. Some time has elapsed. The narrator has been living on the boat unseen by its crew, but not through effort on his part – the men just seem to wander around deck, speaking this incomprehensible language and do not notice him. He sneaks into the captain’s cabin and takes some writing materials, and vows to write down his experiences and put them in a bottle out to sea.
The writing takes on a new kind of urgency. Before, the narrator was measured and descriptive, now his sensations begin to take over and he is absorbed with interest in the new crew and the strange atmosphere. His writing takes the form of diary entries, reporting on his findings on deck. Poe puts the reader in an interesting position – as the recipient of this personal memoir.
The rest of the tale is written in installments like a diary. The narrator of "Manuscript" describes a recent outing from his dwelling onto the deck where he finds a loose sail and paints on it the word DISCOVERY, but the crew raises the sail without noticing the word. He also tries to figure out what kind of ship it is. It seems familiar in so many ways to the kind of vessel he’s used to, but has a strange aura of antiquity at the same time. He later realizes that even the raw material the ship is built from is a mystery to him. It looks like some kind of Spanish oak but changed by unnatural forces. It reminds him of a quote from an old Dutch seaman about a ship growing from the sea.
Past and present don’t mix easily. The ship’s foreignness now seems to do with age – its crew is aged and its wood is antique – not to mention that it is gigantic and unpredictable like a ship from a myth or legend. It is as if the supernatural conditions of the storm brought past and present crashing into each other. The narrator’s invisibility shows how out of place he really is.
The narrator of "Manuscript" decides to walk among the crew, but again he goes unnoticed. The men are infirm and grey, and fiddle around with mysterious instruments, speaking in their strange language. The ship is caught in a dreadful wind; its huge sails are not even enough to keep it from heading quickly due south. The journey is rough. The narrator struggles to keep his balance but the crew seem to be immune to the shifting sea. Frequently, the narrator senses doom ahead but the ship survives. The massive vessel seems almost to be supernaturally able to defy gravity, when it should plunge into the depths, it jumps free of danger.
The ship has a strange combination of antique objects and superior sailing power. The crew appear to be almost dead but still manage to guide the gargantuan vessel expertly and are unfazed by the currents. The ship and crew seem to be creatures or objects of the sea itself – one can’t imagine them on land or starting out on this voyage. There are depths and layers of explanation that we don’t have access to, making the horror that threatens the narrator a massive unknown quantity. The narrator is a self-proclaimed man of reason and methodical thought, but this world is beyond the ability of reason to comprehend.
The narrator of "Manuscript" describes his sighting of the ship’s captain, who is similar to him in height and size but looks remarkably ancient. Every feature on his face seems like a record of time. Around his quarters are the same scientific instruments and antique charts that the narrator has witnessed across the vessel, and the captain, too, speaks to himself in an unintelligible mumble, which seems to come from far away even though he is standing near. The whole crew are creatures of an antique time, and they baffle and fascinate the narrator.
Poe often picks out a character to align with his narrator, either as a kind of double, or in this case as a figure of contrast. The captain is also a sailor, accomplished, and academic, like the narrator, but lives in a dreamlike, other world and makes no sense. Even his instruments of science and navigation are unusable. This puts the narrator in a horrible parallel situation—in which reason and scientific inquiry themselves seem to become nonsense.
The ship is surrounded by night and now walls of ice. The narrator of "Manuscript" admits he was silly to be afraid of the rough sea previously, as all of those terrors are mild compared to the sheer force of the ocean here. The ship is rushing headlong as if on an unstoppable tide. The narrator is terrified. But he is also very curious. He knows that they are heading for a vey interesting discovery and the ferocity of the ship’s drive forward makes him excited to find out what wilderness they will uncover.
Beyond the strange breed of men that the narrator has found on board the foreign ship, the sea—nature— is still the ultimate force arrayed against him. It is an unbeatable, unsympathetic antagonist. Its ability to transform and present sublime depths and heights that dwarf even this huge ship, shows that the natural world is uncontrollable.
The crew has the appearance of eagerness and impatience, as if they too are waiting for this discovery. But then, the ice around them opens and the ship is being pulled in to the icy current. The narrator of "Manuscript" knows this is it. They are plunging into the whirlpool. He narrates as they go, and the last words are a fearful “going down.”
Having set up the form of the story as a kind of diary, Poe stays right in the center of the present action so that when the sea finally turns against the ship, we follow the narrator’s monologue to his demise and we, as readers, are ourselves immersed in the horror of the whirlpool.