The narrator lays out his intention: he will not contradict what the public already knows about the wreck of the Lady Vain after it crashed into a sunken vessel ten days from Callao. The narrator will, however, add his own bizarre account of what happened to the three men who floated out to sea in a small dingy. Although the the testimony of the other, immediately rescued survivors was that four men drifted out to sea, the narrator clarifies that it was in fact three—a fourth man tried to jump into the boat, but missed and drowned.
This opening sets the tone for the entire story: the narrator (later revealed as Edward Prendick) is not going to tell the public what they have already heard, or even should want to hear, but the “real story.” The opening of the story with a shipwreck and three men lost at sea indicates that the story will principally be a survivor’s tale, one of endurance and hardship. Callao is a port city in Peru.
The narrator and two other survivors float adrift for eight days, quickly running out of food and water. The other two propose cannibalism, drawing lots to choose which man shall be eaten. The narrator initially refuses to draw lots, but after spending a night awake, fearful that the other two survivors will simply eat him if he does not relent, he obliges. They flip coins to decide who shall be eaten, but rather than submitting to his fate, the losing man fights back, knocking himself and the third survivor overboard and drowning them both. The narrator is left lying in the dingy alone, laughing in a half-maddened state.
Prendick’s moral arc is foreshadowed in this brief encounter with cannibalism: Prendick, a man of strong morals, initially refuses to partake in such grotesque behavior. However, once it seems his rigid morality may inhibit his chance of survival, he concedes to participate in actions that he once considered unconscionable, seemingly proving that morality is circumstantial.
In his delirium, after what felt an endless time, the narrator sees a small ship approach him, feels himself lifted aboard, and has a memory of a nightmarish dark face looking at him before he passes out.
This is the first of three times in the story that Prendick is rescued from being lost at sea. This repeated circumstance depicts him as a man who finds himself constantly at the mercy of others and of fate, and thus forced to adjust to the circumstances and moral predicaments thrust upon him.