I generally avoid spoilers in my posts, but this is such a compact story, it is impossible to write about it without discussing the end. Having said that, now is your chance to stop reading if you need to. If you are interested in reading the text online, you can do so here: Edgar Allan Poe Society.
For me, this tale is an allegory of the return to the source, or the Godhead, which is symbolized by the sea. Mr. Wyatt and his deceased wife, whose body is hidden within the oblong box, represent our dual nature: masculine/feminine, body/spirit, anima/animus, and conscious/subconscious. One cannot exist without the other, which is why at night, when Mr. Wyatt is in his cabin alone, he opens the box so that he can attempt to reconnect with his other half.
In this manner, I fancied that I could distinguish the precise moment when he fairly disengaged the lid — also that I could determine when he removed it altogether, and when he deposited it upon the lower berth in his room; — this latter point I knew, for example, by certain slight taps which the lid made in striking against the wooden edges of the berth, as he endeavoured to lay it down very gently — there being no room for it on the floor. After this there was a dead stillness, and I heard nothing more, upon either occasion, until nearly daybreak; unless, perhaps, I may mention a low sobbing or murmuring sound, so very much suppressed as to be nearly inaudible — if, indeed, the whole of this latter noise were not rather produced by my own imagination. I say it seemed to resemble sobbing or sighing — but, of course, it could not have been either. I rather think it was a ringing in my own ears. Mr. Wyatt, no doubt, according to custom, was merely giving the rein to one of his hobbies — indulging in one of his fits of artistic enthusiasm. He had opened his oblong box, in order to feast his eyes upon the pictorial treasure within. There was nothing in this, however, to make him sob. I repeat, therefore, that it must have been, simply, a freak of my own fancy, distempered by good Captain Hardy’s green tea. Just before dawn, on each of the two nights of which I speak, I distinctly heard Mr. Wyatt replace the lid upon the oblong box, and force the nails into their old places, by means of the muffled mallet.
As the ship is sinking, the result of the hurricane, Wyatt realizes he left the box onboard. He panics, instinctively knowing that part of him is being returned to the divine source and he cannot tolerate that split within his psyche.
“The box!” vociferated Mr. Wyatt, still standing — “the box, I say! Captain Hardy, you cannot, you will not refuse me. Its weight will be but a trifle — it is nothing — mere nothing. 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!”
Wyatt jumps from the lifeboat to retrieve the box and the body of his wife, and they are both pulled down into the depths of the ocean, symbolizing their reunion with each other before ultimately returning to the divine source, or the Godhead.
As our distance from the wreck rapidly increased, the madman (for as such only could we regard him) was seen to emerge from the companion-way, up which, by dint of a strength that appeared superhuman, he dragged, bodily, the oblong box. While we gazed in extremity of astonishment, he passed, rapidly, several turns of a three-inch rope, first around the box and then around his body. In another instant both body and box were in the sea — disappearing suddenly, at once and forever.
I really enjoyed this tale, both because of the symbolism contained within, but also because the writing is so exquisitely crafted. In addition, the story works without the symbolism. You could look at it as the story of a passionate artist who loved his wife so much, the thought of spending the rest of his life without her was just too much to bear. Either way you want to look at this, a great story and one I am sure I will read again.