The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1228

Arthur Gordon Pym was born the son of a respectable trader in Nantucket. While still young, he attends an academy and there meets Augustus Barnard, the son of a sea captain, and the two become close friends. One night after a party, Augustus wakes Pym from his sleep, and together they set off for the harbor. There, Augustus takes charge of a small boat, and they head out to sea.

Before long, Pym, seeing that his companion is unconscious, realizes the sad truth of the escapade. Augustus is drunk and, now in the cold weather, is lapsing into insensibility. As a result, their boat is run down by a whaler, and the two narrowly escape with their lives. They are taken aboard the ship that had run them down and returned to port at Nantucket.

The two friends become even more intimate after this escapade. Captain Barnard had been preparing to fit out the Grampus, an old sailing hulk, for a voyage on which Augustus was to accompany him. Against his father’s wishes, Pym plans to sail with his friend. Since Captain Barnard would not willingly allow Pym to sail without his father’s permission, the two boys decide to smuggle Pym aboard and hide him in the hold until the ship should be so far at sea that the Captain would not turn back.

At first, everything goes according to schedule. Pym is hidden below in a large box with a store of water and food to last him approximately four days. At the end of the fourth day, Pym finds that his way to the main deck is barred. His friend Augustus does not rescue him. He remains in that terrible state for several days, coming each day closer to starvation or death from thirst.

At last, Pym’s dog, who had followed him aboard the ship, finds Pym. Tied to the dog’s body is a paper containing a strange message concerning blood and a warning to Pym to keep silent if he values his life. Pym is sick from hunger and fever when Augustus at last appears. The story he tells is a terrible one. Shortly after the ship had put to sea, the crew mutinied, and Captain Barnard had been set adrift in a small boat. Some of the crew had been killed, and Augustus himself was a prisoner of the mutineers. Pym and Augustus locate a place of comparative safety where it is agreed that Pym should hide.

Pym now gives his attention to the cargo, which seems not to have been stowed in accordance with the rules for safety. Dirk Peters, a drunken mutineer, helps both Pym and Augustus and provides them with food.

When the ship runs into a storm, some of the mutineers are washed overboard. Augustus is once more given free run of the ship. Augustus, Pym, and Peters plan to overcome the other mutineers and take possession of the ship. To frighten the mutineers during a drunken brawl, Pym disguises himself to resemble a sailor recently killed. The three kill all the mutineers except a sailor named Parker. Meanwhile, a gale comes up, and in a few hours, the vessel is reduced to a hulk by the heavy seas. Because the ship’s cargo is made up of empty oil casks, there is no possibility of its sinking from the violence of the heavy seas. When the storm abates, the four survivors find themselves weak and without food or the hope of securing stores from the flooded hold. One day, they sight a vessel, but as it draws near, those aboard the Grampus see that it is adrift and all of its passengers are dead.

Pym tries to go below by diving, but he brings up nothing of worth. His companions are beginning to go mad from strain and hunger. Pym revives them by immersing each of them in the water for awhile. As their agony increases, a ship comes near, but it veers away without coming to their rescue. In desperation, the men consider the possibility of eating one of their number. When they draw lots, Parker is chosen to be eaten. For four days, the other three live upon his flesh.

At last, they make their way into the stores and secure food. Rain falls, and the supply of fresh water, together with the food, restores their hope. Augustus, who had suffered an arm injury, dies. He is devoured by sharks as soon as his body is cast overboard.

A violent lurch of the ship throws Pym overboard, but he regains the ship with Peters’s help just in time to be saved from sharks. The floating hulk having overturned at last, the two survivors feed upon barnacles. Finally, when they are nearly dead of thirst, a British ship comes to their rescue. It is the Jane Guy of Liverpool, bound on a sealing and trading voyage to the South Seas and Pacific. Peters and Pym begin to recover. Within two weeks, they are able to look back upon their horrible experiences with almost the same feeling with which one recollects terrible dreams.

The vessel stops at Christmas Harbor, where some seals and sea elephants are killed for their hides. The captain is anxious to sail his vessel into Antarctica on a voyage of exploration. The weather turns cold. There is an adventure with a huge bear, which Peters kills in time to save his companions. Scurvy afflicts the crew. Once the captain decides to turn northward, but later he foolishly takes the advice of Pym to continue on. They sail until they sight land and encounter some “savages” whom they take aboard.

The animals on the island are strange, and the water is of some peculiar composition that Pym cannot readily understand. The natives on that strange coast live in a state of complete savagery. Bartering begins. Before the landing party can depart, however, the sailors are trapped in what seems to be an earthquake, which shuts off their passage back to the shore. Only Pym and Peters escape, to learn that the natives had caused the tremendous landslide by pulling great boulders from the top of a towering cliff. The only white men left on the island, they face the problem of evading the natives, who are now preparing to attack the ship. Unable to warn their comrades, Pym and Peters can only watch helplessly while the natives board the Jane Guy and overcome the six white men who had remained aboard. The ship is almost demolished. The natives bring about their own destruction, however, for in exploring the ship they set off the ammunition, and the resulting explosion kills about one thousand of them.

In making their escape from the island, Pym and Peters discover ruins similar in form to those marking the site of Babylon. When they come upon two unguarded canoes, they take possession of one and push out to sea. Natives chase them but eventually give up the pursuit. They begin to grow listless and sleepy when their canoe enters a warm sea. Ashy material falls continually upon them. At last, the boat rushes rapidly into a cataract, and a human figure, much larger than any person and as white as snow, arises in the pathway of the doomed boat. So ends the journal of Arthur Gordon Pym.

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