A highly innovative and masterful writer, Poe has been credited as being among the first Americans to use the narrative techniques and conventions of what is now considered science-fiction and fantasy literature. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is a clever work of fantasy cast in realistic and contemporary (in Poe’s time) terms that attempts to persuade readers that the fantastic horrors recounted by Pym are true.
Poe relied on the science, ideation, and literature of his day for material he could transform in his speculative work. For this novel, he incorporated a combination of striking news events within the literary genre of sea fiction in vogue at the time. The novel’s form generally parodies that used in many popular personal sea travel accounts, such as Benjamin Morrell’s A Narrative of Four Voyages to the South Seas and Pacific (1832) and Captain James Cook’s The Three Voyages (reissued in 1821).
Pym explores uncharted waters in much the same way that merchant vessels and private expeditions were beginning to explore the sea during the late 1830’s. For his novel’s conclusion, Poe drew on the then-current discussion of a theory advanced by John Cleves Symmes, which suggested that a vortex existed at the South Pole through which the ocean drained, to emerge at the North Pole and recirculate around the world. The possibility of a hollow center in the earth presented to Poe’s horrific imagination the impetus for “Ms. Found in a Bottle” (1833) and “A Descent into the Maelström” (1841), as well as the ending for this novel.
The principal element of fantasy hinges on the novel’s narrative technique. Widely regarded as a textbook example of an “unreliable narrator,” Pym may be seen as mentally unsound and therefore untrustworthy. His perception of reality is invariably proven to be slanted, and there are numerous inconsistencies in his narrative that provide clues to his unreliability.
Most damaging to Pym’s credibility is that a pattern of four sequences of action emerges from his telling of his first adventure with Augustus—a pattern that he repeats in recounting every subsequent episode. First, Pym realizes the true state of affairs as if he suddenly receives a revelation. Then Pym despairs, such as his panic at being at sea unprepared. Next, he somehow becomes unconscious as a horror is about to occur; he faints, for example, at the moment the Penguin strikes his boat. Finally, he wakes to find that he has been saved, usually through some unforeseen circumstance—a miraculous rescue, but one that will only lead to a worse horror, whereby the pattern will repeat. The design of revelation to despair to unconsciousness to miraculous rescue indicates that Pym’s mind can remember and recount his adventures only schematically, with each adventure moving progressively toward the horrible and improbable. Indeed, Pym states in his foreword that the events he recounts may not be completely factual. He fears that his schemata will cast doubt on his credibility.
Read in its historical context, the novel emulates, and comically treats, accounts of sea expeditions. Read in its literary context, it impiously moves away from the tradition of heroic sea literature by portraying, through an unreliable narrator, nature as unpredictable and increasingly horrible. Written fairly early in Poe’s career, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym points toward Poe’s genius for creating highly structured, ratiocinated art, evident in his later tales of horror and speculative fantasy.