The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Critical Evaluation

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The reception of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym after its publication was in no way an unqualified approval. On the contrary, its misreading was the general result. Literal-minded reviewers jumped immediately to the conclusion that the narrative amounted to a fraudulent attempt to bamboozle the unwary. That its author intended to parody the popular voyage literature of the time was not considered. Not all the reviews were hostile. In Great Britain, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym went through two editions. It was generally treated as the report of an actual voyage. Therefore, it remained for the French to be the first to recognize The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym as an extraordinary romance of adventure and as an important work of art. In 1858, French poet Charles Baudelaire admired The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym enough to translate it.

Meanwhile, in the United States the work was neglected and practically forgotten, except for Henry James’s praise, recorded in his great novel The Golden Bowl (1904), of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym as “a wonderful tale” fondly remembered by Prince Amerigo. Not until 1950 was The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym to be taken seriously, when poet and critic W. H. Auden included the romance in his anthology Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Prose, Poetry, and Eureka. In his introduction, Auden declares The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and Eureka: A Prose Poem (1848) to be among Poe’s most important works.

Soon even academia woke from its sleep. Patrick F. Quinn, in 1952, emphasized that the narrative is structured by the pattern of deception and revolt. He also discussed the 1933 psychoanalytical interpretation of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Marie Bonaparte, who saw its central meaning as “the passionate and frenzied search for the Mother.” The philosopher Gaston Bachelard held that The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym derived “from the deepest psychological center of Edgar Poe.” Bachelard termed The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym “one of the great books of the human heart.” Edward Davidson viewed The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym as a philosophical narrative that shows nature to be deceptive, untrustworthy, and destructive. The plot is based on a quest to find the axis of reality on which the world turns. Everything is uncertain and an illusion; to find oneself is to lose one’s self and to slip away into nothingness. According to Davis, “terror is the way to a knowledge of the world’s primal unity.” Quinn’s and Davidson’s essays proved the launching pads for the many future studies of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and its increasing importance in the Poe canon.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym reveals Poe’s philosophy of the relation of the self to nature, to the world, and to the universe. It also depicts a psychic quest to discover the core of the self. The narrative structure has been explored, as have the narrative voices and their tones. The problematics of narrative unity, the use of enclosure, the truncated conclusion, and the use of satire, irony, and ways of deception have also been studied. The ideas of the Freudian quest for the mother and of Jungian archetypes, of the roles of dream and wakefulness, of the conscious and the unconscious, of illusion and reality, and of empirical versus intuitive knowledge have been considered as well, in addition to the role of allegory and symbolism.

Some critics have been amazed to discover the way Poe calls attention to his textual and narrative space by questioning whether language can ever be clearly understood, whether human life is governed by uncertainty and chance, and whether nature and the universe are completely indifferent to human happiness and welfare. There has been much speculation about the meaning of the great white human figure that appears at the end of the tale, the role of the racial colors of white, black, and red, and whether writing is favored over speech.

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The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Edgar Allan Poe