The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym Edgar Allan Poe
The following entry presents criticism of Poe's novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838). See also Edgar Allan Poe Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism, Edgar Allan Poe Contemporary Literary Criticism, Edgar Allan Poe Short Story Criticism, The Raven Criticism, The Cask of Amontillado Criticism, The Tell-Tale Heart Criticism, and The Fall of the House of Usher Criticism.
The story of an ill-fated sea voyage, Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, his only novel, has captured the attention of generations of readers with its action-packed plot, imaginative use of symbol and myth, depiction of cannibalism, and numerous unusual occurrences. Poe's subtle handling of irony and ambiguity, as well as his use of a self-conscious narrative technique, have made Pym, the object of much critical study. Scholars admire the peculiar modernity of Pym's ambiguous narrative structure and its presentation of fiction as fact. While Poe himself called the novel “silly,” The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym has come to be recognized as a classic example of metafiction.
Pym was written during a professionally productive period in Poe's life, but it was a time also marked by financial and personal difficulties. While intensely focused on writing and publishing his own work, Poe was employed on the editorial staff of the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia. Poe's personal life was equally active, as he had moved his fiancée, Virginia Clemm, and her aunt from Baltimore to Richmond, and was supporting them as they lived in a boardinghouse in the city. In one year on the Messenger, Poe wrote more than one hundred reviews and editorials, and began an “Autography” series—writing 176 contributions in all. He was also engaged in the time-consuming tasks of editing, corresponding, and proofreading that were necessary for the magazine's production. By December, 1835, he was one of the main editors on the Messenger, no longer merely an assistant. The first two installments of Pym were published in the January and February, 1836, issues of the Messenger. However, after the October and November, 1836, issues were published late, and the December issue never materialized, Poe received notice in January, 1837. He decided to move with his fiancée and her aunt to New York City to seek employment as a freelance writer. Little is known about his life there in 1837 and 1838 except that Poe lived in dire poverty; inflation had caused many magazines to stop publication, thus leaving little opportunity for his work to be published or his editorial skills to be employed. He had been advised by his publishers to create longer work if he wanted to reach a wider audience, so Poe finished Pym in 1837 and it was published in July, 1838. Poe had had a good deal of time to reconsider and refine the work, altering chapter breaks to create suspense and adjusting the time sequence to build symbolism and symmetry in the novel. The book received a few favorable reviews and enjoyed a brief period of popularity in England, but it was generally dismissed by readers and reviewers alike.
Plot and Major Characters
As Pym begins, Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Massachusetts, and his good friend Augustus Barnard go out on Pym's sailboat, are run down by the whaler ship Penguin, and narrowly escape death. Eager for adventure, Pym then hides as a stowaway in a coffin-like space in the hold of Augustus's father's ship, the Grampus, bound for the South Seas. He has enough food to last him four days, but as those days pass, he discovers that there is no way out to the main deck. He waits—nearly dying of starvation and dehydration—several days for Augustus to return to help him. In the meantime, he discovers that sailors on the Grampus have mutinied and cast off Captain Barnard in a small boat. One of the drunken sailors, Dirk Peters, helps Pym and Augustus to hide and provides them with food. They manage to kill all of the mutineers except one, Parker, but then endure a terrible storm at sea. Although they survive, they are left without food for days. In desperation they draw lots and decide to kill Parker so that the other three men can live off his flesh. In the meantime, Augustus has suffered an arm injury and dies. His body is cast overboard and is devoured by sharks as soon as it hits the water. Peters and Pym, almost dead from thirst and surviving only on barnacles, are eventually rescued by the Jane Guy, a sealing and trading ship from Liverpool bound for the South Seas. They voyage toward Antarctica, but when the weather turns bad, they land on the island of Tsalal, which is inhabited by mysterious and murderous natives who live in complete “savagery.” Everything on the island is of a dark color and the natives display nervousness over anything that is white. To drive off the white men, the natives cause an earthquake by activating a landslide. They drive the sailors off, but follow them to the ship and continue to hunt them there, inadvertently blowing up the ship as they upset some stored ammunition. Only Pym, Peters, and a native they’ve taken hostage survive and escape in a canoe that they find unattended. Drifting south, they enter a warm sea and grow very drowsy as an ashen material continually falls on and around them. Suddenly, the boat rushes into a chasm and a huge white figure with outstretched arms appears in their path. There the narrative breaks off. An appended editorial note explains that Pym died unexpectedly and that the last chapters of the narrative are missing. For the book version of Pym, the narrator (Pym) writes an editorial preface in which he comments that “Mr. Poe,” a well-known editor, had written a narrative based on Pym's experiences more than a year earlier; since these initial episodes were well received by readers, he now offers the rest of the story himself. The readers should have no trouble, he adds, in seeing where Poe's style and his own diverge.
Critics have identified a number of major themes in Pym, and scholarly discussions have ranged over an unusually wide spectrum, including the fields of psychology, mythology, history, science, theology, archeology, linguistics, and deconstuctive criticism. Most commentators agree that the metaphor of death and rebirth—whether in the form of being saved from desperate situations, or merely in drifting in and out of consciousness—constitutes a key theme in Pym. Moreover, survival in the novel seems purely the work of chance, with characters neither helping nor hindering their chances in most cases. Another frequently cited theme in Pym is that of deception, which also encompasses masquerade, illusion, and even trickery. From Pym's hiding in the hold of the Grampus at the beginning of the novel, to the white figure that appears at the end of the narrative, many things are not what they appear to be. There are also numerous biblical references; for example, on Tsalal Pym sees ruins reminiscent of those of Babylon, which has led to interpretations of the island's inhabitants as one of displaced tribes from the Bible. Critics studying the imagery of Pym have frequently cited Freudian and Jungian analyses, with the voyage being a seminal symbol of a journey inward into consciousness, or denoting a return to the womb. Taking into account Poe's own historical context, some scholars have focused on the theme of race in the novel, seizing on the prevalent black and white imagery Poe used in the novel. Some critics have accused Poe of racism in Pym, citing as evidence his alleged pro-slavery writings in the Southern Literary Messenger. Finally, recent critics have emphasized the fictionality of the narrative, interpreting Pym as Poe's elaborate charade on the theme of how reality is created.
Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym has undergone a remarkable transformation in reputation over the last century. When it was first published and for the remainder of the nineteenth century, it was ignored completely, dismissed as a literary hoax, or deemed just another of Poe's fantastic tales. Poe himself wrote, probably tongue in cheek, that Pym is “a very silly book.” In the second half of the twentieth century, however, Pym has emerged as the most frequently discussed of all of Poe's works. Critics such as Stephen Mainville, Paul Rosenzweig, and William E. Levy have studied Poe's handling of language and gothic imagery and Curtis Fukuchi has explored Poe's use of narrative structure to produce special effects in the novel. In addition to focusing on Poe's style, many critics have discussed his myth making in Pym. Carol Price and Alexander G. Rose III have suggested a Celtic source for the whiteness imagery in the narrative. Poe's scientific ideas have received attention from John Limon, and Paul Lyons has written about the influence of other South Seas narratives on Pym. Contemporary critics have become extremely interested in Poe's depiction of the voyage and in his blurring the line between fact and fiction; G. R. Thompson, among others, has also broached the question of fictitiousness in the novel. Finally, studies of Poe's life and times and of his southern aristocratic leanings, especially his views toward slavery, inform numerous late twentieth century discussions of Poe's novel.