Edgar Allan Poe seems to have been uncertain, initially, how to structure his only novel. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym first appeared as a conventional first-person fictive work when the opening four chapters were serialized. When the novel was published in completed form the following year, however, Poe added a foreword and an endnote, the purpose of which were to convince readers that Pym’s fantastic accounts were true. Pym, through unusual circumstances, traveled the South Seas to the 84th parallel, farther south than anyone had gone before. He recounts his experiences of surviving a mutiny, being forced to practice cannibalism, and encountering a strange island of hostile natives.
One night, Augustus Barnard, Pym’s close friend, takes Pym sailing. Pym does not realize that Augustus is drunk. Augustus passes out, stranding them at sea in a small boat (Pym does not know how to navigate). A ship, the Penguin, bears down on their boat. Immediately before impact, Pym faints. He wakes to find that they have been rescued.
The young men then have a greater adventure: Pym stows away on the Grampus, captained by Augustus’ father. Augustus is on board legitimately. While at sea, the crew mutinies, killing Captain Barnard but sparing Augustus and Pym, who was trapped for days in a cargo hold during the mutiny. One of the mutineers, Dirk Peters, helps protect the boys in the following days, and the three are able, through guile and improbable luck, to murder all the remaining mutineers except for Parker, whom they spare. The Grampus drifts southward for days. Their food and water contaminated, Peters, Pym, and Barnard finally resort to cannibalism to avoid starvation. Parker is killed and eaten. Shortly after, Barnard dies from a severe arm injury.
Later, the Jane Guy rescues the starving Pym and Peters. They travel still farther south in unexplored regions. They stop at an island where the natives at first seem friendly but soon savagely kill the entire crew. Pym and Peters escape in a canoe. The narrative ends with Pym frightened because the canoe seems caught in a vortex. A large, white human figure appears. Ash falls from the sky.