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.
*Nantucket. Major whaling port on an island south of Cape Cod in southern Massachusetts. While all the place-names are real, one senses a certain amount of biographical and metafictional game-playing and hoaxing. For example, sixteen-year-old Pym initially reports that he was born in Nantucket and that his grandfather (his guardian) has speculated successfully in the stocks of the Edgarton New Bank. This rather placid, matter-of-fact beginning—strewn with descriptions of ships and docks—is abruptly followed by a harrowing escape from a shipwreck in a sailboat, complete with a thoroughly unbelievable return to breakfast the next morning, as if nothing has happened, even though Pym has been pierced through the neck by a bolt of the ship that saves him. Pym then deceives his family into believing that he is going to visit a relative in New Bedford, while he is actually stowing away on the whaling ship Grampus with the help of his friend Augustus. The grounding in the everyday reality of Nantucket soon veers into nightmarish horror as Pym hides in the hold of the Grampus, ready for more near disasters.
*Antarctic Circle. South Polar region in which the novel concludes. Poe’s yearning for an actual expedition to be sent to explore the South Pole may have led him to color the descriptions of the Antarctic environment with enticing, imaginative anomalies. For example, a canoe carries Pym and Dirk Peters into warmer, milky water as they...
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venture farther south. Eventually, they see a strange white-haired mammal with red teeth and claws float by. In the novel’s final scene, as their canoe rushes into a cataract, a huge “shrouded human figure” with perfectly white skin appears before them. No explanation is provided after the journal stops short.
The appearance of the strange figure at the end of the novel has been variously explained as being almost everything from a divinity, to a Titan guarding the hole at the South Pole, to a sail or figurehead from a ship seen by a deluded Pym. The incident has been explained as the ultimate metaphysical enigma or as an emblem of epistemological questioning of perception, reality, or language itself. Perhaps Poe succeeded in this “hodgepodge” novel of mixed descriptions, tones of voice, styles, genres, and intentions in making what he once described as the “ludicrous heightened into the grotesque.”
Grampus. Whaling ship captained by the father of Pym’s friend Augustus Barnard in which Pym becomes a stowaway. The secret compartment in the hold that Augustus prepares for Pym seems to have all the comforts of home. However, the labyrinthine snug space quickly turns into a premature burial, a nightmarish coffin, filled only with rotten food and a threatening dog, lacking fresh water, and leaving Pym confined and cut off for a long time from communication with Augustus or the ship’s crew.
Once aboard the Grampus, Pym observes butchery, mutiny, murder, a Dutch “death” ship of rotting corpses, starvation, and, eventually, cannibalism. However, each description of nightmarish despair on the ship is suddenly followed by one of hopeful salvation. For example, when the ship rolls over at sea, it reveals barnacles on its hull that the starving members of its crew can eat. Descriptions of the Grampus reveal the endless oscillations of despair and hope, of torture and release, of near destruction and salvation that allow Pym to feel the perverse pleasures of suffering and despair that early in the novel he says he desires to experience.
Tsalal Island. Lush wooded island, full of plants, streams, and game, that is discovered within the Antarctic Circle by the crew of the Jane Guy as it sails toward the South Pole. The island is inhabited by people who are completely black—including the color of their teeth—and who are frightened by everything white. On the island, members of the ship’s crew discover a variety of odd creatures, such as black albatrosses and black-wooled animals. Pym and Dirk Peters are the only members of the crew left alive after the islanders kill all their companions.
After earlier chapters provide documentary-like descriptions of nature, the novel suddenly infuses the strange island of black and white polarities with elements of symbolism and surrealism that emphasize the temptation of the forbiddingly mysterious and the inaccessibly sublime. For example, a rocky ledge is described as looking like “corded bales of cotton.” The water appears to be in “layers,” colored like silk, with distinct purplish “veins.”
*Kergulen’s or Desolation Islands
*Kergulen’s or Desolation Islands. Group of islands in the southern Indian Ocean located near Southern Africa. Chapters describing the actual history of exploration of these islands are mostly lifted from published accounts, primarily those of Captain James Cook. Pym’s extensive descriptions of birds and other animals on the islands can be found in other sources. Poe’s heavy reliance upon these sources also helps explain the gaps in Pym’s journal and the erratic, zigzag course Pym takes around the Cape of Good Hope to Kergulen’s or Desolation Islands, back to the Islands of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic, and then southward in the Antarctic Circle to the Island of Tsalal and finally toward the South Pole. The overall effect is to hoax the reader by making the voyages seem credible with an overload of details, facts, nautical terms, and verifiable history.
Covici, Pascal, Jr. “Toward a Reading of Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.” Mississippi Quarterly 21 (1968): 111-118. An interpretation of the symbolic role of white, black, and red, especially as racial indicators, with Dirk Peters seen as the mediator between whites and blacks.
Eakin, Paul J. “Poe’s Sense of an Ending.” American Literature 45 (1973): 1-22. Examines the abortive ending relative to the whole and concludes that the narrative is complete.
Irwin, John T. American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. Examines the relationships of writing, doubling, and the use of hieroglyphics, including a considerable examination of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. An outstanding study of its subject.
Kennedy, J. Gerald. “Unreadable Books, Unspeakable Truths.” In Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. Calls attention to the “self-consciousness” of the text regarding its indefiniteness and insufficiency of language.
Lee, Grace F. “The Quest of Arthur Gordon Pym.” Southern Literary Journal 4, no. 2 (1972): 22-33. Sees a twofold quest, one “backward in time to the origins of creation” and the other “inward to the depths” of Pym’s unconscious.
Peirce, Carol, and Alexander G. Rose III. “The White Vision of Arthur Gordon Pym.” In Poe’s Pym: Critical Explorations, edited by Richard Kopley. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992. Seeks to explain Poe’s knowledge of Arthurian legend and the myth of the White Goddess.