The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What role does God play in the text?

    God is mostly mentioned by Pym in prayers for deliverance and the occasional outpouring of thanks for said deliverance. Beyond that, there does not appear to be any overt presence on the part of the Christian God, and, in fact, God is rather absent from the second half of the novel (starting from around the rescue by the Jane Guy). Furthermore, while Pym is more than happy to pay lip service to God, there is no deep spiritual engagement. He does not adhere to traditional Christian beliefs or guidelines, allowing himself to be swayed by superstition and fear, and to engage in problematic activities, such as cannibalism. If there is a God, He does not take an active hand in guiding Pym and Peters through their troubles. The white figure at the end of the earth may be a deity of some sort, and Pym's journey is most assuredly "spiritual" in nature, but it is an ancient, myth-based type of religion that is more akin to paganism rather than monotheism. Biblical allusions may pop up in the text, but they are always complicated. Thus, God is not absent from the text, but he is certainly not the God that most 19th century readers expected to encounter.

  2. 2

    Why might the novel be seen as a coming-of-age for Pym?

    While the novel certainly deviates from the classic bildungsroman literary genre, which features a young protagonist's struggles, achievements, and life lessons as they age from child to adult, it can still be perceived as a coming-of-age tale. Pym is a young man full of dreams of a romantic and dangerous life at sea, complete with a melancholy disposition and a streak of recklessness. He experiences trial after trial, privation and excess, failure and success. He journeys from a purely mortal, corporeal mentality to one of dreamy spirituality. In the South Pole he is presented with a limitless vista of self-awareness as well as an awareness of the inner workings of the universe. Clearly this is a bit different than David Copperfield, and Pym experiences all of this in a matter of months, not years. Furthermore, his inner growth is barely made visible to the reader - they have to guess at his progression through his actions, not his cogitations.

  3. 3

    Is Pym an active or a passive character?

    It is pretty clear that Pym is not a particularly dynamic character. He mostly has immediate reactions to the situations he faces, and reacts in the same way as most people would in those circumstances. He is not a unique individual a la Hamlet, Elizabeth Bennett, or Raskolnikov. The reader has little access to his real mental happenings; he always seems to be in one heightened state of emotion or another, without actually reflecting on how the terrible things he has seen or done have affected him. He does not seem aware of himself as a person and does not try to discover his place within the world. The spiritual journey he is undertaking is selected for him; it is not something that he has endeavored to do for himself. The universe wants to engage with him, but it is likely to face unconscious resistance. Overall, the reader is left to discern any personal growth in Pym - for example, the fact that Pym is seen as indispensable and wise to the captain of the Jane Guy when he was previously a frightened youth in the hold - through his actions and what he relates to the reader in his pragmatic, episodic fashion. Any real consciousness is left out. This may reflect Poe's desire to adhere closely to the exploration literature model, which was very similar.

  4. 4

    What ideas about sea expeditions does the novel exploit/glorify/mock?

    Poe was fascinated by the sea, and his first and only novel adopts many of the conventions of the very popular 19th century genre of exploration literature. He drew on the work (and in one case, even flat-out used the work) of famous explorers like Morrell and Reynolds, and authors like Daniel Defoe. He mimicked their straightforward, observation-oriented tone and their episodic, brisk style. There are multiple "scientific" passages about various species and sailing topics, such as stowage. He filled his novel with all of the tropes of the genre - storms and shipwrecks, bloodthirsty savages, cannibalism, mutiny, and scientific exploration. Many critics believe he was actually parodying this type of literature through the sheer wealth of fantastical events and encounters. Poe has taken a familiar structure and exaggerated it demonstrably. Even though Poe believed this to be a "silly" book, its critique of a popular form is quite clever.

  5. 5

    How does the narrative form of Pym change as the novel progresses?

    Poe begins his tale in the traditional style of exploration literature of the 19th century - his prose is brisk and his pace quick. His first-person narrator lucidly explains what adventures he finds himself in and how he extricated himself from them, all the while maintaining an even-keeled tone while he describes his violent vacillations of emotions. The plot proceeds episodically throughout the entire story, although the pace of the story slows down around the destruction of the Grampus and the subsequent fight for survival of the remaining men. Pym then switches to journal format, which was also a popular component of many exploration pieces. It allows him to convey the tedium of his and his friends' struggle for survival while accounting for the interesting and terrifying encounters they have. Pym's diary format drops off once he and Peters are struggling to survive on the island; it is a much more novelistic portion of the text. Poe's rather haphazard style has been viewed by some critics as careless or lazy, but it may very well be an effective way to shift the tone of the story as well as adhere to the similarly slipshod style of actual exploration literature.

  6. 6

    How are the natives of Tsalal characterized?

    Pym depicts the natives as the ultimate masters of deceit, as the most savage and bloodthirsty examples of humankind. He guides the reader through their terrible plan to kill all of the white men and showcases their particular savagery in their refusal to help each other out when they are killed in great numbers in the Jane Guy explosion. Their village reveals them as impoverished and backwards, although Pym has an almost admiring tone when he limns the various ways in which they were able to instill trust and confidence in their victims. Pym marvels more than once at how fully he and his companions fell for their carefully calculated deception. Pym also wonders if there is not more than meets the eye when he thinks to himself that their belief that the Jane Guy was alive was a bit much. However, the natives are also subject to intense superstitions and fear regarding anything white; Pym depicts them as childlike and ignorant in their deadly paranoia about the color, or, rather, absence of color.

  7. 7

    How does Poe's only novel resemble his more famous short stories?

    Although most readers only know Edgar Allan Poe through his famous stories like "The Pit and the Pendulum", "The Masque of the Red Death", "The Tell-Tale Heart", and "The Cask of Amontillado", among others, his only novel bears some of the same themes and tropes. First, almost all of his stories have a grisly act or process of destruction to them (for example, the plague in "Masque", illness and death in "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "Ligeia"), and Pym features cannibalism and death-by-avalanche. There is also the quest to find the ideal Beauty and to obliterate earthly experience through a quest for wholeness; this is seen in last chapter of Pym. There is also a focus on the limitation and circumscription of space. As in "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Black Cat", fear of entombment pervades the text. Narrow spaces and dark holes abound. Finally, dreams play an important role in illuminating either the deepest desires of a character's heart or by foreshadowing some major event in their life. Pym's dream of death and rebirth fits in to this observation. Thus, although Poe never wrote another novel, many of Pym's themes and motifs would pop up again in his later work

  8. 8

    What does Poe suggest about the imagination?

    Poe seems to be suggesting in the novel that the imagination can be a dangerous thing; this is particularly observable in the situation where Pym is descending a rock from a great height and worries about falling to his death. He begins to allow his imagination to take over, actually envisioning the moment when he falls and hits the ground. This becomes so powerful, so real, that he actually does fall off and is saved by Peters. The situation in the hold is telling as well, for Pym's belief that he is buried, and that his dog is a terrible creature, makes him irrational and deleterious to himself. This idea is supported by a quote from Ernest Hemingway: " almost always simply a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination. Learning to suspend your imagination and live completely in the very second of the present minute with no before and no after is the greatest gift a soldier [or a sailor] can acquire." Pym exemplifies this, for his imagination leads nearly leads him to his death.

  9. 9

    Why does Pym spend time talking about his background?

    Like most bildungsromans (see essay #2), the protagonist is careful to note the particulars of their birth and the various events of their childhood that shaped them into the adult who is now relating his or her life story. Pym is undertaking that task, but there is an added element to his description of his "respectable" upbringing and accomplished family - he is trying to further establish his legitimacy as an author, his claim to the truth. If it is clear that he comes from a good family and is well-educated, it is likely that the readers of his fantastical work will come to believe it as true and not assume that he is lying or insane. This also helps to position him in the sphere of the educated, as opposed to the more "savage" Peters or the natives of Tsalal, thus setting up opposition and conflict of character that will shift throughout the novel as Pym encounters trials and tribulations.

  10. 10

    Discuss the character of Dirk Peters.

    Dirk Peters is the embodiment of the "noble savage" trope in western literature. Half Native American, he is described with some shock by Pym as "one of the most ferocious-looking men I ever beheld." Despite his terrifying features, Peters saves Pym's life on several occasions, and he takes part in the mutiny but also regrets his role in it. The violence he enacts is complicated and he is capable of both extreme brutality but remorse and reason. Like the Tsala natives, Peters is described in racist terms and despite his active role in the text is relegated to that of a supporting function; Pym, the white hero, is a largely passive character. Peters is positioned somewhere between the intellectualism evinced in the white characters - like the physically ineffectual Augustus - and the cunning malevolence of the black characters - like the amoral cook. Ultimately, Peters is an enigma, stoic and brave and, according to "editor" Poe, out of reach.