The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket begins with a preface by its first-person narrator, Pym himself. He explains that he had previously not wanted to commit his marvelous tale to print because he worried that people would doubt its veracity. With some urging from his editor, Edgar Allan Poe, he publishes it as fiction. Nonetheless, readers believe it to be true.
Pym begins his tale by noting his respectable upbringing. As a young man he goes away to school in New Bedford; there he meets his closest friend Augustus Barnard, the son of a sea captain. Augustus spurs a love for the sea in Pym and the two spend time sailing. One evening they are almost killed during a storm but are thankfully rescued by a whaling ship.
Pym is not deterred from his growing desire to go to sea by this misadventure; to the contrary, he thrills more and more at Augustus’s harrowing tales. Augustus tells Pym that his father Captain Barnard is set to command an expedition on the Grampus and that he and Pym ought to go. Facing disapproval from his family, Pym is hidden onboard the ship for three days before it departs with the intention of revealing himself to the captain and crew once they were safely at sea.
Pym is relatively comfortable in the hold for a few days but becomes disconcerted at his propensity to sleep long hours and his confusion that Augustus has not visited him. His provisions begin to run out and the noxious fumes in the hold distort his thinking. At one point he thinks he is being attacked by a malevolent creature, but it turns out to be his dog Tiger who somehow managed to get onboard. Tiger has a note attached to him, and after much travail, Pym is able to make out a few ominous words from Augustus.
After more terrible time passes in his interment in the hold, Augustus finally makes his way down to Pym. He tells his friend about a mutiny that happened not long after the ship set sail. Most men, excluding himself, were killed or set adrift. Augustus himself was spared but tied up for some time until the mate, who orchestrated the attack against the captain, decided he could roam about. The only “good” mutineer on the Grampus seems to be a half-Native American brute of a man named Dirk Peters; he is kind to Augustus and does not want the ship to venture into piracy. Pym listens to this tale in wonder and it is agreed he will continue to hide out so he will not be harmed.
After time passes, Dirk Peters confides in Augustus that he wishes to take back the ship and hopes the young man will help. Augustus readily agrees and tells Peters of Pym’s presence. The three concoct a plan to take over the ship and are successful. They spare the life of one mutineer, Richard Parker, when he begs for mercy.
Unfortunately, their victory happens during a massive storm that nearly destroys the ship. When it subsides they are injured (Augustus’s arm is wounded) and bereft of food and water. Day after day they suffer of thirst and starvation on the battered hulk of their ship, vacillating between hope and despair. They try diving into the water-filled storeroom to find provisions but are only occasionally successful.
Their time on the Grampus becomes more distressing. Once they espy another ship coming towards them and believe themselves to be rescued, but to their utter horror it is a ship manned only by dead, stinking, rotting corpses. Not long after this Parker proposes drawing straws so one man can give his life to feed the others. Pym recoils at this plan but it proceeds anyway. Parker draws the short straw and the other three devour him.
Augustus dies from his wounds, but to the great joy of Pym and Peters, another ship, the Jane Guy, finds them and rescues them. This ship is captained by Captain Guy, an intelligent but rather weak man. The two men recover quite fully and enjoy their time onboard this ship as it sails from island to island, exploring and finding interesting cargo. It is decided that the ship will proceed further south toward the South Pole.
Their journey through uncharted waters fascinates Pym; there are massive icebergs, a strange white carcass of an animal, small snowy squalls, and other interesting animals such as great bears and thousands of birds. Pym counsels that they should turn back soon because they are running low on fuel and some of the men show signs of scurvy, but Guy agrees that a few more days could be beneficial.
The ship eventually comes to a number of large, densely forested islands. Lingering in the reef near one of them, the crew is startled to see several canoes carrying black-skinned natives coming toward them. While they are carrying clubs, they do not seem violent or antagonistic, and the meeting between the natives, led by their chief Too-wit, and the white men is harmonious. The natives find the white men’s skin a bit unnerving but are excited about other things on the ship. Too-wit invites the crew to visit their village in the interior of the island. As no suspicion of the natives’ ill intentions is discernible, the men agree.
The trip to the village is uneventful. Discussion between Captain Guy and Too-wit yields an agreement for the crew of the ship to stay for about a week to harvest sea cucumber. The relationship between the two parties remains pleasant. When it is time to depart, Too-Wit graciously asks if the men would like to come back to the village for a leave-taking feast. The Captain assents and all of the crew excepting a handful left on the ship proceed back to the village.
Along the journey through a narrow gorge led by the natives, Pym’s curiosity is caught by a geological wonder. He is followed by Peters and another man. As they prepare to turn back to rejoin their crew, a massive disruption of the earth occurs and their entire party is buried in a million tons of earth and stone. Pym and Peters are alive thanks to their exploration, but they appear entombed in a cavern. A means of escape is located, but they are filled with horror that the natives orchestrated this terrible avalanche in a deeply-laid plot to utterly destroy the white men who came to their island.
From their high vantage point, Pym and Peters watch the natives head down to the shore, get in their canoes, and attack the remaining men onboard the Jane Guy. To their delight, the natives receive a comeuppance when the ship explodes and over a thousand perish. The two men suffer for days with limited food and water and finally decide to explore their surroundings and find a way to escape.
After a few unsuccessful expeditions, Pym and Peters boldly decide to escape their chasm and head toward the shore. They are ambushed by a few natives but kill all save one, making him their captive. They arrive at the beach and are noticed by the other savages. A mad race to two canoes on the beach yields victory for Pym, Peters, and their captive, who take one canoe and blow holes in the other with a musket. They paddle away furiously, leaving the island forever.
At sea, Pym and Peters decide to proceed south to hopefully find land. Their captive is docile and offers the name of the island they left – Tsalal – and his own – Nu-Nu. He appears frightened of anything white, such as a linen handkerchief of Pym’s.
The further the canoe travels toward the South Pole the more whiteness plays a role. The water grows exceedingly warm and milky white. White ash rains from the sky. A large cataract looms before them and disturbances occur beneath the surface. Nu-Nu dies of fright at these odd circumstances. It is an entirely dreamlike sensation floating in this eerie placid sea. The canoe heads toward the looming cataract and Pym and Peters see a large white figure rise up before them.
Here the narrative ends and editor Poe includes a note. He tells readers that they are no doubt aware of Pym’s sudden and distressing death many years after he returned from his journey, and it is likely the last chapters of his narrative were lost in this death. Peters is alive and in Illinois but cannot be reached. Poe discusses the chasms of Tsalal a bit and reiterates the natives’ fear of whiteness.