Pym relates a moment in their struggle to survive that presented itself first full of hope and elation and then full of horror. The companions lay on the deck discussing what to do when Pym notices Augustus's stricken face. He follows his gaze and sees a large brig just a couple of miles off. Peters dances like a madman and Parker weeps like a child.
It is a Dutch ship painted black that has seen much bad weather. It is moving awkwardly and the men wonder at its odd course, supposing the helmsman to be drunk. They observe three seamen, probably Hollanders. One is stout and tall with dark skin and seems to be encouraging them cheerfully that they will be there soon. It is odd that his cap falls off into the sea and he does not notice, but the companions do not think about it at the time.
As the brig moves closer, they suddenly are assaulted with "a smell, a stench, such as the whole world has no name for –no conception of –hellish –utterly suffocating –insufferable, inconceivable." When it is close enough for them to look upon the deck, they see twenty-five to thirty bodies, including women, strewn about in "the last and most loathsome state of putrefaction!" There is not one living person onboard. They are full of despair, complete and crushing.
They look to the stout figure nodding his head and observe a massive seagull gorging himself on the dead man's flesh, blood dripping from its monstrous talons. It looks at them lazily and then alights, dropping a chunk of bloody skin on the deck right in front of Parker. Pym looks at it aghast, but admits that he has a "thought which I will not mention" before he throws the flesh into the sea.
This appalling discovery paralyzes every faculty and they cannot even muster the will to try and take the ship. After it passes them, they conjecture about what happened to the passengers, suggesting yellow fever, poison, or bad fish or animals that they consumed.
The companions spend the rest of the day in a stupor. The sea is dead calm and Peters proposes going below to search for food again. He succeeds in finding a port wine and the men rejoice and have a small drink. Pym descends to search again and finds nothing. When he emerges he is dismayed to find that the men are roaringly intoxicated. They seem crazed, speaking of random things. Pym goes below again and when he comes out he sees that they have drunk all the wine without him. They fall asleep while Pym ruminates.
He begins to think that they will all die of lingering famine or by the first gale that rises up. He tries to eat a piece of leather from a trunk but cannot swallow it. He wishes to go below again, not having abandoned hope that there may be something edible or drinkable down there; unfortunately, he will need one of them awake and alert to hold the end of the rope. He believes Parker the most capable but still needs him more aware. He conceives of the idea of throwing him into water and drawing him out. He does the same to Augustus and Dirk Peters; this revives all of them.
Pym finds nothing below. It is now six days since they have had food or water. Pym suffers less than the others, but Augustus and Peters in particular are wasted and emaciated. They seem to enter "a species of second childhood, generally simpering in their expressions, with idiotic smiles, and uttering the most absurd platitudes." Parker claims he sees land where this is none and almost jumps overboard.
Pym spots a brig eastward on their larboard brow. Filled with excitement, he forebears telling the others until it looks like it is coming nearer. Once they know about the ship, their glee is marvelous to behold. They leap about idiotically and scream and thrash. Pym gives in to this ebullience as well. Sadly, though, they see the ship turning in the opposite direction. The companions can barely come to terms with this second and massive disappointment.
In the late afternoon as a breeze springs up, Parker turns to Pym with a serious expression and proposes, "in a few words, that one of us should die to preserve the existence of the others."
Pym has thought of this option before Parker mentions it, but has steadfastly rejected it as something that he will not do under any circumstances. He pleads with Parker and gives arguments against it, but Parker calmly tells him that he has held out as long as humanly possible and is committed to this plan. Pym ponders what to do, wondering if he should throw the man overboard. After communicating this to Parker, the sailor tries to stab Pym, but is too feeble to inflict any damage.
Peters intervenes and is told what is happening. To Pym's great distress, both Peters and Augustus say that they also approve of the plan and want it to be immediately carried into effect. Pym pleads for an hour to give them time to think, to which they grudgingly agree.
The hour passes and they prepare to draw lots. Pym has the task of fashioning wooden straws. As he works quietly and diligently, he is filled with overwhelming terror at the possibility of his imminent death. Many plans fill his head, such as killing all his companions or contriving a way to have them all draw short straws. He says to the reader, "Before any one condemn me for this apparent heartlessness, let him be placed in a situation precisely similar to my own."
The time comes. Peters draws first and he is free. Augustus is next, and he is free. Pym and Parker are left, and Parker draws. Pym first feels intense hatred but then fear. His eyes are closed. When he opens them he can tell by Parker's face that he, Pym, is safe.
Peters springs on Parker and stabs him in the back. Pym writes that he does not want to dwell on the "fearful repast which immediately ensued." The men are sustained by their ghoulish feast on Parker.
They catch some rainwater on a sheet and feel relief. Pym remembers an axe that they might have access to. Finding this axe, they are able to, through many painstaking and exhausting hours, cut into the storeroom. Several expeditions yield them some wine and some ham and olives. They even discover a Galapagos tortoise. Pym spends some time discussing the characteristics of this tortoise because he has cause to mention it later. It is called the "elephant tortoise" and is heavy, slow, and huge. Their appearance is "singular, even disgusting." They have long necks and serpent-like heads. However, they have pouches where they store water for long periods of time and are generally "excellent and highly nutritious food." This tortoise is brought to the deck and they draw the water out of its bag. This can be done without killing it, and they endeavor to keep it alive as long as possible.
The men are in good spirits the next morning. They make it through another storm by lashing themselves up again. The next day they are upset to find that two jars of olives and their ham have washed away; they are also distressed at the presence of several hungry sharks. It seems unlikely that there are any stores left below.
The only comfort they find is bathing in the sea, which relieves their thirst a bit. Augustus's arm grows worse and worse and begins to "evince symptoms of mortification." He prays for death constantly. They decide to kill and cut up the tortoise, which yields a moderately successful amount of meat. The lack of water causes Augustus to worsen. What is left in their jug swarms with vermin and swills with slime.
On August 1st Augustus perishes. His death casts a gloomy toll on the remaining two men and they sit in silence for hours. They finally throw the body overboard and are disgusted by the sharks' ravenous behavior.
The lack of water plagues them; their wine is no solace. What is even more problematic, they find, is the hull's heeling over and their eventual plummeting into the water. Pym is plunged underwater and thinks he will die. He emerges and can breathe once more but now worries about the sharks. He kicks vigorously and sends up a cloud of foam as he furiously tries to swim back to the destroyed vessel. His life is saved by Peters, who reaches down to assist the enfeebled Pym.
Their perilous situation makes them weep like children. They are certainly not rational beings at this time, and suffer immensely in body and spirit. However, a silver lining is glimpsed - the turning over of the brig yields an underside crusted with edible and delicious barnacles. They still need water, however, and try to catch rainwater in their shirts. The next day they discover a seaweed cluster filled with crabs which they consume.
On August 7th they are overjoyed to espy a ship sailing eastward towards them. They wonder if perhaps the ship sees them and will turn aside and leave them to their fate, but thankfully they are brought aboard the Jane Guy, a ship out of Liverpool captained by Captain Guy.
It is a good sturdy ship but not meant for rough seas. There are about thirty-five able seamen besides the captain and mate. Captain Guy, while intelligent and sophisticated, lacks energy and verve. They are sailing the South Seas for cargo that might come readily to hand.
The two rescued men are treated kindly and recover completely within a fortnight. Pym remarks that his mind seems to have banished the emotions and sensations connected with his terrible incidents; "the incidents are remembered, but not the feelings the incidents elicited at the time of their occurrence. I only know that when they did occur, I then thought human nature could sustain nothing more of agony."
The Jane Guy continues sailing, nearing the Cape of Good Hope. They weather a few squalls and make it to Kerguelen's or Desolation Island on the 13th of October. The island is a group of islands named for the Baron de Kergulen or Kerguelen who visited there. It is also called Desolation Island because there is only one patchy moss plant that grows there.
They dock in Christmas Harbour at the island. Pym gives a long explanation of the types of sea creatures and birds native to that land, spending much of his time discussing the nests of penguins and albatrosses in their shared rookery. At the harbor the chief mate, Mr. Patterson, takes the boats and goes searching for seals. Captain Guy takes a sealed bottle with a letter to leave at a high point on the island.
The ship remains at the island for three weeks looking for seals. The Captain and his nephew, who went with him, tell the crew when they return that the island is a desolate and "utterly barren" country.
These few chapters contain two of the most ghoulish and traumatizing scenes in the novel – the ship full of rotting corpses and cannibalism. In the former scene Poe uses all of his literary power to paint a horrific tableau of death and terror; in the latter he stands at a distance and lets the reader use their imagination to fill in the void. The two scenes are linked in that the seagull, which is feasting on the body of one of the dead sailors, drops a morsel of flesh at the feet of Parker, the man whose idea it was to undergo the cannibalistic sacrifice and who unfortunately turns out to be its victim.
While some critics have complained that Pym suffers from a too-episodic plot, it is possible to glean a larger, mythical and archetypical structure to the work. It can be perceived as a quest narrative; scholar Grace Farrell Lee articulates this in her insightful article, writing that the novel “revitalizes an archetype found throughout religious mythology, the descent into Hell, and utilizes the structure of a sea voyage…to voyage into the recesses of the human psyche and to journey backward in time to the origins of creation.” This is a dream-quest, then, with a desire to awaken man’s connection with his primal nature.
The evidence for Lee’s claim begins with Pym’s entombment in the hold, which signifies rebirth. Pym’s dreams, while in the hold and earlier in the Ariel episode, are more than just awakenings; rather, they are movements bringing Pym deeper and deeper into his dream world. Lee notes that in the great works of Homer, Dante, and Virgil, water acts as a barrier through which a mortal must pass on his way into the spirit world. The water theme is elaborated on through the survivors’ diving into the hold looking for food and drink. These dives are ritualistic and almost biblical in their baptismal connotations.
The appearance of the Dutch ship “creates further implications of a movement toward the underworld.” The ship is full of death, but it is not significant for that reason alone; it is also a catalyst for Pym’s mythical journey. Its presence stymies the intellects of the men who gaze upon its ghastly passage. The seagull’s dropping of the morsel of flesh is a symbolic offering of human flesh. This fact is not lost upon the men, and prefigures the scene of cannibalism to come.
That terrible scene is laden with biblical allusions until it becomes almost a parody of the Last Supper. The solemn cadences of the narrative and the scattered biblical allusions make it a sort of terrible communion. Lee acknowledges that the biblical allusions are not cohesive, but “accrue significance and meaning as an aggregate.” The men draw straws, which resembles the casting of lots for Jonah and the other fisherman to see who will be thrown overboard to appease God. Parker is the sacrifice and his blood and body are devoured by the others to nourish and prolong their lives.
Finally, the quest to Hell is continued by the journey to Tsalal, which is a recognizable portrait of Hell (see later analyses). The mythic structure of Poe’s work may have been unconscious, but like the great works of western literature that precede it, it does indeed exist and offers readers compelling insights into the human engagement with the spiritual and the primitive.