The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket Summary and Analysis of Chapters XX-XXIV and Note


Things go very well between the natives and the sailors. Traces of scurvy in the crew of the Jane Guy seem all but gone and a profitable trade on both sides is established. Captain Guy decides he would like to negotiate with Too-wit to set up a couple houses on the shore to cure the biche de mer. Too-wit readily assents and it is agreed that the schooner will continue on while three men remain to supervise the project and instruct the natives how to do prepare the sea cucumber. Pym gives a short history of the sea cucumber.

Too-wit insists the men visit their village in an official leave-taking capacity. Pym assures his readers that they had no suspicion of their good faith being violated and could not have felt that way unless they were the most suspicious people on earth. Sadly, it would appear that there was a "deeply-laid plan for our destruction" and the natives were "among the most barbarous, subtle, and bloodthirsty wretches that ever contaminated the face of the globe."

Although the men suspect nothing they are still not stupid – they arm themselves to the teeth. The natives are not armed at all. They follow the natives through a narrow gorge through a chain of soapstone hills to the village. Pym reflects back to this event and says that their chief fault lie in putting themselves so much into the hands of the natives, letting them march before them and after them through the ravine.

Pym's attention is caught by a fissure in the soft rock and he goes to investigate. Dirk Peters and Wilson Allen follow him. Pym says they should return because there is not room for them. They turn back to join the group. Pym becomes aware of a concussion – "the whole foundations of the solid globe were suddenly rent asunder, and...the day of universal dissolution was at hand."

Pym is buried in total darkness. Thankfully he locates Peters, but the two weep bitterly because they are obviously entombed alive. They finally calm down and notice a glimmer of light. They see that it leads to open air, and before trying to get out, decide to look for Allen. Unfortunately they find him dead.

With much difficulty they extricate themselves from the earth and are able to look out at the gorge. The entire thing is filled up with over a million tons of earth and every single one of their companions are dead beneath the dirt; they alone are spared. Pym and Peters see that the natives had smartly set up stakes into the earth that allowed them the leverage to hurl the earth into the cavern.

The men contemplate their fate – it seems likely they will die of the Polar winter, starvation, or at the hands of the natives. They can see their ship with a few remaining men in the harbor, but are aware they cannot fire their pistols to warn them because they themselves will be discovered and the men on the ship have no idea what has happened. They have to remain in their hiding place and simply watch what happens below.

They observe canoes filled with hundreds of natives heading toward the ship. The men onboard are able to kill some of the natives when they catch onto what is happening, but "this great success, however, came too late for the salvation of our good people." The savages swarm over the boat, and Too-wit joins them to exult in their success.

This allows Pym and Peters to reconnoiter the hill without being seen. Peters kills a black bird and they bring it with them for food. They find a place of concealment in the hill and arrange its coverage so that they are completely hidden. Their main worry is that there will be no means of descent.

The companions return to watch the scene on the Jane Guy and are in time to revel in a glorious explosion that destroys the entire ship and sends a massive fireball into the sky. It seems "the havoc among the savages far exceeded our utmost expectations, and they had now, indeed, reaped the full and perfect fruits of the their treachery." Over a thousand die, and the living are paralyzed and do not help the wounded. Their attention is caught by something on the beach and the scream "Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!" over and over again. Pym and Peters make out the strange red-toothed animal's white carcass on the beach.

For the next few days Pym and Peters hunker down in their hiding place and try to survive. It finally becomes necessary to venture out for provisions. They are forced to go back to the main ravine when they reach a sharp precipice to the south. They try the northern edge of the hill and tread carefully. Sadly, they are cut off here as well.

Day after day they explore every part of the hill and endeavor to find food. Their final option seems to be exploring the chasm in which they were first trapped to try and find an opening. Pym thinks this place "one of the most singular-looking places imaginable" and describes their subterranean meanderings in detail. He even has a pencil and a pocketbook and draws diagrams of the caverns they discover. Pym believes the indentures in one of the chasms look like alphabetic figures.

A few days after these explorations, driven to desperation by hunger, the men decide they must descend the southern declivity of the hill. This is a terrifying prospect and its success is only achieved through the tying of handkerchiefs and the holding onto pegs driven into the sandstone. Peters descends first and Pym follows. Pym becomes nervous about the immense fathoms below. He tells himself not to think about falling but soon embraces the idea that he wants to fall. He imagines the dizziness and the feeling of plummeting and the eventual connection with the earth. He does not want to look into the abyss but cannot resist – he casts his eyes below. He becomes overwhelmed and swoons, falling.

Thankfully Peters has anticipated his friend's eventual fall, seeing his odd behavior above, and catches him. After about fifteen minutes Pym recovers and they continue, nearing the place where their friends perished.

As they decide to make their way to the seashore, five natives suddenly jump out at them. Thanks to their pistols and Peters' brute strength, the natives are bested. Shouts in the distance affirm their belief that the other savages were alerted by the gunshots. One savage whom Pym thought he shot dead jumps up and tries to flee, but he is captured and, at gunpoint, made to lead the men to the beach.

Pym and Peters become aware that, as they approach the beach, hundreds of savages have spotted them and are rushing toward them. Their only salvation is two canoes on the beach that Pym spots; they rush toward them and arrive before the savages do, pushing off into the water. This glee is short-lived when they realize their folly in leaving one canoe on the beach. Desperately paddling back, they get close enough for Peters to use his musket to shoot holes into it. Pym shudders at how bloodthirsty and maniacal the savages are. To their joy, however, the savages realize they cannot overtake the interlopers and leave them alone.

Pym, Peters, and their captive are in the "wide and desolate" Antarctic Ocean with only three turtles in the canoe as provision. They decide to boldly steer southward in hopes of finding land and milder climate. The captive is amiable enough but evinces great terror at a white linen handkerchief that Pym pulls out.

Pym writes that he never saw ice again after leaving Bennet's Islet. On March 1st he writes of unusual phenomena like light gray vapor in the sky. There is time for questioning the captive, and he tells them that there are eight islands in the group where they live, that their island is called Tsalal, and that his name is Nu-Nu.

The water becomes warmer and warmer; it also becomes milky in hue and consistency. The wind stops almost completely. Pym notes that he feels numb in mind and body, "a dreaminess of sensation." An agitation of the water occurs near their canoe under the surface and fine white ash falls from the sky. The whiteness terrifies Nu-Nu and he cowers at the bottom of the canoe. Pym and Peters see that the native's teeth are black.

One of the white animals – the same one whose carcass frightened the natives – floats by and Pym considers grabbing it before he is overcome by listlessness. The ash falls heavier and more frequently. They observe a "limitless cataract" in the sky before them and a luminous glow from the depths of the water below. There are indistinct images in the cataract to which they are drawing near quickly. White screaming birds fly above them. Nu-Nu dies of fright as their canoe rushes into the cataract's chasm. They see "a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow."

Here the narrative ends and Poe the editor breaks in with a note. He says that the nature of the distressing death of Pym is known to readers, and the end of his manuscript has been lost. Peters is a resident of Illinois but cannot be reached. Poe corrects Pym's interpretation of the chasms on the island that he drew pictures of, saying that they are Ethiopian and Egyptian. He reinforces the understanding that the natives of Tsalal were afraid of anything white. He ends with an italicized statement: "I have graven it within the hills, and my vengeance upon the dust within the rock."


The end of Poe's only novel should very clearly reveal its problematic nature – the last chapters are gone and there is no real end to Pym and Peters's journey to the South Pole. The white creature is unidentified. Although Pym and Peters survive, the method by which they do so is unknown. The character of Poe as editor writes that he assumes most readers have heard of Pym's "sudden and distressing death" (179), which, of course, we have not. Peters, he tells us rather cheekily, is alive but will not talk. Poe spends some time analyzing the runes Pym identified and clarified what readers already knew in that the natives of Tsalal were afraid of whiteness. He ends with an enigmatic line –"I have graven it within the hills, and my vengeance upon the dust within the rock" (182). There seems to be no literary provenance for such a line, and its speaker – perhaps Poe, Pym, the Divinity in white – is unknown.

The last couple of chapters, while ending on a puzzling note, yield many fascinating elements of study. First, there is the interesting relationship between the two survivors, Pym and Peters. Peters is clearly the noble savage, wise and primal and spiritual. Earlier in the work he was able to excite and enthrall his companions, and now, as the two men enter the final stage of their spiritual journey, he becomes the dominant figure. He coaxes Pym into finding a way out of their chasm hiding place. He saves Pym's life when the other abandons himself to the abyss. As they sail closer and closer to the South Pole, it is clear he is a guide to the eternal. He often wears an expression Pym cannot fathom, and Pym says, "he knew not what to think of his apathy" (178) as they drift through a dreamland of falling white ash. It is not hard to see that Pym has always been different but is becoming more like Peters as they travel in the canoe. Pym always represented mortality through his ability to triumph in his toils and travails through common sense, luck, hopefulness, and perseverance. Now he has given himself over to his spirit guide, Peters, and, as critic John Hussey writes, they "are borne out of the dark and treacherous womb of the earth into the timeless and radiant realm of heaven." It can be interpreted that the final chapter describes Pym's death.

Another interesting component of these last chapters is Pym's near-burial – again. Readers will remember that he felt terrified because of his "suffocation, and premature interment" (28) in the hold of the Grampus. Here he and Peters are stuck in a cave after the natives of Tsalal pull the earth down on top of their companions: "we both came to the conclusion...that we were consequently lost for ever, being thus entombed alive" (152). The theme of being buried alive is a frequent part of Poe's later short stories, such as "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Black Cat". Poe's short stories evince a fascination with the restrictions of space overall, leading to stories filled with tombs, secret compartments, stuffy rooms, coffins, etc. These circumscribed spaces create an atmosphere of panic and, eventually, horror.

Pym in particular is subject to the most heightened emotions as he is imprisoned in labyrinthine ships' holds and subterranean caverns. One critic, Robert L. Carringer, has identified Pym's attraction to narrow spaces, even though it was his greatest wish to set off on the open sea. In his dark maze of a hiding place, time as we know it breaks down – the watch stops, the meat rots too quickly, sleep goes on for far too long. Carringer writes, "accelerated decay has become the dominant process of nature" and "dream and reality have become confused." Poe's narrow space here becomes a coffin of sorts. The entombment later in the novel can act as another sort of rebirth for Pym and Peters, as they prepare for the final stage of their journey to the dream world of the South Pole. Carringer believes that Pym's contradictory tendencies, "the self-destructive withdrawal and the self-preserving expansiveness, can be fused into a single psychological drive, a destructive quest for ultimate knowledge."

This ultimate knowledge is to be attained in the South Pole, an eerie and mysterious quiet realm of falling ash, swirling vapors, milky water below which strange pulsations and disturbances occurred, and, finally, a strange white figure "very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men" (179). This is a land of the sublime, where the two protagonists sail into total whiteness. The term "sublime" was made most famous by the philosopher Edmund Burke; it was used to discuss 19th century artists and authors' aesthetic attempts to express the vast divide between man and God, the awesome power of Nature, and the deep feelings that such a confrontation evoked in man. He also wrote that the sublime could, as critic Kent Ljungquist notes in his article on Pym's evocation of the sublime, "privations, such as silence and vacuity." These privations are seen in the burial scenes. Pym's senses are always elevated to ecstasy, whether in horror or in hope. Burke identifies this as the "terror sublime", the amalgamation of horror and elation. Pym constantly has heightened emotions, as well as disorientation and discombobulation.

Pym experiences his beatific vision of whiteness in the South Pole after he has safely made passage through the blackness of Tsalal. The identity of this white figure has often perplexed critics and readers. It may be "an allegorical representative of the search for sublime knowledge that exists beyond the veil of the space-time continuance" or, as Ljungquist suggests, it may be "a Titanic giant that inhabits the sublime realm because of its greater than mortal proportions." The Titans figured in a lot of Romantic literature, such as Shelley, Keats, and Carlyle. The Titans were sometimes seen as the sons of Ham, the Cuthites, or the Ammonians. Poe seems to be looking at them as an ancient race that dispersed into black savage bands; the remnants of them are the Tsalalians. Pym finds a deposit of ruins that perhaps came from an ancient giant race (171).

It was popularly believed in the myths that some Titans wandered the ocean (Homer was one classical writer who took on this topic). Ljungquist writes, "there is no inconsistency in Poe's locating Tsalal somewhat near a vast, heated whirlpool presided over by a gigantic Titan." The white figure is an avatar of the lost race, a symbol of the world's youth, and a reflection of man's degeneration. There are also allusions to The Hollow Earth theory, a scientific theory popular in the 18th and 19th centuries that proposed the earth was not a solid sphere but rather had a hollow interior with entrances at both of the poles. There was also said to be an ancient, undiscovered race of humans residing within the interior. Though it had been soundly disproved by scientists, the theory was nevertheless very influential among some scientists and literary figures during this time, including Poe. Overall, then, the end of Pym is an end immersed in the sublime – it is filled with horror, awe, and delight, and it is fused with myth and meaning.