In the preface, written by A.G. Pym in July 1838 in New York, the author writes that, having recently returned to America after several months away, he was urged by some gentlemen to write up his remarkable narrative. He worries that since he did not keep a diary he would not be able to recall everything and might exaggerate or fictionalize what occurred. He wonders if the only people who would think he was telling the truth would be his family and friends since they knew his true character.
Nevertheless, he decides to undertake this endeavor thanks to the editor Poe. Poe suggests Pym write up his story under the guise of fiction; Pym agrees but says he will maintain his real name. When the book is published, Pym is surprised that many people assume it is true; the facts of the narrative seemed to carry their authenticity within them. He assures the reader that nothing he wrote was embellished by Poe, but that Poe was responsible for a portion at the end of the text.
The book begins with Pym, the first-person narrator, giving a bit of family history: he was born in Nantucket, his father was a respectable businessman and his grandfather an attorney. He attends school in New Bedford at a young age, then at sixteen goes to the academy of E. Ronald. There he meets the son of a sea captain named Augustus Barnard. They become great friends.
Augustus loves the sea and soon Pym does as well. The latter has a sailboat named the Ariel, and the two young men take it out frequently. One night after copious drinking, Augustus wakes up in the middle of the night and says he is determined to go out on the boat. He does not seem drunk, and Pym agrees with much glee. As they sail about by the light of the moon, Pym becomes more and more concerned with his friend, who seems quite agitated. To his horror he realizes Augustus is magnificently drunk – he had merely attained a moment of intoxication that made it appear like he was sober, but his entire frame shakes with his inebriation.
The weather grows worse and worse and the wind drives water into their boat. Augustus, having fallen into a stupor, must be held upright by a rope so he will not drown. Pym begins to despair. Suddenly there is "a loud and long scream or yell, as if from the throats of a thousand demons" and Pym faints.
When he revives he sees men leaning over him. They are from a whaling ship that ran over the Ariel in the terrible weather. The sailors relate how they saved Augustus and Pym, and they are taken back to shore. The next morning they look at each knowingly when tales of sailors having run down and drowned "some thirty or forty poor devils" are circulated wildly.
Their adventure does not quell Pym's desire to be at sea; rather, it increases dramatically. He raptly listens to Augustus's tales, particularly interested in the moments of despair and danger and death. Pym tends toward the "melancholy among men", and feels like those stories spell out his destiny.
He learns that Mr. Barnard, Augustus's father, is set to command a ship called the Grampus on a whaling voyage. Pym is elated and desires to get onboard, but his mother falls into hysterics and his grandfather vows to cut him off if he goes. Pym and Augustus concoct a plan which entails sending a letter to Pym's family that says Pym will be staying with friends for a period of time; in reality, Pym will hide aboard the ship until it is too far out to turn around.
The time finally comes to depart, and Pym's plan appears to have worked. On the night appointed for Pym's hiding onboard he and Augustus make their way to the ship. They encounter Pym's grandfather on the street, but Pym disguises his voice in the darkness and the grandfather believes himself mistaken in having seen his grandson.
Augustus takes Pym onboard the Grampus through his stateroom down a trap into the hold. They make their way through a long narrow passage in the crowded hold to a box behind which he has a hiding place. It was comfortable and well provisioned and Pym is happy to stay there until Augustus comes to fetch him. Augustus bids him farewell and Pym takes possession of his new abode.
For three days and three nights he remains there comfortably. The ship is about ready to set sail and Augustus sneaks down to bring him a watch so he can know what time it is. Pym falls into a deep slumber, and when he wakes up feels a great sense of disquietude. The watch has run down and his meat has putrefied. He begins to feel a multitude of gloomy feelings.
He wonders why Augustus does not come to visit him or replenish his stores. Sleeping seems a dangerous occupation to him. It seems like it would be time to go aboveboard, but he cannot do so without his friend. He finally gives way to sleep again and finds himself plagued by a series of terrifying dreams.
When he wakes he experiences a "paroxysm of terror" because the paws of some huge monster are on top of him. He finds he cannot move or speak; the creature lay on top of him, pinning him down. When he finally utters a sound, the creature begins licking his face and whining. Pym is shocked – it is his beloved dog Tiger. Pym has no idea how the animal ended up there, but he is pleased. The animal has saved his life before, and he feels much affection for it.
Unfortunately, Tiger drank much of Pym's water and ate the rotting meat (that does not bother him). Pym feels seasick and weak, and he begins to swoon. He decides to move toward the trap, but the pitching of the ship throws a large crate into the middle of his passage out. The dark and dangerous hold is now holding him captive. He is terrified, and decides he must find a way to clamber over the crate. He succeeds in this, but to his utter rage and dismay, the trap door will not budge. He cannot think of why he is interred in the hold.
It is a long and difficult trek back to his mattress, and he finally collapses in melancholy near Tiger. Tiger begins acting strangely and Pym is alerted to a piece of paper tied to the dog. He assumes this is a message from Augustus and endeavors to read it by his phosphorus matches, but the dog has eaten his candles. The hold is immensely dark and he cannot make out the words on the paper no matter how hard he tries. He rubs the phosphorous matches on the paper to illuminate the text, but he discovers the paper is blank. He tells the reader that he was in a state bordering on insanity due to his terrible conditions of thirst, starvation, sickness, and feebleness; this is his explanation for why he tears the paper up in a senseless fury. It is some time later when he realizes he did not look at both sides of the paper.
Cursing his idiocy, he tries to find the scraps and is aided by Tiger's sense of smell. The dog assists him, and he is able to see that there are three sentences written. In his haste he only reads the last seven words: "blood – your life depends upon lying close." These words fill him with horror. He is fixated on the lone and mysterious word "blood" with all of its terrible connotations.
It seems Augustus has tried to warn him, but he has no idea of what. He collapses in despair. He knows he needs water; the alcoholic cordials he imbibed earlier make him even thirstier. What plagues Pym more right now, however, is Tiger's behavior. The dog is clearly going mad from the lack of food and water and the fumes of the hold. Pym cannot bear to kill him but he does not know what else to do. He tries to move past him and the dog attacks. Pym throws a blanket over him and manages to get out of his compartment before Tiger can pursue him.
Suddenly he hears a faint voice calling his name. To his shock, he cannot utter a response even though his life clearly depends on it. After hearing nothing, the voice – it is Augustus – begins to fade. Thankfully, Pym's knife falls out of his pantaloons and makes a great noise. This leads Augustus right to him. Augustus gives him water and cold boiled potatoes right away. Pym waits anxiously to hear what has happened.
Augustus begins his tale. He explains that he could not often get down to check on Pym, but was able to do so once and heard him snoring. On his way back to the deck he hears a scuffle and finds his father bound hand and foot and bleeding from a wound. He sees the first mate standing over the captain. Augustus is seized and tied as well. He is brought to the deck. There are several mutineers, including a black cook, on the deck. They are trying to get the other crew out from below and begin threatening that they will smoke them out. When the men emerge, they are struck with an axe and thrown overboard. Augustus thinks he will be next but is ignored for the meantime. The black cook wants to kill the last four of the crew, but one man named Dirk Peters is less bloodthirsty and tries to change his mind.
Dirk Peters is the son of an Indian squaw from the tribe of Upsarokas and is "the most purely ferocious-looking man" Pym has ever beheld. Pym describes him at length, and says he describes Peters in such detail because he saves Augustus's life and is important later in the narrative.
The captain and a few other men are set adrift by the mutineers on a small boat, while Augustus is chosen by Peters to remain and be his clerk. The ship continues on its course. It seems the mutineers want to go on a piratical expedition. Augustus is allowed to wander about a bit and is treated rather well by Peters. He wonders if he should mention Pym's presence, but is afraid of what might happen to him. At one point he sneaks into the stateroom and is horrified to discover that there is a great deal of furniture and cable over the trap door above Pym's compartment. The mate discovers him lurking around and demands to know what he is doing; he is saved again by Peters but is thrown in steerage and has his feet tied together and his hands cuffed.
The first few chapters of Pym present the reader right away with a taste of the excitement and terror of what is to come later in the book: there is a midnight boating disaster; near-interment in a ship's hold complete with rotting meat, a rabid dog, and a surreal passage of time; and a bloody mutiny. The novel gets off to a brisk pace in straightforward prose, with Pym launching into his story in an episodic fashion. He begins, however, with a preface that establishes one of the central problems with the text – the narration. Writing that he never wanted to publish his tale but was urged to do so by his friends, Pym only consents when it will be published by the "editor" E.A. Poe under the guise of fiction. In his article on the Preface, J. Gerald Kennedy points to the satirical nature of the work: “On another level, the Preface is, of course, pure hoax; Pym’s glib testimony is Poe’s artful attempt to deceive the reader. Pym himself is a narratorial mask assumed for the purpose of deception, and the reference to the ‘several gentlemen in Richmond, Va.’ who have encouraged him are an outright invention.” The inclusion of actual names and places – as well as compliments to their “shrewdness” - help fool the more gullible readership into believing this fantastical tale is true. This was due to, no doubt, the proliferation of exploration literature available to the reading public at the time.
Indeed, one of the central elements of critical writing on this work is its sources, as well as what Poe's goal was in so obviously adopting the tenets of the genre for his only novel. Poe used Captain Benjamin Morrell's Narrative of Four Voyages to the South Seas, Jeremiah Reynolds's "Address on the Subject of a Surveying and Exploring Expedition to the Pacific Ocean and South Seas", Washington Irving's "Astoria", and John Lloyd Stephens's Travels in Arabia Petraea. Another source could be Sir Edward Seaward's Narrative of His shipwreck, a novel that purported to be the actual diary of a young Englishman who had been shipwrecked on a Caribbean island in 1733. Poe wrote in a letter that he admired this work, and there are clear similarities: both have young male first-person narrators, both deal with the sea and then with savages, both feature dogs and the capturing of turtles for food, both have themes of interment.
It is clear then, that Poe relied on literature about exploration and, as critic Lisa Gitelman writes, "Pym mimics this literature, and the exploration account genre constitutes its true subject." Poe is presenting a "parodic representation of the discursive (distinctly non-novelistic) conventions of exploration accounts." Poe enjoys mocking the fervent adulation given to these accounts by the reading public in the 1830s. There were many official accounts of exploration as well as publications with more popular appeal and less veracity. Poe establishes himself as an authority in his lengthy and often tedious passages on such seafaring topics as stowage, the watch, rookeries, and sea cucumbers. Poe's anticlimactic ending to the novel, discussed in later analyses, also mocks Morrell's own anticlimactic ending, which was typical of exploration literature. Those works rarely knew how to wrap up their tales, as the journey was what was truly interesting, not the end/return. Gitelman concludes "the quality of Poe's work lies not in its integrity of form but in its response to form."
Leaving behind questions of sources and narrative genre, the early chapters are notable because they introduce the three main characters of the novel – Pym, Augustus, and Dirk Peters. The narrator Pym describes his background and presents a youthful self as energetic but prone to melancholy, entranced by Augustus's darker tales of his adventures with his sea captain father. Pym thrills to visions of shipwrecks and savages, believing it to be his destiny to experience such things for himself. While quite prescient in his thinking, it is unlikely he was truly pleased to encounter those realities down the road. Pym's admittance to having a melancholy disposition is important because it helps illuminate why he is so prone to dreams and exalted feelings like terror, hopelessness, ebullience, etc.
Augustus is commonly viewed as the prototypical "civilized" man. He is well-to-do and has an influential father. He is mannered and educated and is skilled at telling stories, particularly ones that make Pym want to go to sea. However, Augustus will later prove quite useless in the type of sea expedition the men find themselves in – his drunkenness leads to the ruin of the Ariel, his written message is nearly inscrutable to Pym in the hold, he is wounded, he is a burden.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Dirk Peters, whom Pym spends much time describing through Augustus's tale of what happened while Pym languished in the hold. Peters is the classic "noble savage", wild and untamed but possessing many virtues and free from the corrupting nature of society. He is capable of violence as well as acts of mercy, and will save Pym's life more than once.
Some critics see Pym's tale as a rite of passage or coming of age story. The events in the hold, exemplified by the dream Pym has when he is in a stupor due to noxious fumes and fatigue, can be interpreted as a rebirth of sorts. Pym writes in his dreams he was smothered to death, held by immense serpents, faced with immense deserts and tall trees. The trees had roots concealed in "wide-spreading morasses, whose dreary water lay intensely black, still, and altogether terrible, beneath. And the strange tress seemed endowed with human vitality, and waving to and fro their skeleton arms, were crying to the silent waters for mercy..." (24). He awakens in a new land, naked. A fierce lion confronts Pym and roars, and he falls from a great height. The dream's imagery suggests death and rebirth – the serpent suggests Evil, and his awakening naked suggests both birth and purity. The dream happens in the dark, womblike hold of the ship; it may also be viewed as a tomb, and Augustus tells Pym he slept for three days. The biblical allusions to Jesus rising from the dead are quite clear. This death-rebirth motif occurs throughout the novel.