The novel is full of darkness and blinding whiteness, with the darkness of the Grampus's hold and the island of Tsalal contrasting with the whiteness of the South Pole. This may exemplify racism on the part of Poe, or it may simply be a way to contrast two poles of experience. The island's blackness may not be simply about Africans, but about Hell, the abyss, and blindness. The whiteness of the southern reaches of the Earth may not be referring to some racial ideal but to a larger, purer realm of spiritualism and self-actualization.
Savagery and Civilization
Pym makes some interesting insights on the dichotomy of savagery and civilization. The white men of the novel are supposed to be civilized, particularly Augustus and Pym, who come from respectable backgrounds. The black "savages" are deemed bloodthirsty and cruel and primitive. While the previous statements are not necessarily false - Augustus and Pym are educated, and mostly behave decorously, and the natives do have superstitions and a devious plot to kill the island interlopers - there is much more to be said that contradicts such easy binaries. Some of the white men in the story are extremely uncivilized - the mutineers take over the ship and murder innocent people, as well as devolve into superstition (believing the corpse of Hartman Rogers to have risen again). Additionally, the most civilized men in the text are the ones who engage in cannibalism. The natives may be smarter than they appear; even Pym thinks their behavior onboard the Jane Guy to be affected. The tenuous line between civilized and uncivilized is embodied in the figure of Peters, who possesses some morals and manners and intellect but also a fierceness and primitiveness that makes him the quintessential survivor.
The horror of entombment pervades the novel, as it does in many of Poe's other works. Pym's virtual imprisonment in the hold and his and Peters's near-interment in the cavern on Tsalal evoke the most heightened sense of fear and frenzy. What makes burial while alive particularly disturbing is the fact that one's consciousness is still very much awake; the person knows exactly what is happening to them and experiences the uncanny feeling that they are experiencing "the allotted portion of the dead" (153). In this text, however, these entombments also facilitate a movement toward rebirth and the eventual possessing of ultimate knowledge that comes with the spiritual journey to the ends of the earth. While entombment is thus terrifying, it is a necessary component of Pym's journey.
Madness pervades the text. Almost all of the characters experience a loss of their rationality and their tether to their earthly existence. They are placed in extreme situations - Pym in the hold, the shipwrecked men on the Grampus, Pym and Peters in the caverns - and experience intense bodily privations. They vacillate from intense emotion to intense emotion and embrace things, such as cannibalism, that they would not tolerate if they were not placed in such heightened circumstances. The more "civilized" characters seem to lose their hold on reality far faster than those like Dirk Peters, who are already straddling the line between civilization and savagery. Augustus is a prime example of this, as he babbles like a fool near the end of his life. The madness most characters experience can be explained by their situations, but there is a sense of a loosening on the bonds of reality toward the end of the text when Pym and Peters float through the eerie dreamworld of the South Pole. There their hold on reality is tenuous, but it seems more like freedom and bliss rather than something deleterious or monstrous. It is as if a certain amount of madness is necessary to cross the boundaries between the corporeal and the spiritual worlds.
The unreliability of the narrator
Poe calls the reliability of his narrator into question, making Pym one of his strangest works among an oeuvre full of complex and disorienting texts. The preface establishes that Pym wrote his narrative even after he did not want to, but decided to publish it as fiction even though he left his real name on it. He mentions that his "editor" is Poe, and "Poe" takes up the story at the end when he says that the last chapters were left off due to Pym's sudden death. There is no real conclusion to the novel and it is unknown what happened to Pym. It is also unclear how much Poe the editor was supposed to have written of the narrative - but of course Poe is the true author of the entire work and Pym merely his fabrication. Poe the author also included a large chunk of a real sea expedition narrative, which again makes the reader wonder how much "Pym" really wrote. Real-life contemporary readers also wondered if the story was real, adding to the confusion surrounding the text. Finally, there are many discontinuities in the text; a prime example is when Pym says Augustus told him the whole story of what happened with the mutiny many years later, but dies a few chapters later.
The power of Nature
Nature in the text is a powerful force that can cause destruction perfectly well on its own, but can also be harnessed by man to wreak havoc upon one's foes. The characters are subjected to violent storms that wreck their ships and leave them at the mercy of Nature. On the Grampus they are threatened with starvation, dehydration, rabid sharks, festering wounds, and driving rain and wind. Nature is more placid and bountiful during the Jane Guy's expeditions through the ice floes and islands of the South Seas down toward the South Pole, but the island of Tsalal features a harsher Nature. The natives there are able to use the power of Nature in their plot to kill the white men by literally pulling the earth down upon them. Nature is again ambivalent toward the survivors - Pym and Peters - by both protecting them from the cave-in but by denying them any sustenance. Finally, at the end of the novel Nature seems to embrace the two men, who are at last ready to sail into oblivion in the white waters of the South Pole. Nature in the novel is thus both hostile and nurturing, and ultimately indifferent.
Death and rebirth
The theme of death and rebirth is significant in the text, especially since it appears more than once. If the reader looks at the story as a tale of Pym's coming of age or as a rite of passage, then it is easy to see his experience in the hold and in the cavern as a death/rebirth. In the hold he falls into a stupor and has evocative dreams that signify his rebirth. The hold is warm like a womb, and it nurtures him into a new state of consciousness that will help him at the very end of the novel in his encounter at the end of the Earth. This encounter also seems to be a death and rebirth of sorts. The warm white water of the South Pole is another womblike environment, and Pym's wording, such as "eternal" "embraces" and "receive us" suggests a movement toward rebirth -not just an extinction of his consciousness but as a new understanding of his superconsciousness as the self is annihilated.
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The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket study guide contains a biography of author Edgar Allan Poe, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.