The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket has defied a universally accepted interpretation. Scholar Scott Peeples wrote that it is "at once a mock nonfictional exploration narrative, adventure saga, bildungsroman, hoax, largely plagiarized travelogue, and spiritual allegory" and "one of the most elusive major texts of American literature." Biographer James M. Hutchisson writes that the plot both "soars to new heights of fictional ingenuity and descends to new lows of silliness and absurdity". One reason for the confusion comes from many continuity errors throughout the novel. For example, Pym notes that breaking a bottle while trapped in the hold saved his life because the sound alerted Augustus to his presence while searching. However, Pym notes that Augustus did not tell him this until "many years elapsed", even though Augustus is dead eight chapters later. Nevertheless, much of the novel is carefully plotted. Novelist John Barth notes, for example, that the midway point of the novel occurs when Pym reaches the equator, the midway point of the globe.
Scholar Shawn Rosenheim believes that the use of hieroglyphics in the novel served as a precursor to Poe's interest in cryptography. The pictographs themselves were likely inspired by The Kentuckies in New-York (1834) by William Alexander Caruthers, where similar writing is the work of a black slave. Unlike the previous sea-voyage tales that Poe had written, such as "MS. Found in a Bottle", Pym is undertaking this trip on purpose. It has been suggested that the journey is about establishing a national American identity as well as discovering a personal identity.
Poe also presents the effects of alcohol in the novel. The opening episode, for example, shows that intoxicated people can sometimes seem entirely sober and then, suddenly, the effects of alcohol show through. Such a depiction is a small version of a larger focus in the novel on contradictions between chaos and order. Even nature seems unnatural. Water, for example, is very different at the end of the novel, appearing either colorful or "unnaturally clear." The sun by the end shines "with a sickly yellow lustre emitting no decisive light" before seemingly being extinguished.
Elements of the novel are often read as autobiographical. The novel begins with Arthur Gordon Pym, a name similar to Edgar Allan Poe, departing from Edgartown, Massachusetts on Martha's Vineyard. Interpreted this way, the protagonist is actually sailing away from himself, or his ego. The middle name of "Gordon", in replacing Poe's connection to the Allan family, was turned into a reference to George Gordon Byron, a poet whom Poe deeply admired. The scene where Pym disguises himself from his grandfather while noting that he intends to inherit wealth from him also indicates a desire for Poe to free himself from family obligation and, specifically, scorning the patrimony of his foster-father John Allan.
Dates are also relevant to this autobiographical reading. According to the text, Pym arrives at the island of Tsalal on January 19 — Poe's birthday. Scholars, including Burton R. Pollin and Richard Wilbur, suggest that the character of Augustus was based on Poe's childhood friend Ebenezer Burling or on Poe's brother William Henry Leonard Poe, who served in South America and elsewhere as a sailor aboard the USS Macedonian. In the novel, the date of Augustus's death corresponds to that of the death of Poe's brother. The first chapter features Pym's sloop named the Ariel, the name of a character once played by Poe's mother Eliza Poe, and also the name of Percy Bysshe Shelley's boat, on which he died, originally named Don Juan in honor of Lord Byron.
One thread of critical analysis of this tale focuses on the possibly racist implications of Poe's plot and imagery. One such plot element is the black cook who leads the mutiny on the Grampus and is its most bloodthirsty participant. Dirk Peters, a hybrid of white and Native American ancestry, is described as having a ferocious appearance, with long, protruding teeth, bowed legs, and a bald head like "the head of most negroes." The brilliant whiteness of the final figure in the novel contrasts with the dark-skinned savages and such a contrast may call to mind the escalating racial tensions over the question of slavery in the United States as Poe was writing the novel. Additionally, the novel drew from prevalent assumptions during the time that dark-skinned people were somehow inherently inferior. One critic of the use of race in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is Toni Morrison. In "Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination," Morrison discusses how the Africanist presence in the novel is used as an "Other" against which the author defines "white," "free," and "individual". In her explorations of the depiction of African characters in white American literature, Morrison writes that "no early American writer is more important to the concept of American Africanism than Poe" because of the focus on the symbolism of black and white in Poe's novel. This possible racial symbolism is explored further in Mat Johnson's satirical fantasy Pym (2011).
The novel ends abruptly with the sudden appearance of a bizarre enshrouded figure having skin hued "of the perfect whiteness of the snow." Many readers were left unsatisfied by this ending because, as Poe relative and scholar Harry Lee Poe wrote, "it didn't match the kind of clear ending they expected from a novel." Poe may have purposely left the ending subject to speculation. Some scholars have suggested that the ending serves as a symbolic conclusion to Pym's spiritual journey and others suggest that Pym has actually died in this scene, as though his tale is somehow being told posthumously. Alternatively, Pym may die in the retelling of the story at precisely the same point he should have died during the actual adventure. Like other characters in works by Poe, Pym seems to submit willingly to this fate, whatever it is. Kenneth Silverman notes that the figure radiates ambivalence and it is not clear if it is a symbol of destruction or of protection.
The chasms that open throughout the sea in the final moments of the book derive from the Hollow Earth theory. The area closest to the Pole is also, surprisingly, warm rather than cold, as Symmes believed. Symmes also believed there were civilizations inside this Hollow Earth and the enshrouded figure who appears at the end may indicate one such civilization near the Pole.