The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket Study Guide

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel. It was published in two installments in 1837 in the Southern Literary Messenger but was not completed due to Poe’s firing from the magazine. The full novel was published in July 1838 (without Poe’s name, as it purported to be Pym’s actual narrative) with a subtitle of:

Comprising the Details of Mutiny and Atrocious Butchery on Board the American Brig Grampus, on Her Way to the South Seas, in the Month of June, 1827. With an Account of the Recapture of the Vessel by the Survivors; Their Shipwreck and Subsequent Horrible Sufferings from Famine; Their Deliverance by Means of the British Schooner Jane Guy; the Brief Cruise of this Latter Vessel in the Atlantic Ocean; Her Capture, and the Massacre of Her Crew Among a Group of Islands in the Eighty-Fourth Parallel of Southern Latitude; Together with the Incredible Adventures and Discoveries Still Farther South to Which That Distressing Calamity Gave Rise.

Long considered a “problem” text in Poe’s oeuvre, the story starts out in a conventional first-person narrative of an exploration at sea but then descends into mutiny, cannibalism, savagery, and overwhelming ambiguity. It was not received well by contemporary critics but has since been recognized for its influence on writers like Melville, Baudelaire, and Verne; its interesting relationship to some of Poe’s famous short stories; and its fascinating psychological, mythological, and religious themes.

In 1836 the publisher Harper’s counseled Poe to write a novel rather than a short story, telling him the American reading public preferred works of fiction with a single and connected story. Poe took this advice but the resulting work – Pym – is a strange tale that seems to have two unrelated sections, many irrelevant sections and several digressions, plot inconsistencies, and conspicuous borrowing from other source materials.

Pym has many different influences. While there were no examples of fictionalized sea voyages for Poe to draw from, there were certainly multiple real-life accounts of such travels; sea exploration was a popular literary genre at the time. Poe used both Benjamin Morrell’s Narrative of Four Voyages to the South Seas and Pacific, 1822-1831 (1832) and Jeremiah Reynolds’s Address on the Subject of a Surveying and Exploring Expedition to the Pacific Ocean and the South Seas (1836); he had reviewed the latter favorably. Poe had also traveled by ship when he was young, once undertaking a voyage lasting 34 days. He was also influenced by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798). The chasms opening up in the sea at the end of the novel were inspired by the popular Hollow Earth theory of Poe’s day.

In terms of popular reception, Poe’s readers were impressed by the book – particularly in the description of exploration and life at sea – as well as frustrated by it. The tone shifts from a pragmatic, measured first-person account to melodrama and histrionics as the narrative proceeds; the structure of the novel perplexed its contemporary readers, and the end was mostly just obnoxious. In his introduction to the novel, Jeremy Meyers writes that Poe’s choice of the incomplete journal form “allows Poe to disguise and excuse his own inability to control the plot and complete the novel.” Poe himself seemed annoyed by his work and called it a “very silly book.” Contemporary reviewers found it full of impossibilities, and disliked its macabre and disgusting details and its narrative license. Lewis Gaylord Clark wrote that it was told in a “loose and slip-shod manner” and another said, “there are too many atrocities, too many strange horrors, and finally, there is no conclusion to it.”

Modern critics have been a bit more forgiving, viewing Pym not as a masterpiece and certainly not as one of Poe’s greatest works (with the notable exception of Jorge Louis Borges), but as a fascinating component of his body of work and rife with possible interpretations. His overarching themes and their resonance with readers are noted by D.H. Lawrence: “[Poe] was an adventurer into vaults and cellars and horrible underground passages of the human soul. He sounded horror and the warning of his own doom.”