The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket Quotes and Analysis

Yet, as the reader has seen, both Augustus and myself were rescued; and our deliverance seemed to have been brought about by two of those almost inconceivable pieces of good fortune which are attributed by the wise and pious to the special interference of Providence.

Pym, p. 12

Augustus and Pym's youthful nocturnal sea adventure ends in a violent storm and a collision with another vessel. This is significant for several reasons: first, it foreshadows the terrible adventures the two young men will have in the near future and prefigures their deliverance; second, it includes a reference to "Providence", which means God or some kind fortune that sees fit to preserve them. Spirituality is rather complicated in this text (see Themes) and Pym's deliverance from this early incident as well as the others that befall him is shrouded in mystery.

Such visions or desires—for they amounted to desires—are common, I have since been assured, to the whole numerous race of the melancholy among men—at the time of which I speak I regarded them only as prophetic glimpses of a destiny which I felt myself in a measure bound to fulfil.

Pym, p. 16

Here Pym identifies his character trait of being "melancholy" in his discussion of why he wants to go to sea and why he is attracted to the more depressing elements of Augustus's stories. The rest of the novel bears out Pym's assertion to a degree, particularly while he is trapped in the hold and when he begins to embrace the idea of falling to his death in the caverns of Tsalal. However, Pym is more than just melancholy, and readers may find it strange that he identified himself as such when throughout his toils and travails at sea he is one of the few characters who can keep his cool and motivate others to embrace hope. He alone remains sober in the wreck of the Grampus, waking up his comrades and diving below into the storeroom over and over again for supplies. He opposes cannibalism and is rational and determined in his desire not to have to resort to such a measure. Later he becomes a trusted adviser to the captain of the Jane Guy and, except for the falling incident, remains logical and pragmatic while stuck on Tsalal looking for a way off. Overall, while Pym may indeed possess some tendency toward melancholia, he is also a steadfast, hopeful, and logical man throughout most of the terrible events that befall him.

...a narrative, let me here say, which, in its latter portions, will be found to include incidents of a nature so entirely out of the range of human experience, and for this reason so far beyond the limits of human credulity, that I proceed in utter hopelessness of obtaining credence for all that I shall tell...

Pym, p. 42

This quote exemplifies the problem of the narrator in the text. Pym begins his tale by explaining that he did not believe anyone would accept his fantastical tale as true, and only felt comfortable publishing it when it was under the guise of fiction. Here he is describing Dirk Peters in Augustus's story of what happened aboveboard while Pym was languishing in the hold. He realizes that the story he is relating is outlandish and perhaps improbable and offers this disclaimer. It is also a warning to readers that the events which are to come - cannibalism, shipwreck, bloodthirsty savages, a trip to the South Pole - are even more unbelievable but they actually happened to him. What makes this quote so interesting is its hint at the larger problem of the novel. While some readers actually thought Pym's tale was real, other reviewers found it ridiculous and over-the-top. Many critics have deemed it a parody of exploration literature and view its stringing together of crazy incidents as a way to poke fun at the actual texts from the genre. Poe himself viewed Pym as a silly book, and it is not surprising to have his main character heed this fact.

Fortunate, indeed, was it that the incident occurred—for, upon this incident, trivial as it appears, the thread of my destiny depended.

Pym, p. 50

The idea of destiny plays an important role in the text. Pym seems to think that this entire journey was predestined for him, and indeed, it does seem to appear as if everything he underwent prepared him to meet the white figure at the end of the world. If this was his destiny, what is he supposed to be learning? This entire narrative is a coming of age story for Pym as well as a rite of passage. He is learning to distance himself from the corporeal experience and enter the realm of dreams and ultimate knowledge. He confronts the extremes of death and life and blackness and whiteness. He is learning to be like Peters, a quiet and receptive vessel for the lessons of the universe. His connections to a mortal existence are severed in his entombment/rebirth experiences of the hold and the cavern, and he sails into oblivion and illumination in the South Pole.

A proper stowage cannot be accomplished in a careless manner, and many most disastrous accidents, even within the limits of my own experience, have arisen from neglect or ignorance in this particular.

Pym, p. 53

Multiple times throughout the narrative Pym gives a lengthy explanation of a particular element of sailing or of related elements of a sea voyage (rookeries, sea cucumbers). These instances can be seen as Poe's, and, by extension, Pym's, desire to establish a legitimacy, a verifiable knowledge of the ways of exploration. He is showing the reader that he is experienced and truthful. This stowage diversion may also function on a more meta level: it may be that Poe is trying to demonstrate to the reader that the work, while composed of disharmonious or unbalanced parts, still works as a whole. His work is no different than the rest of the exploration literature of the 19th century, even though it possesses seemingly fantastical elements and digressions.

But, in the present instance, it will be seen immediately, that in the minds of the mutineers there was not even the shadow of a basis upon which to rest a doubt that the apparition of Rogers was indeed a revivification of his disgusting corpse, or at least its spiritual image.

Pym, p. 70

This incident of Pym dressing up as the dead man is interesting for several reasons. First, the fact that all of the men believe that it is truly Hartman Rogers is telling regarding the effects of the isolating nature of being at sea, the profound effect a guilty conscience has upon the psyche, and the disturbing sensation Rogers's grotesque corpse made upon them. This is similar to what happened to Pym down in the hold; the noxious fumes, the darkness, the eerie passage of time, and the claustrophobic environs he inhabited made him hallucinate and come close to losing his mind. In this novel and in many of his short stories, Poe is trying to call attention to the tenuous boundary between sanity and insanity. The right circumstances can cause ordinarily rational and pragmatic men to lose their hold on reality. Secondly, this incident is significant because it continues to play at the theme of deceit and disguise that permeates the text. Pym is pretending to be someone else in order to get what he wants; this is similar to the natives at the end of the novel. Deceit seems to be engrained in man.

The horrid morsel dropped at length with a sullen splash immediately at the feet of Parker.

Pym, p. 85

The part of Pym involving the corpse-strewn ship that Pym, Peters, Augustus, and Parker first believe to be their savior and then realize is a spectacle of awe-inspiring horror is one of the novel's most memorable scenes. The horror is most manifest when the men observe a revolting, bloated seagull feasting on the face of one of the dead passengers. The seagull drops a "horrid morsel" right in front of Parker; this is one of Poe's clearest examples of foreshadowing, for it is Parker who presses for the starving men to draw straws and determine which one of them will be killed in order for the others to eat and survive. Parker is unfortunately the one who loses this "game" that he suggests and is sacrificed for the others. Poe refrains from discussing the episode of cannibalism in any detail, but readers can garner how disgusting it would have been through this earlier scene.

While, therefore, I cannot but lament the most unfortunate and bloody events which immediately arose from my advice, I must still be allowed to feel some degree of gratification at having been instrumental, however remotely, in opening to the eye of science one of the most intensely exciting secrets which has ever engrossed its attention.

Pym, p. 134

This curious quote is Pym trying to rationalize the fact that he is partly responsible for the deaths of everyone on board the Jane Guy excepting himself and Peters. Pym does not want to tarry too long in the South Pole region but does not press the captain when he calls for another week of exploration. Pym justifies the horror that came after by saying that he is at least proud that he contributed to science. What makes this strange to readers who have finished the novel is the fact that Pym's journal seems to deviate from the realm of science and fact into a poetic dreamscape of questionable reality. He and Peters are not contributing anything further other than a narrative that Pym himself calls too fanciful, too removed from the world of fact. Furthermore, it is rather distasteful that Pym thinks the death of dozens of men at the hands of duplicitous and bloodthirsty natives is justified because of their "scientific" contributions. However, this may be the only way that Pym can mentally handle the things that have happened to him and the choices he made.

But there arose in our pathway 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.

Pym, p. 179

This first ending - Poe the editor steps in to let the reader know in a subsequent note that the rest of the manuscript is lost - is extremely enigmatic. Many theories have been put forth regarding the identity of the figure. First of all, it is clear that Pym and Peters have crossed some sort of boundary into an eerie, surreal dreamworld. The sky and water are tremulous and a serene but ominous whiteness reigns supreme. This whiteness is too much for Nu-Nu, their native guide, who either dies of fright or is killed via supernatural means by the white figure. This white figure is a deity of some sort, a harbinger of a different reality or a relic of some lost race. What is excruciating about this episode is that there is no resolution. While it may seem logical that Pym and Peters would also die or at least disappear with this figure, Poe the editor assures the reader both make it home. There is no clarification about what happens next, and readers are left to use their imagination. Poe may be suggesting that Pym and Peters's supernatural quest is impossible to put into words and can only exist in our minds.

It is feared that the few remaining chapters which were to have completed his narrative, and which were retained by him, while the above were in type, for the purpose of revision, have been irrecoverably lost through the accident by which he perished himself.

Poe, p. 179

One of the reasons why Pym is considered a problematic novel in Poe's oeuvre is the strange narrative structure. "Pym" opens the work in a preface and says Poe is his editor and helped him with some parts of the book. He starts off writing in a traditional, 19th century exploration literature tone, then turns melodramatic. He adopts the style of a journal halfway through. The novel ends on an anticlimactic note and Poe the editor is left to tell the readers that Pym made it back alive but the last couple of chapters are lost due to his sudden death. There are also many inconsistencies in the text that point to the instability of the narrator. There is a constant tension between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. Some actual readers thought Poe's story was real, and he took great pains to model his story partly on the exploration literature of the time. He also, however, added multiple embellishments that strain and excite the imagination. The twentieth century postmodernist critique of the death of the author would be applicable to this tale, as there appears to be either no real author or one too many.