The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket Summary and Analysis of Chapters XV-XIX


The Jane Guy continues sailing from island to island, passing Prince Edward's island and the islands of Tristan d'Acunha. Pym provides some history of the explorations to these locales. The ship stays in the latter for a week and discovers many different types of nutritional refreshment. They then intend to sail to the Aurora islands to ascertain whether they actually exist or not – different expeditions have reached different conclusions.

Captain Guy desires to put the discussion to rest once and for all. For about three weeks the Jane Guy searches for the islands but does not locate them; they decide this is the definitive answer to the question.

The ship heads down to the Strait of Magellan and then pushes toward the southern pole. Pym gives a short narrative about trips to the pole, beginning with Captain Cook’s in 1772. By the time of the Jane Guy's voyage, about three hundred degrees of longitude in the Antarctic have not been crossed at all for various reasons. Pym is excited to hear of Captain Guy’s desire to travel that route.

Keeping southward, the ship passes multiple ice islands. Pym's diary tracks their day-to-day progress, noting their magnificent surroundings and their perilous encounters with ice and blocked sea passages. Occasionally it snows and squalls rise up. One day they lose a man overboard. In mid-January they find a calm open sea and observe innumerable seabirds. They encounter a huge Arctic bear, and thanks to the exertions (and knife) of Peters, it is killed and eaten by the men.

Land is finally sighted. Exploration yields nothing interesting except the prow of a canoe. Besides that, it does not appear any living creatures were or had been on the rocky islet.

The ship moves southward eight degrees further than anyone else has ever sailed before. The temperature becomes milder and the sea calmer. This does not ameliorate the bad conditions onboard, however; they are running low on fuel and several of the men are afflicted with scurvy. Pym realizes they need to return home, but thinks it is okay if they spend just a few days more exploring. Captain Guy agrees with him. Pym writes that he "cannot but lament the most unfortunate and bloody events which immediately rose from my advice", but he still feels grateful for contributing to science.

As they continue sailing, they come across a bush with the most curious carcass of an animal upon it. It is three feet long and six inches in height with four short legs, and has silky white hair, a tail like a rat, a cat-like head, and claws and teeth the most brilliant scarlet color.

Land is spotted again – a grouping of large islands with long shorelines and densely wooded interiors. Looking for an opening in the reef that encircles one of the islands, the sailors suddenly observe four canoes full of well-armed men heading toward their ship. The crew holds up a white handkerchief of peace and they only hear the shouting of "Anamoo-moo!" and "Lama-Lama!" in return. There are about one hundred and ten "savages" in the canoes. They are close to European in stature, muscular, dark-skinned and wooly-haired. They wear skins and hold heavy clubs.

The apparent chief stands in the prow of his canoe and makes signs for them to bring their small boats closer, but they pretend they do not hear. The chief advances and comes aboard the Jane Guy. He appears excited and merry, laughing boisterously. They discover his name to be Too-wit. About twenty other savages come aboard. They investigate everything on the brig and seem disgusted by the whiteness of the sailors' skin. They also appear to think the ship is a living creature; "this was a degree of ignorance for which we were not prepared, and for my part I could not help thinking some of it affected,” Pym writes.

Two mirrors shock and amaze Too-wit. The crew observes no pretension to thievery among the savages and agrees that they appear excessively friendly. The Captain wants to explore these islands further to see if there is any biche de mer, or sea cucumber; Pym is anxious to know more of the islands as well but prefers to head southward sooner rather than later. It is agreed that they will stay one week and no longer.

Too-wit helps them get through the reef safely and ask them if they would like to come to the interior of the island to their village. Leaving ten savages as hostages, Captain Guy agrees and twelve sailors venture to the island. The country is "differing essentially from any hitherto visited by civilized men"; the crew of the Jane Guy are particularly entranced by the limpid, thick, and multi-veined water. This water "formed the first definite link in that vast chain of apparent miracles with which I was destined to be at length encircled."

It takes nearly three hours to travel to the village. The only thing that causes the crew distrust is the smaller detachments of savages jumping into the train at various points on their journey. However, they continue to place their faith in Too-wit, and continue toward the village.

The village seems to be called Klock-Klock and is a most miserable place. The dwellings are scanty and derelict. The village lay in a valley with only one entrance. Several animals roam about, clearly domesticated. There are many tame fowls in particular. At the arrival of the crew and the savages, the rest of the village joins them. Pym is startled that the rest of them are naked. The women possess some "personal beauty" and there are many children. Those who wear skins are addressed with more reverence than the others.

Captain Guy and the crew crowd into Too-wit's hut; they are so hemmed in by natives that they cannot even move. Nervous, they content themselves that Too-wit is trustworthy. The chief gives a lengthy speech they cannot understand, and the Captain replies with his own effusive claims to eternal friendship and goodwill. Some bartering takes place.

Too-wit takes them to a place where the biche de mer is abundant, which pleases the men who are afraid of the pressing crowd in the hut. They are guided back to the southwest extremity of the island not far from their ship, and are taken back by four canoes. Pym writes that nothing they observe thus far has given them any reason to suspect they are being fooled or manipulated by the savages.


The next "episode" in Pym's narrative is one that centers on the sailors' interaction with the natives of Tsalal (the name of the island is not learned until later in the novel). Led by Too-wit, the natives are masters of subterfuge and deceit; they convince the whites that they are trustworthy and simple-minded. Even Pym wonders at their absurd, incredulous behavior onboard the Jane Guy. This continues the theme of deceit elsewhere discernible in the novel.

The Jane Guy's arrival at Tsalal is merely the next stage in Pym's mythic quest (see the previous analysis). Tsalal can represent Hell; the ice floes are gone and the air is "tolerably warm" (134). Later the explosions and fire on the Jane Guy solidify the connotation of a burning, fiery netherworld. The suggestion of Hell is also present in the total blackness of the natives – their skin and their teeth are completely black. They are afraid of the white men in their midst as well as anything else that is white, such as handkerchiefs, animals, and white ash that falls from a white sky. The landscape of Tsalal also has underworld-like elements in the dirty, mysterious rivers that flow through the island.

The Tsalalians' representation of blackness and its clash with whiteness has often provoked discussions of race among critics looking at the text. Poe is accused of being racist in his treatment of the natives, who are deceitful, wild, bloodthirsty, and murderous. Poe's earlier description of the malevolent Seymour, the black cook, also supports the claim that the novel presented blacks in a very unflattering and deleterious light. However, there is a lot of irony in the white men's claim that the natives are savage and ignorant and brutal. It is Pym, Peters, and Augustus – two of them very civilized white men – that engage in cannibalism. The mutineers onboard the ship are primarily white and committed gross acts of treason and violence. Furthermore, the white men on Tsalal are, in some ways, justly punished for their dismissive attitude toward the natives as simple and primitive. It is clear early on that they are frightened by whiteness, but that does not seem to stop the crew of the Jane Guy from reaping what they can from the island's supply of biche de mer.

In fact, the Jane Guy is only in the situation it is because of the thirst for plunder that so characterized its expeditions. Pym and Peters are two of the very limited examples of characters who are not interested in wealth alone. It is perhaps not a coincidence that they are the only two that escape the Tsalalians' trap in the next section.

Returning to the distinction between black and white, some critics say that it is not a racial issue because it is far more than that; to claim that the universality of the opposition of black and white is merely about skin color is reductive. Grace Farrell Lee writes that Poe plays with the contrast between dark and light throughout his novel; much of the events of the novel take place in gloominess and darkness. For Lee, "blackness and whiteness are not metaphors for any structures in the social order. They are simply the stuff of reality which was separated in the first creation of the world. As such they are the most fundamental of opposites, and if they are to symbolize anything, it must be the basic forces of attraction and repulsion of which the universe consists."