One of Edgar Allan Poe's least known works is the author's only attempt at a novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. This essay serves to familiarize students with the basic elements of the plot, the historical influences that led to the novel's creation, and the critical reception it has received.
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Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket
From the outset of its publication in 1837, although envisioned by Edgar Allan Poe as an attempt at gaining a wide readership and making money, "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket" has had an uneven critical and popular reception. In fact, according to J. Gerald Kennedy in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and the Abyss of Interpretation, the novel, which was just one of Poe's many ill-fated attempts to earn a living at his trade,1 dropped into "critical obscurity for decades" not to be revived in any significant way until 1933 at the earliest (15). However, as recent critics have observed, the original and dismissive charges of plagiarism, even though they were in fact quite well-founded,2 miss the point that The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym contains many of the same motifs Poe uses in most of his work. Richard Copley, in his excellent Introduction to the Penguin paperback edition of the novel, identifies two of these themes in particular: a fixation on death and annihilation, and a recognition of the ubiquity of capricious human perversity (xvi). The reader of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym familiar with Poe's other works can scarcely argue with this position. At any rate, critics have made up for lost time since the resumption of interest in the mid-twentieth century, offering an intriguing array of interpretations of Poe's longest attempt at fiction. Of course, on one level, as Richard Copley quite rightly points out, the novel is a standard sea adventure story, like its obvious predecessors Robinson Crusoe, Cooper's The Pilot, Michael C. Scott's Tom Cringle's Log, and Joseph C. Hart's Miriam Coffin, or The Whale Fisherman (xv). Other critics have noticed the biographical parallels in the novel. Some have interpreted it as a defense of slavery. Still others, as J. Gerald Kennedy points out, see The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym "as a serious, more or less unified representation of spiritual or psychic transformation" and not as a rambling and purposeless attempt at popularity (19). In order to appreciate the scope of these and other interpretations, one finds it necessary to review not only the criticism of the novel, but also the historical background from which Poe drew significant impetus. Finally, one must consider the major incidents and themes of the novel in light of a few of the more salient interpretations of it.
The Narrative Itself
Evaluations of Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket have, since its initial installment in The Southern Literary Messenger, varied widely. J. Gerald Kennedy informs us that "Poe himself dismissed it a 'a very silly book'" (11). It appeared in British editions in 1838 and 1841 and then "vanished from public view" until 1856, when it surfaced in an edition of The Complete Works (Kennedy 11). Even though critics sometimes refer to the novel's imaginative power, "early biographers and critics generally gave the narrative only perfunctory attention" (11). As late as 1973, Richard M. Fletcher, in The Stylistic Development of Edgar Allan Poe, addresses what he sees as the novel's "tedious" "vague, indefinite, and elusive" use of style and technique" (153). In light of the new attention given the novel, most of which ascribes more merit to the book than does Fletcher, one might begin a study of it with a brief recapitulation of its plot.
As potboiler sea adventures go, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket compares favorably in pure readability. In other words, judging from its sensational elements, its nearly uninterrupted flow of danger and striking incident, the novel should have succeeded in what Poe wanted it to do: sell copies and find readers. One can speculate that Poe happened on the genre at that critical time when interest in such stories was peaking, but, as we shall see later, such should not have been the case. Perhaps, as his publishers pointed out in rejecting "Tales of the Folio Club," Poe's previous tales were beyond the reach of the common public (Kopley xv). Because of his previous failures, Poe had alienated whatever public he had acquired. Whatever the explanation of its relative disappointment, the novel's progression, though occasionally a bit clumsy, proceeds entertainingly enough.
After the obligatory Preface, in which Poe provides the expected spurious explanation of how he came to publish The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the novel opens with the flat declaration of the principal character's self-identification. Pym introduces his friend Augustus, with whom he is on such terms as frequently to share bedding (a fact of which critics, especially Kopley, make much). The two young lads embark on a drunken sailing expedition in the dead of night, encounter trouble in their vessel the Ariel and are dramatically rescued by the Penguin. If the wreck of the Ariel, named after a spirit, and the salvation by the Penguin, named after a flightless bird, is significant, the reason is not clear. The boys' spirits rebound quickly after this near-disaster, and they soon contrive to elope to a whaling ship, the Grampus. Actually, Augustus enters into service with his father, Captain Barnard, while Pym becomes a stowaway, to be succored and eventually revealed by Augustus. While hiding in the ship's hold, Pym experiences at first puzzlement and then extreme privation when his friend fails to deliver him for a considerable length of time. After nearly being attacked by his own dog Tiger, who had somehow found his way onto the ship, Pym discovers ultimately through a partial note he finds in the darkness that the ship has undergone a mutiny.
This turn of events leads to further calamity, culminating in the alliance consisting principally of Pym, Augustus, and the "half-breed" Dirk Peters. These three manage to overcome the other faction, which is led by a murderous, savage black cook, by using a ruse in which Pym impersonates a dead sailor. They dispatch of all their enemies except for one, a man named Richard Parker. Together, these four hapless survivors drift helplessly, gradually succumbing to injury, starvation, and thirst. After a ship passes them, a ship whose passengers have all died and who adorn the decks and masts in a state of gruesome putrefaction, the group resorts to cannibalism, an action suggested by Parker, its ultimate victim. Later, Augustus, having been wounded earlier, dies and rots almost ...
The essays gives historical, biographical, and critical background information relevant to Poe's novel, "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym."