This post marks the 8th installment of Tackling Poe: The Complete Works. This post will be different from the others in that I will only be looking at one work: Poe’s only complete novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It is a fairly short tale at roughly 71,000 words, and chronicles the disastrous voyages of Arthur Gordon Pym, a boy who abandons comfort in Nantucket for the wild seas that seem intent on devouring him. It is similar to some of his other sea-voyage tales (such as Descent into Maelstrom) and also echoes the same sort of narrative styles as Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, both predecessors to Poe’s own work.
With this book, I make another few entries into my Dictionary of Purple Prose. Feel free to check it out, as ever.
And, as ever, a little Poe humor to get the ball rolling:
Audio Version: Lit2Go
Text Version: Virginia University
Word Count: 71,043 words
Summary: The story begins with a letter to the editors, written by Mr. Pym, who talks about how he contracted Edgar Allan Poe to pen his amazing tale. Obviously, this is another one of Poe’s ploys to make us believe the story isn’t a fabrication, but… we’re very much on to you, Mr. Poe. Tsk, tsk.
The story reflects much of a prior short story of Poe’s, A Descent in Maelstrom, in that two men, the narrator (Arthur) and his friend (Augustus) take to sea during a storm and soon lose control over their ship. Augustus, being drunk, isn’t of much help to our amateur sailor of a narrator, unfortunately. Just when he is certain all is lost, and loses consciousness, a whaling ship (the Penguin) rescues the pair and brings them back to shore, where their harried (I get to use that word finally! Yesss!) state after their adventures go unnoticed by their school master.
The near-death experience ignites a passion and desire in Pym to go to sea, and after being denied approval from his grandfather, Augustus and Pym devise a plan for him to become a stowaway on a ship Augustus already had passage on. Augustus constructs a comfortable and compact place for Pym to hide, before going topdeck to help the sailors with the launch. Pym makes himself comfortable, eats a bit of mutton and goes to bed… but when he wakes in the dark, and reaches for the mutton again, he finds it rotten to the core. However, despite his concern for his friend, an immediate need for water, and his own disconcerted worries, Pym promptly falls asleep again.
After a “night” of fitful dreams, Pym awakes to find his old dog, Tiger, in the cabin. Bizarre as it is, he accepts the reality, but is soon faced with another challenge: the cabin door is blocked by some unknown weight, and all of his water is gone. He finds a note, which he endeavors to read by way of phosphorous, and eventually, alerts Augustus to his dire situation.
As it turns out, Pym’s abandonment was brought about by a mutiny on the ship, which prevented Augustus from checking in on his friend. Nearly half the crew was butchered by the cook, and they take every precaution to then keep Pym hidden in the ply-boards, so that the crew don’t discover him. Through means that I won’t spoil here, our “good guys” eventually regain control of the ship–only to have a storm tear the vessel apart the same day.
Following the destruction of their vessel, the four survivors struggle to stay alive while marooned, and eventually (with Poe’s more emotional and terrifying scenes) must turn to cannibalism to make it through.
Soon after, they are again rescued, with only two survivors now, and are taken aboard an expedition’s ship. After a series of long and rather boring chapters, they arrive in Antarctica, where Poe gives a description of the animal life there (among which include red-eyed polar bears, and pelicans). Despite being low on fuel and scurvy appearing in several men, our narrator (who somehow still has an adventurous spirit after having nearly died twice and consuming the flesh of a friend) encourages the captain of the ship to press on for the South Pole, because–well, because the Adventurer’s Spirit, dammit!
After reaching land, they make contact with “jet black” savages with “wooly hair”, who live in a strange and unique ecosystem unlike any other in the world (of course, no snow). The natives meet them with pleasure and excitement, though this eventually turns to extreme hostility. Then follows a rather (in my opinion) stark and mechanical explanation as to how Pym and his last friend escape the region, though the story is ultimately a cliff-hanger, and unfinished.
Various Art from Around the Web:
This novel has many terrifying and wonderful scenes to read (as pictured above). There are moments when I clung to every word and begged to find out what would happen, but, particularly after the halfway point of the narrative, Poe’s tendency to overstate or drown the tension with frivolous description rears its head, and the reader is forced to sit through Darwin-like detail in regards to the characters’ coordinates, the topography, and the plant and animal life of the region.
However, I think the biggest incongruity, and it makes me wonder how long Poe actually worked on this piece (or if he set it aside for a long time and then resumed writing it), is the discord in the actual narrator. We begin the tale with a young man, hardly full-grown, who is a novice at sea and life and is content to leave everything to his superiors, yet at the halfway point, when the descriptive tendencies really appear full-force, the narrator is suddenly all-wise and clever, able-bodied and logical (you know, despite the fact that he encourages them all to get into more danger than before). I found myself missing the voice I’d grown attached to in the earlier part of the narrative.
All the same, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym from Nantucket is a really interesting piece of literature, and if classical action-adventure stories are a delight to you, you really shouldn’t pass it up. I really enjoy the Lit2Go audio version of this (linked above), which I used to get through a few chapters while cleaning. The absolute highlights of the tale for me were during the voyage before Antarctica (while they are marooned), and the conclusion of the natives arc (which I won’t spoil).
In one of our conversations Augustus frankly confessed to me, that in his whole life he had at no time experienced so excruciating a sense of dismay, as when on board our little boat he first discovered the extent of his intoxication, and felt himself sinking beneath its influence.
My visions were of shipwreck and famine; of death or captivity among barbarian hordes; of a lifetime dragged out in sorrow and tears, upon some gray and desolate rock, in an ocean unapproachable and unknown. 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 fulfill.
And from Chapter 3, when Pym gets his first drink of water in days:
Those only who have been suddenly redeemed from the jaws of the tomb, or who have known the insufferable torments of thirst under circumstances as aggravated as those which encompassed me in my dreary prison, can form any idea of the unutterable transports which that one long draught of the richest of all physical luxuries afforded.
And, after their attack by the savages:
For a long time we gave up supinely to the most intense agony and despair, such as cannot be adequately imagined by those who have never been in a similar position. I firmly believed that no incident ever occurring in the course of human events is more adapted to inspire the supremeness of mental and bodily distress than a case like our own, of living inhumation. The blackness of darkness which envelops the victim, the terrific oppression of lungs, the stifling fumes from the damp earth, unite with the ghastly considerations that we are beyond the remotest confines of hope, and that such is the allotted portion of the dead, to carry into the human heart a degree of appalling awe and horror not to be tolerated—never to be conceived.
And, the final line of the narrative:
“I have graven it within the hills, and my vengeance upon the dust within the rock.”
Next time, I’ll be moving on to Poe’s poetry. I don’t profess to be knowledgeable in poetry at all, so I’ll only be giving my basic feelings and reactions to the poems. If I can find other resources which are more enlightening, you’ll be sure to see links to them.
If you’d like to read any of the other parts, feel free to check them out below: