Ambiguity and Discomfort in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of NantucketFor the record, I have three or more analyses of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) that I need to write to be happy. Roughly they are:

1) The way in which Pym is an example of what Freud called “the uncanny,” and why that’s important. I need to re-read Freud to do this one and I don’t have time just yet.

2) An explication of the ways in which Pym loosely mirrors/makes reference to the Divine Comedy. (I have research to back this up already!)

3) Pym‘s place in the literary tradition, specifically the Robinsonade and travel narrative, and what he does with these traditions.

I have so many ideas about what I want to say about this novella because it’s such a dense text. It’s only a novella (ie: short novel), but in it the main character ricochets from Robinsonade to cannibalism, from ghost ship to polar explorer, from colonial figure to fugitive, and then it all explodes with an ending that drops you off a cliff. What happened? What is happening? What is going to happen? Not knowing, it seems, upsets people.

It’s the ending. People in class struggled with it and I’m struggling to figure out why. The end of Pym is abrupt, with an epilogue that explains that Pym (he is the narrator of the bulk of his own story) died suddenly and that the last three chapters of the story were lost. In class my fellow students wanted those last three chapters, they had to know what happened, they demanded resolution. Why? Those three chapters don’t exist; though the veil of time Poe is laughing. We can assume those chapters are unwritten, and they are certainly unpublished. That means the story is exactly what it is supposed to be and capping it off with an epilogue only reinforces this assertion. The story’s ambiguous, slightly terrifying ending is on purpose, Poe (who generally gratifies his audience’s curiosity) is leading you down a primrose path, hypnotized by the scenery, you lose yourself in the narrative, and when you look around you, suddenly you realize that you are alone with ‘the end.’ Poe leaves his reader quite literally in the middle of nowhere and makes them deal with it. I think it’s brilliant.

Equally, there is controversy surrounding the shrouded white figure that ends the text. In class the suggestions ranged from a large polar bear to Jesus, but the hilariousness of that range seems, to me, to say that readers are uncomfortable not “knowing” who/what that figure is. That it might be Jesus is somewhat supported by the presence of God in the text and the use of the word “shrouded” to describe it, but the figure is also one of terror. If a reader insists that it’s Jesus, what do you make of the fact that He is described in term that are positively hellish? Then there’s Poe’s fondness for the Hollow Earth concept (circa 1818), a not-remotely-new (I’m looking at you, ancient Greece) theory that the Earth is hollow and that the entrances to these other levels are at the poles. This explains the mild climate, lack of ice, and strange nature and phenomena that dominate the last chapter of Pym. Unless, of course, you’re suggesting that 1) Jesus is in hell, or 2) Heaven is underground. Suit yourself!

The other major issue with the text is the discomfort people feel with Poe’s Tsalalians (the residents of the island at the end of the narrative). They are black, literally black, as in the color, and every part of them is black, even their teeth. The island Pym ends up on (Tsalal) only has black birds, purple water, there is no whiteness anywhere, and the islanders are horrified by whiteness. Because of this horror, the Tsalalians end up brutally murdering Pym’s entire party, a fate which Pym and Dirk Peters only escape by accident. Between the Tsalalians and the African cook who murders half the people on board Pym’s first ship, people have accused Poe of racism. I, however, think there is a huge difference between Pym and Sheppard Lee, for example, which I have already complained about at length.

Poe isn’t writing only about African American slaves within US American culture, as Bird is, for one. Rather, Tsalal is a place where whiteness isn’t simply unknown, isn’t simply hated. Through their plan to ambush and kill a party full of men wielding guns, the Tsalalians are shown to mistrust the European* party as much as the European party mistrusts them. I believe the implication of this is that the Tsalalians already had an awareness of guns, that perhaps Poe is writing about a place where they are not the first Europeans to land, that perhaps the Tsalalians have already encountered these Others. This implication is reinforced by the canoes and some of the housing, which the narrative explicitly states came from non-Tsalalian peoples. Because of this we know, through the narrative, that Tsalalians are aware of other cultures and, it is implied, with invading/invasion. I believe Poe is writing an island where the inhabitants already associate Europeans with death and (possibly) slavery, and are reacting to them by driving them out. Europeans, with their seemingly infinite reinforcements, cannot be allowed to leave, the only way to keep their island (later discovered to be a group of islands) safe is to kill them all.

It’s chilling to the bone. Not because Poe is being ‘racist’ by writing an island of literally-black people who kill a huge group of Europeans, but because Poe illustrates a violent resistance to colonization, one that seems to be predicated on the knowledge that cultures invade other cultures on the part of the Tsalalians. Poe and his European compatriots are not welcome in Tsalal; perhaps more importantly, they are also not welcome to leave. Had the native Carib population reacted similarly in the now-Caribbean island, what would this have done to history? I believe that this is what Poe is doing with Tsalal. The possibility of encountering another completely ‘undiscovered’ civilization of people looms large in his contemporary imagination (as does the Haitian Revolution). The story is not ‘black people are evil,’ the story is, ‘what if “we” encounter a people who resist colonization … successfully?’ Through the Tsalalians, Poe is showing a group of people that know enough about Europeans not to trust them.

When Pym’s party arrives at Tsalal they say, “How about we open up trade and commerce and access to your island,” (note that this is not so much as question as a statement) to which the Tsalalians reply “No.” I believe Poe’s treatment of race within the text is his exploration of what might happen if ‘they’ encounter a people who simply reject them. This is Poe exploring what happens if one lands on an island full of people whose fingers point through you, back to your ship, and state: ‘Get out.’

Hopefully I’ll have time to write my other discussions of the text, the ones from the list at the top. Still, I wanted to address what was discussed in class this week because I feel that it’s a pretty good representation of how people react to the text.

* I am using “European” instead of “white” because there is a literally-the-color-white figure at the end and the color white is what the Tsalalians are afraid of, not what are generally called “white people.”

Revision History

Updated and corrected 3/2017

1 thought on “Ambiguity and Discomfort in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

  1. Pingback: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells | Ms. Brigitte's Mild Ride

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