112 Arthur Gordon Pym, Cannibal of Nantucket

Caitlin Andreasen

What makes us human? What separates us from wild animals? Is it what we will do or won’t do to survive?

The part about cannibalism really disturbed me. It is scary to me how they are able to apply human reasoning to justify the death and consumption of someone whose survival they were trying to ensure during the storm. The worst part wasn’t the killing-and-eating-another-human-being, it was the simple matter-of-fact way it was described.

“He made no resistance whatever, and was stabbed in the back by Peters, when he fell instantly dead…having in some measure appeased the raging thirst which consumed us by the blood of the victim and having by common consent taken off the hands, feet, and  head,  throwing  them  together  with  the  entrails,  into  the  sea,  we  devoured the  rest  of  the  body,  piecemeal,  during  the  four  ever  memorable  days ”(81).

Parker ceases to live. He becomes a thing, a resource, a meal to be divided among them. But he ceases to be human before that. There is some foreshadowing when the ship of the dead passes by, and a bird throws a piece of bloody flesh onto their deck. The four of them begin to de-evolve at that moment, when they are hungry enough to think they would do anything, eat anything to survive. But the devolution from humanity is a process. As Pym himself stated, he had considered cannibalism as a means to survive. They were all thinking about it. When Parker first brings up the idea that eating each other might be the only option, they continue to de-evolve. If he were to jump straight from human to beast, he would have killed and eaten Pym without a pause. But he didn’t. He consented to the drawing of straws. This was the next step backwards. Picking straws doesn’t make murder civilized.

The actual killing and consumption are the final steps in their de-evolution. Parker is reduced to an object of sustenance, but Pym, Peters, and Augustus are no longer fully human. They have become a more primitive kind of hunter.

The saddest part is that Parker’s death wasn’t necessary. The next page describes Pym remembering the existence of the axe and with it cutting through to the store room. And frankly, they treat the tortoise better than Parker.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Caitlin Andreasen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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