In The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), by Edgar Allan Poe, the main protagonists, Arthur and Augustus, go on a series of adventures south (and eventually to the antarctic), facing one tragedy upon another. But no tragedy they face is so great as the strains put upon their friendship. From the initial big conflict in the story of Arthur being trapped in his hiding place, to the tension of drawing straws to see who would die for the sake of the survivors aboard the ship, the relationship between Arthur and Augustus, a relationship that is perhaps more than friendship, is tried time and time again. Eventually, this comes to a tragic end when Augustus dies, unable to keep going with the wounds he received. However, that does not undermine the bond he had with Arthur while he was alive, nor the hope they had despite all they endured.
Now, the relationship between Arthur and Augustus could be read as merely a close friendship. But in portraying the two of them as so close, Poe potentially depicts an intimate romantic relationship between the two characters, lending depth to the tragedies they face, tragedies that show ultimately a clashing of the world with a relationship. The book starts with Augustus, drunk, sailing with Arthur and going farther out to sea than they intended to, nearly resulting in them being run over by another boat, and Arthur inadvertently saves Augustus’ life. The book then later shows Augustus defying his father, taking Arthur away onto the Grampus to embark to sea with them. In this instance, Augustus saves Arthur’s life, by sneaking him a note with Arthur’s dog Tiger that warns him of the danger, as a mutiny had occurred on the ship.
David Greven, from the University of South Carolina, has much to say on this topic in his paper, “‘The Whole Numerous Race of the Melancholy among Men’: Mourning, Hypocrisy, and Same-Sex Desire in Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.” He says, regarding the themes of the text, “Infusing the homoeroticized atmosphere of the seaman’s life with a heightened awareness of loneliness and despair, which eventually pours out in the uncontrollable flow of men’s tears, Poe [explores] the concept of sea life as an orderly, mutually affirming brotherhood, making it instead a site of excessiveness and erratic, fluctuating performances of masculine identity.” While in his paper, Greven focuses on analyzing Pym’s grief over tragedy, there is something to be said for the positive things found amid tragedy. Arthur and Augustus continuously express relief along with their sorrow. Augustus is clearly thrilled to see Arthur after the Penguin rescues them, “Upon seeing me open my eyes, his exclamations of gratitude and joy excited alternate laughter and tears from the rough-looking personages who were present.” When Augustus rescues Arthur from his confinement aboard the ship, Arthur is “overjoyed at discovering me to be still alive, he now resolved to brave every difficulty and danger in reaching me.”
The entire novel is set in motion by the trust Arthur and Augustus have for each other, and the defiance they have towards the world. Together, they are able to survive severe conditions, even if Augustus does not survive for long. The story is undeniably dark, but with one tragedy after another, that darkness comes not from the addition of hard times but rather the removal of close companions. The first time this happens in the story is when Augustus dies, and Arthur loses someone clearly very close to him, shifting the book to a darker and more melancholy tone. The hope throughout the story comes in the form of companionship from others, be it from Augustus, Tiger, or the other sailors Arthur meets. It is thus a loss of hope, as companions die to wounds, cannibalism, and the hardships of survival, that make this story one of tragedy. With the relationship between Arthur and Augustus so closely shown, to the point that their “intimate communion had resulted in a partial interchange of character,” the dark themes of loneliness, that Greven points out, are all the more clear. It was their companionship that brought them hope, and it is that hope that makes the story tragic.
The first darker tone shift of the story arguably comes when Augustus dies not because the story got darker, as Arthur still faces many tragedies, but because some of the light in it went away. And by portraying Augustus and Arthur in such a close way, Poe makes that difference between hope and tragedy all the more apparent.