117 Man is What Things Allow

Jahlan Finney

Nonhuman entities in Pym serve one purpose: to define humanity. A drunk man is drunk before a man, a cold man is cold before a man, a dead man is dead before a man and so on. Humans can modify objects by using them or working with them but the object stays an object; it is not dominated by man. The very organization of the English language has already decided that. As an interaction between a man and a sword can turn the man into a swordsman, a blacksmith, or a dead man but it will not turn the sword into a mansword. It can become a man’s sword but only while it is his for once it is taken from him, it becomes only a sword again while a a swordsman without a sword is still a swordsman. However, now he is an unarmed swordsman being further modified by the object even in its absence. In fact, a human being is nothing without an object. This would stand to say that it is not the man who makes the suit so to say but the suit who makes the man, which feels like a bleak stripping of individuality from every living being. But is that statement justified?

I believe that Poe makes great use of his time in this story, telling the reader how little is blatantly human. You don’t have to look past even the first chapter to find several great arguments for the case. In the first several sentences, “My father was a respectable trader” and “My maternal grandfather was an attorney,” “Mr. Rickets, a gentleman” and “Mr. Bernard, a sea captain” are the first four introductions you get (3). In these introductions, the people are given either names or titles, both of which are derived from some interaction with nonhuman and parahuman entities and then you’re also given the role that they play in society or their job which is again created by an interaction with nonhuman and parahuman entities (such as the wares being traded, the laws and evidence being argued, the school system and monetary value of well dressed men, and the sea itself). And that’s just for the jobs. Names are also inherently unowned and unmodified by the people who carry them. A person can change their name but the name you’re born with was not chosen by you and your last name was not chosen by you parents or anyone you know for that matter. The last name is attached to a job, place, ownership or some other interaction that your family was known for many generations ago. The other titles here outside of a direct name, father and grandfather, are not decided only by the human who has them. Someone can want to be a father but they need another human or set of humans in the case of adoption to make it happen and the process is only less self-reliant for a grandfather.

I’m playing around with words here though and I bet that some of you aren’t convinced yet, which is fair; English is only one language. So now I’ll dive into the language of action. I’m going to pull from the first chapter again to make the point that this is not hard to find. And in the first chapter, Arthur finds himself on a boat with Augustus who is found very drunk. Augustus is modified by the drink in any language as “he could no longer either stand, speak, or see” and more interestingly his state, along with the state of the sea, greatly modify Arthur who claims that he “was altogether incapable of managing the boat” (5). Arthur does not have boating experience and he now faces death along with the death of his friend as a consequence for his lack of knowledge and experience. But what’s amazing here is that if it were so that human beings are static and consistent in their being, unmodified by outside forces, they both would have died quickly. But that’s not the case. Arthur is greatly modified here by his circumstances and while he doesn’t single-handedly avoid the storm, he is on the path to do so before being struck by another boat. Even with his lack of experience, he lifts Augustus from the water to stop him from drowning and takes some level of control over the boat to fight the raging storm. And while he may still be doomed, if not for the help he received, he becomes something else, and very quickly. The sea, his drunk friend, the boat, and all the things at his disposal called a seaman out of him where one did not exist prior. Proving that whatever a man is can change entirely by the nonhuman entities that interact with him.


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

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