Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel is a work that reads quite similarly to his other publications, though it does possess aspects that are entirely its own. In between the dark, creepy aspects of gothic literature that makes Poe so uniquely “Poe,” he does grapple with a few themes and key distinctions that set this novel far apart from his usual works. These themes are: freedom, racism, and the fear of ethnic difference.
Is Pym in search of adventure getting on the boat or running away from something in his life? Throughout this first half of the novel, Pym seems to live a somewhat privileged lifestyle with his family and friend, Augustus whom he joins on the Grampus whaling ship. You would think that, after Pym and Augustus’s first risky ship experience on the Ariel, they would be fearful of another attempt, but they were quite opposite: “I took the helm, and breathed with greater freedom as I found that there yet remained to us a chance of ultimate escape” (11). Here Pym feels a freedom that usually comes from a place of suffering. Is Pym feeling an underlying anxiety to fulfill at home with his family coming from a long line of success and achievement? Or is it more of a personal anxiety like a self-identity or sexuality crisis? Pym’s elatedness and desire to go aboard the Grampus whaling voyage sparks a sense of desperation. For three days and three nights, he remains tucked away in the ship to continue with his and Augustus’s plan to escape. That takes some serious determination and willpower to just want to take a ride on a ship. Something else is going on, an underlying crisis or problem with the young boy. If this ship ride wasn’t just for the thrill of an adventure, Pym wouldn’t put so much driving force into this plan.
It is undoubtable that racism is evident in this text, but its existence as a pervasive theme is debatable. There are times when racism is exhibited, especially on page 31 when Augustus, who is describing these individuals to Arthur, discusses the cook and Dirk Peters in detail. He labels the cook as a “demon,” identifying that the man was arguably more powerful than the first mate. This idea, that a black man in the early nineteenth-century could be superior to a white man was extremely foreign, but it was also evident in Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, a text that is believed to have been inspired by The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. This notion inspires the idea that perhaps one’s background influences his perception of others (much as how Delano perceived Babo). The second account of racism is when Dirk Peters, a man who is half Native American, is introduced. Augustus describes him as a “purely ferocious-looking” man and then begins to ridicule his appearance (32). On the surface, this could certainly be interpreted as racism, but ignorance could also be at play. Augustus, like Arthur, is a boy raised in Nantucket, Maine, and could easily have just never encountered such people before in his life. It is possible that his account is not meant to offend, but is rather just an observation of a young boy who does not know any better. This, coupled with the idea of varying perceptions, could explain the unflattering descriptions that these two minorities receive.
The fear of unknown groups of people is presented with a dual nature in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. There is an uneasiness on the part of the narrator as well as his white counterparts when observing those of ethnicities differing to theirs, mainly the cook and the natives. The narrator others them, making it clear to the reader that those individuals are innately different from himself. This is a direct result of a fear of the unknown or unfamiliar. In episodes of mutiny and slaughter, these fears on the parts of the white characters are affirmed and justified based upon the eventual actions of non-white characters. The text takes this fear, and creates a justification for it, but fails to do so when roles are reversed. Through characters such as Nu-Nu, there is a clear fear of whiteness. Fear is exemplified through interactions with white men, as well as the perception of inanimate objects such as snow or a handkerchief. None of these fears are ever validated, thus the narrative creates a theorem stating fear for whiteness is unjustifiable. Yet, when the roles are reversed these fears become warranted.
While we can’t know the author’s intentions, there is speculation that Poe’s only completed book was a satire. Poe used this book to make a statement about racism and fear of differences which is why it deserves a place in American literary history. Pym’s skin color and social status are the characteristics that define his intentions – seeking adventure or freedom. As a privileged white man expecting a hefty inheritance from his grandfather, his search for freedom correlates with chasing adventure; Pym hopes to find freedom through seeking adventure. However, a white man’s adventure is a person of color’s quest for freedom. That is why this book deserves to be canonized – to converse with readers about the many facets of systemic racism.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Harper & Bros., 1838.