116 Thalassophobia: Fear of the Ocean

Kayla Orthman

It’s often said that the ocean has a mind of its own. In Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, this is proven to be true. The majority of the novel takes place in the sea, arguably the most dangerous place on Earth. The novel uses the ocean to explore the nonhuman and its relationship to what we consider to be “human.”

In the beginning of the novel, Arthur and his close friend Augustus go on a drunken boat ride which nearly results in their deaths. Augustus is the one who makes the decision to drive the boat while intoxicated, and confuses Arthur when he suddenly starts acting more drunk than previously thought. It almost seems as if an outside force is driving him, besides alcohol.

“matter—why, nothing is the—matter—going home—d—d—don’t you see?” The whole truth now flashed upon me. I flew to him and raised him up. He was drunk—beastly drunk—he could no longer either stand, speak, or see. His eyes were perfectly glazed; and as I let him go in the extremity of my despair, he rolled like a mere log into the bilge-water, from which I had lifted him.


There are many stories of seamen spiraling into insanity while out on the ocean. Another example of the sea’s influence can be found in the mutineers. Mutinies did happen often, yes, but this one was shown to be particularly brutal, with the crew being executed with an axe on the dock. The most dangerous atrocities always seem to happen while on the ocean.

The novel doesn’t necessarily define what it means to be human, but it certainly implies one in Arthur and Augustus’s characters. Everyone on the ship is working for themselves and hurting others, Arthur and Augustus being the only ones who are shown to have any sort of empathy. A line that stands out in particular in favor for the mutineers being the bad guys is when Captain Barnard is begging for mercy, but “He might as well have spoken to the winds” (Poe). While it doesn’t specifically say that they are more human than others, given that Arthur is the narrator, there is a definite implication that he is in the right.


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

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