Edgar Allan Poe’s 1837 novel, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket,” is one of the most perplexing works in American literature. The best approach to the book is to see how Poe develops a number of themes and combines them to make a final statement about the inability of human language to describe extreme experiences in nature.
South Seas Exploration
The theme of U.S. expansion and exploration into uncharted areas of the Earth is central to the novel, and it reflected the great public interest in such enterprises. Around the time that Poe was writing the novel, several theories were being circulated that the Earth was hollow and that the poles were tropical -- rather than frozen. In the early 19th century, Poe and other Americans were calling for expeditions to be sent to the poles to test the theory. When Pym arrives at the Antarctic coast, he finds it warm rather than freezing, and he is unable to articulate his dismay; it is simply too extreme to be explained in language.
Shipwreck and Survival
Nineteenth-century American readers were fascinated with tales of disaster and survival at sea, and shipwreck narratives became very popular to American readers. In Poe’s novel, Pym is unable to describe the horrors of shipwreck and cannibalism, writing that, “I must not dwell on the fearful repast which immediately ensued. Such things may be imagined, but words have no power to impress the mind with the exquisite horror of their reality.” Again, certain aspects of human existence and survival cannot be expressed through language.
Critic Leslie Fiedler claimed that the southern trajectory of the novel, as Pym travels from Massachusetts to the South Seas to Antarctica, is an allegory for Poe’s own personal journey south from his birthplace in free Boston to slave-holding Virginia. Much of the imagery of the novel is centered around whiteness and blackness, particularly when Pym arrives on a South Seas island in which the people, animals and landscape are all black. When the black natives ambush Pym and his shipmates, they take them completely by surprise. Seen in terms of an allegory for slavery and the fear in the U.S. South of slave revolts, this inability for Pym to explain the motivation of the natives reflects the overall theme of realms of experience that lie outside of language.
Language and Meaning
Pym’s extraordinary adventures lie outside of his ability to fully explain in language. Whether it is in extreme situations of survival, encounters with foreign environments or the human psychology of race relations, Pym can only describe experiences to a point but falls short of reaching a higher understanding through language. For Poe, transcendent experiences with the terrifying and the foreign cannot be encapsulated in language; they can only be intuited through an emotion that cannot be expressed in words.
Patrick Gleason is an award-winning writer and educator in Encinitas, Calif. His essays have appeared in "Legacy," and he is the winner of the 2007 J. Golden Taylor Award from the Western Literature Association and the 2009 Legacy Award for writing. He holds a Master of Arts in literature in English from the University of California, San Diego.