46 pages 1 hour read

Edgar Allan Poe

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1838

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Summary and Study Guide


The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) is Edgar Allan Poe’s only complete novel. The first two installments were published in 1837 in the Southern Literary Messenger magazine, where Poe was an editor. After leaving the Messenger, he continued working on the novel intermittently until it was published as a complete text in 1838. It brings together various literary genres—including the adventure story, coming-of-age narrative, and scientific guidebook— and infuses them with an atmosphere of psychological horror and allegorical representations of confusion, entrapment, and loss. As a story about white adventurers exploring regions outside the Global North, it is part of a larger mid-19th-century discourse about colonization, geopolitics, and who has access to certain types of knowledge. It is also, like much of Poe’s fiction, focused on one character’s journey into his unconscious mind. This guide refers to the paperback version of the Dover Thrift Edition (2005).

Content Warning: The source material features depictions of racism and alcohol misuse. Terms reflecting racist language are included only in quoted material.

Plot Summary

In 1827, 16-year-old Arthur Gordon Pym, fascinated by the prospect of sea travel, runs away from his Nantucket home by stowing away on a whaling brig called the Grampus. This is arranged by his friend Augustus Barnard, whose father is the ship’s captain. While Pym remains concealed in the hold, a mutiny breaks out, and the sailors take over the ship. Augustus befriends a kind crew member named Dirk Peters and soon reveals Pym’s presence. The three of them work together to take back control of the Grampus, but a storm soon destroys the brig. Pym, Augustus, Peters, and a fourth man named Richard Parker are the only survivors. After clinging to the wreckage of the ship for weeks, they are eventually forced to choose one person to be sacrificed. Parker is chosen at random, and the others kill and eat him. Augustus soon dies of wounds he sustained while overthrowing the mutineers. Pym and Peters are eventually rescued by a ship called the Jane Guy, which is bound for trade in the Pacific Islands.

As the Jane Guy sails farther south, Pym becomes increasingly obsessed with reaching the South Pole. The crew passes a number of uninhabited island chains, which Pym documents in great detail. They soon arrive at an island called Tsalal, where they are greeted by a group of Indigenous people. Their leader, Too-wit, invites the crew to his village and is initially friendly and generous. After spending several weeks trading with the villagers and collecting provisions, the sailors prepare to leave: however, they are ambushed and killed before they can do so. Pym and Peters are the only survivors. For several weeks, they hide in the mountains, where they find a labyrinth of passages within the hillsides. Some of these tunnels have strange markings on their walls, and the men cannot determine whether they are humanmade or natural. Finally, they descend the mountain and steal a canoe from the Indigenous people, who previously destroyed the Jane Guy. Taking one of the group’s members as a hostage, Pym and Peters escape the island. As they sail further south, the water grows warmer and takes on a milky shade, and an unknown ash-like substance rains from the sky. They soon see a thick, gray mist that opens for them as they approach, and the last thing they see is an enormous entirely white human figure.

An end note written by an anonymous editor reports that Pym died after returning from the voyage and that the remaining chapters were lost. The editor also points out that the shapes Pym and Peters found in the hillside passages are similar to word roots in Ethiopian, Arabic, and Egyptian.