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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Symbols & Motifs

Light and Dark

Poe uses the relationship between light and dark throughout the novel to develop the theme of Appearance Versus Reality. While the light/dark dynamic is sometimes used literally, it more frequently carries symbolic weight, representing a struggle between good (life) and evil (death). However, the vagueness of many of Pym’s scenes causes even this fairly straightforward symbolic correspondence to become somewhat confusing, particularly toward the end of the novel.

In the first half of the text, darkness conveys or represents fear in a number of scenes: when Pym is trapped in the hold of the Grampus, for example, he describes the space as “so intensely dark that I could not see my hand, however close I would hold it to my face” (23). Additionally, the terrifying Dutch ship—a veritable embodiment of death—is painted black (68). On both of these occasions, a dark object or location is directly associated with terror or anxiety and amplifies the textual atmosphere of fear. However, from the moment the Jane Guy crosses the Antarctic Circle, light and dark are simultaneously more important and less readable as symbols. The crew stumbles upon mysterious, frightening animal carcasses that are almost entirely white, reversing the association of light with life and, instead, aligning it with death.