Edgar Allan Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

2021-05-31 @Literature

In plainness, what an awesome novel. But I never thought I’d read Edgar Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), his only finished novel.

Content with the short stories and the poetry, I figured this longer work wouldn’t justify the time investment. Although I hardly knew anything of it short of being a seafaring adventure, having already (somewhat superficially) read Moby Dick and some shorter works of Conrad, it didn’t sound like a worthwhile contribution to my canon.

And I wouldn’t strictly recommend it to someone not having read a significant body of Poe’s stories first. One should become comfortable with the prose style before embarking on this longer work filled with minute, marine-related detail.

Granted, the prose is lighter compared to some of Poe’s ‘denser’ short stories, or compared to Melville’s Moby Dick. There’s less clever rhetoric and less metaphors, though the prose is otherwise perfectly elegant and evocative: up to the normal standard.

With regard to the story, the particulars don’t here matter. What’s important are the motifs:

  1. The novel juxtaposes the perils of the sea, inspired by numerous authentic writings and travel journals, next to many, nearly encyclopedic passages of academic worth in themselves, and finally next to the uttermost fantastic. Though I wouldn’t consider this a ‘science fiction’ novel in the traditional sense.

    To yet again refer to Moby Dick, Melville’s work (known to be inspired by Gordon Pym) generally undertakes the same mixture, but with less of the fantastic and more of the symbolic and the allegorical. That, and combined with Melville’s language over-the-top infused of literary flourish (also akin to some of Poe’s shorter works) makes Moby Dick somewhat less accessible for any but the most dedicated and focused reader.

  2. Poe sports an uncanny eye for the miniscule, the grotesque and the horrific, all presented in shocking realism.

  3. The more educational chapters relate much on sailing, ship mechanics, the history of particular voyages and the discovery of certain islands, biological life forms, flora and fauna.

    One of the more fascinating chapters addresses the cohabitation of Albatrosses and Penguins on one particular island.

    Beyond that, you’ll find endless marine coordinates detailed, making this read all the more like an authentic sea journal.

  4. Mixed with these casual encyclopedic passages, the narrative treads continuously on the struggle to survive (in some of the most gruesome of circumstances), involving treachery, mutiny, decapitation, cannibalism, famine, famine, and more famine.

  5. From time to time Poe interjects with subtle bits of humor, though it manifests itself more through the hyperboles of rhetoric and the stark, unanticipated contrasts of events unveiled through Poe’s signature storytelling approach.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym has remained a somewhat obscure novel, for reasons I perceive to be 1) the controversy of the fantastical elements at the time this was published, 2) the sheer proportion of brutality, which may have proven too much for the early 19th-century fiction genre, and 3) the challenge in properly categorizing and marketing this type of fiction.

Yet a number of genre authors have taken severe inspiration from this novel and created subsequent works of immortality: Melville, Jules Verne, Baudelaire, Robert Louis Stevenson, as a small sample.

Now once I somewhere stumbled upon Borges’s appraisal (as having taken much inspiration from Poe in general), I became effectively sold to undertake the read. The more I read of Borges, the more alignment (and consequently trust) I attach to his literary observations.

But that being beside, as the novel approaches the finale, though it begins to acquire a mythical air blowing towards uncharted territory of varying interpretation (which I personally welcome and embrace), most of the narrative contains absolutely raw and captivating detail.

Powerful and memorable.

Questions, comments? Connect.