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Critical Reading of Pym


In "Edgar Allan Poe's The (Unnatural) Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym" (2015), Mitchell C. Lilly argues the following:


Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym entwines natural and unnatural, or realistic and impossible, narrative topologies in a transgressive work of fiction. The text projects a world like our own—drawing realism from several expedition journals and fictions extant in Poe’s time—yet contradicts the realism of that world with situations that violate all biological, logical, and epistemic possibility. To illustrate: Early in the narrative we encounter an ontic and geometric paradox in the shape of an impossible three-dimensional letter that consists of a forged message to Pym’s father on one side, a blank page on the reverse, and an implausible third page on which a warning to Pym is penned in blood. In keeping with the alien geometries of the letter, Pym relates the facts of his rescue from the hold of the Grampus, which he claims his lifelong friend Augustus Barnard shared with him years later; yet, Augustus had died aboard the shipwrecked Grampus only weeks later, succumbing to blood-poisoning from gangrenous wounds received during a countermutiny on the ship. How Pym knows about his rescue contradicts what he knows about it. A third key instance of impossible knowledge occurs when Pym describes the corpse of Hartman Rogers, who has been killed by his fellow mutineers, as though Pym looks over the corpse that very moment, or has seen the body prior to narrating its “disgusting condition” (PT, 1067). At that time, however, Pym was secreted away from the mutineers and could not have examined Rogers’s body without revealing himself—at the cost of his life—to the piratical crew. Once again, Pym cannot know what he knows in the way he knows it: through direct experience. Finally, in the aftermath of the Jane Guy massacre, Pym’s only surviving companion, Dirk Peters, to whom Pym unambiguously refers throughout the previous chapters as a “half-breed Indian” and a “hybrid” (PT, 1007, 1058), suddenly changes to a white man without any explanation whatsoever.


Despite the critical popularity of Poe’s novel as “one of the most elusive major texts of American Literature” and its continued position, arguably, as “the pivotal text in current discussions” of Poe,1 a surprising gap endures in Pym criticism regarding the physical and logical impossibilities in the narrative. Commonly, critics have read the novel as a structurally flawed tale, a work of satire, or a hoax, among other possibilities. I propose reading The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym as a work of unnatural narrative fiction in which the novel’s impossible geometries, minds, and bodies creatively violate the logical conditions and ontological limitations of the material world. Pym’s shifting topologies and narrative frames effectively create what narrative theorist Elana Gomel refers to as a “flickering” storyworld. Similar to a double or multiple photographic exposure, where two or more images are superimposed in a mutual frame, flickering narrative worlds occur when fundamentally incompatible storyworlds—natural and unnatural—are brought together in a single narrative frame that is simultaneously both worlds though neither one absolutely. Gomel explains that flickering worlds comprise one of the impossible time-spaces that arose from “the nineteenth century’s gradual disillusionment with empiricism, realism, and progress,” notably “the Gothic rebellion against the Newtonian-Euclidean paradigm of realism.” Poe, known best for his gothic tales and poems, wrote during this time of scientific and epistemic disenchantment, authoring numerous unorthodox narrative worlds of his own. As Poe critic John Tresch notes, many of the author’s works, including Pym, contributed to an age wherein “old assumptions of Newtonian physics of an orderly clockwork universe” were parodied and challenged in narrative fiction.


Pym’s agonistic scripts of realism and antirealism eschew naturalized manifestations of space, time, mimetic knowledge and matter, and to some degree and for some duration, they create impossible states that counteract a non-contradictory world of realism. Through blending realistic and impossible worlds, Poe’s novel takes the form of an unnatural narrative that simultaneously works with and against true-to-life paradigms of knowledge and perception, pushing the story to the peripheries of comprehensible thought. Reading the novel as a work of unnatural narrative fiction opens ways for reconceptualizing such important issues as its controversial engagements with matters of race. By establishing Dirk Peters as an unnatural character within an unnatural world and narrative, Pym expresses or exposes the unnaturalness of race itself in a way previously unrealized in the novel’s rich criticism. Above all, treating Pym as an unnatural narrative makes us more aware of strange and unsettling matters that affect not only Pym’s world but, more alarmingly, our own.


First, sum up what you see as Lilly's main argument in 2-3 sentences (be as charitable as possible--present the strongest possible version of his argument). Then, based on your reading of the first half of the novel, determine whether or not you find his interpretation plausible or persuasive. Support your answer by citing at least one passage from the text.

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