Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

An Enwhitening Experience:

Whiteness, Race War, and Identity in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

Joanna D. ENGL 2130, Spring ’11

Therefore, in his other moods, symbolize whatever grand or gracious thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.–Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the slave ships became breeding grounds for many diseases including scurvy, tuberculosis, malaria, yellow fever, small pox, and typhoid fever, as well as many others. On average, fifteen percent of the slaves died (Byrd). These ships spread death and disease, but white slave traders were the real force behind the spread of disease. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon is filled with the imagery of such slave ships. For example, Pym and his remaining shipmates meet an entire shipload of dead Dutch traders, an inversion of disease on slave ships. Pym locks himself in the hold and hungry, thirsty, scared, and disoriented, undergoes a malaise similar to that which slaves must have experienced packed in the hold of slave ships.

In the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe highlights the white peoples’ murder and destruction of the black culture, not only through the deadly middle passage, but also by a refusal to listen to or understand their culture.Yet in the character of Pym, whiteness increasingly identifies itself with blackness and attempts to experience what slavery does to the black people by experiencing the middle passage. Pym never reveals why he voyages, whether for enjoyment, to discover his identity, or to run from something. Perhaps the he feels guilt for what the white people have done to the black people and needs to identify with the black people or to satisfy himself that what the white people have done to the black people is not horrible. However, Pym continually affirms how horrible are his experiences, yet exhibits no pity for the slaves who always must suffer. More likely, the white people, in the person of Pym, experience the plight of the black people as a means to become even more white than they already are. In this case, the white identity constructs itself from the ruins of the black identity. This is why Pym locks himself in the hold of a ship and attempts to replicate the experience of slaves on the middle passage. This is why he grows stronger, as his shipmates grow weaker—he is discovering his identity. This is why the story ends when he meets the towering white figure. He has met death, whiteness itself: now that he knows his identity, he can be himself—and that is why Pym dies at the end of the story.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is full of portrayals of the color white. Most notably, it is associated with slavery, sickness, and death. While Arthur Pym is in a delirious sleep in the hold of the Grampus, he dreams of whiteness:

Among other miseries I was smothered to death between huge pillows, by demons of the most ghastly and ferocious aspect. Immense serpents held me in their embrace, and looked earnestly in my face with their fearfully shining eyes. Then deserts, limitless, and of the most forlorn and awe-inspiring character, spread themselves out before me. Immensely tall trunks of trees, gray and leafless, rose up in endless succession as far as the eye could reach. Their roots were concealed in wide-spreading morasses, whose dreary water lay intensely black, still, and altogether terrible, beneath. And the strange trees seemed endowed with a human vitality, and waving to and fro their skeleton arms, were crying to the silent waters for mercy, in the shrill and piercing accents of the most acute agony and despair. The scene changed; and I stood, naked and alone, amidst the burning sand-plains of Sahara. At my feet lay crouched a fierce lion of the tropics.[…]My dream, then, was not all a dream.[…]The paws of some huge and real monster were pressing heavily upon my bosom—his hot breath was in my ear—and his white and ghastly fangs were gleaming upon me through the gloom.

This passage illustrates the intense terror that white, both as a color and as a race, holds for Pym—even his subconscious fears it. For example, he fears being smothered by pillows. Pillows of that day were usually white and stuffed with down. Pym fears the color, but he also fears the idea of pillows, of being smothered in luxury and kept from the sea. As he tells his friend Augustus, he is “quite as tired as [Augustus] was of lying in bed like a dog, and quite as ready for any fun or frolic as any Augustus Barnard in Nantucket.” The mention of a dog both here and in the above passage emphasizes the point. Dogs, while guardians of man, are also dependent on them, and sit underneath dinner tables to eat scraps. As emphasized by his fear of being left behind “naked and alone,” Scraps of Augustus’s tales of the sea do not satisfy Pym; he means to experience it himself. Another element of the passage are the demons and the serpents, which examine Pym. The Bible associates serpents with lying and treachery and speaks of demons as treacherous angels at war with God and what is good. Pym fears treachery—a fear which comes to fruition later in the novel. For now, all he sees is the white desolation of a desert, an image which appears when large fields of ice impede the Jane. Ice floes have a similar climate to a desert, but the opposite temperature, so while Pym finds what he fears, he finds something far different. Pym never discusses his opinions of slavery, but he reveals more than he is realizes when he writes of trees in his nightmare. The trees have a human vitality, that is, their life is very like that of man or woman, and they are gray and leafless and almost infinite, much like the white race. However, they are gray, a drab color, and leafless, lacking the leaves which allow most trees to manufacture their own food, hinting that these trees are parasitic, much like the southern slave owners, many of whom were “gentlemen” who had never done manual labor. Even more telling, the trees are rooted, or to be more exact, their roots—the heritage and support of their structure—are obscured by dreary, wide, black, and terrible, morasses. Morasses are marshes or swamps, and utterly disgusting places, much like slave plantations. These morasses are black, an obvious allusion to the black slaves of the time. In parts of southern England, the marshes are famously dangerous—one false step will pull the unwary traveler beneath quick mud—and notoriously confusing and disorienting. The word “morass” has come to mean any “situation that traps, confuses, or impedes.” Through his reference to a morass, Pym reveals anxiety that continued slavery will lead to an uprising, that any wrong step could be fatal in a society which has entrenched itself in slavery. Indeed, the trees wave their skeleton arms, crying to the swamp for mercy in agony and despair. As revealed by the “skeleton arms,” in Pym’s dream, white society is already dead, but cries for mercy to the slaves who hold society in their grasp. Pym sees his fears become a reality not in slave revolt, but when the black Tsalelians, who have never been slaves, rise up and strike down his white companions.

This tension between whiteness and blackness is central to the story even before the Jane comes to the black island of Tsalel. The black cook leads a mutiny resulting in the murder of most of the white crew, leaving Dirk Peters, a “half-breed,” to negotiate between himself and the white captain’s son. Black exists not only in race but in symbolism for race. The Grampus exhibits the imagery of a slave ship, and the birds on Kerguelen’s Island represent what “could be” in a raceless society. The novel, however, describes a society hopelessly mired in the establishment of slavery. The Grampus is infused with the imagery of slave ships. While in the hold, Pym writes,

Getting now hold of the watch, I found […] that it had again run down; […] I was burning up with fever, and my thirst was almost intolerable. I felt about the box for my little remaining supply of water, for I had no light, the taper having burnt to the socket of the lantern, and the phosphorus-box not coming readily to hand. Upon finding the jug, however, I discovered it to be empty—[…][Tiger devoured] the remnant of mutton, the bone of which lay, well picked, by the opening of the box.[…]I was feeble in the extreme—so much so that I shook all over, as with an ague, at the slightest movement or exertion.[…] the oil-casks which lay upon my box were in momentary danger of falling down, so as to block up the only way of ingress or egress. I felt, also, terrible sufferings from sea-sickness.

Timeless, feverish, thirsty, hungry, in danger of dying, and sea-sick, Pym encounters the maladies slaves commonly experienced in the middle passage. Indeed, he begins to experience first-hand the slave ships’ disease and will live to see his friend Augustus succumb to the ship’s disease and an entire boatload of Dutch traders killed by yellow fever—a slave’s disease. The novel forces him to come to terms with his relationship to blackness. In the hold of the ship, he finds himself in danger of even his Newfoundland dog who, “had been my inseparable companion,[…] I had rescued him, when a puppy[…]; and the grown dog repaid the obligation,[…] by saving me from the bludgeon of a street robber.” Newfoundlands are most commonly black. The hold of the ship forces Tiger, against the habit of a life-time to revert to some hidden instinct in the heart of blackness to fear whiteness.

This fear of whiteness presents itself throughout the novel in nature. Even the water on Tsalel is at war within itself:

It was not colourless, nor was it of any one uniform colour—presenting to the eye, as it flowed, every possible shade of purple; like the hues of a changeable silk.[…]we perceived that the whole mass of liquid was made up of a number of distinct veins, each of a distinct hue; that these veins did not commingle; and that their cohesion was perfect in regard to their own particles among themselves, and imperfect in regard to neighbouring veins.

The water is neither colorless, demonstrating that raceless society is impossible, nor pure, demonstrating that the races are in some way codependent upon each other. Their continual war is necessary for the survival of either race, yet it leads to the death of both races. Even so, the war does not appear to be between two races, but between “every possible shade” of people. Just as no person is pure white or black, there are many groups of people who are each chocolate, caramel, beige, yellow, peach, or pink, as well as many other colors, as Dirk Peters, “the half-breed,” illustrates. However, just as the water is made up of “distinct veins,” each race is distinct from one another. In fact, they “cohere,” or stick together, and do not mingle with the other “races.” Pym’s nightmare foreshadows this schism between the races when the skeletons of trees beg the black waters for mercy. Another fulfillment of Pym’s dream comes when he observes, “The Gallipago tortoise was also very plentiful.[…] One or two serpents of a formidable aspect crossed our path, but the natives paid them little attention, and we concluded that they were not venomous.” The only other occurrences of serpents in the narrative are in Pym’s dream and when he observes that, “[this species of tortoise] is found principally,[…] in the group of islands called the Gallipagos,[…] The head has a striking resemblance to that of a serpent.” Both the serpent and the tortoise are present on Tsalel; the terror his dream foreshadows does not lurk far off.

Indeed, even the snakes’ appearance foretells horror because the natives ignore the snakes, foreboding creatures. Those who do not fear trouble side with it against its victims. Shortly afterward, most of the crew of the Jane meet their deaths in a rock fall:

I have already spoken of the singular stratification of these soapstone hills[..]This was such that almost every natural convulsion would be sure to split the soil into perpendicular layers or ridges running parallel with one another,[…]Of this stratification the savages had availed themselves[…] by the continuous line of stakes, a partial rupture of the soil had been brought about[…][and]a vast leverage power was obtained, capable of hurling the whole face of the hill, upon a given signal, into the bosom of the abyss below. The fate of our poor companions was no longer a matter of uncertainty.

Even the rock with which the natives kill the ship’s crew is stratified. Indeed, the natives stratify themselves from whiteness in a similar manner. They choose to kill the white men from above, and when they encounter a dead white animal on the island, “the men with the stakes drove them in a circle around it.” A constant barrier arises between white and black. The natives make barriers with stakes, while the water and the rock make other separations. The natives fear all whiteness, and run from it with exclamations of, “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” Yet Poe never explains the reasons behind the schism between “white” and “black,” if, indeed, race even fits into such neat categories. Perhaps Pym does not want to explore the psyche of the black people and must objectify them, as he demonstrates when he refuses to believe the characters carved in the Tsalelian caves are letters. Perhaps white and black are simply opposites by definition, as north is to south or light is to darkness. The natives of Tsalel, who apparently have not met white people before, instinctively find the white people a threat. The characters written on the rock on Tsalel do not simply represent the adjectives “white” and “black”; they represent the words “to be white” and “to be shady.” Race, then, is not an adjective, but a verb, an action. For the white people, this action is killing and enslaving the black race. One race cannot exist without the other, yet they are in continual war. This is why, as observed with codependent streams of purple water, war is absolutely necessary for the survival of each category. However, Poe questions whether the end of war would lead to the end of the human race or to the end of categories.

Poe hints that race does not have to be an issue when he writes about the cooperation between the sea birds on Kerguelen’s island and the penguins—which resolve the warring colors of white and black within themselves and occasionally display the “lilac tint” of Tsalel’s water:

Although there are some rookeries in which the penguin and albatross are the sole population, yet in most of them a variety of oceanic birds are to be met with, enjoying all the privileges of citizenship, and scattering their nests here and there, wherever they can find room, never interfering, however, with the stations of the larger species.

The passage notes that the other birds never interfere with the penguins but does not necessarily describe equality. The other birds enjoy “all the privileges of citizenship, but they must find room themselves. No accommodations are made, while, “at each intersection of these paths the nest of an albatross is constructed, and a penguin’s nest in the centre of each square—thus every penguin is surrounded by four albatrosses, and each albatross by a like number of penguins.” The arrangement seems very fair to the penguin and the albatross, but somewhat lacking for the rest of society. The words “never interfering” also imply that were the black people free, they would not interfere with the white people’s business, that they would not contribute to society, and, even worse, that they are not capable of contributing to society, or even of upsetting the “natural” order of racism. Poe makes the parallel between the penguins and racist man obvious when he continues “The resemblance to a human figure is very striking, and would be apt to deceive the spectator at a casual glance or in the gloom of the evening.” The reference to spectator implies that although black and white are inconstant strife, there is a spectator, perhaps other races, as the many shades of purple water suggest. Penguin society is very like that of man, deceptive and dangerous. Indeed, when Pym encounters the penguin’s namesake, it crushes his sailboat beneath it, and nails him through the collar to the bottom of the ship. Although the Penguin almost killed Pym, its appearance saved him from sinking in the storm. Whiteness is a massive destructive force, yet it takes care of its own. Thus, despite appearances, the utopian society of the penguin is only a utopian society for the white people, who dominate, control, and traffic in the black people.

Oddly enough, the hardships associated with the sea only serve to drive Pym toward it. He describes his desire to go to sea again before boarding the Grampus:

He most strongly enlisted my feelings in behalf of the life of a seaman, when he depicted his more terrible moments of suffering and despair.[…]My visions were of shipwreck and famine; of death or captivity among barbarian hordes; of a lifetime dragged out in sorrow and tears, upon some gray and desolate rock, in an ocean unapproachable and unknown.

Pym does not understand why he wishes this misery. In effect, he wishes to die. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym documents this quest, but perhaps it is a quest for something deeper—a quest to discover who he is and come to terms with his whiteness. This quest for death presents itself in many different ways throughout the novel. Pym takes on the guise of a dead, decaying body to retakes the ship, using death to his advantage. The Grampus‘s survivors adopt cannibalism at the behest of the sailor Parker, who proposes that “one of [the survivors] should die to preserve the existence of the others,” and subsequently draws the short straw, becoming the victim of the very death he proposed for another, or, perhaps, sought for himself. The death of language also recurs. Pym observes that,

The rest of [the indentures in the cave wall] bore also some little resemblance to alphabetical characters,[…]we picked up,[…] several large flakes of the marl, which had evidently been broken off by some convulsion from the surface where the indentures were found, and which had projecting points exactly fitting the indentures; thus proving them to have been the work of nature.

These chips prove nothing, but that the artist, be he man or nature, did not clean up after himself. Written language is a potent sign of intellect. Pym suppresses the black islanders’ humanity, much like the slave traders. However, in his rush to subjugate the black people, he misses the idea that if the islanders have a rational point of view, they must have a reason for fearing whiteness besides ignorance. One inscription in the Tsalel caves means, “to be white” with a word for “the region of the south” written nearby. The islanders know what is to the south—and fear it. Pym would do well to heed the warning. On board the Jane Guy, Pym finds himself pursuing whiteness and death in the same guise—the south pole. Pym observes that others have found the edge of the ice to insurmountable boundary.

ragged and broken, so firmly wedged together as to be utterly impassible, and extending about a mile to the southward. Behind it the frozen surface was comparatively smooth for some distance, until terminated in the extreme background by gigantic ranges of ice mountains, the one towering above the other.

The ice depicts a wall and the ice mountains a boundary to a “forbidden country.” This country is death, as one unfortunate Peter Vredenburgh finds when he dies in pursuit of the pole, as the rest of the crew finds when they perish at the hands of the Tsalelians in the country near the pole, and as Tsalelians themselves are well aware in their fear of the forbidden country of death.

This forbidden country is not only death, but white death: the death of white people and death by white people. Throughout the paper, whiteness symbolizes death. Pym sees “a huge sea-gull, busily gorging itself with the horrible flesh, its bill and talons deep buried, and its white plumage spattered all over with blood.” The white bird no longer represents the good omen of albatross or even the distorted equality of the penguin, but a macabre destroyer, its white purity spattered over with the blood of a man with “very dark skin.” Poe reinforces this imagery when, “Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li![….]Hereupon Nu-Nu stirred in the bottom of the boat; but upon touching him we found his spirit departed.” These birds proclaim their whiteness. While the seagull was only carrion, these birds kill Nu-Nu. Indeed, the presence of any white animal causes alarm on Tsalel, and rightly so, for the white dog animals have scarlet claws and teeth, and the “utopian” penguins have scarlet beaks, re-evoking images of the seagull of death. Man should fear even white animals without red claws and beaks, as the polar bear demonstrates when it defends itself.

However, most menacing by far is the gigantic white “shrouded human figure,” who appears at the end of the novel. Given both the black people’s adverse reaction to whiteness, the color of the figure, and the “rude, representation of a human figure standing erect, with outstretched arm” drawn near the roots for “to be white” and “the region of the south” in the caves on Tsalel, the white figure is the death, or at least, the death of the black people. In his paper “Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” Peter Taylor argues that although Pym refuses to understand, the writing in the caves and the language of the people on Tsalel spring from Hebrew roots. He observes that the word “Tekeli-li” bears a strong resemblance to “TEKEL,” “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.” from the story of Daniel and the writing on the wall in the Bible. Taylor asserts that the writer on the wall, Providence, is the white figure at the end of the story, a foreboding prospect when Pym refuses to read the writing on the wall. “The appearance of a shrouded human figure with perfectly white skin is, for all concerned, an exhortation to faith. Pym, who throughout his narrative has made repeated reference to the ‘special interference of Providence,’ is granted his wish.” Taylor implies that Pym now receives judgment for his treatment of the black people, but given Pym’s pursuit of this figure and the black people’s terror of it, the white giant cannot be seen as the protector of the black people. Nor does the story stipulate whether the warning, “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.” directs itself to the white or black people. Rather, if the story of Daniel has a parallel to the white figure, it finds a better parallel in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of “an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay.” This statue represents the kingdoms of the earth, which Bible commentator Matthew Henry interprets as Babylon, Media-Persia, Greece, Rome, and Rome divided. Thus, the white figure represents white countries built on slavery, among others, England, and America. Pym finds what he seeks at last—death, and a whiteness of death. He discovers his identity in death.

In “End(ings) and Mean(ing)s in Pym and Eureka,” Miecznikowski explores the idea of man’s struggle toward an inexpressible sublime truth in death which has no earthly expression:

As Golding suggests, Poe faced a similar problem [to processes which are knowable only intuitively]: ‘to approximate the Logos as far as he [could] with the limited language at his disposal’. This perhaps explains why Pym ends so abruptly: Pym encounters an image that Poe, its creator, cannot find words to make real for his readers because he himself cannot fully ‘conceive of’ it.

Poe cannot continue because he has not passed death, but even more vitally, the story cannot continue because it has reached its logical end. Unconsciously, Pym searches for the essence of his own white identity by submerging himself in the black suffering from which his culture draws strength. He does not and cannot verbalize this search or why the suffering energizes him. He discovers whiteness draws its strength from death and disease, that whiteness diametrically opposes blackness, that the two must fight for either “race” to exist. Eventually, he finds himself pursuing death itself, which turns out to be whiteness in human form. Once he encounters whiteness and understands what it is, he becomes truly white by becoming one with death.

Works Cited

Byrd, W. Michael and Linda A. Clayton. American Health Dilemma: A medical history of African Americans and the problem of race: beginnings to 1900. Great Britain: Routledge. 2000. 195-196, 225. Apr. 7, 2011. <;.

Golding, Alan C. “Reductive and Expansive Language: Semantic Strategies in Eureka.Poe Studies, vol. XI, no. 1, (1978), n. pag. Web. 21 April 2011.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible, 6 volumes. 1706. 4 May. 2011. <;.

Miecznikowski, Cynthia. “End(ings) and Mean(ing)s in Pym and Eureka.” Studies in Short Fiction 27.1 (1990): 55-64. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 21 Apr. 2011.

New International Version Bible. Daniel 2.31b-33. BibleGateway. Biblica, 2011. Web. 4 May 2011. <;.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “Narrative of A. Gordon Pym.” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Volume 3. Project Gutenberg. 1 Apr. 2000. 4 May 2011. <;.

Taylor, Peter. “Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” Explicator 59.1 (2000): 17-19.MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 21 Apr. 2011. 


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