Text: Richard A. Levine, “The Downward Journey of Purgation,” Poe Newsletter­, April 1969, Vol. II, No. 2, 2:29-31


[page 29, column 2:]

The Downward Journey of Purgation:
Notes on an Imagistic Leitmotif in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

State University of New York, Stony Brook

Throughout The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym one of the dominant leitmotifs involves the tension between the rational and the irrational, and between the conscious and the unconscious. It is this leitmotif which suggests a symbolic reading of the work as the narrative of man’s journey of purgation.

The conscious-unconscious tension occurs so frequently that a paper of some length would be required to discuss it fully. However, let me try to sketch several of the episodes in the narrative which embody this motif. The recurrent pattern of imagery which describes this dichotomy is that of above and below (above and below water, earth, the deck of the ship, the equator), and projecting this pattern we can include also high-low imagery.

At the start of the story Pym has security (especially his grandfather’s legacy) and comes from a respectable family, one which epitomizes reason and “landliness.” Yet Pym is melancholy and has an irrational desire to go to sea. Irrational for he expects and even desires to suffer at sea; his is not the usual glamorous and adventurous sea-going desire. Land, then, becomes not only the rational, but the place of apparent security and safety. It is the status quo, the unadventurous, unimaginative, material existence (above sea level). The dangerous sea, however, becomes the place in which one can search for “possibility” and live in a more spiritual sphere. It is the realm of motion toward the unknown, toward “discovery.” In the second of the three episodes of Pym, after the shipwreck of the Grampus, there is physical starvation above deck (parallel to spiritual starvation on land), whereas there is food below the deck and the water. Yet it is safer above deck — the descent into the water in an effort to secure nourishment is dangerous. Again, in the second episode, during the last days on the Grampus, Pym and Peters are starving until the ship completely turns over. Food in the form of barnacles is found growing on the bottom of the ship — that part of the ship which is normally below the water.

This irrational desire for the sea journey is first put into action when Pym and Augustus sail in the small boat [page 30:] Ariel. It is a completely irrational consideration, yet it is “exciting . . . . ecstatic . . . . death-defying.” It is anti-rational when one considers that the boys were both drunk, a storm was brewing, and the time was night. (The name of the sailboat is, of course, significant: the spirit of air and water.) It is during this adventure that Pym first acquiesces to the elements, and from that point he is followed (in the first episode) by good fortune and luck. Augustus, who does not so acquiesce, undergoes a severe reaction to having been under the sea (and, as we later see, he does not survive the greater adventure aboard the Grampus which follows).

A vague feeling of terror and despair had taken entire possession of his [Augustus ’] faculties. When he was finally picked up, every power of his mind had failed him; and . . . . it was nearly an hour after getting on board the Penguin before he became fully aware of his condition (1).

The survivors of the Ariel (irrational-unconscious) are saved by a much larger and higher ship, the Penguin (rational-conscious).

In the second episode, aboard the Grampus, Pym is placed below deck in order to avoid being discovered. From his experiences below deck, a vivid description of life in a non-rational, unconscious state emerges. It is dark, confusing, and upset below and there must be a strict and proper ordering if one is to be in any way comfortable (Augustus ’ living arrangements for Pym, II, 735). Once one has entered this world of the unconscious, there must be a way out of the maze (the string to the trap-door, II, 736), although it is a dark and confusing route. Time is unimportant below deck and instruments of consciousness (time) do not operate there (the clock running down twice, II, 737-39). Interest in knowledge declines and putrefaction of the animate begins to set in. Isolation becomes the theme, and the social animal is now in an abnormal position (II, 739). Yet one must struggle against this isolation or be trapped in a human burial (death in life, II, 741). It is extremely difficult to communicate with one below deck — contacts are mere brief passages of light. The note sent to Pym from Augustus is a case in point: a mind in rational control of itself would have immediately thought of reading the other side (II, 743-44). Moreover, by using the dog Tiger to find the missing pieces of the note, Poe seems to suggest that a brute animal power must be employed to gain contact with the upper deck. (Pym’s later use of a sense of touch to discern which side of the note contained the writing, however, is a rational consideration.) On this level, the thought of suicide is often contemplated, but reason can check this impulse (Pym and his mad dog, II, 746). When contact is finally made, there is a great flow of excitement (Pym hearing Augustus, yet unable to act, II, 747) . Once the senses are regained, they tend to be somewhat distorted at first (Pym’s uncontrolled voice and the deliverance from the prison-house of irrationality, II, 748). Attempting penetration from the conscious sphere into that of the unconscious is difficult (Augustus struggles to get below, II, 757), while the passage from below to above must be gradual and slow (II, 758).

The Grampus itself is seen to have a sharply drawn [column 2:] above-and-below dichotomy.

It was fitted up in the most comfortable style — a thing somewhat unusual in a whaling-vessel. There were four very excellent staterooms, with wide and convenient berths. There was also a large stove, I took notice, and a remarkably thick and valuable carpet covering the floor of both the cabin and staterooms . . . . everything appeared of a more roomy and agreeable nature than I had anticipated. (II, 734)

Contrasted with this pleasant above deck, there is a highly disordered below deck.

In every other direction around was wedged as closely as possible, even up to the ceiling, a complete chaos of almost every species of ship-furniture, together with a heterogeneous medley of crates, hampers, barrels, and bales, so that it seemed a matter no less than miraculous that we had discovered any passage at all. . . . . (II, 735)

Poe has been criticized for having spent so much time and space describing the stowage of the Grampus, yet in the light of this above-below, conscious-unconscious imagery, such a description becomes meaningful. The stowage is important in that it is the unconscious of this particular society (the ship). The stowage must be reasoned out carefully (II, 759). Sometimes, even a well-screwed cargo can go astray and rend a vessel asunder at sea. The shifting of ideas, goals, and duties (the stowage as unconscious) must be well arranged before going out to sea (II, 760). It is no wonder that this ship has trouble, having such a disordered stowage (II, 761); it is the self or society with a disordered unconscious. This irrational-unconscious society breeds mutiny, murder, and cannibalism. As more articles break loose below deck, the community becomes more anti-rational. For example, as articles break loose below deck, two seamen go over to the mate’s gang, the side of the pirates (II, 764). Indeed, the mutineers live below deck, drinking freely and revelling. They are in some stage of intoxication (an irrational state) in each of their appearances in the narrative. However, even though in this irrational state, they guard against Peters, but since his attack against them is directed precisely at this mental state it naturally is successful.

In the third episode, there are many references to the journey below the equator, downward toward the South Pole, where there is, generally, a lack of habitation and great uncertainty. The most striking examples of below the earth imagery in the episode are Pym and Peters trapped in the cave-in, and the discovery of the engraved letters below the surface of the earth in the chasms. But the high-low imagery of the entire novel includes such oppositions as Pym’s parents (reason) and Pym (irrationality), and Peters (reason and experience) and Pym (irrationality and naivete). After examining this motif, it becomes apparent that the journey downward does not have to be negatively irrational; it can be good. There is both good and bad in the unconscious and it is merely a question of how this unconscious is ordered. Under proper conditions the unconscious can be the source of both nourishment (the food below the water) and salvation (Pym and Peters saved by the cave-in). The entire leitmotif moves the reader to a symbolic interpretation of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (2). The keys to this symbolic reading are the words engraved upon the walls of the chasm on the island of Tsalal: “To be shady” — [page 31:] “To be white” — “The region of the south.”

There is a light and dark pattern of imagery which follows the inscriptions on the walls. The pattern moves from shade to light to the white region of the south. Pym boarded the Grampus in fog. Augustus could attempt to reach Pym below deck only at night. Rogers was poisoned in hazy weather. The black cook (foreshadowing the depravity of Tsalal) joined the mate’s pirate gang in hazy weather. Jones quarreled with and broke away from Peters in hazy weather. The ship was recaptured at night. Pym submitted to cannibalism in fog. Pym and Peters did not have enough courage to throw Augustus overboard until night. Yet the pattern changes after crossing the equator — vision here is clear, and there is continual daylight. The island of Tsalal is in this region and is the last and most fearful obstacle to overcome before the region of the south can be reached. Tsalal is the island of blackness, the sphere of total depravity. The island is strange and the natives exist on an animal level. Everything on the island is dark, and the island’s predominant animal life is of a rudimentary sort. Whiteness cannot be allowed to live on this island. The connotations of whiteness are fearful things to the depraved individuals whose very teeth are black. From this island, the region of the south is to be reached. The white animals, the white birds, and the white ashes falling from above precede the vision of the white figure.

Reduced to its barest components, the myth of life, Theodor H. Gaster has suggested, contains the themes of conflict, discomfiture, and restoration (3). This is more or less the ordering of events in Pym. In this work, there is no apparent goal in terms of conscious and rational human life, but rather there is the symbolic and unconscious journey downward through the levels of the human soul. That is, we see a pilgrimage of purgation which moves through the various spheres in which man operates, ultimately reaching the pure and white prime-mover, which in a religious sense is a kind of supreme being — or in a secular sense the great primal, yet often distorted, human motivating power. Pym is the passive voyager who is moved through these realms through no conscious choice of his own. Yet his original desire to embark on a search for possibility (not knowing where it would lead him) was a conscious one, even though irrational. There was an urge to know and to discover, the urge which is lacking in the spiritually dead “land-dwellers.”

The very progression of events is meaningful in this interpretation. Pym left home and land in search of possibility. In the second episode, the mutiny aboard the Grampus becomes the sphere of man against man, of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. The shipwreck, on the other hand, is clearly the sphere of man against physical nature. That the two ships which pass the survivors by represent a transcendental moral sphere is clearly implied. The black ship of plague death is the death of the sinful: it is a hermaphrodite brig of the type used by pirates; the ship is black; it has a cheap, tawdry gilt figure-head; the bodies aboard the ship were in a state of putrefaction; the corpses were of a saffron-like hue, a red-yellow. Just as the black ship is the sinful dead, the second ship is the sinful living. This ship bypassed the survivors without [column 2:] aiding them. The more horrible descent into cannibalism on the part of Pym, Peters, and Augustus can yet be read as man’s animalistic instinct for life. (The death of Augustus is death of another type — the death of the sinless: the good suffer and die also. Pym and Peters encountering the sharks can be interpreted as man in conflict with the lower animals.) The island of Tsalal, however, brings the journey almost to its end with man in a state of total depravity — the lowest stage of the human animal. Man must pass through all of these spheres in a journey of purgation before he can reach the realm of whiteness and come in contact with the figure of purity.

From the ship, the world of evil in which good cannot act rationally, Pym moves through darkness to whiteness and finally down to the region of the south. It is not an easy journey. Once the region is within range, there are many obstacles to overcome. The sharks, the ice, and the current moving in an opposite direction are enough to force back the weak and unsure. But if one is strong and adventurous, if one’s thirst for knowledge is great enough, these obstacles can be overcome. The current then aids the voyager by moving toward the south; the ice diminishes and the weather becomes warmer. After the final obstacle has been overcome, the route to the south is open. The journey of Arthur Gordon Pym becomes, then, the purgative journey of man: from shadow to light to salvation. Pym’s journey is a fictive enactment of Whitman’s poetic plea in “Passage to India”:

Sail forth — steer for the deep waters only,

Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me,

For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,

And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!

farther farther sail!

O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?

O farther, farther, farther sail!



(1)  The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Arthur H. Quinn and Edward H. O ’Neill (New York, 1951), II, 731.

(2)  There have been, of course, many readings of Pym. Two works in particular are interesting for their interpretations of Pym and for their discussions of other readings: Patrick F. Quinn’s The French Face of Edgar Poe (Carbondale, 1957) and Walter E. Bezanson’s “The Troubled Sleep of Arthur Gordon Pym” in Essays in Literary History Presented to J. Milton French (New Brunswick, 1960), pp. 149-175. Two other essays which touch upon rational-irrational imagery in Poe are Richard P. Benton’s “Poe’s ‘The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether ’: Dickens or Willis?” Poe Newsletter, I (April 1968), 7-9; and Richard Wilbur’s “The House of Poe,” in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Ann Arbor, 1966), pp. 255-277. That a “moral” element is more important in Poe’s writings than has been generally acknowledged is suggested in Jay L. Halio’s “The Moral Mr. Poe,” Poe Newsletter, I (October 1968), 23-24.

(3)  Thespis (New York, 1950), p. 55.


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1969]