Poe’s short novel (1838) seems to fit perfectly with a certain line in the development of American Romantic fiction, namely the emphasis on the individual. In Wieland (1798), Charles Brockden Brown questions the capacities of the individual to see if people were ready for democratic government; James Fenimore Cooper, in The Last of Mohicans (1826), looks at the marginalized individual in isolation, in the wild, to locate the corrupting influence of civilization and to find a more natural morality that might help society; and in The Scarlet Letter (1850) Nathaniel Hawthorne treats his characters as foils for the “author’s” subjectivity, as the “author” works out his relationship to his past, his guilt, and his society. Poe takes this emphasis on the individual much deeper. Despite his attempts at verisimilitude, Arthur Gordon Pym’s tangible world reflects his mind much more than it reflects objective reality. With this novel, Poe is not simply representing a stable psyche terrain, but rather he is digging below the surface and looking into the darkest holds and chasms of the mind.
The novel proceeds in a series of episodes, and in each one, Pym is pushed to the farthest extremity of human endurance. Yet, unlike Cooper’s Hawkeye, Pym isn’t tried to the limits in order to reveal his ingenuity at extricating himself (or, rather, to prove his manhood); in fact, Pym is rescued by outside forces. Also, when Pym is tried, what gets revealed goes beyond a simple depiction of a phobia, such as of isolation, interment, or hunger. While these phobias are significant, they seem to be the symptoms of a malady that is buried deeper within the psyche, and it is something at this lower level – not so much its conspicuous manifestations – that the novel seems intent to cast a light upon. Perhaps, it is the resistance of the thing to being pulled out of the dark that makes the novel so slippery and Pym so elusive. Even so, with each successive episode, the narrator seems to be attempting to get closer to it, venturing deeper south, toward the hole where everything vanishes.
If this is the case, then of course the ending has to be lost and the white figure never revealed. Also, reading the white figure as a rescuing ship would be reductive and anticlimactic; reading it as Jesus or God, while possible, would be an abrupt move upward, rather than downward and inward (Kopley xxv). Following the psychological path, the novel could be read as the narrator not merely digging into his unconscious but also tracing his identity back to its core, the matrix at which both his life and death drive are possibly conjoined. This would add a new dimension to all the chasm imagery and the repeated occurrences of interment. Perhaps, however, the white figure is not exactly the end, but rather an intermediary, a doorkeeper such as we find in Kafka’s The Trail – for the end itself must remain ineffable, always resisting symbolization or definition in language. After all, the figure arises “in the pathway,” interposing itself between the characters and the chasm that “threw itself open to receive” them. Such a reading could shed light on the role of Pym as artist and writer, for it is in the divesting of the symbolic trappings, the resistance to a stable definition, that the artist achieves negative capability, becomes everyone and no one, and turns polymorphic. As a man without qualities (to borrow Robert Musil’s phrase), the artist has no desire of his own and thus becomes a passive receptacle, easily acted upon and easily changed.