The Mystery of Our Being In Existence was now soon Explained: Language, Hieroglyphs, and the Human in Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

McDaniel, Eric, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ogden, Emily, Department of English, University of Virginia

In thesis, I explore how Poe draws on Jean-François Champollion's translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs and corresponding theory of lingual development in order to propose answers to the most fundamental questions of human existence: how did we come to exist and for what purpose? In pursuing the answers to these questions, Poe traces, in reverse, language’s development. Near the novel’s conclusion, he diagrams glyphs that are not just literal in meaning but also naturally formed; in the preface, by contrast, he considers language’s modern capacity for fiction, hoaxing, and deception. Between these two poles, marked by the novel’s end and its beginning, the uses of language that Poe treats become less abstract and more concrete, culminating with the Champollion-esque glyphs and a shrouded white figure. To answer the questions of human existence—or, as Arthur Gordon Pym says in the novel’s opening chapter, “the mystery of our existence”—Poe posits (or so I argue) that we must engage in an act of decryption, a raveling, from the abstract to the concrete to the elemental. At the most elemental of language, as represented by the novel's conclusion, we find the intermingled origins both of language and man.

MA (Master of Arts)
hieroglyphs, nineteenth century, narrative, Jean-François Champollion, human origin, Edgar Allan Poe, language, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, American Renaissance
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