The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) is Edgar Allan Poe’s only complete novel and tells the fateful tale of a young stowaway. After a heavy session on the beer, the young teenager and his friend Augustus set out on the whaling ship Ariel but when the weather turns for the worst they are forced to escape on a dinghy.
The whole experience seems to ignite a thirst for adventure in Pym and so the two set out to sea again, this time aboard the Gampus, which is commanded by Augustus’ father. On this adventure Pym has to hide below deck and takes his pet dog Tiger with him as a companion. The conditions are cramped and he’s reliant on Augustus to bring him food and water. When this does not materialise Pym becomes delirious. He considers coming out of hiding but is fearful as he discovers a letter written in blood attached to his dog warning that he must remain hidden.
When Augustus finally returns he explains there has been a mutiny and half the crew have been slaughtered. His father, the captain, has escaped in a small boat. As nobody knows about Pym’s presence, he is able to convince the superstitious sailors he’s a ghost and the two friends, along with another crew member, are able to wrestle back control of the mutinous ship. The remaining sailors are disposed of or thrown overboard except one, Richard Parker.
This victory is short lived and as you’d expect from Poe, there isn’t a happy ending. A terrible storm ravages the boat and set adrift and starving, the remaining crew are forced to follow the Custom of the Sea. The young cabin boy Richard Parker draws the short straw and ends up as lunch.
I recently came across Richard Parker again in Leviathan, the Samuel Johnson Prize winning book by Philip Hoare. In this, Hoare reveals an eerie real life story of cannibalism that happened forty years later from Poe’s story when the survivors of a shipwrecked yacht sailing from Southampton to Australia were also forced into extreme measures and ate the cabin boy. “By remarkable coincidence, his name was also Richard Parker, and his memorial in the local churchyard, close to where I grew up, forever fascinated me with its ghoulish epitaph: Though he slay me yet will I trust in him.”
My favourite book of all time is Yann Martel’s Booker-winning The Life of Pi (2001). In this story a zoo owner in Pondicherry, India transports his family and their zoo across the Pacific to Canada to embark on a new life. But on the way it sinks and the young boy Pi survives 227 days stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. It’s never made explicit whether the tiger is a figment of his imagination, a traumatic reaction to the tragic loss of his family, or whether the event really happened. This is a clever metaphor as ultimately it is down to individuals what they choose to believe or how they interpret the ‘same’ facts.
It’s hard to think of a more significant name in literature than Richard Parker and a great example of the power of intertexuality to bring a magical dimension to story telling. The fact that Pym’s pet dog is called Tiger in the Poe tale makes Martel’s choice of name and animal even more relevant. Whether Richard Parker’s destiny was an unfortunate coincidence or an example of synchronicity is something that we’ll never know. But the story we choose to believe, as Martel has so cleverly highlighted, reveals more about the reader than it does the author.