Chris Jaynes: the Anti-Hero of the Day

By Adelia Callear, Savannah Burley, Makayla Garrison, Marisa Greaney, Iris Kahris, Nick Parks, McKinley Skala

In Mat Johnson’s novel, Pym, denotation and connotation are used in various parts throughout the novel where interactions could be viewed in various ways. These terms are closely related, both serving each other through their own meanings. Denotation is defined as the “literal or primary meaning of a word, in contrast to the feelings or ideas that the word suggests”. It is the direct meaning(s) of a word as distinguished from ideas associated with it. For example, when one says “sick,” the denotation of this would be when one is physically ill. On the other end, connotation is an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal/primary meaning, primarily an abstract/subjective meaning. Referring to the first example, “sick” depending on the tone/context it’s presented in could mean “awesome”, “cool”, “gross”, “gnarly”, “ill”, “unwell”, etc. Connotations tend to be associated as positive or negative, certain words that may have the same denotation can be described connotatively differently. Childlike would be seen with a more positive connotation whereas childish is negative, implying immaturity. Antique is more positive, portraying something rustic and serving value, whereas decrepit is negative, seen as old and holding little value. Within our reading of Pym, Johnson integrates connotations within his writing then explicitly defines or explains his references through denotations within the footnotes. On page 214, Pym describes the Tsalalians as black, which offers Johnson an opportunity to explain through footnote the different connotations associated with a white person or calling someone else black. He writes, “‘Pym said ‘black’ the way really white people do: not like they are simply naming the pigment, which those people do in one quick syllable, but in the way that made the word specific to Negroes. This black had at least two syllables and there was always enough emphasis on the second syllable to convey all of the anxiety the speaker had about my ethnic group as a whole. Ba-laaaaaaaaack.” This footnote offers insight into the way in which Pym perceives the world. In addition, this example shows the importance of tone and understanding different connotations of a word because it can imply a totally different meaning. Additionally going deeper into different characters’ characterizations, three of the crew members associate “love” with different connotations despite knowing the true denotation. Angela sees love as something flirtatious, consuming, and selfless as seen in her last act of trying to save her husband Nathaniel. Nathaniel in turn, views love as more possessive in nature and complacent, seeing Angela as “his” and expecting her to do as he wishes. Chris reprimands Nathaniel for these views over Angela, yet hypocritically thinks the same way. He feels love more selfishly and obsessively, since he’s vowed to win back Angela eventually and hasn’t rid her from his mind for almost a decade after the end of their relationship. 

As we finished Pym, the ending scene created a plethora of interpretations for the reader to reflect on. The class had a discussion about the multiple meanings behind the Tsalalians waving their hands in the air. The frantic waving could be interpreted as excitement, fear, enthusiasm, or the seeking of attention. Other interpretations were possible warning signs or motions of shooing the tiny crew away. Chris had expressed that they were “relieved” and “waved [their arms] back” at the man (322). Chris and Garth did not acknowledge the specific context of the Tsalian’s actions, yet they input their own connotations which allowed the reader to infer the original contexts to be more positive than negative, especially given the overall journey of the novel to be to land on this island and allow Chris to finally see Tsalal. He further expresses his comfortability arriving to this foreign land by stating “On the shore all I could discern was a collection of brown people, and this, of course, is a planet on which such are the majority” (page 322). Chris is accustomed to living in the minority, as the readers became aware of right from the start of the novel with Chris’ experience with his rejection of tenure and the Diversity Committee. He desired to find a place on Earth where he would be fully comfortable with those around him. Chris and his fellow companions, in a way, escaped the rest of the world by pursuing their research/work in Antarctica, only to be put right back into the minority and enslaved shortly after by an ironically white species (the snowmen). Chris’s miscalculations and ambitious nature brought the demise of the majority of the crew; his adventure leading them away from the end of the world only to have their own be crushed as well, more permanently for some than others. 

The ending of Pym also brings into question how human nature can lead to genocidal actions. Chris in particular, felt disgusted by the creatures, and felt little to no sympathy towards the life that the creatures were living. In his mind, poisoning all the creatures was acceptable, intending to kill all of them, was justifiable in order for the crew and himself to survive. The way the creatures are described by Chris portray them in a way that leads their physical attributes far away from that of a human, intending to dehumanize the creatures as much as possible. Some dehumanizing language such as calling the humanoid beings “beasts” and “sausage nose”, meant to belittle their existence (302, 305).  This is part of the reason why Chris had little remorse, similar to colonizers, as they often saw native peoples as less or nothing like humans, or what they thought as a “human”.  Furthermore in regards to human nature, we see that Chris embodies many different traits–both negative and positive–that also reside within the other characters. Nathaniel and Chris both are nearly the same person, just depicted as two different characters who despise each other for the traits they each possess. Both are selfish and possessive, especially in regards to Angela’s love, as mentioned earlier in our essay. Augustus and Chris also hold pity for one another, observing the situations the other is in–Chris’s enslavement and starvation vs Augustus’s poor living condition and isolation from his species. They additionally hold large amounts of curiosity as they each try to understand the other’s species/language (as shown with Augustus learning a few English words and Chris understanding their culture/way of life). Lastly, Chris and Pym, despite being portrayed as opposing characters, they are basically parallels of each other within different races. They both are self-serving and strive to support their race. They regard the places they found as Heaven with its inhabitants as gods or godly beings, the Tekelili to Pym as the Tsalalians are to Chris. Human nature is taken into a much wider perspective within Pym, its entire existence creating both beautiful things yet devastating endings/events for others.

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