The novel “The Purple Cloud” by M.P. Shiel was published for the first time in 1901. It’s freely available on Project Gutenberg’s website.
An expedition is set up to reach for the first time the North Pole and win the huge prize left in his will by a millionaire for the one who succeeded in accomplishing such a feat. Adam Jeffson finds a place in the expedition thanks to his fiancée, who resorts to poisoning her own cousin to prevent him from taking part to it instead of her fiancé.
Over the course of his journey, Adam Jeffson starts having a growing sense of forces guiding him. Through vicissitudes, he manages to be the first to reach the North Pole but when he begins his return journey he finds only corpses and only a purple cloud of unknown nature as a possible cause.
“The Purple Cloud” was first published serialized in the literary magazine “The Royal Magazine” in the early months of 1901 and then published as a book after a few months in a longer version. In 1920 M.P. Shiel (Matthew Phipps Shiel) published a new version following a linguistic revision.
M.P. Shiel seems to have been inspired by Edgar Allan Poe and in particular to his novel “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” for the narrative structure that has a complex frame since Adam Jeffson’s story is written by a medium who has the power to contact souls from the past and the future, and the manuscripts pass through various hands to reach the narrator. The polar setting and some other elements are also shared by the two stories.
The beginning of “The Purple Cloud” is used to define the frame regarding the story’s source and its foundations, with the introduction of the protagonist Adam Jeffson and the circumstances that led him to participate in the expedition to the North Pole. His fiancée seems really ready for anything to give him the chance to win the huge prize promised to the one who reached the North Pole first but soon it becomes clear that he seems ruthless as well.
Unlike Edgar Allan Poe, M.P. Shiel tells the journey to the pole in the first part of the novel but later his one becomes an apocalyptic story, the reason why it’s considered among the forerunners of today’s apocalyptic science fiction. It’s still the story of a journey, but the circumstances are different because Adam Jeffson travels on his own in a world full of corpses and therefore also in a rather macabre and alienating situation. Already in the initial part the protagonist’s journey diary had introspective moments, subsequently it becomes even more an inner journey parallel to his physical one, becoming sometimes dreamlike.
Adam Jeffson’s journey continue for several years with the description of the places he visits and what he does here and there around the world and at the same time his reflections and his emotions, typically intense. Overall, he seems to me an anti-hero for his actions and for his growing conviction that he was chosen to start a new humanity. The interpretation becomes particularly subjective regarding the protagonist’s religious remarks and in my case they have helped to see him in a negative way because he gives me the impression of using them to justify his bad actions.
Regardless of the subjective reactions, I find it hard to think that one can read “The Purple Cloud” without ever being disturbed by certain behaviors by Adam Jeffson. In my case this prevented me from fully getting into his journey’s story, on the contrary together with the typical verbosity of the travel journals of the time he gradually made me get out of the story. However, the concept of struggle between Black and White is something universal and the introspection about the protagonist’s loneliness and the humanity he left behind can inspire reflections to anyone.
In the end, “The Purple Cloud” is a type of novel that leaves me with mixed feelings. There are evocative moments and interesting reflections but Adam Jeffson’s behavior caused me a progressive repulsion that definitely cooled down my enthusiasm while reading it. For these reasons I recommend it only to people interested in this type of story.