Mechanization Takes Command in Melville’s “The Tartarus of Maids”

In Melville’s short story, “The Tartarus of Maids,” Melville creates a foil to the preceding short story, “The Paradise of Bachelors.” Melville juxtaposes these two stories as if in imitation of Blake’s contrasting poems with a theme of balance. One of those themes in the narratives is modernization and mechanization in the two places. The first has little mechanical or technological presence. It has too much of the carnal and the earthly body. However, “The Tartarus of Maids,” the representative hellish life of a maid, is ruled by machinery. Melville creates a hell in which machinery runs the lives of the women instead of the other way around in order to warn of this dangerous slavery to machines and to condemn the loss of humanity. Melville uses the cold and whiteness of the setting along with paper to symbolize this loss of humanity and path towards blankness.Melville sets the story in the high mountains filled with cold and snow. It is no coincidence that in the location of the paper-mill “you would hardly believe it now, but it is colder than at the top of Woedolor Mountain’” according to Mr. Bach (286). The names of places in the setting also reflect this coldness and despair. The mountain’s name contains “woe” as part of the title, the river is “Blood River,” and the valley of the paper-mill is “Devil’s Dungeon” (272). These names immediately create a sense of foreboding, evil, and despair. Melville once again foreshadows the overall horror of the story. He also does this through the weather on the way to the paper-mill. The narrator describes the trees and plants as “feeling the same all-stiffening influence, their inmost fibres penetrated with the cold” (273). This coldness for now seems as nothing more than cold weather, but the image created by frozen trees and some “all-stiffening influence” leaves the reader with some disquiet. The cold seems unnatural in some way, a little too cold for the forecast. Then the narrator describes the wind shrieking “as if laden with lost spirits bound to the unhappy world” (273). Shrieking winds and lost spirits are red flags to the reader. We know that there is something amiss when the wind sounds supernatural and sad. The first sight of the paper-mill itself comes through “a pass of Alpine corpses” when “suddenly a whirring, humming sound” alerts the narrator to the site of the paper-mill (274). The area is dead, “a pass of corpses” except for the whirring of the paper-mill.The sound is no of humans, but of machinery. It is not much more alive than the cold scenery and dead mountains. The narrator declares that the paper-mill is “‘the very counterpart of the Paradise of Bachelors, but snowed upon, and frost-painted to a sepulchre’” (275). The snow upon the paper-mill symbolizes the coldness and death associated with the machinery. It is no accident that he describes the place as a tomb covered with ice and snow. Immediately thoughts of death, isolation, and coldness associate themselves with the very building of the paper-mill.The people at the paper-mill, all maids but two men, show the same coldness and deadness as the setting, they reflect the white paper they are making surrounded by white snow. The first girl he meets is “blue with cold” and has “an eye supernatural with unrelated misery” (276). Once again, the cold is set with unhappiness and the girl is as cold and miserable as the mountain wind. Melville implies that the paper-mill and its machinery steals life from the girls working in the factory. The link between the blank paper and blank girls is emphasized ruthlessly in the passage, “At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper” (277). The narrator notices that the machine makes red paper, but the cheeks of the girls are white. The paper seems to drain the life from the girl into itself as he looks from “rosy paper to pallid cheeks” (277). We see this theme again in reference to the Blood River.Blood symbolizes the red life of humanity and gives color to our skin and usually symbolizes passion or anger, the height of human emotion. However, these girls are pale while the redness of the river flows into the paper. Ironically it is Blood River that turns the wheel that “‘sets out whole machinery a-going’” (280). The life force of the river runs the machine, not the humans. The narrator stumbles saying it unusual that “‘red waters should turn out pale chee- paper, I mean’” (279). Obviously he was thinking of the pale cheeks and not pale paper, but it is symbolic of the reverse nature of the paper-mill. The humans give life to the machines and the machines kill the humans. Melville explains the relationship between the two in the passage, “the human voice was banished from the spot. Machinery- the vaunted slave of humanity- here stood menially served by human beings, who served mutely and cringingly as the slave serves the Sultan. The girls…mere cogs to the wheels” (277-8). The humans serve the machine instead of the other way around. Humans designed machines to improve their life and make it easier, but instead we have sold our souls to run the machines. The girls are “feeding the iron animal” but with more than just paper. The machine’s comparison with an animal gives it life. It is not “a mere machine” (283).The nature of the relationship is terrible enough, but Melville seems most appalled by the submission of humanity to that relationship. The narrator says, “Always, more or less, machinery…strikes, in some moods, strange dread into the human heart…But what made the thing I saw so specially terrible to me was the metallic necessity, the unbudging fatality which governed it” (284). He cannot abide the attitude of the humans towards this monstrosity as inevitable or necessary.The narrator calls the girls, “Their own executioners; themselves whetting the very swords that slay them” (281). They are their own executioners because they willingly work for the machine, which drains their life from them. We see the symbolic nature of this when he sees “Glued to the pallid incipience of the pulp, the yet more pallid faces of all the pallid girls…slowly, mournfully…yet unresistingly, they gleamed along” (285). Their very faces are now imprinted on the white paper. They cannot even have their own face. They give everything to the machine and become nothing more than the paper the machine produces. We are slightly disturbed by the narrator’s line, “my travels were at an end, for here was the end of the machine” (283). If as John Locke suggests, “the human mind” is “at birth…a sheet of blank paper,” then the final product as blank paper suggests death (284). The girls leave as they entered life: blank sheets of paper.The narrator’s cheeks serve as a symbolic cycle and indicator through the story. It seems fitting to end with them since they are symbolic at the beginning, middle, and end. In them we find the conclusion of the story. His cheeks are frozen upon arrival and must be revived. When he leaves, he feels certain that his cheeks will be fine once he leaves Devil’s Dungeon. His cheeks represent the drainage of life by proximity to the machine. The only way to save his rosy cheeks is to leave the place and the machine. Our narrator escapes, but what of the girls trapped inside this factory of robotic life?

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