The Use of Sexuality in “The Paradise of Bachelors and The Tartarus of Maids”

Herman Melville’s iconic short stories, “The Paradise of Bachelors and The Tartarus of Maids” are both rife will elements of human sexuality, which was a hot/controversial undercurrent in American literature at the time. Many writers such as Melville and his contemporaries often played with the question of sexuality and its controversially stifled position in Victorian society. Melville and many other during his time were able to question societal constructs in regards to sexuality via innuendos and small hints. While this is obviously covered in many works of Melville such as “Typee”, it takes center stage in Melville’s well-known “Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids” and will be explored in this essay as well as the significance of Melville’s comparison of male and female sexuality.

In Melville’s first depiction out of the two short stories; “Paradise of Bachelors”, Melville makes note in the first few pages that the narrator is “different” than the bachelors of the story. First and foremost, the narrator is not a bachelor, but explains that he was able to secure lodgings in London with the faux Knights Templar via one of their current members. Though the narrator describes the feasting and festivities with impressive grandeur and awe over the lavish lifestyles of the bachelors, one may note that the fact that he is married gives him an unbiased sense of perspective towards the merry revelers.

The bachelors, as the narrator points out are virtually free of the responsibilities that most are faced through everyday life. The narrator states:

It was the very perfection of quiet absorption of good living, good drinking, good feeling, and good talk. We were a band of brothers. Com-fort — fraternal, household comfort, was the grand trait of the affair. Also, you could plainly see that these easyhearted men had no wives or children to give an anxious thought. Almost all of them were travelers, too; for bachelors alone can travel freely, and without any twinges of their consciences touching desertion of the fire-side. (Paradise of Bachelors 6)

In this passage, the narrator make several key distinctions. First and foremost, the narrator keys in on the concept of the excess and seemingly the overabundance of feasting and revelry amongst the bachelors. Throughout the story, it is blatantly obvious that the bachelors are drinking and eating excessively simply because the have the means to do so. Next of course, to justify their means in order to do so is their lack of obligation to those of the opposite sex. The narrator implies that in the celibacy of the bachelors is in itself a sort of pleasure. Though the bachelors do not take part in any sexual exploits, they are seemingly so detached from common society that there is a sense of irrelevance in the eyes of the bachelors. Their reveling has a sense of sexuality to it as well. Note this important quotation by the narrator in regards to the bachelors use of the snuff tobacco.

Capital idea this, thought I, of taking snuff at about this juncture. This good-ly fashion must be introduced among my coun-trymen at home, further ruminated I.

The remarkable decorum of the nine bach-elors — a decorum not to be affected by any quantity of wine — a decorum unassailable by any degree of mirthfulness — this was again set in a forcible light to me, by now observing that, though they took snuff very freely, yet not a man so far violated the proprieties, or so far molested the invalid bachelor in the adjoining room as to indulge himself in a sneeze. The snuff was snuffed silently, as if it had been some fine innoxious powder brushed off the wings of butterflies. (Paradise of Bachelors 7)

This quotation is important because of its description of the bachelors snuff snorting ritual, which is key in deciphering the bachelors sexual repression. Towards the ending of the aforementioned quotation, the narrator notes the refusal of the “indulgence” of a sneeze. As common knowledge would defend, the sneeze, by many, is considered an act of arousing pleasure, one of many sexual pleasures that the bachelors choose to not partake in. Note the important disconnect that the bachelors have with the lower echelon of society. As previously mentioned, the bachelors are disconnected quite thoroughly with the rest of society and their revelling and merriment blinds/preoccupies them from the struggles of the factory working maids, which are presented in “The Tartarus of Maids”. The only blatant connection between these two stories lie in the fact that the narrator remains the same and that the paper mill itself appears to be an inversion of the Temple bar. However, the themes of sex and sexuality are also comparative in “The Tartarus of Maids”.

As the “Tartarus of Maids” begins, one may note two distinct features in comparison to the Temple Bar and London and the Dante-esque landscape of Massachusetts during the Winter, the other quickly noticeable comparison is the paper mill to the female body. The Temple Bar is not only visited by our narrator in the Spring, the location has a much festive atmosphere. In comparison, the paper mill is described as thus:

It lies not far from Woedolor Mountain in New England. Turning to the east, right out from among bright farms and sunny meadows, nodding in early June with odorous grasses, you enter ascendingly among bleak hills. These gradually close in upon a dusky pass, which, from the violent Gulf Stream of air unceasing-ly driving between its cloven walls of haggard rock, as well as from the tradition of a crazy spinster’s hut having long ago stood somewhere hereabouts, is called the Mad Maid’s Bellows’- pipe.

Winding along at the bottom of the gorge is a dangerously narrow wheel-road, occupying the bed of a former torrent. Following this road to its highest point, you stand as within a Dantean gateway. (Tartarus of Maids 8)

This opening scene provides many important distinctions. First, the narrator notes a “turning away from the warmth. The narrator mentions the beautiful rolling meadows and then quickly whisks us away to the icy chill of June in New England. There is something to also admire with Melville’s beautiful prose here as well. Melville paints an impressive picture by using words such as “bleak”, “haggard” and “dusky” help to clue the reader in on the barren Winter, but as we will soon find out, these characteristics of June in New England are strikingly similar to the maids of the mill themselves. Next, the narrator mentions the “Mad Maids Bellows-pipe”. This picture of a gaping maw leading in towards the vicinity of the mill is one that will reoccur all too often. The mill and its nearby landmarks take blatant female characteristics, which will be further explored into the next paragraph, but the last key piece of prose from the aforementioned quotation is the “Dantaen getaway”–this of course signifies to the reader that this area is not only barren and bitingly brisk, it is equatable to hell itself, which in Dante’s Inferno; the centermost circles of hell are pictured by Dante Alighieri as a frozen wasteland of torture and toil.

Quickly circling back to the theme of the “Mad Maids Bellows-pipe”, the female characteristics that are given to the area surrounding the mill are blatant and strikingly common. As the narrator continues his description of the landscape he notes:

By the country people this hollow is called the Devil’s Dungeon. Sounds of torrents fall on all sides upon the ear. These rapid waters unite at last in one turbid brick-colored stream, boiling through a flume among enormous boulders. They call this strange-colored torrent Blood River. Gaining a dark precipice it wheels sud-denly to the west, and makes one maniac spring of sixty feet into the arms of a stunted wood of gray haired pines, between which it thence eddies on its further way down to the invisible low-lands.

From this quotation, key words arrive that take center stage in the importance of human sexuality in “The Tartarus of Maids”. The narrator describes the locale with descriptive terms such as “Devil’s Dungeon” and “Blood River”, which have seemingly obvious sexual connotations in relation to the female reproductive system.

Interestingly as well is the occupation of the narrator, who states that he is a seedsman and spreads his seeds all over the country. He has come to the paper mill to obtain more paper envelopes from the paper mill so that he can continue to disperse his seeds, which seems like another blatant sexual innuendo. (Tartarus of Maids 9)

When looking past the surface of the story and even deeper passed the sexual innuendos (which were largely frowned upon discussing at this time in history), one may importantly note the clear distinction that the narrator makes about the mill in comparison to Temple Bar. Virtually, they are complete inversions of one another. During “Paradise of Bachelors”, one of the main activities that the bachelors took part in revolved around them telling grand stories to pass the time. As we see in “The Tartarus of Maids”, the complete opposite is occurring as the narrator states

Not a syllable was breathed. Nothing was heard but the low, steady, overruling hum of the iron animals. The human voice was ban-ished from the spot. Machinery — that vaunted slave of humanity — here stood menially served by human beings, who served mutely and cring-ingly as the slave serves the Sultan. The girls did not so much seem accessory wheels to the general machinery as mere cogs to the wheels.

As mentioned previously this is the polar opposite of the mens position in society as compared to that of the women in society. Melville makes these distinctions known with bold and important purpose. The overseers of the paper mill have mandated that women are not allowed to speak. Not only because it hinders productivity, but because it would give them a voice. At this particular time in history, we may postulate that Melville is perhaps giving a friendly nod towards the female writers of his day and sending a biting criticism towards those who refuse to allow women any true voice in the world–at the very least, this connection is uncanny. There is almost an obvious fear in society of the power of the voice of women, which is stifled by the male literary community. This can also be stretched outside of the world of literature and into the realm of common, everyday women. It is not as if to say that there were not many male factory workers in the United States during Melville’s tenure as an author, in fact Melville writer “Paradise of Bachelors” and “Tartarus of Maids” during the time of the industrial revolution and so factory work is reaching new heights in American society, but it can be noted that the lines of work in regards to females at this time in society are vastly limited outside of menial labor. Schooling has still not been made available to women of average means and therefore jobs such as becoming an attorney (Paradise of Bachelors makes note of the fact that the lawyers are of course all males) is largely unheard of during this time period for most, if not all women.

Melville, perhaps was not only critiquing the lack of the female voice and fear of female sexuality amongst the literary community, but seemingly this trend of stifling the female voice extends directly into most of American society in which domesticity take a central role for women. Cupid, is a shining example of Melville’s critique of women. The name Cupid itself provides some defense to this argument. Cupid, of course is pictured to be blindfolded in mythology, so for Melville to specifically use Cupid’s name in relation to the overseer (the owner of industry), it seems as though Melville is critiquing the blindness of males in society as a whole in regards to women and femininity. The paper mill is shown in a ghostly, frightening light, which seems to further bolster a sense of fear in female sexuality.

Melville greatly critiques how industrialization has almost removed the sexuality in society all together. The upper class a pictured as too busy, or too blind to the workers (particularly women) of lower stature in society. There is a cold impartiality radiating from Cupid in “Tartarus of Maids” and well as the lack of concern about changes in society by the bachelors in “Paradise of Bachelors”. Towards the end, the narrator mentions a nurse (or midwife):

“Oh,” knowingly whispered Cupid, through the din, “she only came last week. She was a nurse formerly. But the business is poor in these parts, and she’s left it. But look at the paper she is piling there.” (Tartarus of Maids 17)

The nurse has seemingly been driven out of her occupation due to the fact that society is too busy with industrialization to focus in on birthing babies. Of course, the maids are not able to associate with bachelors and the bachelors are too cheery and ignorant to take notice of females. The nine minute cycle of “birthing” the paper which ends at the former midwife is blatantly symbolic of the nine month pregnancy cycle of a woman, but since the world appears to busy for this, the midwife symbolically births the paper rather than babies.

Melville impressively hones his craft in order to launch a critique of industrialization, human (particularly female) sexuality and the female voice/femininity amongst the literary community. While there are many points and countless examples that Melville presents us with these dystopian and utopian (for rich WASP males) societies in “The Paradise of Bachelors” and “The Tartarus of Maids”, the aforementioned three themes are central to both stories in Melville’s attempt to prove that society has already somewhat launched into a dystopian future via industrialization and therefore these stories prove a warning for all of society if we are not able to find a thelemite-like society in which everyone lives in harmonious fashion.

Leave a Comment