Melville on Inequality: A Study of the Shorter Fiction
There is, perhaps, no other American author whose work has been so hotly debated than Herman Melville. The white whale at the center of his most famous work, a juxtaposition of gender in America, an odd scrivener, and his much discussed story of a slave mutiny in “Benito Cereno”; the meaning behind Melville’s work has remained mysterious. The reason there is so much contention about his work, is because Melville was not writing as an all-knowing observer of American society, but as one of the masses trying to define an ever-evolving America. In Melville’s short stories, he used symbolism and characterization to define not only the one-of-a-kind America, but also his own feelings of disillusionment and guilt living in a time and place that he was able to capture beautifully through literature. De Crèvecoeur asked his famous question, “What is the American?” in America’s infancy, and Melville is one of the quintessential American authors whose work answers that question. Although descriptions of rolling hills and odes to freedom made for patriotic reading, they weren’t a very accurate portrayal of American life.
A recurring theme in Melville’s more honest portrayal of the country is inequality, especially in his short stories that were published for Putnam’s Monthly such as “Benito Cereno”, and “Bartleby, The Scrivener” (Post-Lauria 2). As Melville says in “Hawthorne and his Mosses”, a literary critique that reads more as a love-letter to his peer than a straightforward review, “Whereas great geniuses are parts of their time, they themselves are the time and possess a correspondent coloring,” (“Hawthorne and his mosses”). This sentence holds the key to all of Melville’s work, for he was a contextual writer, and writing for, “one of the most intellectual and politically progressive magazines of mid-nineteenth century America,” is the context “Benito Cereno” must be taken in (Post-Lauria 3). As the political rival of Harper’s Magazine, Putnam’s was more likely to criticize American society than it’s counterpart, as Melville was more likely to than his fellow authors of the time. Putnam’s was nearly peerless for the time in avoiding, “the popular rhetoric of sentiment,” so Melville was the perfect fit for the subversive paper, and the paper was the perfect fit for his political ideology, and ingrained beliefs about American society that he continuously challenged and examined through literature. Writing his whaling tales, Melville often plundered old whaling journals to transform into fiction.
One of these stolen tales created one of his most subversive works: “Benito Cereno” (Gallaway 241). “Benito Cereno” tells the tale of American Captain Amasa Delano coming aboard a mysterious ship with a Spanish captain by the name of Benito Cereno off the coast of Chile. To interpret Melville’s work shallowly, as many have, would be a mistake, for his work is characterized for its complexity. It’s quite easy to read “Benito Cereno” as a parable of good and evil, in which the white Spaniards represent good and the mutinous slaves represent evil. It’s an oversimplification that the narrator himself makes, but Melville’s narrators often come from a place of naivety, so to take the beliefs of Delano, a representation of America’s ignorance regarding racial disparity, would be falling into the very same trap Melville accuses Delano of. This novella is not a work of good and evil, but rather an, “insinuation and reflection on the persistent intermingling of good and evil and a paradigm of the dangers of warped consciousness,” (Gallaway 242). Delano is the American Hero stereotype, a man that acts before he thinks and sees the world in the dichotomy of good and evil. Melville was actually criticizing the American reverence of this hotheaded caricature of masculinity, for the captain is, “the same narcissistic vision of America’s destiny that planted missionaries and flags in the South Seas and the Melville himself so roundly condemned,” (Gallaway 243).
“Benito Cereno” is characterized by its contradictions, much like the very institution of chattel slavery. The contradiction between Babo the slave, and Babo the leader, between Cereno the meek captor with a key to nothing around his neck, and the stoic Atuful chained, and unchained. Melville even describes the ocean as both “undulating” and leaden (Hattenhauer 8). As a captain of a ship ruled by slaves, Don Benito hardly gives off a commanding presence as he, “at times, suddenly pausing, starting, or staring, biting his lip, biting his finger-nail, flushing, paling, twitching his beard,” (“Benito”) The captain of the starving Africans and bare-bones crew acted more like a prisoner waiting for the gallows than the captain of a ship for a supposedly great nation. Delano observes his dependence on his slave, Babo, with typical American arrogance and anti-royal attitudes, comparing Benito to Charles V. before retiring the throne (“Benito”). Amasa sees weakness in both the slave and master, not that the slave had in fact become the master, because his limited perspective, so when he “remarks that, “this slavery breeds ugly passions in men!”” he does so without, “considering the possibility of its breeding similarly ugly passions in the enslaved,” (Galloway 244). Benito, of course, is no longer the meek man once he takes escapes the ship with the help of Captain Delano. A key symbol in this work is the key around the neck of Don Benito that supposedly unlocks the chains restraining Atuful. Of course, the key is as fake as his dependence of Babo. This key that supposedly grants freedom to blacks once they behave civilly, represented by Atuful’s orders to say “Pardon,” represents the false promises made by white America to slaves (“Benito”). This was a time when many people believed in the “white man’s burden”, the belief that whites had the right to use labor from less civilized cultures because in doing so it civilizes them. Of course, Atuful will never pardon his former master, as slaves could have never fully evolved out of slavery by civilizing, or what is considered civilized in America, because it was just a scapegoat to subjugate a people based on false biological means. This belief of inherent ownership is characterized to the voice of Delano, for he immediately labels slaves as stupid, which prohibits him from seeing what is really happening aboard the San Dominick (“Benito”).
This limited perspective caused by his “Yankee provincialism” is what forms the critique of American society by Melville, similarly used in his short story “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” (Galloway 249) One hallmark of Melville’s writing is his exploration of structure, often mixing structures, or resurrecting old formats that modern writers had long abandoned. In “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” Melville writes a diptych, “after an ancient writing tablet having two hinged panels,” (Young 2). These parallel tales depict a secret society of merry bachelors, and the dehumanizing world of female factory work. “Bachelors” is a world of “bursting geniality,” in which men that have taken a vow of celibacy share stories of their adventures, pass alcohol with excessive camaraderie, and revel in the company of one another (Young 3). “Tartarus”, however, is a freezing white hellscape, the maidens inside not choosing this life of monotony, but forced in it by the patriarchal structure of society in not just America, but the entire world in a time of rapid industrial invention, signified by the Bachelor’s paradise being in the heart of London, and the Tartarus of maids being in New England. The paradise, however, is dependent on the Tartarus, for the exclusion of women is definitive to their own bond. As Weigman says, “while indeed counters to one another – on one side exists the masculine, symbolized by the repressed homosexuality of Paradise, and on the other in the feminine, marked by the nightmare geography of compulsory heterosexuality – they fail to reflect their opposites equally; instead they duplicate the asymmetrical representational economy of gender in which woman’s difference is articulated by and subsumed into the masculine,” (Weigman 4). “Piercingly and shrilly the shotted blast blew by the corner; and redly and demoniacally boiled by the Blood River at one side. A long wood-pile, of many scores of cords, all glittering in the mail of crusted ice, stood crosswise in the square. A row of horse-posts, their north sides plastered with adhesive snow, flanked the factory wall. The bleak frost packed and paved the square as with some ringing metal,” (“Paradise” 11). Red and white is one of the most powerful color combinations to the human eye. Red symbolizes blood. White can have a variety of meanings, virginity, as in “Tartarus”, sperm as in both sections of the story, and surrender. Red and white even used to symbolize blood and gauze on the candy-striped poles outside barbers’ offices, for barbers used to specialize in blood-letting, the ancient cure for a variety of maladies. “Tartarus” is not the only work to symbolize the oppression of women with the combination of red and white, for Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale clothes those chosen to give birth to the married men of barren women at the top of society in a theocracy based on the biblical tale of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. This color discrepancy between the Tartarus and its fraternal twin of the diptych “Paradise” creates a sharp change in tone from one section to the next. The “Eden” of the bachelors paradise can be imagined in rich tones of mahogany and cherry wood, encasing thousands of books bound in the deepest jewel tones of maroon, jade, and onyx (“Paradise” 3). A warmth beams off of every item in the paradise that Melville describes, leaving the reader feeling the chill of the Devil’s Dungeon Paper Mill, and the harsh rushing of the Blood River in their ears when the narrator makes his way into Tartarus (“Paradise” 9).
Integral to understanding the piece, sexual and gestational symbolism must be understood by the reader, for the machine in Tartarus is life itself, representative of the nine month gestation period women endure to have children with it’s nine minute process. “Nine gentleman sat down to nine covers,” and were served “nine silver flagons of humming ale,” at the dinner, a notification that each man owes a woman the very womanless life he reveres (“Paradise” 5). As the narrator arrives at the “Paradise” and “Tartarus” the end of his journey is wrought with sexual innuendo. As the narrator walks into “Paradise” he notes, “going to it, the usual way, is like stealing from a heated plane into some cool, deep glen, shady among harboring hills,” (“Paradise” 1). With repressed homosexuality bursting in every action the bachelors take, it’s almost blushingly obvious that that deep glen represents the anus. The men are leisurely and casual as they walk through the secret Templar, they can, “take their pleasure,” as Melville says (1). One is reminded of the homosexuality of the Greek upper class, for this is all the homosexual tendencies they can allow themselves in a time so strict. This pleasure of homosexuality is contrasted with the never-ending pressure of heterosexuality that can never stop. As the narrator watches the machine, he’s in awe of it, Something of awe now stole over me, as I gazed upon this inflexible iron animal. Always, more or less, machinery of this ponderous, elaborate sort strikes, in some moods, strange dread into the human heart, as some living, panting Behemoth might. But what made the thing I saw so specially terrible to me was the metallic necessity, the unbudging fatality which governed it. Though, here and there, I could not follow the thin gauzy veil of pulp in the course of its more mysterious or entirely invisible advance, yet it was indubitable that, at those points where it eluded men it still marched on in unvarying docility to the autocratic cunning of the machine. (18) This is his view of heterosexuality. It’s forced. Necessary in it’s inability to stop. It’s a vast contrast between that and the warm world of bachelors his narrator prefers. Taken to the extreme in “Tartarus” women often become one dimensional in works written by men. “Tartarus” also works as a criticism of the trend of the one-use female character. In Cooper’s Natty Bumpo works, for example, Cooper often portrayed women solely as seductresses, a distraction from his hero’s journey. The very fact that the Blood River of Tartarus creates white paper is an allegory of this. Blood is life. A body that flowed blood to keep them alive created every single character in both sections of the diptych, creating an even larger discrepancy between single men and women. For something created by the same blood (metaphorically) that created the bachelors to create such “dominated and doomed women,” should be incongruous with life itself (Weigman 3). The narrator himself finds this at odds, for it strikes him, “as so strange that red waters should turn out pale chee – paper, I mean.” (Paradise 14)
Melville’s own guilt at the use of women is apparent in the very thing they create: paper. Not only symbolic in its whiteness, it was his medium. In using paper to represent the single women, derogatorily referred to as girls due to their status as maidens, he admits that he has been complicit in the use of women (Paradise 19). Perhaps as an author famous for his portrayals of male brotherhood so naively appreciated in “Bachelors” regretted the impact of the exclusion of women from his work. Along with the theme of inequality, “Benito Cereno” and “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” share a naïve point of view. This naivety was not characteristic of Melville himself, for his shrewd and nihilistic personality drips out of every word he wrote, but how he saw the majority of America. No, he was not an all-knowing observer, and he did not know what everything even he wrote meant, but he knew that there was a dangerous ethnocentricity in the United States that prohibited people, like the focus of both short stories, from seeing the truth of inequality in society. As the narrator in “Paradise” steps into a comfortable world of bachelors, Delano steps off his Bachelor’s Delight into the distinct discomfort of oppression. As Harper’s Weekly, the rival of “Benito” publisher Putnam’s Monthly, published sentimental drivel to appease very Americans like these merry bachelors, signifying the upper echelon of American society that cannot see inequality because they’ve been force-fed a certain narrative that whiteness and masculinity are the apex of human ability, while systematically forcing slave revolts like on the fictional San Dominick and causing the suffering of women. As a white man in a time with a strict social hierarchy, it’s quite amazing that Melville was able to so intuitively describe the oppression that is systematic in American culture.
Through a keen ability to describe the social ills through complex storytelling in both “Benito Cereno” and “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” Melville criticizes the limited view of those with conservative views on gender and race through Captain Amasa Delano and the narrator of “Paradise”. Through these characters limited experiences of complex events, Melville was able to tell his true opinions on the state of the nation in a way that engaged and challenged the reader. His unique voice has come to define American literature as his white wale in Moby Dick defined the obsession of manifest destiny in an era in which he saw America using an unfair military advantage to spread their empire. Melville wrote to define and criticize that very era in America. As an author of with a supreme keenness for inequality and unfairness, Melville’s complex tales leave a truthful and lasting looking glass into the nineteenth century.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor , 1998. Print. Emery, Allan Moore. “The Topicality of Depravity in “Benito Cereno”.” American Literature 55.3 (1983): 316-31. JSTOR. Web. 15 Mar. 2017. Gallaway, David D. “Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno: an anatomy.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 9.2 (1967): 239-53. JSTOR. Web. 27 Mar. 2017. Manke, Aaron. “Mary, Mary.” Audio blog post. Lore. Apple Podcast App, 23 Jan. 2016. Web. 30 Mar. 2017. Melville, Herman. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Eldritchpress.org. Web. 15 Mar. 2017. Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno E-Text | Benito Cereno”. GradeSaver, 1 May 2006 Web. 1 April 2017. Melville, Herman . The Paradise of Bachelor’s and the Tartarus of Maids. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Saylor.org. Web. 30 Mar. 2017. Post-Lauria, Sheila. “Editorial Politics in Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno”.” American Periodicals 5 (1995): 1-14. JSTOR. Web. 15 Mar. 2017. Wiegnman, Robyn. “Melville’s Geography of Gender.” Oxford University Press 1.4 (1989): 1-15. JSTOR. Web. 15 Mar. 2017. Young, Philip. “The Machine in Tartarus: Melville’s Inferno.” American Literature 63.2 (1991): 208-14. JSTOR. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.
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