Melville died in 1891, a forgotten author. His death came almost forty years after he had stopped publishing fiction and more than thirty years before the discovery of the manuscript of Billy Budd and its posthumous publication began the revival of the author’s literary reputation. By the middle of the twentieth century, the significance of his work was recognized, and his novel Moby Dick was viewed as one of America’s literary masterpieces. Although Melville’s poetry has received increasingly favorable attention, his literary reputation is firmly based on the remarkable series of novels and stories that he created over eleven years during the 1840’s and 1850’s. Although his fiction is varied, written in different genres, for different purposes, and with differing degrees of success, Melville’s work is unified by themes and techniques that allow readers to trace the remarkable development of his literary skills during this brief period.
Using the term “theme” in its broadest sense, all Melville’s major themes spring from his lifelong concern with the question of authority. His treatment of this subject would be less interesting if he had been a polemicist arguing from a set viewpoint. Instead, Melville explored ideas and was often driven between opposing viewpoints. One of his favorite transitional words was “nevertheless,” an indication of the contrariness of his thinking. Because Melville was open and sympathetic to sometimes contradictory ideas, the themes that derive from his interest in the limits and applicability of authority are far-ranging, touching on questions of self-awareness, civil obedience, and moral verities.
Individual liberty is one recurrent theme that derives from Melville’s interest in authority. Writing at a time when slavery was the most discussed political issue in the United States, Melville examined the struggle for personal liberty from a variety of viewpoints, acknowledging the necessity of liberty to human development while warning against its abuse. Melville’s young protagonists strain against the limitations imposed by authoritarian rule, usually represented by tyrannical ship captains. They also dream of escaping the moralistic restrictions of societal codes. Ironically, their positions as common seamen make Melville’s protagonists both rootless wanderers of the open seas and victims of the most repressive working conditions in nineteenth century America.
The books also demonstrate that individual liberty depends upon freedom from want. Redburn’s portrayal of a mother and child starving in the streets of Liverpool and Typee’s exposition on the benefits of a moneyless society exemplify Melville’s indictment of capitalism’s inequality. Yet Melville also showed the dangers of individual liberty. For characters such as Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, Taji in Mardi, or Pierre in Pierre, the pursuit of personal desire becomes a monomania that cuts off the possibility of happiness. Bartleby’s preference not to work is a sign of despair. For Melville, the idea of individual liberty implied the dark possibility of misanthropy, madness, and alienation. Worst of all, it could mean becoming a renegade, a person who cuts himself off from his societal and familial connections.
The extent to which an individual should subordinate personal desires in order to be civilly obedient is another theme that evolves from Melville’s consideration of authority. Melville’s novels demonstrate his sensitivity to the social ills of his time and his commitment to protesting injustice. He chastised Christians for supporting the imperialistic and racist actions of missionaries in Omoo, satirized the inefficiency of bureaucrats in Mardi, deplored governments’ failures to meliorate urban poverty in Redburn, argued against the naval policy of flogging in White-Jacket, criticized the United States’ failure to support its veterans adequately in Israel Potter, questioned the conditions of women factory workers in “The Tartarus of Maids,” and exposed the exploitative working conditions of seamen in several books.
Melville’s anger was, however, tempered by the terrible threat of civil war and the violent rebellions that were changing European governments. Although sympathetic to rebels and dissenters, Melville feared rebellion that could become anarchy. Thus, in Typee and Omoo, his protagonists elect to return to the oppressive seafaring exploitation from which they have escaped. In the epilogue to White-Jacket, Melville urged his reader to reject mutiny even if the ship of state seemed mishandled. In “Benito Cereno” he contrasted the evil of slavery with the darker evil of anarchy. In Billy Budd he sympathized with Captain Vere’s terrible decision to hang Billy Budd for the accidental murder of Claggart because the larger issue of order in society took precedent.
Divine authority was another important theme for Melville. After being visited by Melville in Liverpool in 1856, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote that Melville “can neither believe, nor, be comfortable in his unbelief; and is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.” Melville could not ignore the reality of evil in the world nor could he easily accept the authority of a paternalistic God; thus, he imagined a character such as Ahab, who tries to strike at the mystery of omniscience in the form of the white whale, but he showed how such unbending pride leads to destruction. Like his weary pilgrim in Carel, Melville unsuccessfully pursued a divine authority that he could accept wholeheartedly.
Melville’s prose is enriched and complicated by his use of symbolism and allusion. His best books provide readers with symbols of provocative resonance: the tattooed bars on the faces of the Typees, the delicate glass ship in Redburn, the protagonist’s odd jacket in White-Jacket, the mysterious and ominous white whale in Moby Dick, and the blank walls outside the lawyer’s windows in “Bartleby the Scrivener.” In his early work, Melville freely used informative passages taken from other sea narratives or scientific works, exposition that he interjected to increase his narratives’ credibility and to respond to his readers’ desire for information about the exotic lands and people he was describing. In later works, Melville’s writing is more allusive, reflecting his voracious reading in theology, history, philosophy, and literature.
Most of Melville’s novels can be read as initiation tales in which young, innocent, and idealistic men, who are orphaned by circumstances or conscious choice, brave the tempests of the world’s open seas. Yet Melville wrote with incredible range, and his novels use the themes and techniques of many genres: the gothic romance of Typee, the picaresque satire of Omoo, the fantasy and allegory of Mardi, the social commentary of Redburn and White-Jacket, the patriotic tale of Israel Potter, the sentimental romance of Pierre, and the absurdist drama of The Confidence Man.
In some cases Melville was desperately trying to find an audience, for he was always short of money, and his writing never paid his expenses. In a letter to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville complained that “dollars damn me. . . . What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.” Perhaps the diversity of Melville’s work is best explained by his consuming desire to go beyond what he had previously written. Soon after completing Moby Dick, he wrote to Hawthorne, “Lord, when shall we be done with growing? As long as we have anything more to do, we have done nothing. So, now, let us add Moby Dick to our blessing, and step from that. Leviathan is not the biggest fish;—I have heard of Krakens.”
First published: 1846
Type of work: Novel
After living among the inhabitants of a tropical island, a young deserter from a whaling ship returns to the society he has initially spurned.
Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life is based on Melville’s experiences in the South Seas, specifically his desertion of the whaling ship Acushnet in the Marquesas Islands and his subsequent stay with a tribe of reputedly cannibalistic islanders. He wrote the novel when he was twenty-five, soon after returning from his sea journeys, and he later told his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne that “from my twenty-fifth year I date my life.” The reviews of this first novel were almost unanimously favorable, convincing Melville that he was going to be a literary success.
Typee is narrated by a dreamy young sailor who is weary of the conditions aboard the whaling ship Dolly. He combats the tedium of the voyage by constructing fantasies of tropical adventures. When the Dolly anchors in Nuku Hiva harbor in the Marquesas Islands, the sailor convinces himself and a companion named Toby to ignore the fearful tales of murderous cannibals and jump ship. Their escape from the ship to the island’s interior is a harrowing and symbolic initiation rite, forcing the young deserters to survive chills, fever, hunger, and perilous heights in order to earn their entry into the enigmatic paradise of Typee Valley. Their trial ends when they exhibit their determination by leaping from a cliff into the top of a tree in the valley below.
In Typee valley they discover a society free from the necessity of work and the restrictions of “civilized” moral codes. They are taken in by the tribe. The protagonist, who names himself Tommo, is adopted by a family which provides for all of his needs. Tommo and Toby spend their time learning about the valley and bathing with the young women of the tribe. Tommo develops a special relationship with the beautiful Fayaway, and the young couple share blissful canoe trips on the valley’s lagoon.
Tommo, however, cannot trust this tropical paradise. A mysterious leg injury, suffered during his escape, plagues him throughout his stay with the Typee, functioning as a measure of his psychological state, particularly his continuing suspicions of the natives’ cannibalistic intentions. Tommo’s fears are heightened by the linguistic barriers that make full communications impossible and by a series of ambiguous events that fuel his gothic imagination.
After Toby is allowed to leave the valley, Tommo’s anxiety increases, and when the Typees begin to pressure him to be tattooed, Tommo panics. The tattooed facial bands seem like racial prison bars to Tommo. Although he repeatedly argues the superiority of Typeean culture and praises the beauty and gentleness of the Typees themselves, the thought of becoming one of them and cutting himself off from his own cultural heritage drives him to escape.
Because of his leg, Tommo must be assisted in his escape. Fayaway, his adopted father, Marheyo, and his Typeean friend and guide Kory-Kory take him to the beach, where a ship has been sighted. Their reluctant assistance and their obvious sadness at his departure exemplify the selfless innocence of the Typee, but the cannibalistic side of the tribe is represented by Mow-Mow, a fierce chief who has opposed letting Tommo leave. Mow-Mow tries to prevent Tommo’s escape by swimming after the longboat that has picked him up. When Mow-Mow reaches the longboat, Tommo slashes the savage’s throat with a boat hook, baptizing himself in blood in order to return to so-called civilization.
Typee is Melville’s first effort at portraying the enigmatic character of moral truth. Despite the melodrama of its conclusion, which might lead some readers to assume that Mow-Mow’s desperate pursuit discloses the true barbarism of the Typee, Typee does not solve the basic enigma of good and evil. Instead, it suggests that any moral judgment is relative and open to question.
The novel’s romantic narrative is interrupted by informative chapters that explain native customs and argue the merits of Typeean culture. Although these expository interruptions offer an alternate way of viewing Typee Valley, their connection to the narrative is sometimes artificial. Indeed, many of these chapters were added after the completion of the manuscript, in response to the publisher’s concern for authenticity.
First published: 1851
Type of work: Novel
A young seaman survives a disastrous whaling journey led by a megalomaniacal captain who is pursuing a powerful white whale.
Moby Dick: Or, The Whale is Melville’s masterpiece, the book in which he most thoroughly used his experiences in the South Seas to examine the human condition and the metaphysical questions that were at the center of the author’s troubled worldview. From the novel’s famous opening line, “Call me Ishmael,” the reader is addressed directly by the book’s youthful but embittered narrator. Unlike many of Melville’s youthful narrators, Ishmael is not presented as a young innocent, although he does face an initiation into the ways of the world. Instead, he is depicted as a young man with a past, who takes to the sea to avoid taking some more drastic action in response to the difficulties he has faced.
Ishmael comes to New Bedford, Massachusetts, to sign on to a whaling ship, but before sailing he is confronted with comic and foreboding events that suggest the broad range of the novel. First, Ishmael shares a bed with a tattooed South Seas islander named Queequeg. Despite his initial comic horror, Ishmael demonstrates his open-mindedness by overcoming his fears and becoming friends with the cannibal.
Ishmael also attends the famous whaleman’s chapel, where he hears Father Mapple deliver a sermon based on the story of Jonah and the whale, a sermon that emphasizes the dangers of human pride. After selecting the Pequod, a ship named after an Indian tribe that was massacred by the Puritans, the narrator and his new pagan companion are confronted by a strange old man who warns them of dangers to come.
The Pequod sails on Christmas, but Captain Ahab remains in his cabin for many...
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