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...
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- Critical Essays