illustrated portrait of American author Herman Melville

Herman Melville

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Herman Melville American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5944

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.”

Typee

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.

Moby Dick

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 days. Meanwhile, the ship is managed by the three mates, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask. Ishmael describes the careful hierarchy of the ship, whose ethnically diverse crew composes a microcosmic vision of the world. When Ahab does reveal himself to the crew, his scarred face and whalebone peg leg present a sobering image of a physically and mentally damaged man.

Ishmael, who is reflective and open to all ideas, provides the reader with a wealth of information regarding whales, whaling, and whaling ships. His approach to the gathering of knowledge is eclectic, ranging from scientific classification to imaginative association. As the Pequod’s crew hunts for whales and Ahab hunts for Moby Dick, Ishmael hunts for meaning.

In the pivotal chapter, titled “The Quarter-Deck,” Ahab reveals his purpose to the men. In a masterful display of persuasive oratory, he stirs the crew to dedicate themselves to assist him in his vengeful pursuit of the white whale and nails a gold doubloon to the mast as the prize to the man who sights Moby Dick. When Starbuck, whose name suggests his struggle against fate, questions Ahab’s personal pursuit of vengeance against a dumb animal, Ahab reveals his belief that the world is operated by a malicious force that works through visible objects. Thus, Ahab’s quest is not only a matter of individual vengeance but an effort to strike at the controlling force of nature.

During the journey around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean, the Pequod’s crew lowers boats to pursue whales. Ahab then reveals the special boat led by the demonic Fedallah, which he has kept hidden. The Pequod also meets other vessels. Before the novel is over, the Pequod has met nine other ships (Goney, Town-Ho, Jereboam, Jungfrau, Bouton-de-rose, Samuel Enderby, Bachelor, Rachel, and Delight), and each meeting adds perspective to Ahab’s mad quest. As he begins to hear direct testimony about the white whale from sailors on other ships, Ahab’s obsession intensifies. He orders his men to ignore opportunities to capture other whales and frantically studies his charts.

Before the final, tragic confrontation, the African American cabin boy, Pip, is lost overboard and goes insane before he is finally rescued by the Pequod. Touched by the lad’s condition, Ahab takes Pip under his personal care, and Pip returns Ahab’s kindness with an innocent devotion that almost distracts Ahab from his vengeful course. It is clear that in order to persevere in his quest, Ahab must sever all ties of human affection.

In the end, the crew of the Pequod wages a three-day battle against Moby Dick, a struggle that concludes with the whale’s destruction of the ship and all the crew except Ishmael. The narrator ironically escapes aboard Queequeg’s coffin and survives to tell the tale.

Moby Dick is an expansive book in which Melville uses diverse styles. The book incorporates a wide range of dialects and rhetorical models as different as the new sermon and the tall tale. As in Typee and other earlier novels, Melville inserts autonomous chapters, such as the chapter on cetology, that interrupt the narrative; in Moby Dick, however, the interrelation of these chapters to the themes of the book is closer. Moreover, most of the autonomous chapters in Moby Dick use a particular subject, object, or event to present Ishmael’s musings on the meaning of experience.

“Bartleby the Scrivener”

First published: 1853 (collected in The Piazza Tales, 1856)

Type of work: Short story

A confident and self-satisfied lawyer discovers the limits of his melioristic impulses.

“Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” was one of the first stories that Melville published during the brief period when his work was accepted by the major periodicals. It has become his most widely known story, praised for being ahead of its time. The story focuses on a prosperous lawyer, who prides himself on being a “safe man.”

Ensconced in his Wall Street law offices, the lawyer manages an office of complementary contrasting scriveners (law copyists) who represent opposing types. The lawyer works around the limitations of his employees in the optimistic belief that his is the enlightened and most effective way to lead life. In effect, he attempts to avoid conflict and promotes compromise. He stands as a representative of nineteenth century American optimism, an outlook that Melville questioned in much of his writing.

When a cadaverous man named Bartleby approaches him for employment, the lawyer, pressed for extra help at the time, gladly puts the new employee to work. Bartleby is clearly capable of doing acceptable work, but before long he exhibits an annoying refusal to engage in certain tedious activities, such as proofreading documents. Pressed for time, the lawyer works around this unusual refusal, but before long he discovers that Bartleby is living in the offices at night, subsisting on ginger nuts that he stores in his desk. The lawyer’s uneasiness is compounded when Bartleby begins to refuse all work, refuses to leave the premises, and spends much time staring out a window at the brick wall only inches away from him.

The lawyer’s melioristic optimism is pushed to the limit. He tries to discuss the situation with Bartleby, attempts reasoning with him, even attempts bribing him. He invites him to stay at his home. Bartleby’s maddening response is always the same: “I would prefer not to.” The lawyer eventually surrenders, trying to escape his responsibility for this strange, broken human being by moving his offices and leaving Bartleby behind, but before long the new residents of the building are complaining about the strange character who lives in the hallways. The lawyer renounces any responsibility, and Bartleby is hauled off to the Tombs, the city prison, where he is surrounded by walls such as those he stared at from the lawyer’s window.

The lawyer tries to bribe a jailer to assure that Bartleby is treated well, but upon his return weeks later, he discovers that Bartleby has been refusing to eat and has died of malnutrition. At the story’s end, when the lawyer sighs “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” the reader recognizes the universal implications of the story and knows that the lawyer will be unable to approach life with the same simplistic optimism he had before.

As an epilogue of sorts, the narrator adds a bit of information about Bartleby’s past, explaining that he had been previously employed in the dead letter office of the post office. In this position he was repeatedly faced with the tragedies of miscommunication. This revelation should not serve as an easy explanation for Bartleby’s condition, however, for Melville’s story depicts the mystery of despair and argues that some suffering is beyond melioration. Melville’s “story of Wall Street” has been praised for its modernity. Certainly the tale foreshadows the twentieth and twenty-first century theme of urban alienation and describes a dehumanized environment of brick and mortar that is shut off from the consolations of the natural world.

“Benito Cereno”

First published: 1855 (collected in The Piazza Tales, 1856)

Type of work: Short story

An optimistic sea captain is deceived by a cunning and diabolical slave.

Melville’s story “Benito Cereno” was originally published serially in three parts. There is some indication that he considered making it into a novel but was discouraged by his potential publisher. Melville drew much of his material from Amaso Delano’s A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817); in fact, much of the court deposition material is transcribed exactly from the original.

The story is set in August of 1799 off the coast of Chile, where the “singularly undistrustful” captain of an American sealer, Bachelor’s Delight, Amaso Delano, comes upon an erratically sailing ship that is flying no colors. Against the advice of his mate, Delano approaches the mysterious vessel in a longboat and discovers that she is the San Dominick, a Spanish merchant ship carrying slaves from Buenos Aires to Lima. Upon boarding her, Delano meets the captain, Benito Cereno, an invalid who tells Delano a tale of the disease and the bad sailing weather that has killed much of his crew.

Delano is puzzled by the lack of discipline on the ship, the mysterious actions of the crew and slaves, the oversolicitousness of the servant Babo, and the mercurial behavior of Don Benito, who switches from gentleness to harshness without warning. Delano studies the unusual mix of sailors and slaves on deck, sensing that all is not as it seems; however, he is unable to reach any reasonable conclusion about the situation.

Although he takes pride in his enlightened attitude toward the Africans on board, Delano’s racist assumptions regarding the limited capabilities of blacks lead him to suspect that the Spaniard is plotting some evil. In general, Delano has no capacity to discern evil, and his ethical blindness, which parallels the pragmatic optimism of nineteenth century America, prevents Delano from perceiving the situation until the truth is thrust upon him. Like the lawyer in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Delano is an optimist who is indisposed to countenance evil; therefore, he repeatedly assures himself that his suspicions are illusory.

After resupplying the San Dominick, Delano prepares to depart and promises to tow the disabled ship to safe anchor next to the Bachelor’s Delight. As Delano casts off, Don Benito leaps into the longboat, pursued by the knife-wielding Babo. For a moment, Delano believes that he is being attacked by Don Benito, but a “flash of revelation” makes the situation clear. He realizes that the slaves have rebelled, killed most of the Spaniards, and are plotting to capture Delano’s ship in order to continue their journey to freedom. Their leader, Babo, is revealed to be a cunning and violent deceiver rather than the loyal servant that Delano had imagined him to be.

Delano overcomes Babo, rallies his crew, and manages to overwhelm the slaves who hold the San Dominick. The rebellious slaves are brought to trial, and the last portion of the story is a reconstruction of the court proceedings, retelling the narrative in cold, legalistic terms. Cereno is ruined by the experience. Delano’s efforts to console the Spaniard are futile, and Don Benito retires to a monastery, where he soon dies. Babo is executed, but his head, which is placed on a pole, still smiles in warning after death. The story shows that evil—dark metaphysical evil, an evil that cannot be repaired, meliorated, or ignored—is real in the world. Don Benito recognizes this, and the realization crushes him. Delano’s optimism is tempered but not conquered by the experience.

The story uses color imagery to emphasize the idea that truth is difficult to interpret. White represents good, although, as in the case of the skeleton that the murderous slaves place on the San Dominick’s figurehead, good is sometimes in decay. Black represents evil, although the story also recognizes the correctness of the slaves’ impulse toward freedom and disputes the stereotype of blacks as incompetent and happy-go-lucky. Gray is the other frequently used color in the story, and it represents the ambiguous mix of good and evil that faces humankind in the world.

The Confidence Man

First published: 1857

Type of work: Novel

A masterful confidence man toys with a ship full of passengers on a journey down the Mississippi River.

The action of Melville’s The Confidence Man: His Masquerade takes place on April Fool’s Day aboard the Fidèle, a steamship heading down the Mississippi River. The novel introduces the reader to a bewildering array of characters, one of whom is a skilled confidence man who appears throughout the book in a variety of disguises.

The theme of The Confidence Man is trust—the limits of belief in society. Melville examines the heart of humankind and finds it as corrupt as Mark Twain did in his later works. Aboard the Fidèle, which is presented as a microcosm of human society, with an incredible diversity of human types, self-interest is the only human motivation. Perhaps more disconcerting is the near impossibility of ascertaining the true character of anyone on board. The protean confidence man is only the prime example of the rule of pretense. The world of The Confidence Man is a world of deception and deceit; each of the confidence man’s swindles demands that the dupe display confidence, and each parallels the Fall of Man. The confidence man toys with his victims until he discovers the weakness that he can use against them.

The confidence man appears in a bewildering series of disguises: a mute wearing cream colors, a crippled African American beggar named Black Guinea, a Man with a Weed, an agent from the Seminole Widow and Orphan Asylum, the president of the Black Rapids Coal Company, an herb doctor who sells Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator and Samaritan Pain Dissuader, the Happy Bone Setter, an agent for the Philosophical Intelligence Office, the Cosmopolitan (who wears a strange outfit pieced together from the national costumes of several nations), and Frank Goodman.

The novel also presents a number of recognizable regional types, particularly the rough-and-ready westerner and the sly Yankee peddler, and frequently sets one region’s representative against another. Melville provides scant clues for the reader to determine the identity of these characters, thus placing the reader in a position similar to that of the confidence man’s victims, who are sometimes accosted by more than one of his manifestations.

There is very little action in the novel, which consists almost entirely of the confidence man’s discussions with his victims. Thus, the narrative consists of the dialectical working of ideas. The passengers with whom he interacts are themselves shown to be engaged in a variety of confidence games; at least, they are frequently shown to be self-interested people who rarely reveal their true thoughts or intentions. As in any confidence game, the novel’s protagonist is able to play on the selfish motives or inflated egos of his victims.

For the most part, the confidence man is successful, but his monetary gain is generally slight. The fact that he works so hard for little gain emphasizes the book’s contention that evil has its own purposes. His toughest opponents are westerners such as Pitch and Charles Arnold Noble, who are hardened against the human geniality on which the confidence man feeds, or soulless intellectuals such as Mark Winsome, Melville’s scathing caricature of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thus, the novel seems to maintain that the only defenses against deception are misanthropy or vacuousness.

As the work nears its conclusion, the confidence man goes below decks, where he discovers an old man reading the Bible by the dim light of a single lamp. Around the cabin in the darkness are other men in berths, whose comments interrupt the confidence man’s conversation with the old man. After buying a counterfeit detector and a money belt from an innocent-looking boy and subsequently realizing that he has been sold inferior merchandise, the old man is led away by the confidence man, who extinguishes the lone remaining light in the cabin, ending the book in smoky darkness.

Critics have struggled with The Confidence Man, and perhaps no other book of Melville’s has been judged as variously. Some view it as Melville’s greatest achievement next to Moby Dick; others maintain that it is a brilliant failure, a “non-novel” lacking plot or character development. It has been read as social criticism, religious allegory, and a commentary on the history of optimistic philosophy.

Billy Budd, Foretopman

First published: 1924

Type of work: Novella

A ship’s captain sentences a young seaman to hang for accidentally killing an officer.

Billy Budd, Foretopman was written during Melville’s final years. He may have begun it after reading “The Mutiny on the Somers” in The American Magazine in June, 1888. Melville’s cousin Guert Gansevoort had been a lieutenant on the U.S. brig-of-war Somers in 1842 and had been a member of the military court that condemned a young seaman accused of mutiny. Melville may have wanted an opportunity to reinterpret the situation.

The manuscript was discovered after his death, and it was not published until 1924. Many critics have suggested that Billy Budd represents Melville’s most mature vision of the metaphysical questions that troubled him throughout his life. They suggest that in this novella Melville came as close as he could to reconciling the confrontation between free will and authority.

William Budd is a young, handsome sailor aboard the Rights-of-Man who is impressed into service aboard H.M.S. Indomitable in 1797. Although the ironically named ships comment on the tyranny of such an act, Budd accepts his enforced change of ships with good spirits. Indeed, Budd is a character of remarkable innocence. Neither stupid nor weak, he nevertheless is untouched by the knowledge of evil. He is an image of man before the Fall, marred only by his tragic flaw, a tendency to lose the capacity to speak during times of emotional stress.

The captain of Budd’s new ship, Captain Vere, is a thoughtful, well-read man who takes an immediate liking to his new recruit, but the Indomitable’s master-at-arms, Claggart, is a different case. From the start, Claggart, an embodiment of satanic malice toward virtue, shows an unreasoning dislike for the new recruit, whom he mockingly calls Baby Budd. Unable to conceive of innocence such as Budd’s, Claggart assumes that Budd returns his hatred, and he plots the young sailor’s downfall. Unable to taunt or tempt Budd into actual crime, Claggart baldly accuses him of mutinous activities. Budd, who is unable to speak in response to the accusation, strikes Claggart in the temple and kills him.

Captain Vere is left with a terrible decision. It is a time of war, and Vere accepts the importance of maintaining authority. Recent mutinies aboard other British warships make his decision more critical. Vere can see no way to avoid hanging Budd, and he makes it clear to the officers who convene to decide Budd’s fate that they cannot respond to human sympathies but that they must perform their duty to preserve order and the rule of law. If Budd can be seen as an image of Adam before the Fall, and Claggart can be seen as an image of Satan, Vere can be seen as a model of God, a stern but righteous father. He orders the execution, but the story portrays Vere as a sensitive man who sentences Budd to die despite his deep sympathy for the boy. Before being executed, Billy cries out “God bless Captain Vere!” and his final act of forgiveness is echoed by the crew assembled to witness the execution.

Soon after Budd’s execution, the Indomitable engages another ship in battle, and Vere receives a fatal wound. As he dies, he murmurs the name Billy Budd, but his final words are affectionate and sad rather than remorseful, for he knows that he has played his tragic part faithfully. Billy Budd is Melville’s final examination of authority, and in the story he resigns himself to the tragic necessity for authority to preserve the greater good, even at the expense of individual rights.

Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land

First published: 1876

Type of work: Poem

A young intellectual fails to find spiritual regeneration during a tour of the Holy Land.

Melville wrote Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land during the twenty years following his journey to Europe and the Middle East in 1856-1857. Just as Elizabeth Melville hoped that her husband’s extended tour would ease his debilitating depression, Clarel, the protagonist of the narrative poem, searches for spiritual renewal, attempting to regain the faith that he has lost during his years of study.

The poem is divided into four parts, and each part culminates in death. In part 1, Clarel is repulsed by the barrenness of Jerusalem and overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness. His need for a companion is answered when he meets Ruth, falls in love with her, and impulsively asks for her hand in marriage. Their courtship is interrupted by the death of Ruth’s father, and Clarel decides to pass the time of mourning by joining an odd assortment of pilgrims who are traveling toward the Dead Sea.

In part 2, Clarel and the other pilgrims journey through the wilderness. His companions represent a range of opinions, and much of the poem recounts their discussion of theological matters. Set amid the formidable and barren landscape of the Siddom Gorge, part 2 builds toward the group’s encampment on the shores of the Dead Sea. There the aged mystic Nehemiah, who has been traveling with them, dies after having a visionary dream and walking into the water.

In part 3, the pilgrims travel to Mar Saba, the ancient monastery and oasis. In Mar Saba, the starkness of their journey is relieved by the conviviality of the monks, the comfortable quarters, and the plentiful food and drink. The humanism of this center of Christian belief stands in contrast to the closed doors and dust-covered shrines of Jerusalem that Clarel had first encountered. However, this part of the poem also ends in death, as the pilgrims discover the corpse of Montmain, one of their companions, with its eyes open, staring at the sacred palm.

In part 4, the pilgrims return to Jerusalem, completing their symbolic circular path. Clarel, who has had second thoughts regarding his betrothal to Ruth while on his journey and has even exhibited some homosexual interest in Vine, one of his companions, discovers that Ruth has died while he has been traveling. Confused and alone, Clarel is last seen joining another band of pilgrims.

Critics have argued over the implications of the poem’s epilogue. Some see in it a Melville who, near the end of his life, had made peace with the conflict between disbelief and belief. Others, however, see in it a reaffirmation of Melville’s lifelong inability to resolve the conflict and a conviction that it could not be resolved.

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