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"Benito Cereno"

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"Benito Cereno"


SOURCE: Shetty, Nalini V. "Melville's Use of the Gothic Tradition." In Studies in American Literature: Essays in Honour of William Mulder, edited by Jagdish Chander and Narindar S. Pradhan, pp. 144-53. Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1976.

In the following essay, Shetty "define[s] Melville's use of the Gothic technique … in 'Benito Cereno,' and define[s] his extension of the Gothic form."

Literature abounds in images of the restless ghost who yearns for the burial of his corpse, the Wandering Jew who can find no place to rest his weary head, the magic potion which will keep one forever young and forever beautiful. The supernatural has always persisted in legends and ballads handed down from one generation to another. This taste for the supernatural worked its way back into literature and became an important vogue in the early eighteenth century. In the field of Gothic Romance, the names of Mrs Radcliffe, Horace Walpole, and 'Monk' Lewis are formidable. They bequeathed a remarkable collection of 'Properties' to a host of imitators—Gothic castles, underground vaults, ill-fitting doors with rusty hinges, trap doors, easily extinguished lamps, old pictures, tapestry—objects trivial and insignificant but fraught with terrible possibilities. But among the blue-blooded aristocracy of Gothic writers, for example, even the despised Mrs Radcliffe had a tendency to explain the supernatural by natural causes. This device of introducing apparently supernatural occurrences which are ultimately traced to natural causes became a predominant feature of the Gothic Romance in its career in the New World.

Literary conventions shift with a change in beliefs and myths and a consequent shift in our view of ourselves. By the time the Gothic trappings of Britain had been transplanted across the Atlantic, a considerable change in man's view of himself and his relation to the universe necessitated a corresponding change in the technique of the Gothic Romance. From Charles Brockden Brown, through Hawthorne and Poe down to the present day, the mechanical horrors of the Baroque genre have been used, but with a difference. The ability to take the stock trappings of Romanticism and to endow them with the genuine horror of tortured nerves has been, according to Matthiessen, a peculiarly American combination from Philip Freneau's remarkable poem 'The House of Night' through Ambrose Bierce and William Faulkner.1

The American Gothic then is not identical with its European progenitor, but has undergone a subtle transformation. For example, the medieval setting had to be inevitably dropped. The attempt to create the atmosphere of brooding and unknown terror, which the original Gothic Romances had created through the haunted castle and appurtenances, remained. The stress, as in all true Gothic Romances, became essentially subjective, and the Gothic writer became primarily an explorer of private worlds. The Gothic writer usually presents the world of the hero as a microcosm, so that the hero's charting of the disorder of his inner life becomes parallel to the restoring of order in his microcosm. Characters are shown grappling with their universe, trying to read meanings into matter, but in so doing their own preoccupations tend to distort the meaning. This distortion of reality becomes the grotesque. The old Gothic props of the Radcliffean era serve as images, as 'objective correlatives' of the distraught psyche. Thus the haunted castle can become a symbol of authoritarianism, reflections in mirrors can serve to show us the doubleness of human nature. In the hands of a true artist, therefore, the mechanical horrors of the Gothic novel can be transformed into something really felt, so that the horror can become one of tortured nerves. It can be used to explore that mysterious borderland between fantasy and reality.

The thesis I propose is that Herman Melville was himself by no means unresponsive to the Gothic genre, and that he incorporated many of its techniques to convey his vision and version of the world. William Van O'Connor's insight is clear:

Herman Melville … possessed a profound sense of the human mind as the carrier of long forgotten terrors and violences and he inclined to be contemptuous of writers who had little or no sense of man's living in the presence of roaring Niagaras.2

Professor Newton Arvin has an excellent study of 'Melville and the Gothic Novel', in which he points out that the novelist was familiar with the older tales of terror, including Walpole's Castle of Otranto, Beckford's Vathek, and Godwin's Caleb Williams3 and also traces the influence of these original sources on Melville. I will briefly try to define Melville's use of the Gothic technique—the elements of intensity, terror and mystery found in 'Benito Cereno', and define his extension of the Gothic form.

Some of the devices which are the stock-in-trade of the Gothic writer are: the use of wild landscape to evoke terror; sudden shock techniques like moving portraits, trapdoors springing open, etc.; the haunted castle with subterraneous vaults and passages. Melville found that he could use the same technique in his fiction.

In 'Benito Cereno', where the setting is on board a ship, there is none of the terror of landscape, but Melville uses the shock technique effectively. For example, the beak of the ship remains covered until Captain Delano leaves the stalled vessel and returns with his crew. During the final fight, the cable of the San Dominick is cut. The fag end of the cable, in lashing out, whips away the canvas shroud which covers the beak and suddenly there is revealed, above the chalked words 'Follow your leader', a human skeleton.

There are no haunted castles in Melville, nor houses suggestive of terror such as the House of Usher, but how like these isolated buildings seem some of Melville's ships. Notable among these is the Pequod with its bearded chin. In 'Benito Cereno', the San Dominick is described as 'battered and mouldy, the castellated forecastle seemed some ancient turret, long ago taken by assault and then left to decay'. Instead of the vaults and haunted corridors of medieval castles, we have the ship's holds in Omoo and Redburn. But no hero racing down a subterranean vault with a moaning ghost at his heels has had a worse experience than Amasa Delano's claustrophobic experience in 'the narrow corridor dim as a tunnel, leading from the cabin to the stairs' with 'the Spaniard behind—his creature before'. Either way, to the terror-ridden mind of the American it seemed that violent death awaited him.

Besides these specific uses of Gothic devices, the overall effect of the story is also in the Gothic tradition. The tale begins matter-of-factly and continues so until the San Dominick appears in the distance. But as it approaches, it shows no colours and seems to be in desperate trouble. Nature also seems to help in evoking a sense of terror and brooding:

With no small interest, Captain Delano continued to watch her—a proceeding not much facilitated by the vapors partly mantling the hull, through which the far matin light from her cabin streamed equivocally enough; much like the sun—by this time hemisphered on the rim of the horizon, and, apparently, in company with the strange ship entering the harbor—which, wimpled by the same low, creeping clouds, showed not unlike a Lima intriguante's one sinister eye peering across the Plaza from the Indian loop-hole of her dusk saya-y-manta.

Captain Delano's mystification increases as he approaches the vessel. He thinks he sees a strange shipload of monks peering over the bulwarks in their dark cowls. Through the open portholes he can perceive other dark moving figures like Black Friars pacing their cloister. Melville emphasizes the strangeness and unreality of the situation as it exists. The costumes from afar are unusual, the ship is described as dreamlike, a 'shadowy tableau just emerged from the deep, which directly must receive back what it gave'.

On board, the Gothic elements of the story continue. There is the terrifying contrast of the tumult on the lower decks and the staid figures of the four sphynxlike grizzled negroes, sitting facing each other. They watch the proceedings carefully, while, as they pick junk into oakum, they chant a low monotonous chant. They appear to Delano like 'so many grey headed bagpipers playing a funeral march'.

The figure who brings the whole bizarre situation to a focus is that of Don Benito. His looks are distracted and he jerks out his speeches like a 'somnambulist suddenly interfered with'. Nothing can be more grotesque than this Spaniard with 'a certain precision in his attire curiously at variance with the unsightly disorder around, especially in the belittered Ghetto, forward of the mainmast, wholly occupied by the blacks'. Melville conveys to us the horror of this figure by comparing him to an 'invalid courtier tottering about London streets in the time of the plague'.

A wandering mind ridden by terror is a device used by the Gothic writers to the point of dullness. The imagined is often more important than the real in the medieval castle. On board the San Dominick, the dull-nerved Captain Delano has his first twitch of apprehension when he has to walk between the two files of grim hatchet polishers:

Gingerly enough stepped good Captain Delano between them, and in the instant of leaving them behind, like one running the gauntlet, he felt an apprehensive twitch in the calves of his legs.

From then on, the cymballing of the hatchet polishers becomes a chorus to his own mounting fears:

… passing from one suspicious thing to another, his mind revolved the strange questions put to him concerning his ship. By a curious coincidence as each point was recalled, the black wizards of Ashantee would strike up with their hatchets as in ominous comment on the white stranger's thoughts … he began to feel a ghostly dread of Don Benito.

We see how Melville makes the tension depend in many cases, on how the sinister situation on the Spanish ship slowly comes to penetrate the consciousness of the trusting and obtuse Yankee captain. The San Dominick is the sinister microcosm whose riddle the good captain has to solve. All terror depends on the reader's ability to perceive more than Delano does; even while not fully understanding the situation aboard the vessel, the reader feels more perceptive than the captain. The knife blow on the cabin boy's head, the old sailor's knot, the shaving incident—all the various episodes provide a new type of Gothic horror. While these incidents add to the Gothic effect, they serve as clues offered to the captain to resolve the mystery in order to restore the normal order. The knot is offered for untying; the shaving scene gives the impression of a headsman with his victim; and when finally the canvas shroud is ripped off the beak of the ship to reveal the skeleton, the mental clarity of Delano parallels the final physical unmasking of the hideous plot. The constant view of the skeleton during the final fight is clearly a Gothic device, but it is more than that. Upon the water the skeleton casts a gigantic ribbed shadow, and one extended arm seems to beckon the whites to avenge the terrible murder, and in Captain Delano's mind the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fall into place.

What I have tried to suggest in the foregoing discussion is that while Melville made free use of Gothic devices and techniques in his fiction, what distinguishes him from the run-of-the mill Gothic writer is that he uses these devices not merely to titillate the reader, but subordinates them to the technical requirements of his story.

Again, any discussion of similarity in theme between Melville and the Gothic writers is difficult because most of the Gothic themes found regular recurrence in other types of Romantic fiction. However, taking the short story 'Benito Cereno', I will try to analyse how Melville uses a typical Gothic situation to advance two themes which are of major importance in the Melville canon. I refer to the mystery on board the San Dominick and to the ignorant and innocent visitor Amasa Delano, who is not so much instrumental in resolving the mystery as he is merely physically present at the resolution of the mystery. This kind of contrast between complete innocence and desperate evil was a situation particularly favoured by the Gothic writers as it best carried the reader into the terror of Gothic regions. In 'Benito Cereno', Melville goes beyond his European counterpart in that he uses the situation of an innocent man faced with evil, to give added dimension to the problem of evil in the world.

Amasa Delano, the captain of the American ship Bachelor's Delight, has his fictional counterpart in Henry James' Christopher Newman: Newman is the innocent American who has to face the guile of the Bellegardes. In Melville's Delano we have an innocence which has never faced evil. Confronted with the situation on board the San Dominick, Delano is like an untrained mountaineer scaling slippery heights: he is unable to grasp the footholds of clues offered to him, to climb out of the confusion and mystery surrounding him. Having never experienced evil, his mind registers cliche reactions to the various scenes which he witnesses on board the San Dominick. In the negro Babo he sees only a faithful slave, solicitous of his master's comfort and he observes:

There is something in the negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one's person. Most negroes are natural valets and hair dressers;… when to this is added docility arising from the unaspiring contentment of a limited mind … one readily perceives why those hypochondriacs Johnson and Byron … took to their hearts, almost to the exclusion of the entire white race, their serving men, the negroes, Barber and Fletcher.

Far from realizing that Babo is the arch-villain of the piece, Delano dismisses all blacks as being 'too stupid' to plot against the whites, who 'were the shrewder race'. He feels, also, that Don Benito could not be in complicity with the blacks in plotting against him, because, 'who ever heard of a white so far renegade as to apostatize from his very species almost, by leaguing in against it with negroes?' Not till the final fight does Delano realize what a 'hive of subtlety' Babo has been: that his is the master mind which has hatched the plot against the whites on board the San Dominick, and later against Delano and his crew also. With the untying of the physical 'knot', Delano is forced to face the fact of evil and cunning on board the San Dominick. However, it is clear that even after this experience, Delano's mind has not dwelt on the problem of evil in the world, and he cannot understand the depression which siezes the Spaniard.

"You are saved" cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; "You are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?"

The plot has been foiled, the Spaniard is saved and Delano feels that 'the past is passed'. But Don Benito's memory does not let him forget the horror that he has witnessed. He cannot accept evil as being only one face of the coin of existence, and draw the strength to live from the other side of the coin: the presence of good in the world. He sees corruption and evil as the only facts of life.

However, it must be noted that Don Benito is never pictured to us as an innocent man being confronted with his first experience of evil. If we were to play at equations, I would suggest, New Man: Delano = Don Benito: Bellegardes. Don Benito is the child of an ancient civilization which has seen good and evil, as the decrepit San Dominick has once seen pageantry and pomp on its decks. The battered and ancient San Dominick is a version of Don Benito's world, offered to us as the objective correlative of the Spanish culture and milieu. But even Don Benito quails when he looks into this abyss of evil on board the San Dominick—and his mind breaks before its awesome terror. Don Benito's will to live is broken long before Delano blunders in to affect the 'rescue'. And so, Don Benito, 'gathering his mantle about him as if it were a pall', prepares for death. It is implicit in the story that neither Delano who has never experienced evil, nor even Don Benito, is the well-adjusted man, since the latter sees only evil and fails to understand that experience of good and of evil are part of the human condition. It is suggested that while experience of evil is necessary, the ideal man would have to go beyond this experience, and his vision would have to accommodate the presence of both good and evil in the world. This emphasis on the dual nature of reality, and the preoccupation with the psychology of evil, runs through Melville's writing.

This preoccupation must be considered primarily in the nature of a corrective to the doctrine of Innocence proposed by the High Priests of Transcendentalism. While Emerson and his friends insisted on Man's Innocence, Hawthorne and Melville sagely proposed that there was something more to human nature than just that. Melville's Delano is the Innocent American who is horrified to discover the existence of evil on board the San Dominick. Melville, forcing Delano to face the fact of evil, seems to gently poke fun at the received doctrine that man is innocent, and at what appears to him, a naive attitude towards men and matters.

The basic situation—the mystery on board the San Dominick—also serves to underline another theme to which Melville devotes much attention in his fiction: the discrepancy between appearance and reality. For example, Captain Delano's assessment of the situation on board the San Dominick changes often. From the initial acceptance at face value of the hard luck story given to him when he boards the Spanish ship, he goes on to suspect that Don Benito may be plotting against him; and then finally when he leaves the San Dominick, he is made to realize that it is the negroes who are in piratical revolt against the whites, and that Don Benito has been a captive in the hands of the negroes. Besides the central situation which gives the lie to reality, there are a number of scenes, incidents, etc. which mislead Delano, and hinder him from striking at the heart of the matter. For example, through a process of tortuous reasoning Delano comes to the conclusion that Atufal has not really rebelled but is a 'pretended rebel', and is the 'punctual shadow' of Don Benito in order to trap Delano. When the scales drop from his eyes, Delano realizes that Atufal is indeed a 'pretended rebel' and a 'punctual shadow', but he is there to keep an eye on Don Benito, and to prevent him from communicating his plight to Delano. Similarly, Delano does not detect the tigerish nature of the mulatto steward Francesco who ushers them to the dining table with smiles and bows. In actuality he had been 'in all things, the creature and tool of the negro Babo, [and] … proposed … poisoning a dish for the generous Captain Amasa Delano', Again, there are the negresses who preferred to torture to death instead of simply killing the Spaniards, who also wanted to kill Don Benito, and sang and danced while the various acts of murder took place on board the San Dominick. These women appear to Delano as 'unsophisticated as leopardesses; loving as doves'. So, in a variety of scenes, Melville who made Ahab declare that 'all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks' which we have to strike through to reach the underlying truth, emphasizes that what appears on the surface is not all.

Herman Melville was too young to receive the direct force of the European Gothic writers with the same strength as his older contemporaries. But extrovert America had produced Gothic writers: Brown, Hawthorne, Poe—explorers of their own private hells, which excluded the optimism of the Transcendentalists. From them Melville drew the best elements of the Gothic genre without the medieval trappings and hackneyed forms. His own personal experience led him to feel the powerful enmity and evil present in the world and the elusive nature of reality. Part of the novelist's attempt to present this terror-ridden and baffling universe is done by the frequent use of Gothic techniques and themes—the persecution of the innocent, the use of desolated ships, etc. In the short story 'Benito Cereno', Melville presents Captain Delano's wrestling with the dark enigma of the San Dominick in terms of a Gothic horror story, and we once more have a glimpse of Melville's Gothic heart—present so often but frequently not recognized by the reader.


1. F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance (New York, 1941), pp. 201-2.

2. William Van O'Connor, 'The Grotesque; An American Genre' and Other Essays (Carbondale, III., 1962), pp. 25-6.

3. Newton Arvin, 'Melville and the Gothic Novel', NEQ Vol. xxii (1949), p. 34.


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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1828

HERMAN MELVILLE (1819 - 1891)

American novelist, short story writer, and poet.

Melville, a major American literary figure of the nineteenth century, is best known as the author of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851), a complex metaphysical novel that is considered a classic of world literature. Virtually unrecognized at the time of his death, Melville is now praised for his rich, rhythmical prose and complex symbolism. A master of both realistic and allegorical narrative, Melville was also an incisive social critic and philosopher who sought to understand the ambiguities of life and to define the individual's relation to society and the universe. Though Melville is not ordinarily categorized as a Gothic writer, his relationship to this literary tradition has nevertheless been identified by numerous contemporary scholars who point to the frequent adapted use of Gothic conventions in his works. Principally, critics have noted Melville's exploitation of isolated shipboard settings for the purposes of evoking psychological terror, his use of naïve narrators who witness mysterious, unexplainable events and relate the exploits of menacing antiheroes, and his literary depiction of a cosmic struggle of Manichean polarities in an ambiguous world devoid of the sense that good will ultimately triumph and vanquish evil. For modern critics, all of these devices are pivotal to Moby-Dick, while elements therein have also been studied in conjunction with his shorter works of prose fiction.


Born in New York City, Melville enjoyed a relatively comfortable childhood until his father's business failure and early death. Melville ended his formal education at age twelve to help support his family. He worked in the family fur business and as a bank clerk and taught at various schools until, in 1839, he sailed as a cabin boy aboard a merchant ship bound for Liverpool, England. This experience, shocking in its revelation of squalor and human cruelty, subsequently inspired his fourth novel, Redburn: His First Voyage (1849). Melville's later journey to the South Seas, begun aboard the whaling ship Acushnet, provided the background for his most highly regarded works. Finding conditions unbearable aboard the Acushnet, Melville deserted the ship in the Marquesas and spent several months in captivity among a tribe of cannibalistic Polynesians. He finally escaped aboard a passing whaling vessel. Again appalled by the conditions at sea, Melville joined in a mutiny and was briefly imprisoned in Tahiti. He then moved on to Hawaii and later returned to New York aboard a U.S. naval vessel. Melville had never contemplated a literary career, but with no prospects for a career on his return to the U.S., he was encouraged by family and friends to write about his remarkable journeys. His first novels, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and its sequel, Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), are fictionalized versions of his experiences in the Pacific. Generally praised for their excitement, romance, and splendid descriptions of the South Seas region, these novels were immediately successful and made Melville famous as the "man who lived among the cannibals"—a reputation he was never able to overcome and that interfered with the appreciation of his later works. Melville's mature literary voice began to emerge in Mardi: And a Voyage Thither (1849). At the time he wrote this work he was growing restless with the adventure narrative and was increasingly drawn to philosophical and metaphysical questions in his novels. Mardi represents an important step in Melville's artistic development, yet its publication marked the beginning of the decline in his popularity. Discouraged by the novel's poor reception and in need of money, Melville temporarily returned to the travel narrative and produced Redburn and White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War (1850). Melville wrote Moby-Dick between 1850 and 1851. An early chapter of the novel appeared in the October 1, 1851 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine while the complete novel was published in London and New York in the ensuing weeks. Critics and the reading public on both sides of the Atlantic took little notice of the work. Emotionally exhausted following the publication of Moby-Dick and desperate for recognition, Melville immediately began writing Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852), a pessimistic novel that is considered the most autobiographical of his works. His popularity, already damaged by the publication of Moby-Dick, was nearly destroyed by Pierre, which was poorly received by a reading public that preferred the entertainment of Typee and Omoo. Melville continued writing prose through the 1850s, despite the critical and popular failure of Pierre and Moby-Dick. He published numerous short stories in periodicals and collected six of his best in The Piazza Tales (1856). Billy Budd, his final novel, was left in manuscript at his death in 1891 and was not published until 1924.


Melville's mature works of fiction are considered complex pieces that illustrate their author's incisive exploration of philosophical themes, use of allegorical symbolism, and mastery of complex narrative technique. Although Mardi begins as an adventure story, it quickly becomes a combination of philosophical allegory and satire; as such, it anticipates both Moby-Dick and Pierre in its levels of meaning, concern with metaphysical problems, and use of a questing hero. Like Mardi, Moby-Dick was initially conceived as a realistic narrative about sea life; but it took on epic proportions as Melville progressed in its composition. In the novel, the narrator, Ishmael, recounts his ill-fated voyage as a hand on board the whaling ship Pequod. Outfitted with an eclectic crew including South Sea islanders, North American Indians, blacks, and New England salts, the whaler leaves Nantucket on Christmas Day, bound on a commercial hunt for whales. As the trip progresses, however, Ahab, the ship's captain, exerts his will over the crew and converts the voyage into a quest to destroy his personal nemesis, a celebrated white whale known as Moby Dick. Ahab had lost a leg to the whale in a previous encounter, and his search is further fueled by his monomaniacal conviction that Moby Dick visibly personifies all earthly malignity and evil. The story concludes with a turbulent three-day struggle between the white whale and the Pequod's crew. The whale has been variously interpreted as God, evil, good, and as a symbol of the ambiguity of nature. Considered by many of Melville's contemporaries as a sentimental romance, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities treats such themes as illegitimacy, incest, and, as its subtitle suggests, ambiguity. Detailing the story of an idealist who consistently undermines his own good intentions and ultimately commits suicide, Pierre is a deeply psychological work that explores the recesses of the human mind, in particular repressed sexual urges, and examines how good can be transformed into evil in unpredictable ways. Melville's six-story compilation The Piazza Tales includes "Benito Cereno," which is generally considered his finest short story, as well as several noted tales, including "Bartleby the Scrivener," concerning an alienated Wall Street law copyist, and "The Bell-Tower," a moral parable on the sin of hubris set in Renaissance Italy. In "Benito Cereno" Melville relates an ironic narrative of slave mutiny at sea. Featuring a naïve narrator who stumbles upon the remnants of a violent rebellion but fails to recognize the horrors that have occurred, "Benito Cereno" offers a fascinating thematic study of human depravity and moral relativism. Other late works by Melville include two novels, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), an allegorical satire on mid nineteenth-century American life, and Billy Budd, a heavily symbolic work featuring an unreliable narrator, which focuses on the execution of a young sailor accused of fomenting a mutiny aboard an English warship.


At the time of his death, Melville was almost unknown as a writer, and his accomplishments were not properly recognized for over a generation. Nineteenth-century critics of Pierre, for instance, often expressed confusion over the novel's metaphysical questioning and found its theme of incest offensive. In the contemporary period, however, Pierre has been noted as a predecessor of the modern psychological novel. Indeed, a tremendous revival of interest in Melville's work began in the 1920s, following the publication of the biography Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, written by Raymond T. Weaver (see Further Reading), and constitutes a dramatic reversal nearly unprecedented in American literary history. By the middle of the twentieth century Moby-Dick was considered one of America's greatest novels and widely acclaimed as a work of genius. Critics generally agree that in this work Melville parlayed the story of a sea captain's vengeful search for a legendary whale into a narrative suffused with profound speculation concerning the nature and interrelationship of the individual, society, God, and the cosmos. The novel is also highly acclaimed as a distinctly American book. By resolutely grounding his speculations in American thought, language, and experience, Melville elevated Moby-Dick to the status of a national epic. Although Melville's contemporaries gave it little notice, Moby-Dick was studied more intensively in the twentieth century than any other American novel and is now considered one of the greatest novels of all time. Additionally, Melville's late work Billy Budd has been widely examined in an effort to determine Melville's final views on such issues as justice, morality, and religion. Viewed as one of his finest novels, Billy Budd has been consistently praised for its philosophical insight, multifaceted narrative technique, and complex use of symbol and allegory.

Melville's fiction, particularly Moby-Dick, has been the subject of innumerable interpretations, and the body of Melville criticism, already immense, continues to grow. Among the multitude of scholarly approaches to these works has been a recent appreciation of Gothic features in Melville's novels and short prose fiction. Newton Arvin has investigated the influence of the Gothic novel and Gothic literary tropes on Melville, highlighting affinities among the imagery, symbolism, and modes of characterization employed by Melville in his stories and similar devices used by writers such as Anne Radcliffe, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Horace Walpole, and Edgar Allan Poe. Nalini V. Shetty has argued that Melville's "Benito Cereno" reveals the author's substantial adaptation of Gothic fictional techniques, suggesting that Melville transferred some of the standard devices used to a evoke a mood of preternatural terror to the shipboard setting and mysterious, twisting plot of this noted story. Similarly, Steven T. Ryan has identified Gothic formulaic elements in "Bartleby, the Scrivener" by comparing Melville's tale with Poe's Gothic classic "The Fall of the House of Usher." Ryan observes that Melville uses a literal and commonsensical narrator together with a mysterious figure in this work to create a sense of enclosure and impending catastrophe without relying on the outward trappings of medieval gloom and decay ordinarily found in traditional Gothic narrative. Critics have also studied Moby-Dick as it is informed by Gothic themes, conventions, and characterizations. Tony Magistrale has viewed the novel's revenge-obsessed Captain Ahab as an embodiment of the demonic Gothic villain, while Benjamin F. Fisher IV has demonstrated Melville's use of the seagoing Pequod as a surrogate for the archetypal "haunted castle" setting of Gothic fiction. Other commentators have elucidated such Gothic motifs as isolation, insanity, and the pervasive presence of an unseen evil in Melville's Moby-Dick and his other works.

"Bartleby the Scrivener"

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1978

"Bartleby the Scrivener"


SOURCE: Ryan, Steven T. "The Gothic Formula of 'Bartleby.'" Arizona Quarterly 34 (1978): 311-16.

In the following essay, Ryan reveals how, in "Bartleby the Scrivener," Melville infuses the traditional Gothic formula with realism while still retaining "the character conflict, atmosphere, plot progression, and even the language of the Gothic thriller."

The most striking aspect of Melville's "Bartleby" is the story's amazingly contemporary quality. The story of the scrivener in form and philosophy appears as an eerie foreshadowing of our modern fabulations which balance between a surface reality and an epistemological terror. An ironic explanation for "Bartleby"'s modern flavor is that beneath Melville's original story form are the underpinnings of an old Gothic formula which also underlies the stories of many contemporary writers, like Joyce Carol Oates, Jerzy Kosinski, John Hawkes, and John Gardner. And like these present writers, Melville transforms the violence of Gothic destruction to a deeper fear of a quiet equilibrium. Melville, like these contemporary writers, is influenced by the Gothic genre.1 Rather than writing standard tales of terror, Melville submerges the conventional devices so that the haunted house, the disembodied spirits, and the catastrophic climax are replaced by more believable images and events, but the story maintains the character conflict, atmosphere, plot progression, and even the language of the Gothic thriller.

The Gothic formula that "Bartleby" follows is typified by Edgar Allan Poe in "The Fall of the House of Usher." The formula requires a narrator who is an unabashed literalist. The story achieves credibility through the wariness of the narrator and also a tension is achieved between the commonsensical vision of the narrator (man of light) and the second character (man of darkness) who has moved into the realm of mystery. In "The Fall of the House of Usher," the reader is eased into the terrifying realm of Roderick Usher by riding with the worldly narrator to the mansion and observing Roderick Usher with the narrator's objectivity. Thus we are manipulated into the world of mystery through our trust in the narrator and strive with decreasing effectiveness to interpret the action, along with the narrator, in terms of material cause and effect relationships, such as interpreting the house's thick ambience as electrical phenomena.

Similarly in "Bartleby," we are introduced to the action by the lawyer, who is the practical American with faith in the rational world. Melville goes a step further than Poe and plays with the narrator's American characteristics of moderation and materialism. Still the lawyer, with his bust of Cicero and walled-in imagination, serves as a useful guide into the unknown. Along with the narrator, we grope for cause-effect explanations for Bartleby's behavior. We try to understand Bartleby according to his poverty, his failing eyesight, and his dead-letter experience. But we move along with the narrator from an "eminently safe" world to a terrifying world of uncertainty.

The antithesis of the narrator is the character that lives in a world beyond commonsensical security. This is the man of darkness who pulls the narrator (and thus the reader) beneath the surface of experience. As the messenger of darkness, this second character is clearly doomed. Roderick Usher is a typical romantic version of the sensitive young man. With his "cadaverousness of complexion," he is refined to a frightening level of fragility. His senses are so keen that he can listen only to certain musical chords. This sensitivity has placed him beyond the social security of human fellowship. Thus in the material world, he is doomed, but he is also capable of entering the realm beneath the surface reality. In the tension between the narrator and Roderick Usher, Usher clearly represents the more powerful force because the narrator must confront a world of boundless, terrifying potential. The narrator can return to safety only by backing away from this fiery force while admitting his own limited existence.

Bartleby, like Roderick Usher, is introduced with a quality of refinement which places him beyond the practical realm of the narrator—"Pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!" Bartleby, like Usher, is doomed by his sensitivity. He is isolated within his transcending vision, cut off from human fellowship because he sees and feels what we cannot see and feel. His "pallid haughtiness" separates him from the lawyer's world. The lawyer's material explanations and material solutions can neither explain nor help Bartleby. It is Bartleby who must show the lawyer a boundless world. And like Poe's narrator, the lawyer cannot really "see" what Bartleby sees except for a fleeting moment, and then he must also retreat to save himself, so he can continue his humble half-life.

The important aspect of the Gothic setting is not the creaking doors or even the Gothic architecture, but rather the human construct that becomes a trap. In Poe's story, Roderick Usher knows that he cannot escape his decaying family mansion, which expresses his cultural dream transformed into nightmare. The personality of this "mansion of gloom" becomes as important as the human personalities for it is a monster of human creation. With its "vacant and eye-like windows," it expresses the power of an indifferent physical universe. The gray walls, shielding with a vapor which is "dull, sluggish,… and leaden-hued," emphasize the cold neutral weight of decay and death. Matter shaped by man remains matter and obeys the natural laws which demand an indifferent downward pull of matter. Thus the civilized dream to shape and control nature becomes the Gothic nightmare to civilized constructs that imprison and destroy the life they are designed to protect.

Again as an American version of the ancient Gothic trap, Melville offers an office on Wall Street. The narrator does not realize that he is trapped within a construct as ominous as the decaying Usher mansion, but Bartleby does realize the threat and also realizes that he cannot escape the construct. Melville uses the office on Wall Street to demonstrate the nightmare reality of the optimistic American assumption that our capitalistic system can create a utopia. Melville allows the narrator to describe a setting as clearly destructive to human life as any Gothic mansion, while the narrator assumes he is presenting an ideally utilitarian setting. At one end is "the white wall of the interior of a spacious sky-light shaft, penetrating the building from top to bottom." For contrast, the windows in the opposite direction "commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade; which wall required no spy-glass to bring out its lurking beauties, but, for the benefit of all near-sighted spectators, was pushed up to within ten feet of my window panes." The gap between the walls is described as resembling "a huge square cistern."

The narrator may see the American dream blossoming, but Bartleby sees the destructive power of dream transformed to nightmare. Bartleby, like Usher, knows that he cannot escape the construct. Until taken to the Tombs (another human construct revealing decay and death), Bartleby never leaves the office. Staring through the window at the black wall ten feet away, Bartleby understands the threat that was also present in the "vacant and eye-like windows" of the House of Usher—the manipulated physical matter will take its vengeance on man. The narrator cannot understand Bartleby's "dead-wall revery." When the narrator asks Bartleby why he will not return to writing, Bartleby responds, "Do you not see the reason for yourself?" Rather than looking at the vision revealed in the black wall, the narrator looks to Bartleby's eyes for a simple causal solution. The reader understands that the wall offers a vision, that through the human construct the evil mystery is revealed.

The important variation between Melville's setting and a standard Gothic setting like Poe's is that Wall Street is not physically crumbling. This variation parallels the significant variation in plots, for Melville will not offer the standard climactic thrill of the mansion collapsing into the tarn. The passivity of Melville's setting and plot places him closer to the modern Gothic vision which presents a greater threat in the quiet leveling of life than in a chaotic breakdown of life. Therefore, the black wall becomes more threatening because it suggests an invincible force that will eternally confine life. Similarly, Bartleby's quiet retreat into a fetal ball is as threatening an image of human decay as Roderick Usher howling in mad hysteria. Melville follows the important Gothic requirement that destruction and death are the necessary climax of the story. But the destruction offers the modern version of a civilized process that suffocates life while the process gains momentum. The death of both Bartleby and Roderick Usher is required by the powerful force of decayed life in the stories. The loss of these sensitive young men expresses the domination of matter over spirit. Bartleby is presented in one of his final passive stages through a clearly Gothic image of spiritual ruin: "like the last column of some ruined temple, he remained standing mute and solitary in the middle of the otherwise deserted room."

An appreciation for the effect Bartleby's destruction has on the narrator can be enhanced by an understanding of the Gothic language as well as the Gothic development of character, setting, and plot. Certain language used within the Gothic tradition developed profound connotation. Two words that carried a particular emotional significance were "gloom" and "melancholy." The words carried a heavy charge within the entire romantic movement, but this charge was particularly important in establishing atmosphere and communicating a deep sense of discovery in Gothic fiction. In "The Fall of the House of Usher" Poe describes the "melancholy House of Usher" and the narrator attempts to "alleviate the melancholy" of Roderick Usher. Approaching the mansion, "a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded" the narrator's spirit and an "irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all." By the excessive use of "melancholy" and "gloom" within such an obvious Gothic tale, Poe demonstrates their importance in creating the mood of the story, but also, like many self-consciously Gothic writers, he desensitizes the reader to the key words. However, the importance of their verbal charge could be saved for climactic moments such as Hawthorne describing Goodman Brown's "dying hour" as "gloom." Similarly Melville saves the words for a moment of insight when Bartleby manages to break through the narrator's hard Yankee skull: "For the first time in my life a feeling of over-powering stinging melancholy seized me. Before I had never experienced aught but a not unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam."

One need not know the importance of "melancholy" and "gloom" in the Gothic tradition to see that this is an important moment of discovery, just as one need not see the underpinnings of a standard Gothic use of character, setting, and plot to understand Melville's story. However, by recognizing that the words expressed an emotional and intellectual profundity for Melville and his contemporaries, we begin to realize that even when a literary masterpiece transcends the standard literary form of any historical period, it may yet draw heavily from all the immediate resources available to the writer. Like the Gothic writers, Melville was striving to reveal a fathomless darkness beneath our materialistic security; thus he naturally adapted a Gothic formula.


1. Two critical works which have demonstrated Melville's relationship to the traditional Gothic novel are Newton Arvin, "Melville and the Gothic Novel," New England Quarterly, 22 (1949), 33-48, and Heinz Kosok, Die Bedeutung der Gothic Novel für das Erzählwerk Herman Melvilles (Hamburg: Cram, de Gruyter & Co., 1963). Biographically, Melville's association with Hawthorne and his profound respect for Hawthorne's short stories are clear indications of the direct influence of Gothic fiction during the early 1850s, when "Bartleby" was written. My dissertation, entitled "Chaotic Slumber" (1976), examines the use of Gothic techniques in contemporary fiction.

Principal Works

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Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. 2 vols. (novel) 1846
Omoo: A Narrative of Adventure in the South Seas (novel) 1847
Mardi: And a Voyage Thither. 2 vols. (novel) 1849
Redburn: His First Voyage (novel) 1849
White Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War (novel) 1850
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (novel) 1851
Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (novel) 1852
Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile (novel) 1855
The Piazza Tales (short stories) 1856

The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (novel) 1857
Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (poetry) 1866
Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (poetry) 1876
John Marr and Other Sailors with Some Sea Pieces (poetry) 1888
Timoleon (poetry) 1891
Billy Budd and Other Prose Pieces (novel and short stories) 1924

Primary Sources

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SOURCE: Melville, Herman. "The Bell Tower." In The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces: 1839–1860, by Herman Melville, pp. 174-87. Evanston and Chicago, Ill.: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1987.

The following excerpt comprises the conclusion of the short story "The Bell Tower," first published in The Piazza Tales in 1856.

It was thought that on the day preceding the fatality, his visitors having left him, Bannadonna had unpacked the belfry image, adjusted it, and placed it in the retreat provided,—a sort of sentry-box in one corner of the belfry; in short, throughout the night, and for some part of the ensuing morning, he had been engaged in arranging every thing connected with the domino: the issuing from the sentry-box each sixty minutes; sliding along a grooved way, like a railway; advancing to the clock-bell, with uplifted manacles; striking it at one of the twelve junctions of the four-and-twenty hands: then wheeling, circling the bell, and retiring to its post, there to bide for another sixty minutes, when the same process was to be repeated; the bell, by a cunning mechanism, meantime turning on its vertical axis, so as to present, to the descending mace, the clasped hands of the next two figures, when it would strike two, three, and so on, to the end. The musical metal in this time-bell being so managed in the fusion, by some art perishing with its originator, that each of the clasps of the four-and-twenty hands should give forth its own peculiar resonance when parted.

But on the magic metal, the magic and metallic stranger never struck but that one stroke, drove but that one nail, severed but that one clasp, by which Bannadonna clung to his ambitious life. For, after winding up the creature in the sentry-box, so that, for the present, skipping the intervening hours, it should not emerge till the hour of one, but should then infallibly emerge, and, after deftly oiling the grooves whereon it was to slide, it was surmised that the mechanician must then have hurried to the bell, to give his final touches to its sculpture. True artist, he here became absorbed; an absorption still further intensified, it may be, by his striving to abate that strange look of Una; which, though, before others, he had treated with such unconcern, might not, in secret, have been without its thorn.

And so, for the interval, he was oblivious of his creature; which, not oblivious of him, and true to its creation, and true to its heedful winding up, left its post precisely at the given moment; along its well-oiled route, slid noiselessly towards its mark; and aiming at the hand of Una, to ring one clangorous note, dully smote the intervening brain of Bannadonna, turned backwards to it; the manacled arms then instantly upspringing to their hovering poise. The falling body clogged the thing's return; so there it stood, still impending over Bannadonna, as if whispering some postmortem terror. The chisel lay dropped from the hand, but beside the hand; the oil-flask spilled across the iron track.

In his unhappy end, not unmindful of the rare genius of the mechanician, the republic decreed him a stately funeral. It was resolved that the great bell—the one whose casting had been jeopardized through the timidity of the ill-starred workman—should be rung upon the entrance of the bier into the cathedral. The most robust man of the country round was assigned the office of bell-ringer.

But as the pall-bearers entered the cathedral porch, nought but a broken and disastrous sound, like that of some lone Alpine land-slide, fell from the tower upon their ears. And then, all was hushed.

Glancing backwards, they saw the groined belfry crashed sideways in. It afterwards appeared that the powerful peasant who had the bell-rope in charge, wishing to test at once the full glory of the bell, had swayed down upon the rope with one concentrate jerk. The mass of quaking metal, too ponderous for its frame, and strangely feeble somewhere at its top, loosed from its fastening, tore sideways down, and tumbling in one sheer fall, three hundred feet to the soft sward below, buried itself inverted and half out of sight.

Upon its disinterment, the main fracture was found to have started from a small spot in the ear; which, being scraped, revealed a defect, deceptively minute, in the casting; which defect must subsequently have been pasted over with some unknown compound.

The remolten metal soon reässumed its place in the tower's repaired superstructure. For one year the metallic choir of birds sang musically in its belfry-bough-work of sculptured blinds and traceries. But on the first anniversary of the tower's completion—at early dawn, before the concourse had surrounded it—an earthquake came; one loud crash was heard. The stone-pine, with all its bower of songsters, lay overthrown upon the plain.

So the blind slave obeyed its blinder lord; but, in obedience, slew him.

So the creator was killed by the creature. So the bell was too heavy for the tower. So that bell's main weakness was where man's blood had flawed it. And so pride went before the fall.1


1. It was not deemed necessary to adhere to the peculiar notation of Italian time. Adherence to it would have impaired the familiar comprehension of the story. Kindred remarks might be offered touching an anachronism or two that occur.


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SOURCE: Magistrale, Tony. "'More Demon than Man': Melville's Ahab as Gothic Villain." In Spectrum of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Sixth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, edited by Donald Palumbo, pp. 81-86. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1988.

In the following essay, Magistrale discusses Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick as an example of a quintessential Gothic protagonist, possessing both human and demonic qualities.

Gothic literature reached its apex in England during the last decade of the eighteenth century, when the enlightenment's neoclassic lights were replaced by the brooding darkness of haunted castles and the supernatural. Gothicism emerged from an era surfeited with reason and the prosaic, anxious for something wildly different and bizarre. A reaction to the spirit of scientific rationalism that characterized the rest of the century, the Gothic school sought a return to the ambience of the Middle Ages: a renewed fascination with the mystical and the inexplicable as well as an intensified interest in the battle between good and evil. The Gothic environment of crumbling castles with their perilous crags and subterranean dungeons, of mysterious forests and seas, sinister monks and nuns, deformed humans, and demonic villains, anticipates and buttresses the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century. William Beckford's Vathek (1786), Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1795), and Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) represent the best Gothic fiction because they transcend the horror story's conventions to focus on the supernatural, on the psychic, and on humankind's most morbid psychological states.

English and German Gothicism reached the American literary consciousness most significantly in the nineteenth century. By then, standard Gothic apparatus had been absorbed by the larger Romantic movement. Consequently, the American progeny of the Gothic school—Ambrose Bierce, Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville—concentrated on "refining" the Gothic by focussing on the more subtle and philosophical implications of the "horror story." Furthermore, since America was short on castles and monasteries, the form was adapted to an American psychic landscape: Traditional Gothic bonds with evil, haunted castles, and the reliance on supernatural terror were exploited and transformed to tell a more complicated story that often focused on the tragic imperfections inherent in American culture in particular or humankind in general.

Melville's canon ubiquitously evinces Gothic influences. The reasons for Melville's interest in this literary genre are diverse and complicated, but his fascination is certainly attributable in part to his own literary background as well as to the literary atmosphere of his century. Hawthorne, Melville's friend and metaphysical cohort, uses the Gothic formula everywhere in his fiction. Hawthorne was influenced not only by Mrs. Radcliffe and her contemporaries, but also by Poe and Brockden Brown. That Hawthorne shared his interest with the younger Melville is apparent. Melville's own reading indicates yet another connection to the Gothic. He had read Shakespeare (particularly the tragedies), Milton, and Dante thoroughly; Melville's own unique sense of evil and villainy owes much to these earlier writers. And he had drunk deeply from the polluted wells of eighteenth-century Gothic literature. Merton Sealts reports that Melville had read Walpole's Otranto, Beckford's Vathek, and even Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1817) in addition to a number of lesser known but related Gothic texts.1 Finally, Gothicism is centrally concerned with fallen humanity, often embracing and flaunting its sinful state. The genre's characteristic fascination with evil, fixation on rebellion from God and optimistic virtues, and emphasis on disorder, chaos, and ambiguity resonated with some darkly sympathetic chord in Melville's haunted psyche. The Gothic supplied Melville with a congenial tradition, a vehicle that enabled and encouraged him to give dramatic life to conflicting and often darkly pessimistic philosophical positions.

Perhaps nowhere in the canon does Melville use standard Gothic apparatus more successfully than in his creation of Ahab in Moby-Dick. Ahab, like Pierre and Lewis's Father Ambrosio, is exalted far above common mortals. His prideful gaze is withering and imperious, not unlike the stares of Vathek or Radcliffe's Montoni. Ahab is developed as an embodiment of the fallen angel/demi-god who in the Christian myth was variously named Lucifer, Devil, Adversary, and Satan. Ahab is not Satan himself but is a human creature who possesses Satan's evil pride and energy. The madman Elijah warns Ishmael and Queequeg to fear for their souls, that a voyage with Ahab and his "shadowy figures" is certain to involve evil and destruction.

"Yes," said I [Ishmael], "we have just signed the articles."

"Anything down there about your souls?"

"About what?"

"Oh, perhaps you hav'n't got any," he said quickly.

"No matter though, I know many chaps that hav'n't got any … He's got enough though, to make up for all deficiencies of that sort in other chaps," abruptly said the stranger, placing a nervous emphasis on the word he.2

The Biblical significance of Ahab's name also supports the demonic image: Ahab was an evil king of Israel who had done more to provoke the Lord to anger than all the kings before him.

But there is another side of Melville's captain that is not entirely wicked. Like Walpole's Manfred or Lewis's Ambrosio, "Ahab has his humanities" (p. 120). He thinks often of his bride and daughter, and his care of the pathetic Pip is significant. Despite his profound bond with evil, Ahab possesses an undeniable streak of sensitivity and melancholia that is found also in, and links him with, a number of earlier Gothic "villains."

Like the Biblical King Ahab, Captain Ahab lives in an ivory house, "the ivory Pequod," as it is often called, which is tricked out with trophies of whale bones and teeth from profitable voyages. The Pequod also possesses kinship to the Gothic haunted house, and Ahab is the captain who is lord over it. Its likeness to a haunted house is suggested in nearly every description of the Pequod: its weather-stained hull, its venerable bows, its spirelike masts, its worn and ancient decks, and its general atmosphere of grotesqueness and sombre picturesqueness.3 It has much in common with the houses of Usher, Udolpho, or Otranto. The only Gothic apparatus that is missing is an incarcerated maiden. While it is possible to see Ishmael in the role of the passive maiden, and Ahab as his jailor,4 this does a severe disservice to the complex psychosexual relationship often maintained between the Gothic villain and his captive. Perhaps it is more accurate to view Ahab's monomaniacal quest for Moby-Dick as a substitution for the Gothic villain's erotic fascination with his captive woman. Ahab is obsessed with the whale just as the Gothic characters of Lewis, Walpole, and Radcliffe are obsessed with perverse images of womanhood, bondage, and violation. Like his sexually frustrated Gothic forerunners, Ambrosio and Manfred, who are motivated by a warped attraction to the dark and malignant elements of eroticism, Ahab's quest for Moby-Dick is as self-destructive as it is passionate.

The male villain in Gothic fiction is often associated with evil forces, most specifically the devil. Vathek makes a pact with Satan in order to experience as many sensations as mortal life will afford. Gothic fascination with evil also entails a pervasive element of blasphemy. Ambrosio, a Catholic monk in The Monk, at one point violates, on top of an altar, a woman masquerading as a nun. Ahab is an "ungodly, god-like" man who is spiritually outside Christendom and exhibits a well of blasphemy and defiance. He rejects and scorns the gods, "cricket-players and pugilists" (p. 134) in his eyes, and he once spat in the holy goblet on the altar of the Catholic Church at Santa (p. 134). In the course of the whale voyage—a journey that ironically commences on Christmas Day—Ahab engages in three major blasphemous rituals. Each is a parody of a religious rite that casts Ahab in the role of high celebrant and incorporates the use of a harpoon. In the first of these rituals, "The Quarter-Deck," Ahab pours grog into the inverted ends of hollow harpoon heads and commands the harpooners to drink from the "murderous chalices" with this oath: "God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby-Dick to his death" (p. 225). When Starbuck suggests that perhaps Ahab's quest is blasphemous, the captain answers in a tone reminiscent of Ambrosio's or Manfred's enraged pride: "Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations" (p. 221). The demonical nature of Ahab's quest is again suggested in "The Forge" when Ahab baptizes a scorching harpoon in the name of the devil.

Finally, in "The Candles" Ahab hoists his "consecrated" harpoon while delivering a defiant speech that asserts his unconquerable individuality in the face of nature: "Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee … Yet blindfold, yet will I talk to thee. Light though thou be, thou leaping out of light, leaping out of thee!" (p. 642). Like Manfred on his mountain, Ahab speaks directly to the flashing lightning, calling it his ancestor: "There burn the flames! Oh, thou magnanimous! now I do glory in my genealogy. But thou art but my fiery father; my sweet mother, I know not" (pp. 642-43). Here Melville employs standard Gothic effects—tremendous fire, blackness, storm, and battering seas—to represent through pathetic fallacy the scene's high emotion, conflicting beliefs, and clash of personalities. Once more Ahab establishes his link to the male-dominated world of the Gothic by calling the flames his father while denying any knowledge of a mother.

Ahab's single name, like Manfred's, Ambrosio's, or Melmoth's, suggests a lonely and sinister independence from social ties. Ahab throws overboard, loses, or smashes several "social" objects on the voyage. Each act symbolizes the rejection of some aspect of humanity. In "The Pipe" Ahab realizes that he can no longer derive any pleasure from so leisurely an activity as smoking and throws his pipe into the sea. In "The Quadrant" Ahab dashes the valuable instrument to the deck and crushes it, shouting, "Cursed be all things that cast man's eyes aloft to that heaven, whose live vividness but scorches him" (p. 634). While the first scene suggests Ahab is alienated from simple human pleasures, the second indicates he has destroyed his ability to find and maintain his social bearings. The antisocial nature of the Pequod's voyage under Ahab, in the grip of his obsession, is stressed in the ship's encounters with other whaling vessels.

"Come aboard, come aboard!" cried the gay Bachelor's commander, lifting a glass and a bottle in the air.

"Hast seen the White Whale?" gritted Ahab in reply.

"No; only heard of him; but don't believe in him at all," said the other good-humoredly. "Come aboard!"

"Thou art too damn jolly. Sail on."

                                             (p. 627)

Not desirous simply of "avoiding company," Ahab disregards the values upon which society is built; his quest becomes not only a perversion of the aims of whaling, but also a fanatical violation of respect for other human beings.

Ahab's attitude mirrors the profoundly antisocial world of the eighteenth-century Gothic novel. The Gothic genre remains significant to literary history in large part because it foreshadows the destruction of the social order and stability that was characteristic of the rest of the eighteenth century. The last decade of this century—with its breakdown of social ties, social hierarchy, conventions, and institutions—belongs more to the "romantic" century to follow rather than to the "enlightened" period of reason and social purpose. It is the decade inaugurated by the French Revolution (1789), and that event's spirit of social disruption is most fully embodied in the brooding darkness of the Gothic novel. The captain of the Pequod, like the master of the Gothic castle, spends his time avoiding "social company" and tending to an assortment of perverted personal quests.

As Ahab's bonds with humanity slowly disintegrate in the course of the voyage, his links with the satanic grow proportionately stronger. His personal crew, those "shadows" that Ishmael and Queequeg see board the Pequod, resemble "mute supers from an old Gothic drama, indeed, from Vathek."5 The crew has a symbolic significance indicated in Ishmael's speculation that "Such a crew, so officered, seemed especially picked or packed by some infernal fatality to help Ahab to his revenge" (p. 251). The enigmatic Fedallah, the crew's leader, is developed as a satanic figure who, like the forces of evil in Gothic romances, is omnipresent but never clearly defined. Lurking mainly in the background but always weaving his intrigue, "that hair-turbaned Fedallah remained a muffled mystery to the last … He was such a creature as civilized, domestic people in the temperate zone only see in their dreams" (p. 307).

In depicting the end of Ahab's quest, Melville uses colossal effects similar to those employed in Gothic romances. Mrs. Radcliffe's castles inevitably vanish into forests or tarns or the reader's imagination at the conclusions of her novels. The end of Moby-Dick, like so many visual climaxes in Poe's tales or Walpole's Otranto, overwhelms the crew of the Pequod as well as the reader in a vortex of such intensity that it sucks down everything, including "a living part of heaven" (p. 723), with it.

The tale that Ishmael lives to tell, however, transcends the limited Gothic world of the late eighteenth century. The genre's scope is enlarged by Melville to include a tragic philosophical dimension: Ahab's quest is not simply to avenge his accident at the jaws of Moby-Dick, but to revenge a world-insult, the world-wound of existence dictating that human beings are fated to die from the moment of birth. Existential complexities lift Moby-Dick out of the Gothic cesspool; however, it is also through an adaptation of standard Gothic apparatus that the novel achieves the power and dimensionality of first-rate literature.


1. Merton M. Sealts, Jr., Melville's Reading (Milwaukee, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968), pp. 40, 93, 103.

2. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851; reprint, New York: Bobbs-Merrills Company, Inc., 1964), p. 133. All textual references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically.

3. Newton Arvin, "Melville and the Gothic Novel," New England Quarterly 22 (1949): 38.

4. In William Godwin's Caleb Williams (1795), a proto-type of what may be called the novel of pursuit, the male protagonist occupies a role that in Gothic literature, Victorian melodrama, and American television drama usually belongs to a female. A victim equally of his insatiable curiosity and of his unrelenting pursuer, Caleb stumbles upon the knowledge that his employer, Falkland, is a murderer. Literally bound and gagged twice, Caleb is pursued and hounded by Falkland's agents until he maneuvers Falkland into confessing his guilt to the authorities. While it is absurd to compare Melville's Ishmael to Godwin's Caleb Williams on any significant level, Ishmael recognizes Ahab's power and, at several points in the narrative, feels the pressure of Ahab's will and voices his misgivings. Sealts notes that Melville had read Caleb Williams.

5. Lowry Nelson, Jr., "Ahab as Gothic Hero," in Moby-Dick as Doubloon, eds. Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford (New York: W.W. Norton, 1970), p. 296.


Arvin, Newton. "Melville and the Gothic Novel." New England Quarterly 22 (1949): 33-48.

Beckford, William. Vathek. 1786; reprint, London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Godwin, William. Caleb Williams. 1794; reprint, London, Oxford University Press, 1970.

Lewis, Matthew. The Monk. 1795; reprint, New York: Grove Press, 1952.

Maturin, Charles. Melmoth the Wanderer. 1820; reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick or the White Whale. 1851; reprint, New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1964.

Nelson, Lowry, Jr. "Ahab as Gothic Hero." In Moby-Dick as Doubloon. Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford, eds. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1970.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Italian. London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1797.

――――――. The Mysteries of Udolpho. London: G. G. and J. Robinson, 1794.

Sealts, Merton M., Jr. Melville's Reading. Milwaukee, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1817; reprint, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. 1764; reprint, New York: Dover, 1966.


SOURCE: Fisher, Benjamin F., IV. "Gothic Possibilities in Moby-Dick."In Gothick Origins and Innovations, edited by Allan Lloyd Smith and Victor Sage, pp. 115-22. Atlanta, Ga. and Amersterdam: Rodopi, 1994.

In the following essay, Fisher illustrates Melville's handling of the "gothic castle" device in Moby-Dick, arguing that the ship (the Pequod) and the sea serve as gothic castles in the novel, and function in the same manner, to provide a structure to fill with gloom, mystery, and intrigue.

That Herman Melville turned now and again to the gothic mode is no startling news. Newton Arvin's essay, 'Melville and the Gothic Novel,' remains after more than forty years standard reading for anyone with greater than cursory interest in Melville studies, and his is by no means the sole probing at this vein of Melvillean artistry. And yet we might observe tendencies among critics, G. R. Thompson and Gordon Boudreau excepted, to shy away from the gothicism in Moby-Dick, although that book has been examined from many other angles—and bodes fair to continue to hold out lures for many, and heterogeneous, takers.1 Melville's contemporaries, we might note, had been quick to detect his similarities and dissimilarities to predecessors in the gothic mode. Reviewing Mardi, in the Athenaeum for 24 March 1849, for example, Henry F. Chorley observed that Chapter 19 in Melville's book recalled the Imalee-Melmoth episode in Maturin's famous novel, Melmoth the Wanderer. The same Chorley, in his notice of Moby-Dick,2 remarked that Chapter 42, 'The Whiteness of the Whale,' contained enough 'ghostly suggestions' to satisfy a Maturin or Lewis, although, ironically, an anonymous reviewer of Moby-Dick in the Spirit of the Times, complimented Melville, along with Dickens, for fresh methods in fiction—writing, in contrast to the slavish imitators of Mrs. Radcliffe.3 Commentators on Melville's gothicism, however, find their quarry more often in Pierre or the short fiction, such as Edward Rose, in his study of Melville's interest in the incest in Walpole's gothic drama, The Mysterious Mother; the critics of 'The Bell-Tower'; or, most recently, Eugenia C. DeLamotte. Even Heinz Kosok, who painstakingly charted the gothic devices and character types employed by Melville, is rather more terse in treating Moby-Dick than we might wish.4

Here I wish chiefly to bring to bear upon Moby-Dick some of the ideas set forth by Norman N. Holland and Leona F. Sherman in their study, 'Gothic Possibilities.'5 They offer valuable help in unlocking certain doors to the time-honored, or vilified, gothic property, the haunted castle. That edifice, they argue, may be customarily called a 'nighttime house,' as darkness is conducive to the creation of vague terrors in the protagonist (and reader alike). The weird noises that seem to be an inescapable part of gothic fiction or, for that matter, plays and verse, are also enhanced by such tenebrousness, giving rise to the sounds of what children often interpret as sexual violence. Gothic castles typically harbor some family secret, and in consequence the castles seem central in childish fantasies about an adulthood that can be discovered and possessed. There is usually some aspect of an idealized family past connected with these settings, although another, less pleasant, typicality of such castles is a connection with discomfort—often torture—and shame, which in turn are tied to feelings of powerlessness and desire. Fantasies of sexual penetration and of merging with an 'otherness' arise from these clusters of emotions. Gothic castles, therefore, are ambiguous locales, at once holding out attractions of nurturing and annihilation. Generally, the protagonist attempts to leave the castle environs, only to be irresistibly drawn back, just as, in other circumstances, one tends to long for home.

Parental figures flourish within these gothic castles, figures who in the main derive from the bad fathers and wicked stepmothers in fairy tales, although good parental types, who function as counters to their more lurid opponents, are also part and parcel of gothic fiction. Gothic villains tend to be older or more sexually experienced persons, demon-lovers, perhaps, who hold authority over some more youthful or more naive protagonist. Possibilities for numerous ambiguities occur in the shadings of the environment and characters. The protagonist usually sustains feelings of anxiety or guilt for any covert wishes to do away with the villainous older character, who simultaneously attracts and repels her or him (Holland and Sherman remind us, by the way, that gothic novels enjoyed a long life of being written by women for women, witness the lasting popularity of Mrs. Radcliffe). Passive though the heroines or heroes may be, they manifest an undeniable resistance to their oppressors, thus offering yet another 'possibility'—that of passivity's leading to its own variety of power. Characters in gothic works may often discover that the situations they confront can affect their own senses of femaleness or maleness.

Ishmael, the teller of Melville's tale, is for much of his book as 'mysteriously alive to a dreadful feeling' as was his predecessor in the Melville canon, Redburn, during his. Like the biblical Ishmael, and like scores of other characters in gothic romance, Melville's creation is a wanderer who goes in search of identity and solidification of his personality. Given the mysteries that surround him, and his name (his chosen name, perhaps, as the opening sentence hints), we would expect to find no end of minuses in his personality. This wanderer goes beyond the shores of land, moreover, engaging in a fascinating, and yet often terrifying, aqua-gothic journey. His voyaging, however, is no mere physical hunt for actual whales, but is an attempt to shake the 'damp, drizzly November' in his soul, one which runs to visions of violence, suicide, and death. Therefore it is no odditity that his narrative is a conglomerate of one bit of gothicism after another, and that about those bits hover ambiguity piled upon ambiguity. Perhaps the Holland-Sherman approach may be put to use in throwing some light on Ishmael's story, which takes us from the traditional landlocked haunted castle onto the seas and the eerie 'haunted forecastle'—to use Kosok's term—of the Pequod, itself rife with hauntedness.

Ishmael's initial orientation toward suicide and death draws him toward Ahab and the great whales, of which Moby-Dick, a striking sport among his species, apears to be the most compelling and death-dealing. The old sea-captain has come to believe that in the notorious Moby-Dick is vested a cosmic harshness and evil. Because of his personal experience with this mysterious whale, he wishes to destroy—to bring death to the death-bringer, and thus to reassert his own potency, sexual and other. Ultimately, however, Ishmael more strongly resists this death-orientation as his experiences encourage him to perceive and accept the imperfectibilities in humankind. The strengthening of his credence in the worthwhileness of life leads him to forego the obsessive quest after ego-assertion that leads Ahab to doom in his final encounter with the white whale. Along the way to the closings with Moby-Dick, Ishmael attains a satisfaction in learning that mutuality becomes possible in human existence as we come to an understanding about extending ourselves to others, rather than trying to strive after what, as he comes to comprehend it, is revealed as a negative self-sufficiency.

Melville surpasses many of his predecessors in gothicism by presenting us with what amount to two 'haunted castles,' The Pequod and the sea. Each brings forth its mystifying noises to tantalize the ears of those who hear them. Mysteries of sexuality and power-plays are frequently associated with the strange sounds, just as they had been in the pair of miniaturized gothic castles, the inns where Ishmael and Queequeg lodged before embarking. Both the ship and the ocean are haunted by two villains, as it is Ahab's intentness upon overcoming the whale that makes the latter so vital a presence in all thought and activity aboard The Pequod and in the surrounding waters. The ship, to be sure, more obviously descends from the foreboding castellated abbeys in the Appenines so familiar in the Walpole-Radcliffe heritage. The vessel is 'a rare old craft' (p. 164). Somewhat atypically, she is 'rather small if anything; with an old-fashioned claw-footed look.' Albeit small in dimension, The Pequod nonetheless manages to convey the sense of spaciousness—because of the dreaminess and mind-expansion that she engenders in Ishmael—associated with the vastnesses and shadowy obscurities that are described with a deliciousness in earlier Gothics, as if the beholders relished those features and the sensations they promoted. 'Long seasoned and weather-stained …, her old hull's complexion was darkened like a French grenadier's, who has alike fought in Egypt and Siberia. Her venerable bows looked bearded … Her ancient decks were worn and wrinkled.' Her 'original grotesqueness' is intensified by the ivory decorations with which Captain Peleg had adorned her to extravagance while he was chief mate (p. 165). Not only does this description mirror to some extent the appearance of Ahab, as he later appears to us; it recalls the hordes of other gothic villains whose nefarious activities in most un-American climes had bronzed them—colored them with the devil's mark, as it were. The subtle intermingling of male and female attributes here is but one of many throughout the novel. Gorgeous though she is, The Pequod carries about her further 'possibilities' in possessing something of the 'barbaric Ethiopian Emperor' and several suggestions of cannibalism. She is indeed a 'noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy!' This same combination of nobility with melancholy might with equal plausibility designate Ahab, or, for that matter, Ishmael himself after his long testing in whaling. The ocean also repeatedly brings close the borders of melancholy with nobility. In fact, although several important scenes fall credibly into representations of the 'nighttime house' mentioned by Holland and Sherman, the sea becomes a modification of gothicism in that its daytime guises mingle beauty and treachery, just as antecedent haunted castles did. Life or death may spring up from its unfathomed depths.

If we may for the nonce regard Moby-Dick as haunted by the twin presences of Ahab and the great whale, then we may perceive a kind of parenting being foregrounded here, as it had been in earlier Gothics, and as it still is in the racks and racks of drugstore and shopping-mall gothic paperbacks, according to the Holland-Sherman construct. Ahab, as derivative from the myth of the old-testament king, is, naturally, a patriarchal father-figure, one who seeks to dominate his crew and redirect his customary occupation for evil purposes. No wonder that he is abetted by the devil-creature, Fedallah, who worships fire, and whose physique hints of the snake. Moby-Dick is more ambiguous because of the varied masculine and feminine traits ascribed to him in his role of parent-figure against whom Ahab rebels. Like the paired gothic 'castles' sketched above, captain and his prey evince shifting traits of good and evil, appeal and appall, mystery and forthrightness, calm cunning and shocking violence.

Ahab appeals initially to Ishmael because the older man—who, like King Lear, in ascending importance, is a father, an old man, and a king—embodies much that Ishmael desires to be and feels in his early anxieties that he is not. Like many other gothic villains, who may owe much to the tragic protagonists in Renaissance drama, Ahab has potentially noble qualities. The captain's growing monomania, which leaves him in the end bereft of any mutuality with another human being and instead transforms him into a fiend imbued with more horrifying animalistic impulses than even Moby-Dick seems to possess, loses his allure for his nonetheless obedient crewman, whose healthy skepticism and sense of interdependence with others of his kind absolve him from the fate that befalls the others, who have wholly succumbed to Ahab's enchantment—which is negative, not positive, 'magic.' That Ahab should engage in the casting of spells, although they are in the vein of demogogic persuasion and not otherworldly in their origins, is no surprise. His fearsome eye and his Cain-like scar team with his overbearing personality to establish him as a thoroughgoing gothic villain, although the old captain is no simple derivative culled without forethought from Melville's models. Ahab's sexuality, never cast as the mere rampant lust of so many other evil gothic types, in its vagueness adds another element of interest to his character. Consistent with his being the master of a 'night-time house,' Ahab finally chooses darkness—of madness, isolation, and death—as he defiantly shouts: 'I turn my body from the sun' (Ch. 135).

The white whale, too, holds out temporary appeal to the wanderer because the voyage after self-realization encompasses aspects of sexuality, as well as maleness and femaleness, intellectuality and primitivism, life-giving and destructive inclinations: all embodied in him. He is what Eugenia DeLamotte labels 'the ever-receding object of desire and, as the prison wall "shoved near,"… the ever-impinging source of terror.' Unlike Ahab, Ishmael finally comes to understand the whale as one more manifestation of an indifferent, if at times captivating, Nature, rather than as a diabolic and calculatingly cruel creature—or so one may interpret the whale's role in the book. Yet seeing and mulling the possibilities of gender-blendings in Moby-Dick's physical appearance and in his actions provide Ishmael with some greater, if not rationally clarified, comprehension of his own physio-psychal being than he had when his narrative commenced. Unlike Ahab, and the others in the crew—who have yielded altogether to their captain's evil spell—Ishmael travels down into the murkiness of the ocean in the vortex of Moby-Dick's annihilating whirlpool, but he returns to regions of light and life. He achieves a balancing, just as Ahab consciously eschews, between what Merlin Bowen, years ago, termed head and heart.6

The flight from the haunted castle, in hopes of eluding the consequences of mysteries and secrets sequestered there, also occurs, with certain modifications, in Moby-Dick. In the main, the flight is translated into psychological planes—although physical escapes are not forgotten—in terms of Starbuck's vain attempts to deter his captain from his mad quest. Were the crew to succeed in turning Ahab from his intentions, they would manage that feat by engaging in the ordinary business of whaling, or corporeally departing the ship if no further business were to be their occupation, or else mutinying (and thus cause something of a flight on Ahab's part). In the final encounter with Moby-Dick, when the distraught sailors who are set upon by their intended victim think hurriedly of the ship as a refuge, that ship proves to be no center of security as the great whale batters it to its destruction. So in Melville's handling of gothic possibilities, they can not return. Ishmael was among those who had departed the ship, in his case by the mere chance of Fedallah's death; and, although he does not literally return to what is no longer above the waves, he does achieve a kind of return as he lights on Queequeg's coffin, simultaneously a harbinger of death and life, and so much a part of the aura of The Pequod, another center for life and death. That coffin buoys him until The Rachel rescues him, and thus nurtures him as a kind of mother-refuge in contradistinction to the violent and death-dealing realm where phallic manias and animal unpredictability hold sway. Ishmael had gone to The Pequod in hopes of finding there a balm for his soul. The healing qualities in that balm came to him, ironically, only after he had received symbolic lashes from the whips that light on one's mentality as much as or more so than any actual stripes across the back. His being found by The Rachel suggests how Melville interjected another irony into the lost-child story of biblical origin. That is, Ishmael in fact is 'lost' in regard to his uninitiated self—but he has survived annihilation and been found because he developed another, more mature and stabilized selfhood. This wanderer returns to life because he has recognized the futility of trying to pierce the 'unreadable secret of the universe,' and in consequence becomes content to remain unheroic rather than to follow in the mindset of Ahab.

DeLamotte comments that in Moby-Dick Melville liberated gothic devices, 'allow[ing] them to float free of their old context' (p. 89). A problem that in its own manner 'haunts' the composer of studies such as this, is that as one pursues what at the outset seems a clearly, and succinctly, definable goal, he discovers that 'possibilities' ramify in all directions—excepting that of limitless time. Consequently, I conclude with hopes that my reading has called up, and will call up more, 'possibilities' under the surfaces of Melville's Moby-Dick.


1. Arvin's 'Melville and the Gothic Novel' first appeared in New England Quarterly, 22 (March 1949), pp. 33-48; rpt. American Pantheon, ed. Daniel Aaron and Sylvan Schendler (New York: Delacorte, 1966) pp. 106-122. Cf. Thompson's "Gothic Fiction of the Romantic Age: Context and Mode," the introduction to Romantic Gothic Tales, 1790–1840 (New York: Harper & Row, 1979) pp. 35-43; Boudreau "Of Pale Ushers and Gothic Piles: Melville's Architectural Symbology," ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 18 (2 quar. 1972), pp. 67-82. I quote from Moby-Dick, ed. Harold Beaver (Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin Books, 1972).

2. Athenaeum, 25 October 1851.

3. 6 December 1851.

4. Kosok, Die Bedeutung der Gothic Novel für das Erzåhlwerk Herman Melvilles (Hamburg: Cram, de Gruyter & Co., 1963). Pertinent bibliography on the topic may be found in my The Gothic's Gothic: Study Aids to the Tradition of the Tale of Terror (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988) pp. 232-38; Rose, '"The Queenly Personality": Walpole, Melville and Mother,' Literature & Psychology, 15 (Fall 1965), pp. 216-29; DeLamotte, Perils of the Night: A Feminist Study of Nineteenth-Century Gothic (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) pp. 48-49, 65-92. See also Allan Lloyd-Smith, Uncanny American Fiction: Medusa's Face (New York: St. Martin's, 1989) pp. 63-72.

5. 'Gothic Possibilities' was originally published in New Literary History 8 (Winter 1977), 278-94; rpt. Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts, ed. Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweikart (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).

6. The Long Encounter: Self and Experience in the Writing of Herman Melville (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960) [esp. Ch. 3, 'Defiance: The Way of Tragic Heroism']; DeLamotte, p. 134.

Works Cited:

Arvin, Newton, 'Melville and the Gothic Novel', New England Quarterly, 22 (March 1949), pp. 33-48; rpt. American Pantheon, ed. Daniel Aaron and Sylvan Schendler (New York: Delacorte, 1966) pp. 106-22.

Boudreau 'Of Pale Ushers and Gothic Piles: Melville's Architectural Symbology,' ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 18 (2 quar. 1972), pp. 67-82

Bowen, Merlin, The Long Encounter: Self and Experience in the Writing of Herman Melville (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960)

DeLamotte, Eugenia, Perils of the Night: A Feminist Study of Nineteenth-Century Gothic (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)

Fisher, Benjamin, The Gothic's Gothic: Study Aids to the Tradition of the Tale of Terror (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988)

Holland, Norman, & Sherman, Leona, 'Gothic Possibilities', originally published in New Literary History 8 (Winter 1977), 278-94; rpt. Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts, ed. Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweikart (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986)

Kosok, Heinz, Die Bedeutung der Gothic Novel für das Erzåhlwerk Herman Melvilles (Hamburg: Cram, de Gruyter & Co., 1963)

Lloyd-Smith, Allan. Uncanny American Fiction: Medusa's Face (New York: St. Martin's, 1989)

Rose, Edward, "The Queenly Personality': Walpole, Melville and Mother,' Literature & Psychology, 15 (Fall 1965), pp. 216-29

Thompson, G. R., 'Gothic Fiction of the Romantic Age: Context and Mode,' the introduction to Romantic Gothic Tales, 1790–1840 (New York: Harper & Row, 1979) pp. 35-43

General Commentary

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SOURCE: Arvin, Newton. "Melville and the Gothic Novel." The New England Quarterly 22, no. 1 (March 1949): 33-48.

In the following essay, Arvin delineates the various instances in which Melville's works are evocative of Gothic fiction by such authors as Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole, and E. T. A. Hoffmann.


There is a curious and rather unexpected passage in Billy Budd in which, alluding to Claggart's hatred of Billy, Melville remarks that the cause of this dark emotion was "in its very realism as much charged with that prime element of Radcliffean romance, the mysterious, as any that the ingenuity of the author of the Mysteries of Udolpho could devise."1Billy Budd and the Mysteries of Udolpho! Claggart and the melodramatic Montoni! Herman Melville and Mrs. Ann Radcliffe! Surely these are little better than laughable juxtapositions, and nothing could be idler or more pedantic than to look closely and seriously at the clue that Melville dropped behind him in the passage I have just quoted. Such, at least, is bound to be one's first response to the suggestion that there is a certain strain of the Radcliffean, of the "Gothic," in Melville's own work—until, perhaps, one recalls how fond of Mrs. Radcliffe's books both Balzac and Stendhal were, and reflects that Melville would not be the first writer of great power to owe a certain debt to one of his small predecessors. The fact is, of course, that his mind was a very complex one; that he was tirelessly responsive to the imaginative currents of his age; and that he was indebted, as only writers of the first order can be, to a thousand books and authors who preceded him. In all that, the "influence" of the Gothic school is a slight and minor element; but every element in the sensibility of a writer like Melville has its interest and meaning for us.

There can be no doubt of his familiarity with the writers of the Tale of Terror school. He was probably familiar with them from an early date, no doubt from boyhood, though we have to guess at this. In any case, we know that Smollett's Ferdinand Count Fathom, with its one or two rather trumped-up scenes of what might be called premature Gothicism, was one of the books that, according to a passage in Omoo, oddly turned up in the possession of his amiable host Po-po, on the island of Moorea, and that he read with such delight.2 Some years later, on his visit to England in 1849, Melville bought and brought home with him a quantity of books, among which were three or four of the favorite classics of the Gothic school: Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto, Beckford's Vathek, Godwin's Caleb Williams, and Mrs. Shelley's Frankenstein.3 How well Melville may have known the German writers of what is called the Schauerroman it is not easy to say, but in 1850 he is known to have borrowed from his friend Duyckinck the two volumes of Carlyle's German Romance, with its translations from such romantic and sometimes "Gothic" writers as Tieck and E. T. A. Hoffmann.4 Still later, traveling in the Near East and finding himself followed about the bazaar in Constantinople by a suspicious-looking Greek, he remembered that "much of the fearful interest of Schiller's Ghost-Seer"—a once famous shuddertale—"hangs upon being followed in Venice by an Armenian."5

The singular passage in Billy Budd was not the only place where Melville alluded to the good Ann Radcliffe herself. There is another entry in the journal he kept of his trip to Palestine which is almost as noteworthy; he is speaking of the desolate, stricken landscape of the Holy Land, and remarks: "As the sight of haunted Haddon Hall suggested to Mrs Radcliffe her curdling romances, so I have little doubt, the diabolical landscape of Judea must have suggested to the Jewish prophets, their ghastly theology."6 In some curious way, the imagery of Mrs. Radcliffe's books must have got itself intermingled with Melville's somber impressions of Palestine; an allusion to one of them occurs early in the first part of Clarel, the long metaphysical-descriptive poem he wrote on the basis of his travels in that country. He is describing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Those pilgrims, he says, who loiter near the sacred tomb at nightfall, and become aware of the lengthening shadows of the stone and the low mysterious sounds stealing from its vicinity,

   Shrink, much like Ludovico erst
   Within the haunted chamber …


One wonders how many of Clarel's readers, in the seventies, would still have recognized in Ludovico the half-comic, half-heroic manservant at the Castle of Udolpho who assists the heroine, Emily St. Aubert, in escaping from that sinister pile, and who later, in the south of France, undertakes to spend the night in the haunted chambers of the Château-le-Blanc.


Of course there would have been a great deal in the Gothic writers to inspire risibility in Melville rather than serious emulation, and yet the fact is that there was also a strain of feeling and imagination in them, of romantic sensibility, of morbid fancy, even of "nerves," to which he was by no means unresponsive. There was, for example, that passion for "wild," "gloomy," and "sublime" landscapes which Mrs. Radcliffe and the others derived in part from the tradition of Baroque landscape-painting—from Salvator Rosa, especially, and from such painters as the poetic English landscapist, Richard Wilson—and which certainly contributed to form and educate Melville's manner of looking at the visible world.8 Most readers of Mrs. Radcliffe will recall her habit of alluding to those painters; a narrow valley in the Pyrenees, for example, in Udolpho, characteristically strikes her as "such a scene as Salvator would have chosen … for his canvas."9 In exactly the same manner, Melville, evoking in Redburn the spectacle of the dying sailor Jackson, brooding in the "infernal gloom" of his bunk, observes that he was a picture "worthy to be painted by the dark, moody hand of Salvator."10

His own landscapes are sometimes decidedly in the great Baroque tradition of Salvator Rosa—and of Ann Radcliffe. Even when it is a question of conjuring up a scene so far from Mrs. Radcliffe's romantic Pyrenees and Apennines as a wild ravine on the Marquesan island of Nukuhiva, the one in which Melville and Toby spend a wretched night before descending into the Valley of Typee, it seems as if Melville, on the spot, had gazed about him with eyes that had been trained in part by Mrs. Radcliffe:

The sight that now greeted us was one that will ever be vividly impressed upon my mind. Five foaming streams, rushing through as many gorges, and swelled and turbid by the recent rains, united together in one mad plunge of nearly eighty feet, and fell with wild uproar into a deep black pool scooped out of the gloomy-looking rocks that lay piled around, and thence in one collected body dashed down a narrow sloping channel which seemed to penetrate into the very bowels of the earth. Overhead, vast roots of trees hung down from the sides of the ravine, dripping with moisture, and trembling with the concussions produced by the fall. It was now sunset, and the feeble uncertain light that found its way into these caverns and woody depths heightened their strange appearance, and reminded us that in a short time we should find ourselves in utter darkness.11

In the particularly "painterly" quality of this piece of landscape-writing—in the dim uncertain lighting, the heavy shadows, the dark surface of the pool, the violence of the physical motions, and the rich accompaniment of awesome sounds—there is an inescapable reminiscence, in Polynesian terms, of some of Mrs. Radcliffe's fine, gloomy landscapes. Take, for example, that in which Emily St. Aubert finds herself when Montoni's banditti attempt to abduct her from the Castle of Udolpho:

The sun had now been set some time; heavy clouds, whose lower skirts were tinged with sulphurous crimson, lingered in the west, and threw a reddish tint upon the pine forests, which sent forth a solemn sound as the breeze rolled over them. The hollow moan struck upon Emily's heart, and served to render more gloomy and terrific every object around her—the mountains, shaded in twilight—the gleaming torrent, hoarsely roaring—the black forests, and the deep glen, broken into rocky recesses, high overshadowed by cypress and sycamore, and winding into long obscurity.12

It is clear enough, from such a parallel, that Melville has insensibly transmuted the old Baroque or Gothic landscape into something genuinely his own, and the point would be equally clear if one turned to such passages as Pierre's dream of the ruinous and desolate scenery environing the Mount of Titans,13 or the marvelous presentment, in the first sketch of "The Encantadas," of the blighted, nightmarish landscape of the Galápagos Islands.14 It is, of course, Melville's own "painterly" powers that are really important in these passages, but it is impossible not to detect in them, nevertheless, the lingering vestiges of an older manner in fiction—the manner embodied in such scenes as that of the wild Adriatic seacoast in Mrs. Radcliffe's The Italian, or the frightful abysses into which the fiend dashes the guilty Ambrosio in M. G. Lewis's The Monk, or the dreamlike horror of the bleak Arctic landscape in Frankenstein.

If we look in Melville's work for the great leading symbol of Gothic fiction, the Haunted Castle itself,15 it is quite true that we shall not find it, at least not literally; there is of course, in Melville, no such grand and melancholy Gothic structure as that of Otranto or Udolpho or the Castle or R―sitten in Hoffmann's tale, Das Majorat. There is no House of Usher in his work nor even a House of the Seven Gables. Yet something of the poetic quality of the Haunted Castle—its strangeness, its antiquity, its dilapidation, its somber picturesqueness—may surely be felt, with all the differences, in Melville's description of the "Pequod" in Moby Dick, with its weather-stained hull, its venerable bows (which looked "bearded"), its spire-like masts, its worn and ancient decks, and its general grotesqueness and strangeness;16 and perhaps one feels this quality still more strongly in Melville's drawing of the doomed Spanish vessel, the San Dominick, in "Benito Cereno," suggesting as it does "a whitewashed monastery after a thunder-storm, seen perched upon some dun cliff among the Pyrenees."17 One of Mrs. Radcliffe's beloved convents and monasteries comes immediately to mind, let us say the convent of San Stefano among the wild Abruzzi in The Italian; and certainly there is more than a touch of the Gothic in the San Dominick's dilapidated tops, its castellated forecastle ("battered and mouldy" like "some ancient turret"), and the "faded grandeur" of its shield-like stern-piece, intricately carved with the arms of Castile and Leon.18 And, of course, the emotional tone of "Benito," its absorbing anxiety and half-pleasurable foreboding, is but a deeper and more serious version of Mrs. Radcliffe's "pleasing dread."19

Less interesting in every way is the image of the ruined tower, standing out like "the black mossed stump of some immeasurable pine," in the feeble Hawthornesque tale, "The Bell-Tower" (one of the Piazza Tales); yet this, too, is a dim echo of the towers, the turrets, the belfries in which the Gothic writers abound;20 and when, in Pierre, the hero and his half-sister Isabel ensconce themselves in the city high up in the building that adjoins the Church of the Apostles, in chambers from which Pierre can gaze out at "the donjon form of the old gray tower" of the Church itself,21 one is at any rate oddly reminded of the La Mottes and their protégée, the forlorn Adeline, in The Romance of the Forest, taking refuge amid the ruins of the Abbey of St. Clair, from the apartments of which they can contemplate the "almost demolished" eastern tower.22 The tower is an obsessive symbol in Gothic fiction, but still more obsessive, and deeply characteristic, is the recurring, dream-like symbolism of the subterranean—of ill-lighted, perplexing, labyrinthine corridors below ground, of obscure and gloomy vaults, of yawning dungeons; one finds it everywhere in Beckford, in Mrs. Radcliffe, in "Monk" Lewis; and such tales as "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Pit and the Pendulum" suggest that this claustrophobic imagery had a quite special value for Poe. It is less characteristic in every way of Melville, but even in him there is a hint of it in the murky, stifling, vermin-infested forecastles of Omoo23 and Redburn;24 and for a moment or two, in the sketch called "I and My Chimney," one finds oneself in the true underground realm of Mrs. Radcliffe and Poe. Very often, says the narrator of that sketch, he goes down into his cellar to survey the vast square base of his enormous chimney: "It has a druidical look, away down in the umbrageous cellar there, whose numerous vaulted passages, and far glens of gloom, resemble the dark, damp depths of primeval woods."25 In Melville, as in Hoffmann and Poe, the Unconscious is powerfully symbolized in this imagery of the subterranean.

If not the Superconscious, then certainly the Inexpressible bodies itself forth for many of the romantics, and certainly for some of the Gothic writers, in the imagery of music and the musical instrument. One may well question whether Melville was so spontaneously sensitive to musical form as he certainly was to color, to line, and to the plastic in general. Yet he shared too fully the sensibility of romanticism not to be capable, at moments, of expressing himself almost in the vein of Novalis, of Hoffmann, of Shelley: "Now, music," he says in Redburn, "is a holy thing, and its instruments, however humble, are to be loved and revered…. Musical instruments should be like the silver tongs with which the high priests tended the Jewish altars—never to be touched by a hand profane."26 Certainly musical instruments had been favorite emblems for Mrs. Radcliffe and her followers; stringed instruments especially, but wood-winds too and horns; and no cachet of the school is more individualizing than the "picturesque sounds,"27 as Mrs. Radcliffe rather finely calls them, which her heroines so love to draw forth from some romantic instrument. Emily St. Aubert, in Udolpho, is representative, and Emily's pleasantest hours, we are told, were passed in a pavilion to which she frequently retired "with a book to overcome, or a lute to indulge her melancholy."28

Isabel, in Pierre, is a not very remote descendant of Mrs. Radcliffe's Emilys and Adelines and Ellenas, and not least in her passionate penchant for music, especially the music she knows how to draw forth preternaturally, even without touching its strings, from her beloved guitar. This remarkable instrument, she tells Pierre, she had bought with some of her little earnings from a peddler; later, to her astonishment, she had found the name Isabel lettered in gilt on its interior surface, and when she learned that the instrument had come from the Glendinning mansion, she was at once intuitively certain that it had belonged to her mysterious mother. It is, in short, one of the delicate links in the ambiguous chain of circumstances which convinces Pierre that Isabel is in very truth his half-sister. But the poetic use of the symbol is subtler and less tangible than its use in the plot; the mystical melodies which Isabel, in Pierre's fascinated presence, evokes from her guitar are suggestive of the strangeness, the preternaturalness, the ambiguity of the relations that are at the same moment springing up between Pierre and her. "All the wonders that are unimaginable and unspeakable," as she herself says, "all these wonders are translated in the mysterious melodiousness of the guitar."29 Indeed, it is while she bends over the speaking instrument, her long dark hair falling over its strings and glowing with a mystic radiance from the "scintillations" of the melody, that Pierre is first aware of the spell which is being cast over him—that spell from which he knows it is impossible for him ever to break.30 Gothic as Isabel's guitar undoubtedly is, it serves a darker and more painful purpose than any of Mrs. Radcliffe's genuinely charming lutes.

In any case, there appears in this same novel a remarkable example of still another favorite Gothic device, the magic portrait. Paintings in general are highly characteristic symbols in romantic fiction—Balzac's Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu is a familiar example—and true to his romantic heritage Melville had already introduced two striking pictures in Moby Dick, the smoky and almost unintelligible painting hung up in the entry of the Spouter-Inn,31 and the stormy seascape that hangs at the back of Father Mapple's pulpit in the Whaleman's Chapel.32 The painting in Pierre, however, is not a landscape but a portrait, and it belongs in the line of all the mysterious, uncanny portraits that stem from the likeness of Prince Manfred's grandfather in The Castle of Otranto—the somber portrait which steps down out of its frame, at one juncture, and stalks gravely out of the room. Mrs. Radcliffe's portraits, mostly miniatures, are less preternatural than Walpole's, and Melville's imagination is more likely, here, to have been quickened by Hawthorne's various portraits—and perhaps also by the terribly strange portrait with the baleful eyes which, in Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, young John Melmoth burns to ashes at his dying uncle's injunction.33

The portrait in Pierre, as a matter of fact, is one of two pictures, two portraits of Pierre's deceased father, the elder Glendinning, one of which Pierre's mother approves of and allows to hang prominently in her drawing room; the other, however, she intensely dislikes and taboos, insisting that Pierre hang it safely out of her sight in a small closet that adjoins his bedroom. This latter picture represents Pierre's adored father as a carefree, irresponsible youth, seated negligently in an old-fashioned Malacca chair; and Pierre is much given to sitting before it and communing with it, for he at least imagines that it speaks to him and smiles at him in its suggestive, ambiguous way. He had learned, as a younger boy, of the circumstances under which it had been painted, and now, after the real action begins, his recollection of them sickeningly confirms the suspicions of his father's rectitude which Isabel's tale has implanted in his heart. From being the object of a kind of idolatry—a literal "father image," indeed—the portrait has turned to an object of loathing to Pierre, an emblem of the moral ambiguities that flicker and leer about him; and before he sets off for the city with Isabel, he destroys the chair-portrait by burning it. As he does so, and it writhes blackly in the flames, it stares at him tormentedly "in beseeching horror," quite as if it were a living thing.34 It is perhaps not meaningless, psychologically, that both Pierre and Melville should so much have disliked to have their portraits painted or their pictures taken.35


Pierre, in any case, like some of Melville's other books, owes more than its symbols to his Gothic forerunners. The novel, from this some-what pedantic point of view, represents an intertwining of three strands in Melville's literary heritage: Elizabethan tragedy, sentimentalism, and the Radcliffean novel that has so much in common with sentimentalism and that also expressed, in its own time, a kind of displaced Elizabethanism. The incest motive in Pierre, for example, might certainly have come to Melville from Webster or Ford, but it is still more reminiscent of the sentimental, the Gothic, or in general the romantic school. In White-Jacket, Melville himself alludes to Walpole's incestuous tragedy, The Mysterious Mother, along with Oedipus Tyrannus and The Cenci;36 and he may well have recalled how Mrs. Radcliffe had dallied with the theme in The Romance of the Forest, only to slip away from it unsullied, and how the less fastidious, or less timorous, Lewis had embraced it without coyness, restraint, or apology in The Monk. Needless to say, the fact that Melville turned to the theme of incest in Pierre has a far deeper meaning than any study of literary Einflüsse could possibly suggest; one speaks of these connections only for what they are, no more; and Melville—who, incredibly enough, seems actually to have fancied that Pierre was "calculated for popularity"37—may have thought that his novel would succeed as The Monk had done sixty years earlier, and partly for similar reasons.

At all events, Pierre's half-sister, the dark and doubtful Isabel, is a perfectly legitimate descendant, if not of Pierre's father, then certainly, as I have said, of a long line of betrayed and persecuted heroines or even heroes in Gothic fiction, from Walpole's Isabella in The Castle of Otranto (whose name is so close to her own), or Mrs. Radcliffe's Ellena, or M. G. Lewis's Antonia, to Charles Brockden Brown's Constantia Dudley. It is not only Isabel's dark beauty that links her with many of these, or her mysterious origins, but much more the fact that she is both innocent and victimized. The persecution of the helpless and the blameless, with its undertones of "romantic agony," of the fearfully attractive pair, sadism-masochism, is only too notoriously a pervasive theme in romantic literature generally, and full of meaning as it clearly was for Melville himself, there is nothing surprising in its appearing so continuously in his own work. It appears there essentially because the basis for it had been present in his own life and experience, and it would be pure pedantry to allege that there is anything peculiarly Gothic in the figure of the buffeted and put-upon Redburn or in that of White-Jacket, close as this latter allegedly comes to being flogged at the mast. Caleb Williams could have furnished a literary model for these unhappy youths, but it was not at all necessary that he should. Redburn and White-Jacket suffer from the commonplace and unromantic brutality of the everyday world; elsewhere in Melville there are victims of a more specifically romantic sort. Yillah, in Mardi, with her unearthly beauty and her mysterious provenance, is one of them; surely she is a sort of Polynesian and al-legorical Ellena. Surely, too, the pathetic Benito Cereno, the so untragic Spanish sea-captain—with his morbid sensitiveness, his nervous anxieties, and his fainting spells—is a masculine and sea-going Isabella. And surely the innocent and ingenuous Billy Budd, victimized by the unreasoning hatred of Claggart, can count among his ancestors the handsome young Vivaldi in The Italian, who is so mercilessly hounded by his mother and his mother's confederate Schedoni, and perhaps also the upright and high-minded Caleb Williams, in his time too the object of so black and baseless a malignity.

It is not only Melville's victims who put us in mind, at least a little, of his Gothic predecessors; so too do the monsters who persecute them. Again it is true that Melville derived from experience itself his intense, appalled awareness of the evil in the heart of man, and of its baffling union, now and then, with a certain largeness and even heroism. But it is the most original, not the most imitative, writers who owe the deepest debt to their literary forerunners; and Melville cannot have been unaffected by the romantic writers, including the Gothic, in whose work he found so many embodiments of the type that is known as the Majestic Monster; the type that Schiller called the Ungeheuer mit Majestät.38 Wickedness to the point of deviltry, associated nevertheless with a satanic grandeur and loftiness—the splendid ambiguity, indeed, that the romantics loved to see in Milton's Satan—had a deep and first-hand significance for Melville; he was disposed by native temper, as well perhaps as by chapters in his experience, to be impressed by such devilish but still somehow noble characters as Manfred in Otranto, or Schedoni in The Italian, or Ambrosio in The Monk—precursors as these were of Byron's Manfred, of Shelley's Count Cenci, of Balzac's Vautrin, and other personages in the work of far greater writers than Walpole or Mrs. Radcliffe.

It was certainly somewhere in the real world, if not on his Liverpool voyage,39 that Melville encountered the misanthropic sailor, Jackson, with his eye of a starved tiger and his ferocious nihilism; but when we are told that "he was a Cain afloat; branded on his yellow brow with some inscrutable curse,"40 we realize that an impression out of life itself has joined hands, and in a creative manner, with a literary inheritance. There is a touch of Schedoni in Jackson, as there is a touch of him in the wily, ingratiating, diabolical, yet somehow grandiose Negro slave, Babo, in "Benito," to whose masterfulness we cannot refuse a reluctant admiration; and combined in very different proportions, elements of the same sort are discernible in the splendid figure of Paul Jones, in Israel Potter, "intrepid, unprincipled, reckless, predatory, with boundless ambition, civilized in externals but a savage at heart."41 Nor have we left the tradition of the Majestic Monster wholly behind us when we arrive, late in Melville's career, at the baleful figure of Claggart, master-at-arms on the Indomitable, who wreaks so purposelessly the destruction of Billy Budd. Indeed, it is in the central passage which concerns Claggart that one comes upon the allusion with which this essay began, and the collocation seems not without meaning. At any rate, if there is no doubt of Claggart's monstrous wickedness, his "natural depravity," or the purity (so to say) of his malignity, neither is there any doubt of his not being a merely small and sordid villain. On the contrary, Claggart is physically tall, spare, and handsome, with a brow that hints of more than average intellect; a man of "superior capacity," who indeed is "dominated by intellectuality" and wholly free from "vices or small sins."42 He is such a hero of pure evil as only a profoundly romantic imagination could envisage.

Profoundly romantic, in one of the largest senses of the word, Melville's imagination in fact was; and to say so is to say, especially for an English or American writer, that the Gothic or Radcliffean was almost certain to be a minor ingredient in its complex totality. Brockden Brown, our earliest novelist of any true genius, was a Gothic writer in the strictest sense, and the work of Poe and Hawthorne, of course, abounds in Gothic feeling and Gothic detail. This is far less true of Melville, for many reasons, one of which is simply that he was enough younger than any of them to have passed beyond the immediate reach of the Gothic magnetism. I need hardly add that the center of his mind, in any case, lay elsewhere, or that the effect upon him even of a minor master, such as Mrs. Radcliffe certainly was, could never have been a vital one. What is striking, indeed, is that that influence lingered so long as it did in this country, and that it preserved enough of its vitality to impart even the most delicate tincture to an imagination like Melville's. When one looks at his work with some of his own hints in mind, one observes that it did just that.


1. Works (London, 1922–1924), XIII, 43.

2. Works, II, 347.

3. Willard Thorp, editor, Herman Melville: Representative Selections (New York, 1938), xxviii, note. Mr. Merton M. Sealts, who is preparing a list of the books in Melville's personal library, tells me that there is no evidence of his having owned any of Mrs. Radcliffe's works. Only the first installment of Mr. Sealts' article, "Melville's Reading: A Check-List of Books Owned and Borrowed," has hitherto appeared in the Harvard Library Bulletin, II (Spring, 1948), 141-163.

4. Herman Melville: Representative Selections, xxviii, note. The volumes that Melville borrowed were probably the two volumes of Carlyle's German Romance: Specimens of Its Chief Authors (Boston, 1841).

5. Herman Melville, Journal up the Straits … (New York, 1935), 32. In Der Geisterseher the principal character, the Prince von―, visiting Venice incognito, is accosted at night in St. Mark's Square by a masked Armenian, who later appears in other guises and is in fact the Wandering Jew.

6. Melville, Journal up the Straits, 88.

7. Works, XIV, 18. There are even one or two other references to Mrs. Radcliffe elsewhere. See Works, XIII, 318 ("The Apple-Tree Table") and Merrell R. Davis, "Melville's Midwestern Lecture Tour, 1859," Philological Quarterly, XX (Jan., 1941), 51.

8. There is an interesting account of these artistic influences on Mrs. Radcliffe in Elizabeth Stockton Ullery, Mrs. Ann Radcliffe as a Pioneer in the Use of Description in Fiction (Northampton, 1933), an unpublished master's thesis in the Smith College Library.

9. Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (London, 1931), I, 30.

10. Works, V, 355.

11. Works, I, 59.

12. Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, II, 76.

13. Works, IX, 476-482.

14. Works, X, 181-187.

15. Interestingly treated in Eino Railo, The Haunted Castle: A Study of the Elements of English Romanticism (London, 1927).

16. Works, VII, 85-87.

17. Works, X, 68.

18. Works, X, 69-70.

19. Ann Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest (London, 1904), 23.

20. Works, X, 253. Mediocre as it is, "The Bell-Tower" has a certain interest because of the "experimental automaton" which Melville introduces into it, and which recalls not only Frankenstein but such tales of Hoffmann as Der Sandmann and Die Automate.

21. Works, IX, 377.

22. Ann Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest, 20. Towers occur several times in Clarel; the tower on Mount Olivet (Part I, XXXVI, "The Tower") and the "towers twain" on Mar Saba (Part III, XXI, "In Confidence") may be instanced. Nor should one forget, in Moby Dick (Chap. XCIX), the emblematic tower engraved on the doubloon that Ahab nails to the mainmast.

23. Works, II, 8, 46-49.

24. Works, V, 109-110.

25. Works, XIII, 283. There is an interesting discussion of the symbolism in this sketch in Merton M. Sealts, "Herman Melville's 'I and My Chimney,'" American Literature, XIII (June, 1941), 142-154.

26. Works, V, 321.

27. Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, I, 75.

28. The Mysteries of Udolpho, I, 126.

29. Works, IX, 177.

30. Works, IX, 211-214.

31. Works, VII, 13-14.

32. Works, VII, 48.

33. Charles Robert Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer (London, 1892), I, 93-95.

34. Works, IX, 98-119, 273-277.

35. Works, IX, 352-357. See also a letter to Duyckinck in Meade Minnigerode, Some Personal Letters of Herman Melville … (New York, 1922), 72-73.

36. Works, VI, 474.

37. A phrase used by Melville in a letter to the English publisher, Bentley. See Harrison Hayford, "The Significance of Melville's 'Agatha' Letters," English Literary History, XII (Dec., 1946), 306.

38. Schiller used this phrase in the so-called Unterdrückte Vorrede to Die Räuber.

39. According to William H. Gilman, "Melville's Liverpool Trip," Modern Language Notes, LXI (Dec., 1946), 543-547, there was actually a sailor named Jackson on the St. Lawrence, the ship on which, in 1839, Melville signed up as a "boy" and made the trip to Liverpool, but the dramatic death of Jackson must have been pure invention, since (as Mr. Gilman has shown in his unpublished doctoral dissertation, "Melville's Early Life and Redburn," Yale, 1947) the whole crew of the St. Lawrence returned to New York alive and unscathed; and Jackson the imaginative creation may well have owed something to characters Melville had encountered elsewhere.

40. Works, V, 134.

41. Works, XI, 158. The adjectives quoted are used literally of the United States as a nation, but they are used in metaphorical relation to Paul Jones, whom they also characterize.

42. Works, XIII, 31-35, 43-47.

Further Reading

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Weaver, Raymond M. Melville: Mariner and Mystic. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1921, 399 p.

The biography central to the Melville revival of the 1920s. This work was extremely influential in establishing Melville's reputation as an author of world importance.


Braswell, William. Melville's Religious Thought: An Essay in Interpretation. New York: Octagon Books, 1973, 154 p.

Studies the background and influences central to Melville's religious disillusionment and analyzes the treatment of religious themes throughout his works.

Brodhead, Richard H. "The Uncommon Long Cable: Moby Dick." In Hawthorne, Melville, and the Novel, pp. 134-62. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Proposes that Moby-Dick is founded on an opposition between two views concerning the nature of the world; namely, "a sense of reality as something inhuman that lies beyond the actual and apparent and a sense of it as something visible, tangible, and finally supportive of human scrutiny."

Coviello, Peter. "The American in Charity: 'Benito Cereno' and Gothic Anti-Sentimentality." Studies in American Fiction 30, no. 2 (autumn 2002): 155-80.

Argues that in his story "Benito Cereno" Melville "pits gothic occlusion and opacity against sentimental modes of reading and response" particularly in terms of the work's naïve narrator and concerns with the politically volatile subject of race in mid-nineteenth-century America.

Hillway, Tyrus. Herman Melville. New York: Twayne, 1963, 176 p.

Book-length survey of Melville's life and works.

Hume, Beverly A. "The Despotic Victim: Gender and Imagination in Pierre." American Transcendental Quarterly 4, no. 1 (March 1990): 67-76.

Probes the conflicts inherent in Melville's writing of Gothic romance, both as a male author and as a revisionist of the genre.

――――――. "Of Krakens and Other Monsters: Melville's Pierre." American Transcendental Quarterly 6, no. 2 (June 1992): 92-108.

Considers Melville's rendering of "feminine monstrosities" in the novel Pierre.

Levin, Harry. "The Jonah Complex." In The Power of Blackness: Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, pp. 201-307. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958.

Concentrates on darkness as a unifying theme in Moby-Dick.

Miles, Robert. "'Tranced Griefs': Melville's Pierre and the Origins of the Gothic." ELH 66, no. 1 (spring 1999): 157-77.

Comments on Melville's ironic use of English Gothic ideology and literary conventions in his novel Pierre.

Oates, Joyce Carol. "Melville and the Tragedy of Nihilism." In The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in Literature, pp. 59-83. New York: Vanguard Press, Inc., 1972.

Analysis of Melville's fiction that concentrates on the Manichean struggle between good and evil depicted in his works.

Smith, Henry Nash. "The Madness of Ahab." In Democracy and the Novel: Popular Resistance to Classic American Writers, pp. 35-55. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Investigates the ways in which the insanity of Ahab in Moby-Dick serves to qualify or elaborate his proposition that the universe is controlled by an evil power.

Stern, Milton R., ed. Discussions of Moby-Dick. Boston: D. C. Heath and Co., 1960, 134 p.

A collection of essays on Moby-Dick that includes discussion of contemporary reaction to the novel, the significance of Ahab's perception of evil, and other pertinent topics.

Watters, R. E. "Isolatoes." PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 50, no. 4 (December 1945): 1138-48.

Examines Melville's treatment of the theme of individual isolation in Moby-Dick and other works.


Additional coverage of Melville's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 25; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1640–1865; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 3, 74, 250, 254; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vols. 1, 2; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 3, 12, 29, 45, 49, 91, 93, 123, 157; Novels for Students, Vols. 7, 9; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 3; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 1, 17, 46; Something about the Author, Vol. 59; Twayne's United States Authors; and World Literature Criticism.

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Herman Melville Poetry: American Poets Analysis