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In what ways did Herman Melville’s first two commercially successful novels become misfortunes for him?

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What traits of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick make him such a memorable character? Can this character be comprehended or is he ultimately mysterious?

What does the white whale in Moby Dick symbolize?

In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” why does Bartleby “prefer not to”?

What characteristics of modern Manhattan are already present or adumbrated in “Bartleby the Scrivener”?

Discuss lack of imagination as a weakness in the lawyer in “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Captain Delano in Benito Cereno.

Does Captain Vere make the right decision in Billy Budd, Foretopman? Do Billy’s final words cast any light on the matter?

Did Melville make his mature works too ambiguous?

Other Literary Forms

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Herman Melville’s sixteen published books include novels, short stories, poetry, and sketches. He is best known for his novels, particularly Moby Dick (1851), The Confidence Man (1857), and Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924).


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By the middle of the twentieth century, names such as Moby Dick and captain Ahab were well known in the popular culture of the United States. Yet, one must look to the 1920’s and the revival in Melville’s work (notably Moby Dick) to see the beginning of what came to be Melville’s immense stature in American literature. His most significant works received little popular or critical acclaim in his lifetime. One reason for this may have been friction with nineteenth century American tastes. Problems also stemmed, however, from Melville’s fascination with forces that seemed (to him) to lie below the placid optimism of his contemporary American culture. Readers were disturbed by the author’s tendency to view outward appearances as pasteboard masks that concealed a truer, darker reality. It should come as no surprise that modern students sense an invitation to allegorize Melville’s works. Many believe that Melville, himself, perceived life in a symbolic way.

Many of the short pieces that Melville wrote for various magazines represent conscious attempts, through symbol and irony, to express disturbing layers of meaning beneath a calm surface. In 1855-1856, Melville finished a novel, The Confidence Man, rendering a bleak view of the possibility of faith in the world as he knew it. Although Melville openly wrote verse throughout his life, the manuscript that would become his novella, Billy Budd, Foretopman, was packed away by his widow and not discovered until the 1920’s.

Melville completed Moby Dick some forty years before Sigmund Freud began to penetrate the veneer of conventional surfaces in his quest for the causes of hysteria—the salient behavioral aberration of repressive nineteenth century Europe. Yet, Melville (like his contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne) had already begun to probe beyond the level of mundane appearances in his fiction. Even though some of Melville’s stories are lengthy by modern standards, the finest of them exhibit exceptional merit in the short-story genre. “Benito Cereno” and “Bartleby the Scrivener,” for example, reveal a rich complexity and density which rival those of modern masterpieces of the form.

Other literary forms

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Herman Melville, as if turning a new corner in his literary career, began a series of short stories after the financial failures of the novels Moby Dick and Pierre. The tales, which present an enigmatic addition to Melville’s artistry, were published between 1853 and 1856, either in a collection (The Piazza Tales, 1856) or individually in journals such as Putnam’s Monthly Magazine and Harper’s Monthly magazine. Melville had difficulty with the short forms, and he seemed unable to work out the plot and characters in the space required. His best stories are...

(The entire section contains 2207 words.)

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Critical Essays