Like most of Herman Melville’s work, Redburn does not follow a conventional plot structure of complication, climax, and resolution, nor does the novel have characters who gradually develop and interact within a framework of interrelated events and circumstances. Redburn is a bildungsroman, a novel that deals with the development of a young protagonist moving from adolescence to maturity. Redburn is told by a first-person narrator who, in the course of his commentary, moves from innocence to experience.
At the outset, young Wellingborough Redburn’s existence is protected, safe from the iniquities of the world outside village life. His enthusiasm to go to sea is the desire of postadolescence to move from the innocent state of childhood into the real world, to challenge that which adults have simultaneously idealized and, for as long as they could, withheld from children. The real world, however, proves to be a darker and more forbidding place than the naïve Redburn is prepared to enter. The rules of fair play and benevolence that have governed his childhood are greatly diminished, and in their place, Redburn finds little kindness and understanding; instead, he finds more than enough selfish indifference and pointless malevolence.
Melville places great emphasis on symbols to convey complex ideas. The glass ship, the moleskin shooting jacket, and the Liverpool guidebook all invite a variety of critical interpretations. As a child growing up in his father’s house, Redburn was fascinated by a glass ship kept in a glass case. It is the basis of his great passion to go to sea, for he has grown up studying the minute detail of its glass spars and rigging and its glass figurine sailors earnestly plying their trade. The glass ship, although a strong stimulant for the imagination of an impressionable youth, suggests a fragile, tentative reality, like the imagined notion of a world one has not directly experienced. Having lived a sheltered life in his mother’s home in the Hudson Valley, Redburn is as ill-prepared to undertake a genuine voyage upon the high seas as is the glass ship. Melville seems to suggest that people are more resilient than glass, and with the aid of luck and good fortune, people can withstand suffering and the mystery of what often seems a pointless universe.
The reality of the actual voyage is a harsh and brutal experience, one for which Redburn lacks both the psychological and practical necessities. On his departure, his older brother gives him two items: a fowling piece (a gun for hunting birds) and a cumbersome shooting jacket with large horn buttons, many pockets, and long skirts. Redburn has little money, however, and he has no idea of the basic necessities for his new undertaking. The gun is pawned at the first opportunity, perhaps suggesting that such a weapon is useless for the kinds of battles Redburn must now face. The jacket, however, has deeper symbolic implications, much like a similar article of clothing in White-Jacket (1850), the novel generally viewed as Melville’s sequel and companion piece to Redburn. The shooting jacket makes Redburn the object of derision by his fellow seafarers. The jacket earns him the nickname Buttons. As Redburn performs his seaman’s tasks, he is repeatedly drenched by rain and seawater. Day by day the shooting jacket shrinks; the seams begin to widen to the point of splitting; and moving and working with the jacket on become increasingly difficult. The jacket has become the symbol of the world Redburn has left behind. One critic called the jacket an “obsessive emblem” of his lost gentility and social humiliation.
The concept of advancing to a new...
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identity and breaking with the past is further enhanced by the incident of the Liverpool guidebook. Redburn brings with him the guidebook that his father had used on a visit to that same city fifty years earlier. The book on which Redburn—as a friendless stranger in a foreign city—had hoped to rely on, however, proves to be worthless. Following the map, he attempts to find Riddough’s Hotel, the place where his father had stayed, but the hotel is a thing of the past, having been torn down decades earlier. New buildings now stand in its place, and its name is unknown to passersby. His father’s Liverpool no longer exists in what Redburn now sadly realizes is a world marked by change, rather than constancy. Having hoped to follow in the comforting security of his father’s footsteps, he knows now that he must chart his own course, as generations that follow him must do.
Melville surrounds Redburn with a collection of curious characters, few of them fully developed. For the most part, they seem close to caricature, primarily serving as foils for Redburn to offer observations regarding their moral shortcomings. The most compelling, however, is Jackson, the prototype of the tortured individual who would in various guises appear in Melville’s later works. Jackson is the forerunner of Claggart in Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924), Babo in Benito Cereno (1856), and Ahab in Moby Dick (1851). Like them, he is a formidable leader—but he is also a tortured soul consumed by nihilism, believing in nothing and hating everything. For all his enmity, however, there is a curious paradox about Jackson; he is the Cain figure, the proud and forbidding outcast in whom, in spite of his wickedness, there is something pitiable and touching. Redburn is the first of Melville’s novels to use the symbolic import of the sea as a backdrop for this kind of paradox and for the related, compelling subjects that troubled Melville most: the loss of innocence, the confrontation with evil, and the shifting ambiguities that connect innocence and evil.