Herman Melville (1819-1891)
Contributing Editor: Carolyn L. Karcher
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The primary problems I have encountered in teaching Melville are the difficulty of the language and the complexity of the narrative point of view. This is particularly true of "Benito Cereno," but Billy Budd and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" also present problems for students unaccustomed to allusive and circuitous language and a complex narrative stance. Students usually find "Bartleby" and "The Encantadas" much more accessible. "Hawthorne and His Mosses" is daunting to students because of its allusiveness. It also needs to be set in the context of debate over how nineteenth-century American writers should go about producing an authentic national literature.
Each of the Melville selections demands a somewhat different strategy. What works best for me is not to teach Melville's writings together in a separate unit, but to group individual Melville pieces with texts by other authors on similar themes. For example, "Hawthorne and His Mosses" would make most sense to students in a unit on debates over literary nationalism and aesthetic theory, which could include Emerson's "The American Scholar," Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition" and review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, Fuller's "A Short Essay on Critics," and Whitman's 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass and Democratic Vistas. A unit on the Transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller) can be used to introduce such themes as individualism versus social responsibility (Emerson's "Self-Reliance" and Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government"); alienation and the critique of industrial capitalism (Thoreau's Walden); the critique of patriarchy and marriage as an institution, the parallels between the oppression of women and the enslavement of blacks, and the deconstruction of "true womanhood" and "woman's sphere" as ideological concepts (Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century). In a follow-up unit of fiction illustrating these themes, "Bartleby" and "Billy Budd" would fit nicely with the Thoreau selections, while "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" and the Hunilla sketch from "The Encantadas" would work well after Fuller, along with Stoddard's "Lemorne Versus Huell," Alice Cary's "Uncle Christopher's," and Caroline Kirkland's A New Home. In my own current syllabus, I introduce the issue of women's rights by teaching Sarah Grimké's Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, and the Condition of Woman (#8), selections from Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Stanton's "Declaration of Sentiments," Fern's "Hints to Young Wives," "Soliloquy of a Housemaid," and "Working-Girls of New York," and Sojourner Truth's "A'n't I a Woman?" I then devote several sessions to varieties of narrative and representations of women, in which I group "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" and the Hunilla sketch together with Poe's "Ligeia" and "The Oval Portrait," Hawthorne's "The Birth-mark" and "Rappaccini's Daughter," Kirkland's A New Home, Cary's "Uncle Christopher's," and Stoddard's "Lemorne Versus Huell." "Benito Cereno" obviously cries out to be assigned with other texts on slavery. Any of the following would work well: David Walker's Appeal, Garnet's 1843 "Address to the Slaves of the U.S.A.," Thomas Wentworth Higginson's "Nat Turner's Insurrection," Phillips's "Toussaint L'Ouverture," Douglass's Narrative, Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Lydia Maria Child's "Slavery's Pleasant Homes," and selections from her Appeal, and Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative also helps illuminate "Benito Cereno," though it is probably best to teach it with eighteenth-century selections.
I generally try not to overwhelm students with long analyses of style and point of view, but some brief treatment of these matters is indispensable, especially in the case of "Benito Cereno." I often begin by reading key passages aloud to the students and having them analyze the tone of Melville's rhetoric. When they actually hear the tone, they can usually pick up the undercurrent of satire in "The Paradise of Bachelors," the smug insensitivity of Bartleby's employer, and the sense that both Delano and the reader are being subtly mocked.
The question of tone leads easily into the issues of narrative point of view and audience. It is, of course, essential for students to realize that Bartleby's story is narrated by his boss and that "Benito Cereno," though in the third person, is narrated primarily from Delano's point of view, except for the Deposition, which represents Benito Cereno's point of view. After establishing these facts, I ask the students to consider why Melville did not choose instead to narrate his stories from the viewpoints of Bartleby, Babo, and the factory operatives in "Tartarus of Maids."
It is extremely effective to emphasize the continuing applicability of Melville's insights to our own times. Some of the issues his fiction raises are more relevant than ever. Many students (and their parents) work at jobs as meaningless and dead-end as Bartleby's and identify strongly with him. One student described the law copyists as "living xerox machines." Other students have drawn parallels between Bartleby and the homeless. The disparities between rich and poor are even more glaring now than at the time Melville wrote "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" and the phenomenon called the "feminization of poverty" adds another relevant twist to those disparities. In the 1960s "Benito Cereno" evoked Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, in the 1990s the struggle in South Africa. Billy Budd was perhaps never more relevant than during the Reagan-Bush era, with its wholesale glorification of militarism and its rollback of democratic rights in the name of national security.
The most persistent questions my students raise are why Melville chose to address issues of such vital importance through literary strategies so oblique and circuitous, and whether these strategies were at all effective in subverting his readers' ideological assumptions, let alone transforming their political consciousness.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
A major source of Melville's continuing power is the prescient insight he displays into the central problems of our culture: alienation; violence against women and the repression of the "feminine in man" that usually accompanies it; the widening gap between a decadent ruling class and the workers it immiserates; racism and an ever-more-brutal assault against the world's peoples of color; an unbridled militarism that threatens our very existence while demanding that we resign our civil liberties and human rights in the name of national security. Thus the most effective way of teaching Melville is to encourage students to draw contemporary lessons from the historical predicaments he dramatizes so compellingly.
Each story, of course, centers around a different theme. In teaching "Bartleby" and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids," I emphasize Melville's critique of capitalism and the alienation it produces. "The Communist Manifesto" and Marx's essays "Estranged Labor," "The Meaning of Human Requirements," and "The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society," from The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 are extraordinarily relevant to these two stories and illuminate them in startling ways. However, I find it preferable to let Marx indirectly inform the approach one takes to the stories, rather than to get sidetracked into a discussion of Marx. A secondary theme in "Bartleby" is the Christian ethic of Matthew 25, which Melville counterpoises against the capitalist ethic of Wall Street (see Bibliography for useful articles on this subject).
"The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" naturally invites a feminist as well as a Marxist approach. Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Sarah Grimké's Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, and the Condition of Woman, and Lydia Maria Child's Letters from New York #50 (Women's Rights) provide a ready-made framework for a feminist analysis of that story. The Hunilla sketch in "The Encantadas" likewise shows that Melville's sympathy for women as victims of patriarchy extended to classes of women invisible to most of his peers, and here, too, Fuller is very relevant. Though "Benito Cereno" and Billy Budd do not focus on women, a feminist approach can enrich the students' understanding of key episodes and subthemes.
In "Benito Cereno," for example, Delano's racist stereotypes not only prevent him from recognizing that slave revolt has occurred on board the San Dominick, but distort his perception of the African women's role in that revolt. Just as Babo protects his fellow rebels from discovery by catering to Delano's stereotypes about blacks as faithful slaves, so the African woman Delano ogles does so by catering to his stereotypes about African women as sexual objects and primitive children of nature. By reading between the lines of the Deposition from a feminist perspective, we see that the African women have probably been sexually victimized by both their master and Don Benito and that they have played an active role in the revolt. Melville's references to the "inflaming" songs and dances they sing while their men are fighting indicate his possible familiarity with such sources as Equiano's narrative, which speaks of African women's participation in warfare.
Similarly in Billy Budd, Melville connects his critique of militarism and the dehumanization it generates with a critique of Western culture's polarization of masculine and feminine. The feminine imagery Melville uses to describe Billy suggests that he represents what Vere later calls the "feminine in man," instructing his drumhead court that "she must be ruled out" of their deliberations. It also suggests that one of the roots of Claggart's and Vere's homosexual attraction to Billy is his embodiment of the "feminine in man" that they have repressed in themselves and must continue to repress by killing Billy. Here again, Margaret Fuller's analysis of the ways in which patriarchy victimizes men as well as women is relevant.
"Benito Cereno" obviously needs above all to be set in the contexts of the antebellum slavery controversy and of the prior historical events to which the story refers (summarized in the footnotes): the Spanish Inquisition; the introduction of African slavery into the Americas under Charles V; the African slave trade and its relationship to the activities of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English buccaneers; the Santo Domingo slave uprising of 1797-1804; the slave revolt on board the Spanish ship Tryal that the real Captain Delano had helped suppress; and the uncannily similar slave revolt that occurred on board the Spanish slave-trading schooner Amistad in 1839 (for useful articles on these aspects of the story, see the Bibliography below). As mentioned under "Classroom Issues and Strategies" above, the easiest means of teaching "Benito Cereno" in historical context is to assign it in conjunction with other texts on slavery.
Billy Budd reverberates with implications for the nuclear age and its strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Readers of the 1990s will also find Melville's exploration of Vere's and Claggart's repressed homosexuality highly pertinent to current debates over ending the ban against gays in the military. Teachers should not be afraid to exploit the story's contemporary relevance, but they should also set the story in its twin historical contexts--1797, the date of the action, and 1886-91, the period of composition. See H. Bruce Franklin's "From Empire to Empire," cited below, for an invaluable discussion of these historical contexts.
I have tried to provide biographical facts germane to the stories in the introduction and notes. Teachers might point out, however, that "Bartleby" draws on Melville's experiences of working as a clerk for a brief period and also reflects attitudes he must have associated with his brother Allan, a lawyer; that Elizabeth Shaw Melville's debilitating pregnancies, as well as an actual visit to a paper mill, helped generate the feminist insights Melville displays in "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids"; that Judge Lemuel Shaw's conservative views on slavery and controversial role as the first northern judge to send a fugitive slave back to his master may explain the circuitous form Melville adopts in "Benito Cereno"; and that the suicide of Melville's son Malcolm in 1867 may have some bearing on Billy Budd.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
The traditional grouping of Melville with Hawthorne and Poe obscures not only the social vision, but the concept of art differentiating Melville from such canonical figures. Unlike them, Melville persistently rejects "the symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction," holding instead to the principle that "Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges." Teachers should point out the way in which Melville deliberately subverts formalist conventions in "Benito Cereno" and Billy Budd by appending the Deposition and the three chapters of sequel that force readers to determine the truth for themselves. It might also be useful to point out that the concept of art Melville articulates at the end of Billy Budd directly opposes Vere's doctrine of "measured forms" (see Edgar A. Dryden, cited below). In contextualizing Melville with writers like Olaudah Equiano, David Walker, Henry Highland Garnet, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Frederick Douglass, Lydia Maria Child, Margaret Fuller, Alice Cary, Fanny Fern, Harriet Beecher Stowe, among others, teachers might suggest comparisons between their aesthetic of "Art for Truth's Sake" (as Phelps called it) and Melville's concept of literature as "the great Art of Telling the Truth" (delineated in his review "Hawthorne and His Mosses"). Although Melville's short fiction is much less accessible and more oblique than the protest writings of these other authors, it is important to remember that four out of his first five books were autobiographical accounts of his life as a sailor--a genre not very different from the slave narrative. All five are filled with explicit and passionate social protest, culminating in White-Jacket 's powerful appeal for the abolition of flogging in the navy, another parallel with the slave narrative.
Stylistically, I like to emphasize Melville's use of irony and grim humor. If one adopts Babo's point of view in reading "Benito Cereno," one is struck again and again by the humor of the story. The shaving scene is one of the best examples, and I like to go over it at length, beginning with the way in which Babo responds to Don Benito's slip of the tongue about Cape Horn by suggesting that Don Benito and Delano continue the conversation while he shaves his master.
"Bartleby," too, presents many examples of Melville's incisive irony and grim humor. See, for instance, the scene in which Bartleby announces that he will "do no more writing" and asks the narrator, "Do you not see the reason for yourself?"--to which the narrator, who does not see, responds by postulating that Bartleby's vision has become "temporarily impaired."
I generally let the subject of audience come up spontaneously, which it nearly always does. The students often infer--correctly--that Melville was writing for an audience linked by sympathies of class and race to the lawyer in "Bartleby," the bachelors in "Paradise," and Captain Delano in "Benito Cereno." I then talk a little about Melville's social milieu and the readership of Harper's and Putnam's. (The latter was moderately antislavery, and distinctly more progressive than Harper's, which Lydia Maria Child characterized as pro-slavery; nevertheless, its readers shared some of the racial and class attitudes Delano exemplifies.)
The question of audience is related to the literary strategy Melville adopted. In discussing Melville's rhetoric and the discomfort it provokes in a reader who has an obscure sense of being made fun of, we speculate about whether Melville hoped to jolt readers into thinking about the implications of their attitudes.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
See suggestions above under "Classroom Issues and Strategies." Bartleby has often been seen by critics as a Thoreau-like figure in his passive resistance, but Thoreau's perspective on industrialization, capitalism, and alienation actually contrasts with Melville's, which is closer to Marx's.
Although instructors who have previously paired "Paradise and Tartarus" with Rebecca Harding Davis's "Life in the Iron-Mills" will miss the latter (now in Volume 2 of The Heath Anthology), they will find that Alice Cary's "Uncle Christopher's" also makes an interesting pairing. In different ways, both stories reveal the world of the patriarchs to be as sterile and perverted as the world of the patriarchs' victims. Both "Uncle Christopher's" and "Tartarus" are pervaded by images of freezing cold and make metaphorical use of an icy landscape. The seven girls winding seven skeins of blue yarn and knitting seven blue stockings in Cary's story recall the "blank-looking" factory girls "blankly folding blank paper" in Melville's; in both cases the women are silent and only the noise of their work is heard. While Melville's story comments on how women factory operatives are deprived of a home life and turned into machines, Cary's story shows how the home itself is turned into a factory, whose "boss" is not an "old bachelor" but the patriarchal father.
The Hunilla sketch can fruitfully be compared with both Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Lydia Maria Child's "Slavery's Pleasant Homes." All three portray women who struggle to keep their dignity in the face of rape or sexual harassment, and all three raise the issue of how to narrate a woman's experience of sexual violation without demeaning her, catering to prurient curiosity, or collaborating in her silencing.
The reasons for grouping "Benito Cereno" with other works about slavery are obvious, but teachers can help students make specific connections between the slaves on board the San Dominick and Douglass's battle with Covey, between the African women among them and Equiano's reminiscences of women's participation in battle, between the San Dominick's "true character" as a slave ship and Equiano's description of the slave ship that transported him across the Atlantic, between Melville's use of the Deposition (and of the three appended chapters in Billy Budd) and Child's use of newspaper accounts at the end of "Slavery's Pleasant Homes."
At the same time, one can contrast Melville's rhetorical strategy with the more direct strategy of appeal for the reader's sympathy that other anti-slavery writers adopt. One can further contrast the male and female writers' perspectives on slavery. For Melville and Douglass, the slave's attempt to reclaim his "manhood" by fighting back and risking his life for freedom is central, while the female slave's attempt to defend her children and to resist the violation of her humanity through rape is peripheral. For Stowe and Jacobs the reverse is true; Child balances the two perspectives in "Slavery's Pleasant Homes."
Billy Budd invites comparison with Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience, which casts an ironic light on the arguments Vere uses to have Billy sentenced to hanging. If teachers decide to group Billy Budd with the writings on slavery, rather than with those on industrialism and the oppression of women, they can underscore the parallels Melville suggests between the condition of sailors and that of slaves (a theme he develops at great length in White-Jacket). The Black Handsome Sailor who appears in the opening pages of Billy Budd and incarnates the ideal of the Handsome Sailor more perfectly than Billy also provides a strong, positive counter-image of blacks, offsetting the seemingly negative stereotypes presented in "Benito Cereno." Formally as well, the two stories have much in common and invite comparison with "Slavery's Pleasant Homes."
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
I do not like to use study questions because I find them too directive. I prefer to train students to become attentive readers through more indirect strategies. My principal strategy (borrowed from H. Bruce Franklin) is to give students a quiz requiring them to analyze several key passages in the text, prior to class discussion. (The lawyer's description of the place he assigns Bartleby in his office would be a good choice. So would the passage about the "odd instance" Delano observes of "the African love of bright colors and fine shows.")
I can, however, supply some questions I regularly ask in the course of class discussion.
Questions for class discussion of "Bartleby":
1. What does the subtitle of "Bartleby" suggest? What is the significance of Wall Street and the walls in the story?
2. What is the significance of the information that the narrator provides about himself and his employees at the beginning of the story? How does it prepare us to understand Bartleby and the narrator's attitude toward him?
3. Why does Melville tell the story from the point of view of the employer rather than of the office staff or of Bartleby himself? What effect does this narrative strategy have on the reader?
4. How reliable is the narrator? Are there any indications that he might be obtuse or unreliable? Give examples.
5. What incident unleashes Bartleby's passive resistance? What escalates it at each point?
6. What assumptions govern the question that the narrator asks Bartleby: "What earthly right have you to stay here? Do you pay any rent? Do you pay my taxes? Or is this property yours?"
7. What ethic does Melville implicitly oppose to the ethic of Wall Street? (This question leads into a discussion of the New Testament echoes running through the story.)
8. Why does the narrator conclude that Bartleby "was the victim of an innate and incurable disorder"? How does it affect our responses to the story if we accept this conclusion?
9. What is the significance of the postscript the narrator appends to the story? What psychological (or ideological) purpose does it serve for the narrator? What symbolic purpose does it serve for Melville?
10. How much has the encounter with Bartleby changed the narrator by the end of the story? Is the narrator "saved"?
Questions for class discussion of the "Hunilla" sketch:
1. How would you compare Hunilla to the other women characters we have encountered? (Such a question can invite students to compare Melville's portrayal of Hunilla with Hawthorne's portrayals of Georgiana or Beatrice Rappaccini; interesting comparisons can also be drawn with Poe's Ligeia or the heroine of "The Oval Portrait," or with Linda Brent in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl or Rosa in Child's "Slavery's Pleasant Homes.")
2. What is the effect of the way in which Melville describes the scene of Felipe and Trujill's drowning? Does it distance us from Hunilla? Or does it force us to replicate her experience?
3. What do you think are the "two unnamed events which befell Hunilla on this isle"? Why does Melville refuse to narrate them? What effects does Melville's narrative technique have on us as readers?
4. What does Melville mean when he offers this justification for his refusal to name the sufferings Hunilla has undergone: "In nature, as in law, it may be libellous to speak some truths"?
5. At various points in the text, Melville invites an emotional response to Hunilla's story. Can you identify passages in which the narrator expresses his own feelings about Hunilla, describes the sailors' emotional reactions to her, or appeals to the reader's emotions? How does Melville seem to want the reader to respond?
6. Hunilla's story, Melville suggests, can lend itself to opposing views of human nature, depending on which aspects one chooses to emphasize. What are the possible conclusions about human nature that one could draw from her story? What conclusions does Melville seem to want readers to draw?
7. In characterizing Hunilla, a "Chola, or half-breed Indian woman" of Spanish-Indian ancestry, Melville seems aware of certain stereotypes about women of color, Indians, and Spaniards. What are some of these stereotypes? To what extent does Melville either play into or play against them?
Questions for class discussion of "Paradise and Tartarus":
1. What contrast does the opening of "Paradise" draw between the Bachelors' haven and the outside world? How does Melville develop the implications of the opening passage in the rest of the sketch?
2. How might the fate of the medieval Knights Templars be relevant to the nineteenth-century Templars?
3. Read out loud the paragraphs about the survival of Templars in modern London and ask: What effect does this imagery have? What attitude does it create toward the Templars?
4. Read out loud the description of the Templars' banquet and ask: What is the significance of this imagery? What associations does it suggest to you? (The teacher might amplify the discussion by pointing out the parody of Plato's Symposium suggested by dubbing the field-marshall/waiter "Socrates.") What bearing does this description have on the second sketch of the pair?
5. What role does the narrator play in each of the two sketches? How would we situate him vis-à-vis the bachelors of the first sketch and the factory owner and workers of the second sketch?
6. What business takes the narrator to the paper mill? What might his "seedsman's business" symbolize?
7. Why does Melville link these two sketches as a pair? What devices does he use to cement the links? What connections does he invite readers to make between the bachelors and the maids, between Temple Bar and the New England paper factory? How is the contrast between the bachelors of the first sketch and maids of the second sketch continued within the second sketch?
8. Read out loud the passage describing the landscape of Devil's Dungeon and ask what its imagery suggests.
9. What is the significance of the imagery Melville uses to describe the factory? (Read aloud passages drawing the students' attention to the girls' dehumanization and the machine's preemption of their reproductive functions.)
10. What is Melville critiquing in this pair of sketches? Why does he link the economic to the sexual, production to reproduction?
11. Depending on the order in which assignments are made, teachers can also ask questions about:
--the continuities linking "Bartleby" with "Paradise and Tartarus."
--the differences between Melville's portrayals of Hunilla and of the factory girls in "Tartarus."
--the similarities and differences between Melville's and Cary's critiques of patriarchy.
--the similarities and differences between the perspectives that Melville and Fanny Fern offer on working women.
--the insights that emerge from reading "Paradise and Tartarus" in the light of Sarah Grimké's Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, Lydia Maria Child's "Letter from New York" #50 on Women's Rights, and Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century.
Questions for class discussion of "Benito Cereno":
1. Through whose eyes do we view the events in the story? Where in the text does Melville shift into Delano's point of view? Whose point of view does the Deposition represent? (N.B. I have found again and again that students confuse third-person narrative with omniscient point of view and a character's subjective point of view with first-person narrative. Unless instructors take special care, students will end up referring to Delano as the narrator in their papers and exams.)
2. Why doesn't Melville choose to write the story from Babo's point of view? What might his purpose be in confining us to Delano's and later Benito Cereno's point of view? What limitations does this narrative strategy impose on us as readers?
3. How reliable are Delano's perceptions of reality? What tendencies in particular make him an unreliable interpreter of the behavior he sees manifested on board the San Dominick? (Draw the students' attention to the racial assumptions embedded in his perceptions of the oakum-pickers and hatchet-polishers; in his endorsement of the "contrast in dress, denoting their relative positions," that distinguishes Don Benito from Babo; in his ogling of a naked African woman and his failure to realize the terrible irony of the possibility that she might be one of "the very women Mungo Park saw in Africa, and gave such a noble account of"; in his belief that the blacks are "too stupid" to be staging a masquerade and that no white would be "so far a renegade as to apostatize from his very species almost, by leaguing in against it with negroes"; in his ludicrous misinterpretation of Babo's intent in using the flag of Spain as a bib. Obviously there will not be time to discuss all these passages, but one or two should be singled out for discussion.)
4. The best example of how Delano's racism keeps him from recognizing that the blacks have staged a revolt is the episode in which he sees Babo use the flag of Spain as a bib for Don Benito, but misinterprets it as an "odd instance of the African love of bright colors and fine shows." How does that episode originate? (Draw the students' attention to Don Benito's slip of the tongue and Babo's quick invention of the shave as a ruse to prevent further inopportune slips. Use an analysis of the episode to show how brilliantly Babo manipulates Delano's prejudices.)
5. What attitude toward slavery does Delano exhibit? How does his attitude differ from Benito Cereno's? (Point out passages showing Delano's envy of Don Benito, even as he feels the Yankee's superiority to the decadent slave-holding aristocrat; most crucial is Delano's insistence on pursuing and capturing the San Dominick with its cargo of slaves "worth more than a thousand doubloons.")
6. Most of the confusion in interpreting "Benito Cereno" arises from the latter part of the story. It is easy to see that Delano's view of blacks as stupid is wrong, but does Melville present Benito Cereno's view of blacks as a corrective to stereotype, or merely as another stereotype? Does the Deposition represent the "truth"?
7. How does the language of the Deposition differ from the language Melville uses elsewhere in the text? What makes us take it for the "truth"?
8. What is Benito Cereno's interpretation of events, as opposed to Delano's initial interpretation? How does he explain the slaves' revolt?
9. Does the Deposition indirectly provide any alternative explanations of why the blacks may have revolted? What does it tell us about the blacks' actual aims? How do they try to achieve those aims? (If necessary, point out the hints that the slave women have been sexually abused by Aranda and Cereno; also consider the conversation between Cereno and Babo during the revolt, when Babo asks Cereno to transport the blacks back to Senegal and promises that they will abide by the rationing of water and food necessary to effect such a long voyage.)
10. Does Melville provide any clues to an interpretation of the story that transcends the racist stereotypes of Delano and Cereno? (Point out the allusions to the ancient African civilizations of Egypt and Nubia; the allusion to Ezekiel's Valley of Dry Bones; the symbolism of the San Dominick 's "shield-like stern-piece" and the way in which the identities of the masked figures get reversed at the end of the story.)
11. What is the narrative point of view of the few pages following the Deposition? How do you interpret the dialogue between the two captains? Does it indicate that either Delano or Cereno has undergone any change in consciousness or achieved a new understanding of slavery as a result of his ordeal?
12. What seems to be the message of the scene with which the story ends? What do you think Melville was trying to convey through the story? How does the story continue to be relevant or prophetic?
13. How would you compare "Benito Cereno" to: David Walker's Appeal? Henry Highland Garnet's 1843 "Address to the Slaves of the U.S.A."? Thomas Wentworth Higginson's "Nat Turner's Insurrection"? Wendell Phillips's "Toussaint L'Ouverture"? Douglass's Narrative? Lydia Maria Child's "Slavery's Pleasant Homes"? Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (or any other assigned readings on slavery)?
Questions for class discussion of Billy Budd :
1. Why does Melville begin the story with a description of the Handsome Sailor? What does this figure seem to represent? What is the significance of the fact that the first example Melville cites of the Handsome Sailor is "a native African of the unadulterate blood of Ham"? What characteristics does Billy share with the Black Handsome Sailor? What is the purpose of the analogies Melville suggests between the "barbarians" of pre-Christian Europe, Africa, and the South Seas? In what respects does Billy fail to conform fully to the Handsome Sailor archetype?
2. What are the historical contexts of the story? What is the purpose of the historical background Melville supplies on the Nore and Spithead mutinies? (Note that the story takes place only a few years after the American War of Independence against Britain and that it begins with an impressment, recalling the frequent impressment of American sailors by the British--one of the grievances that led to the War of 1812. See H. Bruce Franklin's "From Empire to Empire" for a full discussion of the story's historical contexts.)
3. What is the significance of Billy's being impressed from the Rights-of-Man to the Bellipotent?
4. What relationship does Melville set up between Billy, Claggart, and Vere? What qualities does each represent? Why are Claggart and Vere attracted to Billy? In what ways is he a threat to them?
5. How do you interpret Melville's definition of "Natural Depravity"? To whom does it most obviously apply in the story? To whom else might it also apply? (A number of critics have pointed out the applicability of the passage to Vere as well as Claggart.)
6. How does the tragedy occur? How might it have been avoided?
7. How does Melville invite the reader to judge Vere's behavior and decision to hang Billy? What passages, dialogues, and scenes must we take into account?
8. What tactics and arguments does Vere use to sway his officers? What are the political consequences (in real life as well as in the story) of accepting Vere's arguments? Do you see any contradictions in Vere's arguments, or do you find them rational and persuasive? Is Melville's description of "Natural Depravity" at all relevant to an evaluation of Vere's conduct at the trial ("Toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness of atrocity would seem to partake of the insane, he will direct a cool judgment sagacious and sound")?
9. How do you interpret the many biblical allusions in the story? In what ways do they redefine or amplify the meaning of the story? What relationship(s) do you see between the religious and political interpretations the story invites? How does Melville characterize the role of the chaplain?
10. After the hanging, Vere forestalls possible disturbances by ordering the drums to muster the men to quarters earlier than usual. He then justifies his action by explaining how he views art and the purpose it serves: " `With mankind . . . forms, measured forms, are everything; and that is the import couched in the story of Orpheus spellbinding the wild denizens of the wood.' " Does Melville endorse this concept of art in Billy Budd ? How does the form of the story jibe (or conflict) with Vere's ideal of "measured forms"? How does the glorification of the Handsome Sailor, and the imagery used to describe him, jibe (or conflict) with Vere's view of "the wild denizens of the wood"?
11. What is the effect of the three sequels Melville appends to the story? What further light do they shed on Vere and on the political interests governing his decision? To whom does the story give the last word?
12. Depending on the order of assignments, teachers can invite students to draw connections between:
--the status of slaves, sailors, and factory workers.
--the legal arguments Vere uses in his role as prosecuting attorney at Billy's trial, and the portrayal of lawyers and the law in "Bartleby" and "Paradise and Tartarus."
--Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience and Vere's defense of martial law and the Articles of War.
--Vere's insistence that "the heart, sometimes the feminine in man, be ruled out" and Fuller's critique of the rigid sexual stereotypes that patriarchal ideology imposes on men and women.
Questions for class discussion of "Hawthorne and His Mosses":
1. How would you compare "Hawthorne and His Mosses" with Emerson's "The American Scholar," Fuller's "A Short Essay on Critics," Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition" and review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, and Whitman's 1855 Preface of Leaves of Grass? How would you compare Poe's and Melville's responses to Hawthorne's fiction?
2. To what extent (or in what ways) do you find this essay helpful for understanding Hawthorne's fiction?
3. To what extent (or in what ways) do you find it helpful for illuminating Melville's own artistic aims and practices?
4. Of the Hawthorne stories Melville praises, which ones continue to be highly regarded today? Does Melville omit mention of any stories in Mosses from an Old Manse that regularly appear in present-day anthologies? What do you make of the differences in aesthetic taste or judgment that this might suggest?
5. What does Melville value most in Hawthorne's fiction? What does he mean by "blackness"?
6. Why does Melville argue against idolizing Shakespeare? How would you sum up his opinion of Shakespeare?
7. What are the implications of Melville's view that Americans should give their own authors "priority of appreciation" before acknowledging the great writers of other lands? How might this view apply to other nations or groups attempting to create a literary tradition of their own?
8. What do you make of Melville's list of the significant American writers among his contemporaries? Which ones are still considered major American writers? Whom does Melville omit from his list?
9. Why does Melville disparage Irving? What does he reveal in the process about his own literary aims and values?
Since I group readings together, I also try to formulate paper topics that involve comparisons and contrasts of several readings. Most of the following topics are thematic. Instructors who would prefer formalist topics that focus exclusively on Melville's stories might adapt some from the questions for class discussion listed above.
Choose two or three works from the following list, and compare and contrast their literary styles, narrative techniques, and handling of point of view: Hawthorne's "The Birth-mark" or "Rappaccini's Daughter"; Poe's "Ligeia" or another Poe story of your choice; Kirkland's A New Home--Who'll Follow?; Cary's "Uncle Christopher's"; Stoddard's "Lemorne Versus Huell"; Melville's "Bartleby" or "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" or "Benito Cereno" or Billy Budd .
Compare and contrast the aesthetic theories and views of literary nationalism reflected in several of the following: Emerson's "The American Scholar," Fuller's "A Short Essay on Critics," Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition" or his review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, Melville's "Hawthorne and His Mosses," and Whitman's Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass or Democratic Vistas .
Choose some issue explored in the assigned readings and compare and contrast several works that provide different perspectives on it:
1. Use Thoreau's discussion of alienation in Walden as a framework for analyzing "Bartleby." In the process, compare and contrast the two authors' political perspectives.
2. Use Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government" as a framework for analyzing Bartleby's interaction with his employer. You may wish to consider the forms of "resistance" the other office workers engage in as well.
3. Use Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government" as a framework for analyzing Billy Budd and the issues it raises.
4. Compare and contrast Thoreau's and Melville's critiques of industrialism and capitalism in Walden and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids."
5. Compare and contrast the ways in which Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Child's "Slavery's Pleasant Homes," and Melville's Hunilla sketch handle the problem of depicting rape and sexual harassment in a culture that views discussion of such subjects as indecent and that stereotypes women of color as lascivious. If you wish, you may include (or substitute for the Hunilla sketch) a discussion of the slave women in "Benito Cereno."
6. Compare and contrast Melville's "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" and Cary's "Uncle Christopher's," focusing on some of the following points: the perspectives each provides on the effects of patriarchal (and/or capitalist) ideology; the causes to which each story attributes the dehumanization and sterility it depicts; the kinds of contrasts each story sets up between oppressor and oppressed; the narrative point of view; the role of landscape and setting; the use of symbolism and metaphor.
-- Hawthorne's "The Birth-mark" and/or "Rappaccini's Daughter"
-- Poe's "The Oval Portrait" and/or "Ligeia"
--Melville's "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" and/or the Hunilla sketch
-- Elizabeth Stoddard's "Lemorne Versus Huell"
-- Caroline Kirkland's A New Home--Who'll Follow?
-- Alice Cary's "Uncle Christopher's"
-- Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
-- Lydia Maria Child's "Slavery's Pleasant Homes"
-- Emily Dickinson's poems (selections of your choice)
8. Compare and contrast the perspectives that Child's "Slavery's Pleasant Homes" and Melville's "Benito Cereno" provide on slavery. You may wish to consider the different literary techniques each story uses (including narrative point of view), the purposes these techniques serve, and the audience(s) to which each is addressed.
9. Apply one or more of the following works to an analysis of Melville's "Benito Cereno":
-- David Walker's Appeal
-- Douglass's Narrative
-- Henry Highland Garnet's "Address to the Slaves of the U.S.A."
-- Wendell Phillips's "Toussaint L'Ouverture"
-- Thomas Wentworth Higginson's "Nat Turner's Insurrection"
Choose some aspect of slavery explored in the assigned readings, and compare and contrast the perspectives these various works provide on it.
1. The issue of slave resistance and rebellion (can include violent and nonviolent, individual and collective resistance).
2. The issue of Higher Law versus the law of the land.
3. The contrast between the masters' and the slaves' viewpoints and values (e.g., Douglass and Jacobs and their fellow slaves versus their masters; Uncle Tom, Chloe, Cassy, etc., versus the Shelbys, St. Clares, and Legree; Babo versus Cereno and Delano).
4. Religion and slavery, or religion and militarism (can include the indictment of the church's hypocrisy, the use of the Bible to support or condemn slavery, the theme of apocalyptic judgment, the use of typology and religious rhetoric and symbolism).
5. Comparative analysis of the rhetorical techniques, purposes, and intended audiences of three writers among those assigned, or of the metaphors each writer uses to describe slavery and structure his/her narrative.
6. The use of irony in the anti-slavery argument (can analyze the different types of irony found in slave songs, Douglass's and Jacobs's narratives, Child's anti-slavery writings, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and "Benito Cereno").
7. The image of Africa and the portrayal of the slave trade in Equiano's narrative and "Benito Cereno."
8. Double meanings and the theme of appearance versus reality in any of the assigned readings.
9. The theme "Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me" (a quotation from Douglass's Narrative as applied to the individuals who people the assigned works, or to the North and the South, blacks and whites, oppressed and oppressing classes, the American nation in general).
10. The picture of slave life and the slave community that emerges from any three of the assigned works (preferably three representing different racial, regional, or gender perspectives).
11. The theme "Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women," as dramatized in several of the assigned readings.
Ideally, acquaintance with Typee, Redburn, and White-Jacket would be extremely helpful for teaching the stories in the anthology from the perspective suggested here. The introduction and notes to the selections quote liberally from these three works, however, and several of the critics cited below summarize their bearing on Billy Budd.
For a broader intellectual context, teachers who have time to read "The Communist Manifesto" and perhaps Marx's essays "Estranged Labor," "The Meaning of Human Requirements," and "The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society," from The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 will find them extremely relevant to both "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" and "Bartleby." In particular, Marx discusses workers' reduction to commodities, their enslavement to machines, and their resulting alienation.
For a complete bibliography, covering all of Melville's short fiction except Billy Budd and including overviews of the stories' reception, see Lea Bertani Vozar Newman's A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Herman Melville (Boston: Hall, 1986). Forthcoming will also be the second volume of Brian Higgins's Herman Melville: An Annotated Bibliography (Boston: Hall), covering all Melville criticism published since 1930. For an excellent reconstruction of the stories' chronology, circumstances of composition and publication, and contemporary reception, see Merton M. Sealts's Historical Note in the Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860 (Evanston and Chicago: 1987, 457-533). The volume also reprints the chapter of Delano's Narrative that Melville used as a source.
For a biographical study that situates Melville and his family in the context of contemporary politics, see Michael Paul Rogin, Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville (New York: Knopf, 1983), especially Chapters 6 and 9.
For challenges to the stereotype of Melville as a writer indifferent or hostile to women, see Kristin Herzog's chapter on Melville in Women, Ethics, and Exotics: Images of Power in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Fiction (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983), as well as the essays in the February 1986 issue of Melville Society Extracts .
Listed below are the critical studies I have found most useful for illuminating the Melville selections in this anthology, and for developing approaches toward teaching them.
For books containing relevant discussions of more than one story, see Rogin, cited above; Marvin Fisher, Going Under: Melville's Short Fiction and the American 1850s (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), especially the chapters on "Bartleby" and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids"; and H. Bruce Franklin's chapter on Melville in The Victim as Criminal and Artist: Literature from the American Prison (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), as well as his earlier sections on "Bartleby" in The Wake of the Gods: Melville's Mythology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1963); Joyce Sparer Adler, War in Melville's Imagination (New York: New York University Press, 1981), especially the chapter on Billy Budd ; and Robert K. Martin, Hero, Captain, and Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique, and Literary Form in the Sea Novels of Herman Melville (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), especially the chapter on Billy Budd and pp. 105-106 on "The Paradise of Bachelors."