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
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
"A Short Essay on Critics," and Whitman's
1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass
and Democratic Vistas
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
"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
of Sentiments," Fern's
"Hints to Young Wives," "Soliloquy of a Housemaid,"
and "Working-Girls of New York," and Sojourner
"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
1843 "Address to the Slaves of the U.S.A.," Thomas
"Nat Turner's Insurrection," Phillips's
"Toussaint L'Ouverture," Douglass's
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
"Slavery's Pleasant Homes," and selections
from her Appeal
, and Stowe's
Uncle Tom's Cabin
Equiano's Interesting Narrative
also helps illuminate "Benito
Cereno," though it is probably best to teach it with eighteenth-century
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
and the Black Panthers, in the 1990s the struggle in South Africa.
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
Grimké's Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, and the Condition
, 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
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
that the real Captain Delano had helped suppress; and the
uncannily similar slave revolt that occurred on board the Spanish slave-trading
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.
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
, Henry Highland
, Thomas Wentworth Higginson
, Lydia Maria Child
, Alice Cary
, 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
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
(The latter was moderately antislavery, and distinctly more progressive
, which Lydia Maria Child characterized as pro-slavery;
nevertheless, its readers shared some of the racial and class attitudes
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
"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
"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
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
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."
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
). 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
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
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-ŕ-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
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
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
--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
--the insights that emerge from reading "Paradise and Tartarus"
in the light of Sarah Grimké's
Letters on the Equality of the Sexes
"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
'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
1843 "Address to the Slaves of the U.S.A."?
Thomas Wentworth Higginson's
"Nat Turner's Insurrection"? Wendell
"Toussaint L'Ouverture"? Douglass's
? Lydia Maria
"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
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
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
? 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
, 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:
"The Birth-mark" or "Rappaccini's
"Ligeia" or another
Poe story of your choice; Kirkland's A New Home--Who'll Follow?
"Uncle Christopher's"; Stoddard's
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.
7. Apply Sarah Grimké's
, and/or Fuller's
analysis of "the woman question" to one or more of the following:
"The Birth-mark" and/or "Rappaccini's Daughter"
Portrait" and/or "Ligeia"
--Melville's "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids"
and/or the Hunilla sketch
-- Elizabeth Stoddard's
-- Caroline Kirkland's
A New Home--Who'll Follow?
-- Alice Cary'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
-- David Walker's
-- Henry Highland Garnet's
"Address to the Slaves of the U.S.A."
-- Wendell Phillips's
-- Thomas Wentworth
"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
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
, 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
(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
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), as well
as his earlier sections on "Bartleby" in The Wake of the Gods:
(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