Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Melville's "Factory Girls": Feminizing the Future

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Melville's "Factory Girls": Feminizing the Future

Article excerpt

Of a sudden, the Factories burst upon him, or their windows did,--hundreds of bright windows, illuminated every night in honor of Toil,--and which neither the darkness of night, nor the wilderness of the storm, could obscure, and which never bent or blinked before the rage and violence around. The Factories, and factory life,--how it glowed at that moment to his eye! And even his own ideal notions thereof were more than transfigured before him, and he envied the girls, some of whom he knew, who, through that troubled winter night, were tending their looms as in the warmth, beauty, and quietness of a summer-day.

--Sylvester Judd, Richard Edney and the Governor's Family (1850)

"Why is it, sir," the narrator of Melville's 1855 Harper' Monthly piece "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" asks the owner of the paper mill he is touring, "that in most factories, female operatives, of whatever age, are indiscriminately called girls, never women?" (1) The proprietor's answer, that the operatives are all unmarried, "all maids," has informed a tradition of critical commentary that reads Melville's story in terms of the desexualizing effects of industrial labor. Marvin Fisher, for example, finds that "the world of the paper factory is the antithesis of sex," and Michael Rogin glosses the story's dominant image as "white-faced humans reduced to sterility." (2) According to such views, the desexing of the adult factory women into "factory girls" represents Melville's critique of the dehumanizing power of industrial modernization and his concern that, as Fisher puts it, "machine production is not reconcilable with human production." The images of female sterility in "The Tartarus of Maids" would, then, seem to contrast unfavorably with the riotous fecundity of the men represented in its companion piece, "The Paradise of Bachelors." Sex appears to stand for a kind of fertile personhood, the ability to produce oneself in "health and beauty" through acts of "free will," as Fisher would have it. (3) In this dichotomous scheme, the bachelors possess such power, while the "factory girls" do not.

But the loss or rejection of a particular form of sexuality--and, by implication, humanity--need not imply the loss of all. What Fisher and Rogin perceive as desexing may, in fact, be read as resexing--the reconfiguration of sexuality, and hence personhood, into forms consonant with the modern social, economic, and technological environment represented by the conditions of labor and production in the factory. Tartarus' many images of fertility--from the tour guide named "Cupid" to the menstrual "Blood River" that runs through the mill--undermine the notion of a clean dichotomy between sexless maids and over-sexed bachelors, and point instead toward a more uncertain and fluid relationship between different versions of sexuality. (4) And if sex really does stand, synecdochically, for personhood, then this uncertainty about sex must imply a deeper ambiguity about just what sort of persons these mill workers might be. The "factory girls" represent experimental sketches of modern personhood, efforts to imagine what a human being might look like if established notions of "health and beauty," or even "free will," were to be abandoned or lose their currency. As such, they embody the "pattern of contradiction" that Leo Marx identifies in Melville's response to modernization. (5) If, as Marx argues, Americans at midcentury felt conscious of "two kingdoms of force," technology and nature, then Melville's factory girls incorporate both America's celebration of technological progress and its deeply felt attachment to an anti-technological pastoral ideal into their own inscrutable bodies.

The story's full interest as an exploration of America's conflicted attitude toward modern forms of production has largely been missed in the existing scholarship because of an unacknowledged assumption that journalistic and other nonfictional accounts of factory labor constitute its only possible literary context. …

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