Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Born-Free-and-Equal": Benign Cliche and Narrative Imperialism in Melville's 'Mardi.' (Herman Melville)

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Born-Free-and-Equal": Benign Cliche and Narrative Imperialism in Melville's 'Mardi.' (Herman Melville)

Article excerpt

One of the recurring problems for critics of Melville's Mardi, a novel awash in its own heteroglossia, has been the book's seeming formlessness. In a classic thesis, Merrell Davis in fact claimed that "Mardi is not one, or as some have observed, two books but three books";(1) according to Davis, these "three books" are an episodic sea story (in the vein of Typee and Omoo), a romantic quest, and a travelogue-satire incorporating contemporary political events of 1848 (the Chartist movement, the Paris revolution, the Oregon question). In response to Davis, Michael J. Sears has countered that Mardi is in fact one book, unified by the image of the circle with its Neoplatonic implications of progressing through spheres of existence in hope of uniting with some Truth.(2) In Richard Brodhead's helpful formulation, too, of Melville's "advancing, with perfect confidence and good cheer, to greet his own mature creative self" in Mardi,(3) that desire to find some centralizing design for the novel persists. Although the question of the novel's internal coherence might now seem to be a reactionary exercise in new criticism, and granting the unlikeliness that any single critical paradigm will unlock the text, I do think that effectually geographical guides are still needed for negotiating the novel's abundances and sprawl, and what I wish to propose generally in this essay is that Melville's near obsession in Mardi with forms of captivity might serve as such a nexus.

A brief survey of Mardi reveals how multifold and entwining its stories of captivity are. At the beginning of the novel, the exceeding monotony of life on the Arcturion drives Taji, the narrator, to desertion; early in the novel he likens himself to a "prisoner in Newgate."(4) Escaping this imprisonment, Taji and his "chummy" Jarl sail to the west and its promises of "airy arches, domes, and minarets" (M, p. 8). Upon meeting the Parki, however, Taji himself becomes a captor, assuming command over the ship and "the decided air of a master" over its previous pilots, the "rude" Polynesians Samoa and Annatoo (M, p. 90); because of Annatoo's thievery, Taji even resorts to locking her nightly in the forecastle. Mardi, thus, is alive with captivity long before Taji encounters Yillah, the central captive of the story. Yillah, successively, is kept by Aleema the priest, Taji himself, and Hautia the enchantress; Yillah's story is a captivity triptych. Moreover, as Taji seeks to find and free Yillah, he is pursued both by the avenging sons of Aleema and the heralds of Hautia. In the course of his travels through Mardi, Taji again and again confronts versions of captivity: Donjalolo, king of Juam, who cannot leave the vale of his kingdom; the "scourged slaves" who work the mines of King Klanko (M, p. 611); the "hundreds of collared men" (M, p. 532) who toil in the South of Vivenza. Even King Media's Odo, a seeming "land of pleasure unalloyed," has its "serfs, and Helots, war-captives held in bondage" who "lived in secret places, hard to find" (M, p. 191).

Part of Melville's general agenda in Mardi is to make manifest such overlooked or underestimated incidents of captivity. But his more specific task is to critique the rhetorics that shroud them, and the novel assaults the pretensions of languages which, as Roland Barthes puts it, "never question the repetition of their utterances," their "stereotypic essence."(5) This critique also becomes self-reflexive in Melville's own dependence on and ambivalence towards his country's ready cliches of freedom and in his reluctance to voice some independent theory of freedom and captivity. I hope to demonstrate in this essay that Mardi, characteristically, is less about the meaning as such of freedom and captivity than the prattle that surrounds them and that the book's narration further circumscribes itself in its adherence to larger conventions of American captivity narrative. Captivity, in effect, is rhetorically and generically predetermined in Mardi. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.