Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Melville's "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids": A Dialogue about Experience, Understanding, and Truth

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Melville's "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids": A Dialogue about Experience, Understanding, and Truth

Article excerpt

Herman Melville's shorter prose works pose many of the same problems for readers as do his longer works, for he engages in similar experiments with genre and narration. One particular problem in Melville's shorter works is distinguishing the genre in which he is working, since genre obviously affects how we read and process a text. Although these works are often called "short stories," many do not neatly fit this category but instead fall somewhere in between short story and sketch. Frequently the symbolic, moral, or allegorical content of Melville's shorter works would seem to disqualify them as sketches, while their lack of plot would fail to qualify, them as short stories. This indeterminacy has long troubled Melville scholars. Richard Fogle, in fact, argues that Melville "is too heavy for the delicate fabric of the kind of tale he is trying to write; what he really has to say is at odds with the limits he has chosen to observe" (12) Certainly Melville's symbolism and allegory are at times heavy-handed. But his experiments and innovations with genre and narration in some of his shorter prose works merit further attention. Blending together the genres of the sketch and the short story, "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" is one of these works.

For a number of reasons, "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" is a difficult work to interpret. The problem of genre is compounded by the fact that the work is divided into two sections, the first focusing on the bachelors of the Temple-Bar in London, and the second focusing on the factory girls at a New England paper mill. The blending of sketch and tale is clearly related to the two-part structure of the work, for the sketch-oriented structure of the first half gives way to a more tale or story-oriented second half. More important, the form of "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" is an organic outgrowth of its content; the changes in the genre and form of the work parallel the changes the, narrator himself experiences, and the narrator is thus the key to understanding this puzzling work. As a whole, this story dramatizes his movement from passivity and observation to direct engagement with life. Individually, the two sections of the story are limited in scope; together, they represent not mere contrasts, but a dialogue about the relationship between experience, truth and understanding. The two-part structure and shifting genres of "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" prove to be not inherent flaws in the work but remarkably effective ways for Melville to reach beyond language to communicate his anxiety about the limitations of language.

By joining the sketch to the short story, Melville attempted to appeal to the popular interest in both of these genres - an important concern for a nearly bankrupt author. Because of its two-part, seemingly disjointed narrative, the apparent absence of Poe's "unity of effect," and the plotless first section, "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" would seem to violate the expectations for the short story. Yet the category of "sketch" does not offer a satisfactory alternative definition for this work either. The nineteenth-century literary sketch is descriptive, impressionistic, and often expository in nature, generally lacking an overt moral or allegorical message. Although the sketch may contain a narrative story within its general framework, the sketch itself usually lacks a discernible plot. With these characteristics in mind, Valerie Shaw has usefully defined the sketch as having the "static quality of a still-life painting" (20). If the sketch itself begins to have a plot, then it moves closer to the category of short story. This is precisely the case with "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids," and the narrator himself is the key to understanding this transformation.

The use of a first person narrator, like the blending of genres, is a hallmark of Melville's work. …

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.