My rating: 5 of 5 stars
After re-reading Moby-Dick, I decided to revisit this remarkable short story (or diptych of sketches) as well. Originally published in Harper’s in 1855, it is one of Melville’s lesser-known works, not included in his 1856 collection The Piazza Tales, though today you can find it in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, where I read it. An intricate juxtaposition of two extremes—the wealth and leisure of unmarried men (paradise), the poverty and labor of unmarried women (tartarus, or hell)—the story seems to be an attack on social inequality in its economic and sexual manifestations. A careful reading, however, suggests that the story’s thesis is more and less radical than that.
In the first sketch, we are treated to an elaborate description of a cloistral neighborhood in the heart of the City of London (near the Temple Bar and the Inns of Court) mainly inhabited by lawyers and other gentlemen of elite profession (literary men, scholars). These men are unmarried, in contrast to the harried journalists of nearby Fleet Street, called “Benedicks”—i.e., henpecked husbands—by the narrator. The bachelors, the narrator explains in a tone of ironic exuberance, are the modern-day equivalent of the Knights Templar:
Like the years before the flood, the bold Knights-Templars are no more. Nevertheless, the name remains, and the nominal society, and the ancient grounds, and some of the ancient edifices. But the iron heel is changed to a boot of patent-leather; the long two-handed sword to a one-handed quill; the monk-giver of gratuitous ghostly counsel now counsels for a fee; the defender of the sarcophagus (if in good practice with his weapon) now has more than one case to defend; the vowed opener and clearer of all highways leading to the Holy Sepulchre, now has it in particular charge to check, to clog, to hinder, and embarrass all the courts and avenues of Law; the knight-combatant of the Saracen, breasting spear- points at Acre, now fights law-points in Westminster Hall. The helmet is a wig. Struck by Time’s enchanter’s Wand, the Templar is to-day a Lawyer.
As you can see, Melville’s prose works in a persistent idiom of double entendre: the transition from iron to patent-leather footwear and from sword to quill implies a softening of the phallus.
Most of the first sketch describes a dinner the narrator shares with nine of these bachelors. The elaborate meal is evoked in the mock-epic terms of an army’s advance punctuated by frequent drinking, with different dishes standing in for different military ranks (roast beef is “the English generalissimo”). This analogy, with its comic incongruity, emphasizes the decay of a warrior caste—a “band of brothers,” to quote a Shakespeareanism used in the story—into a company of pleasure-loving idea men.
Melville’s satire is not directed at the worldly goods the men enjoy per se, as if good wine, fine architecture, and scholarship were merely effete preoccupations to be scorned. His irony is ever-present but gentle, skeptical but not corrosive: there is real pleasure and conviviality to this story—I was reminded of humanistic English Renaissance poems like Ben Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper”—and it is not a Rousseauist or Tolstoyan attack on civilization as an incorrigible stew of hypocritical corruption.
But when we turn to “The Tartarus of Maids” we find the underside and upholder of civilization, scholarship, and all fine living: women’s labor, in every sense. The second sketch, unlike the first, is almost overbearingly allegorical: the narrator travels through a hallucinatory New England rural landscape near Woedolor Mountain. His description of this territory evokes female genitalia, and its rustic landmarks sound like dirty and misogynistic euphemisms for the same (“Mad Maid Bellows’-pipe,” “Black Notch,” “Devil’s Dungeon,” “Blood River”).
Resembling a “feudal, Rhineland and Thurmberg” scene, this is an American Gothic setting. Melville’s compelling political paradox calls the whole American experiment into doubt: the urban bachelors of Old England have escaped medieval times and converted its trappings to modern conveniences, while the rustics of New England still inhabit the Middle Ages.
The narrator soon arrives at a paper mill where pale women are worked incessantly by a frightful male overseer. Granted a tour of the premises by a boy named Cupid, he watches the process by which the paper is made—a process described, not least in having the avatar of erotic love as its conveyance, so as to resemble pregnancy and childbirth (for instance, it takes exactly nine minutes). As he watches the women at the machines, the narrator is horrified by the way humanity’s seeming inventions have enslaved us:
But what made the thing I saw so specially terrible to me was the metallic necessity, the unbudging fatality which governed it. Though, here and there, I could not follow the thin, gauzy vail of pulp in the course of its more mysterious or entirely invisible advance, yet it was indubitable that, at those points where it eluded me, it still marched on in unvarying docility to the autocratic cunning of the machine.
The narrator, who also narrated “The Paradise of Bachelors,” cannot help but contrast the sumptuous civilization of the barristers and literary men in London with the laboring plight of these unmarried women, horrifically pale (like the whiteness of Melville’s whale, their pallor is the “colorless all-color of atheism”—signifying nothing).
Like “The Paradise of Bachelors,” “The Tartarus of Maids” is not a simple social critique written by someone who imagines a political solution to the problems he (correctly) observes. We learn at the second sketch’s beginning that the narrator is a “seeds-man” who has come to the paper factory to purchase envelopes in which to mail his seeds. With its genital landscape and allusions to Dante, the story invites an allegorical interpretation: we should not hesitate to identify this odd occupation with that more common one of the writer, who uses paper to disseminate not his genetic but his memetic seed. The bachelor life of London—to which he is only a visitor—as well as the meanest necessities of his literary work depend on the exploitation he witnesses in the factory.
But this is not a reformist tearjerker by Charles Dickens or Rebecca Harding Davis: the factory and its machinery are also a metaphor for biological fatality, the reproduction of bodies by bodies, the burden of which also falls upon women and which is contrasted to the reproduction of ideas indulged in by men of leisure, especially those unencumbered by wives and children. The artificial machinery is modeled on the natural machinery; where does humanity’s inhumanity come from if not from (mother) nature or (father) God? In which case, to whom can we appeal but to those deities?
Melville is not attacking a particular state of socio-political affairs; rather, like Captain Ahab, he arraigns the entire cosmos out of which our socio-political affairs emanate. This cosmos will have to be reformed if life is ever to be more equitable, if bachelors and literary men are not to feed on the coerced labor of pallid maids.
As I wrote above, this story is both extremely radical and not radical at all. It identifies extremes of grim truth underlying everyday life even as it implies that little besides actually altering human biology or nature itself can be done to remediate the hideous injustice of human affairs—from which the narrator (and his author) so scrupulously demonstrate themselves to be the beneficiaries. This story allows its gentle irony to co-exist with its guilty fear, its sensuous pleasures with its soulful despair—life contains all this, Melville says, and its beauties and its monstrosities are inextricably intertwined. The key phrase in this unsettling story’s final sentence is “inscrutable nature.”
It is easy to damn the heretic, but what, really, can the pious tell us about why the universe is arranged so poorly? And it is easy to scorn the aesthete, but what, really, can the reformer do about the very universe?