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. I do not usually review single short stories on Goodreads—it feels like cheating to add something less than a whole book—but this one deserves it. 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, but a careful reading suggests that it is something 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), all of them unmarried, this in contrast to the harried journalists of nearby Fleet Street, called “Benedicks”—i.e., henpecked husbands—by the narrator. These 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.
This story, as you will see, works in a persistent idiom of double entendre, so we should understand the transition from iron to patent-leather footwear and sword to quill to imply a diminution or at least softening in the phallus.
Most of the remainder of the first sketch is taken up by a dinner the narrator shared with nine of these bachelors. The elaborate meal is described 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”), an analogy of comic incongruity emphasizing 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. My point is that Melville’s irony is ever-present but gentle, skeptical but not corrosive: there is real pleasure and conviviality to this story—I was reminded of a humanistic English Renaissance poem 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, as the narrator travels through a hallucinatory New England rural landscape near Woedolor Mountain, his elaborated description of which evokes female genitalia and whose 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; in Melville’s compelling political paradox, calling the whole American experiment into doubt, the urban bachelors of Old England have escaped medieval times and converted its trappings to more 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, in short).
As with “The Paradise of Bachelors,” we are not reading a simple social critique written by someone who imagines a political solution to the problems he (correctly) observes. The narrator, we learn at the second sketch’s beginning, 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 is so inviting of an allegorical interpretation that 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 smallest means of his literary work depend on the exploitation he witnesses in the factory. Even so, 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 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 only attacking a particular state of socio-political affairs, but, like Captain Ahab, he is arraigning the entire cosmos out of which our socio-political affairs emanate; it is the cosmos that will have to be reformed if life is to be made 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, in the sense that 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 the story’s final sentence is “inscrutable nature.” This is a very unsettling work of literature.
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 universe?