Melville Writing the Reader: The Self Found in Ahab and Bartleby

Posted by on July 24, 2012 
Filed under Essays

Throughout the works of Herman Melville a theme of oppression persists in his character that defines the author’s works as a whole. This theme of oppression can be viewed as a comment on the social and political state of America in the 19th century, whether it is Captain Delano recapturing the right of whites to own slaves in “Benito Cereno,” or Billy Budd as a representation of America’s lost innocence., Melville’s works always comment on an America in the throes of upheaval. Whether it is the Civil War tearing the nation apart, or the rapid rise of industrial labor reducing the common worker to irrelevance and despair, Melville always seems ready to commit to delicately exposing an America he sees as on the verge of being a casualty of its own devices: an America so bent on progress that it sacrifices its own integrity in its pursuit of what it sees as perfection. However, what if it is not Melville’s intention to expose the underbelly of America to the reader? What if, in our endless interpretations of his works, we missed Melville’s true purpose in crafting his tales?

Perhaps Melville did not intend to expose the truth of America, perhaps he was attempting to show the reader his/her self in his characters: A self firmly linked to the pulse of America by way of it being constantly immersed in its culture, but a self that has also remained concealed from the very person embedded/invested in its existence: the individual reader/interpreter of Melville’s works. Perhaps Melville himself was once of the same mind as the reader he is trying to make self-aware. Could he have been ignorant of his own true nature as an American and become enlightened at some point? This is surely a possibility, although not easily proven, so the only gauge for judging the effect of Melville’s works on his reader is to examine how readers are, in fact, affected by certain characters. Since one knows his/her self best at the end of the day, I will break the tradition of the anonymous critic and I will directly insert my reactions to character constructions into this essay so that I may examine Melville’s constructions on a keenly tuned level of understanding. Also, to narrow the scope of characters to be examined, I intend to focus on two of Melville’s best-known characters, Ahab and Bartleby as they were two figures who profoundly affected me. So to summarize, I intend to examine the characters of Ahab and Bartleby as having been specifically constructed by Melville with the intention of offering a reader insight into the obscure areas of his/her mind that can only be realized upon reading of the outlandish personalities of these two men as constructed by Melville.

To begin, let us examine instances of Ahab’s actions being strange, yet uncanny throughout the text of Moby-Dick. It is Melville’s initial description of Ahab which sets the stage for my perception of the Captain being rooted in knowing his traits by way of these traits being wholly foreign to me upon comprehending them for the first time:

He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightening tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. (Melville 108-109)

This initial description of Ahab is unique in that he is being presented as a man of quite unusual traits that make him seem strange to one first encountering him, yet he is also recognizable to a stranger in that he is described as having certain characteristics easily recognized in nature, such as his “slender rod-like mark” (108) resembling the commonly seen scarred tree trunk. Upon reading this description, I was taken aback by the uniqueness and magnitude of Ahab’s scar. It seemed, from Melville’s description, that the scar defined the man through Melville alluding to it having “branded” (109) Ahab. A brand is a physical mark of ownership made on a living thing by something claiming ownership or power over it. So Ahab, through Melville alluding to the scar as resembling something occurring naturally in the wild, I began to see that Ahab’s scar should be viewed as a normal feature of his person. I made this logical connection through believing that his scar could be as natural an occurrence as a scarred tree trunk would be in the forest. In essence, his scar was just something that was there, that was just as a normal part of him as “His whole high, broad form” (108) would be to the casual observer of his presence.

Once I realized that the scar defined Ahab as a person, I began to relate how this scar was comparable to my own life. I was able to begin to relate Ahab to my own self in this manner through Melville specifically addressing his reader by using the second person during his description of Ahab when the scar becomes apparent as even being on Ahab, “you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish” (108). It was Melville’s use of “you” that began my association of Ahab’s image in connection with my own. I began to realize that, like Ahab, I bear visible scars as well in that I have a fairly high amount of tattoos on my person that are literally colored scars. Also, my scars are self-inflicted and one could also say that Ahab’s scar was self-inflicted as well in that he chose his profession as a whaler knowing the potential for danger and injury involved in his profession. Also, Ahab continued to pursue the white whale even after he lost his leg and gained a scar from Moby Dick. Ahab had always been drawn toward the danger inherent in Moby Dick and his “monomaniac revenge” (158) for the whale having diminished him was born out of him already possessing the “irresistible arm drag” (158) and “a-rush to encounter the whale” (158) that he possessed before actually being injured by Moby Dick. I could say the same of myself, that I have always had a tendency toward the dangerous or painful side of life as evidenced in my own ready acceptance of the pain and social stigma inherent in wearing the outwardly visible scars that are tattoos. Like Ahab, I am observed and judged by those like Melville who would readily attempt to connect a person’s essence to their outward appearance. However, I could care less about their opinions, just like Ahab.

Now that it has been established as to how Melville’s opening description of Ahab influenced me to find myself in his character, it is now essential to discuss Melville’s purpose in needing his reader to personally identify with Ahab in this manner. Melville has a specific purpose in creating a reader’s familiarity in Ahab, to build a bridge of understanding between the reader and Ahab. Once this bridge is built, Melville can deconstruct Ahab’s character by elevating the insanity and depravity of Ahab’s purpose as the novel progresses, “He was intent on an audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge” (158). Ahab’s contentment with the notion of exacting hyper-revenge leads to his transformation into a thing more creature than man, “God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon  that heart forever; that vulture the very creature he creates” (170). Melville’s establishment of a connection between the reader and Ahab serves to make Ahab’s negative transformation a more familiar experience for the reader. The reader is able to see some of his/her self in the insanity emanating from Ahab and does not judge him too harshly as a result.

This lack of judgment on the reader’s part is also manifested through the character Ishmael’s persistent objectivity in portraying Ahab as a lunatic, but as a lunatic that may have good reason for being so bent on the notion of exacting revenge on Moby Dick, “Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor man his neighbors” (413).  Melville is taking care to show that Ishmael can see how Ahab’s injury and resulting purpose has left him isolated in his experience with the whale. His previous experiences with Moby Dick have isolated him from the world simply from his having had them. Ahab’s experiences with Moby Dick are so singular that they have been the defining moments of his life and have set him apart from others in the world simply by way of them involving Moby Dick. Ishmael, in being able to recognize this in Ahab, is identifying with Ahab’s plight. This identification carries over into furthering a reader’s identification with Ahab because, if the reader is able to interpret Ishmael’s identification  with Ahab, then he/she will see that Ahab’s plight is not as foreign as the beginning of the novel lets on, ‘“He’s a queer man, Captain Ahab…a grand ungodly, god-like man…Ahab’s above the common….been used to deeper wonder than the waves; fixed his fiery lance in mightier, stranger foes than whales’” (78). Even while this description of Ahab evokes the sense of him being unique to others in the world, this passage still can be seen as an attempt by Melville to help the reader identify with Ahab through Ahab being so unique to everyone else. As I read this passage, I noticed that I wanted so much to identify with Ahab’s unique personae because I wanted to believe that my perception of myself was just as unique as Ahab’s description. This urge was purely founded out of my ego’s need to establish a connection with someone perceived to be as great as Ahab. I wanted to believe that I possessed the same grandeur that Ishmael and Captain Peleg (of whom the above passage was from) saw in Ahab. Melville, in crafting a tale wherein Ahab’s quest for revenge leads to Ishmael’s enlightenment, needed to make sure the reader would be heavily invested in both Ahab’s individuality and Ishmael’s admiration of Ahab. The simplest way to insure the reader’s investment in the evolution of these two characters is for Melville to use the reader’s ego against him/her. The reader must want to see his/her self in these men if he/she is to “get” this legend’s intentions in the end. If the reader is willing to be immersed in the narrative out of recognition of his/her self in the work, then he/she will gain understanding and perspective from Ahab and Ishmael’s experiences by the end of the novel.

While a reader of Moby-Dick can insert his/her self into Ahab’s character by using their own self-understanding to understand Ahab better, it is also helpful that in Chapter ninety-nine, entitled “The Doubloon,” Melville directly asserts the importance of the reader to identify with Ahab’s character if he/she is to clearly understand the “Truth” (333) of the world. It is a passage in which Ahab speaks to himself in a manner suggesting his own desire to understand himself through understanding others. Again, Melville is attempting to insert the reader into Ahab’s personality. This assertion is of paramount importance if one is to truly understand the world according to the parameters set through Melville’s telling of Moby-Dick:

The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that too, is Ahab; all are Ahab; and this round gold is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self. (332)

In this passage, Ahab asserts himself as being embodied in the imagery of the doubloon and his oneness with the coin alludes to him being at one with the world as a result, “and this round gold is but the image of the rounder globe” (332). Ahab freely admits that everyman who passes by the doubloon sees himself in the coin and he is no different, “this round gold…to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self” (332), but this realization is flawed because Ahab admits that every man knows “his own mysterious self” (332), which implies that others do not really know themselves from observing the coin. It implies that it is only Ahab who knows his self from observing the coin. It is he who freely asserts that the other observers of the coin are not as perceptive about the coin’s ability to establish recognition of one’s inner self when he attempts to dismiss the coin’s sway over his inner recognition, “Methinks this coined sun wears a ruddy face…’tis fit that man should live in pains and die in paings” (333). Ahab is being quite unreliable here in that he is attempting to dismiss his connection with the coin right after he has proclaimed his connection to it. Why would Ahab do this, or rather, why would Melville choose to have Ahab act in this manner? Melville does this to create doubt in the reader’s mind in order to show that Ahab, although he is quite confident in his purpose, has his moments of doubt as well. He appears to be certain of the coin’s relevance to him, yet he doubts it in the end. So, could he end up doubting his mission to exact revenge on Moby-Dick if he ends up doubting the coin, something he appears to identify with so well? Melville’s creation of doubt in this chapter seeks to establish a connection with a reader who may not be as secure in his/her own skin as Ahab would appear to be in this novel. Yes, Ahab is steadfast in his purpose and anyone with a good deal of pride in their heart could easily identify with his confidence. However, Melville needs to establish a connection with a less confident reader as well. He needs to make this connection in order to accomplish his task of reaching disparate personalities during his own mission to become “a pure manipulator” (357), one who is able to influence a wide spectrum of personalities of the need to connect with the world through understanding the dynamics and personalities of characters in literature, “If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me” (18). This statement directly asserts Melville’s need for the reader to become personally invested in his story in that he is allegorizing the ocean as symbolizing the world and has Ishmael’s feelings toward it actually stand in for his thoughts on the world. So, for a reader to truly understand the world he/she must understand the ocean and the men who voyage on it in this narrative.

The less confident reader can gain confidence through recognizing Ahab’s mind’s ability to transcend his doubt concerning the doubloon and continue on with his mission of murderous revenge. As a reader, I fall in between the confidant and less-confident reader of Moby-Dick. I recognized Ahab in myself while reading of his supreme confidence in his violent task because I have also known what it is like to need to instill a swaggering confidence in myself in order to complete an arduous task, or prevail in the midst of daunting odds. One needs to dig down deep in their person and pull out every bit of self-reliance, hope, and practical sense from their internal being and use these tools to construct an impenetrable suit of armor. This mustering of hyper self-confidence is a draining endeavor that leads to a certain amount of fatigue and can make even the strongest individuals susceptible to moments of self-doubt, or wariness that the purpose behind this confidence actually may not be worth it in the end. I believe Ahab is beginning to experience a hint of this doubt in the “Doubloon” chapter, which we see pass quite quickly, “This coin speaks wisely, mildly, truly, but still sadly to me. I will quit it, lest Truth shake me falsely” (333). However, we do see this doubt resurface in Ahab during the pinnacle moment of the novel in which he sees Moby Dick for the first time since being injured by the whale, “he gazed beyond the whale’s place, towards the dim blue spaces and wide wooing vacancies to leeward. It was only an instant: for again his eyes seemed whirling around in his head as he swept the watery circle” (409). This moment of Ahab having doubt in his purpose may seem subtle, but one must remember that it is foreshadowed earlier in the previous chapter when Ahab has an almost remorseful conversation with Starbuck about the irrelevance of his mission to destroy Moby Dick:

Starbuck saw the old man; saw him , how he heavily leaned over the side; and he seemed to hear in his own true heart the measureless sobbing that stole out of the centre of the serenity around …‘for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horror of the deep…the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey—more a demon than a man!—aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool—fool—old fool, has old Ahab been’ (405)

Ahab looks deflated to Starbuck, as seen through how heavy his body posture appears and practically offers himself up for chastisement by Starbuck by admitting his intense motivation to kill whales was a fool’s errand, so when we see Ahab pause and cast “wide wooing vacancies to leeward” (409) we immediately recall this earlier admission of foolery by Ahab and realize that his quest may not have been as steadfast as we were led to believe. However, it is Ahab’s admission and contemplation of doubt just before engaging Moby Dick that ultimately enables him to carry out his quest in the end. If he had not doubted his purpose he would not have gained a renewed intensity resulting from obtaining new resolve out of speculating that his quest to kill Moby Dick was a possible mistake. In essence, Ahab needed to fall from his tower of righteousness in order to have the strength and will to see his epic three day battle with Moby Dick through to the end.

As I consider Ahab to be the central character of Moby-Dick, I consider his perspective and actions to be paramount to being able to interpret the “metaphysical professor” (19) that is Herman Melville, “But though the picture lies thus tranced, and though this pine-tree shakes down its sighs like leaves upon this shepherd’s head, yet all were vain, unless the shepherd’s eye were fixed upon the magic stream before him” (19). The reader can only realize the abject reality of the world if he/she focuses on the architect of this reality. So, since Ahab is the character driving Ishmael to recount his quest in the form of the narrative that is Moby-Dick, it is Ahab who is the “magic stream” (19) in the foreground. It is Ahab who must be understood if the reader is to understand “the universal thump” (21) of the world.

While one can view Ahab’s tendency toward monomaniacal revenge to be a unique way of manifesting a purpose to one’s life, his act of being highly motivated in and of itself is not such a strange thing to a reader because, as I can attest, there are a great number of people who can understand, even if it is in a general way, his desire to meet a life goal. We all want to accomplish things in our lives, so Ahab is not hard to understand as a result. However, a reader’s ability to identify with a character such as Bartleby in Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” can become diminished if the character does not seem to readily exhibit characteristics typically found in society. Bartleby is an enigma to say the least. He does not appear to outwardly do anything except defy his employer and die by the end of the story. So, a reader’s identification with Bartleby comes from what Bartleby does not do instead of what he does do. For example, Bartleby’s introduction into the story is void of action in that his employer says that he finds “a motionless young man…upon my office threshold…pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn” (9). It is Bartleby’s appearance which shows even the slightest bit of action in his person. Him being “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn” (9) is a description that invokes the sense that he has actually engaged in procedures that have ultimately cast his appearance in the light that his employer sees him in upon his first encounter with the scrivener. However, it is Bartleby being “motionless” (9) that the reader really remembers from this encounter because Bartleby’s character is essentially motionless throughout the narrative. He does not move for his employer, neither in the sense of actual movement around the office in order to obey his employer’s commands, or by moving out of the office after his employer has quit the premises due to Bartleby’s unrelenting will to stay and do nothing where he is.

Bartleby remains essentially “motionless” (9) throughout the story and after reading this story for the third or fourth time I began to identify with Bartleby’s exceedingly strong will to remain stationary. It is often hard for me to uproot myself from a domain where I have become comfortable. Even if I have not been residing at the location for long, I will very much want to remain if I am comfortable, or stable there. While we can never get a firm grasp on whether Bartleby was truly comfortable at his employers, we can determine that his decision to remain at his employer’s was essentially the only thing keeping him alive. It is only after he is forced to leave his employer’s former office and begins to reside in the tombs that his physical health  truly suffers. I often suffer as well when I am forced out of an environment I have been comfortable in. Although I do not feel as if I will die as a result of the move, I do feel quite disconnected from my previous notions of reality and this can have a profound effect on my psyche in that my psyche seems to represent everything and nothing at once, like it may be eating itself, but it could just be me making myself think that as well.

Though we as readers have little to go on in the way of discerning Bartleby’s psychic predispositions, we can infer to the cause of why his forced removal from his employers former office had such a mortal effect on his person. At the end of the narrative we learn from the narrator :

that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration…Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting then for the flames? (34)

I do agree with the first part of the narrator’s assertion that it was Bartleby’s sudden removal from the Dead Letter Office that may have caused him to vehemently protest his removal from the attorney’s office because I believe that there are no accidents in Melville’s writing. Just the fact that Melville chose to include the allusion to Bartleby’s life before the lawyer’s office attests to the significance of Bartleby’s former employment’s abrupt ending had on his ultimate demise. Melville wants the reader to make a connection between Bartleby’s past experiences and his presence during the time in which the novel takes place. However, I do believe that Melville does attempt to misdirect the reader by having the narrator suggest that it was actually Bartleby’s employment at the Dead Letter Office that ultimately contributed to his demise. I believe this is a simple case of Melville inserting unreliability into the narrator’s character in order to make the story even more ambiguous than it already is. How could Bartleby, after having ceased working at the Dead Letter Office, succumbed to the effects of working there while gainfully employed somewhere else? The answer is that he couldn’t because that does not follow the logic of the narrative. Every command by the narrator is reacted to by Bartleby in a specific, almost call and response way in which the narrator asks Bartleby to do something, Bartleby refuses, the narrator ruminates on the perplexity of the situation, and the pattern continues until Bartleby is forced out of the building and thus begins his rapid decline toward death. Now, if Bartleby was so overwhelmed with the residual effects of working at the Dead Letter Office, then how could he have kept up such a steady pattern of denying his employer; and isn’t it also strange that he does not really decline in health until after he is evicted from his employment, just as he was from the Dead Letter Office? Bartleby follows a pattern throughout the narrative that Melville vaguely tries to disrupt by the story’s end, and I believe he does this in order to convolute the narrative to the point where the reader will have trouble discerning where Bartleby ends and the narrator begins. I feel this is true because I have seen this type of misdirection from others at different points in my life. It is almost akin to a “bait and switch” technique wherein a person alludes to something in order to deter an examiner of him/her from seeing the true nature of the situation at hand. In this case, it is the narrator’s guilt over Bartleby’s death that the narrator is trying to lead the reader from realizing. However, Melville writes the narrator to be unsuccessful in his attempt at misdirecting the reader when he has the narrator cry out, “Ah Bartleby! Ah Humanity!” (34) at the narrative’s conclusion. The narrator is cursing the nature of Bartleby as well as his own nature as a human being that feels guilty from thinking he may not have done enough to save the young scrivener from death, “poor Bartleby’s  internment” (33-34) is ironic in that he could actually live without fear of removal, yet he dies instead, so the narrator sees this irony and curses the scrivener and humanity along with his own self for not being more rational toward the needs of others, “good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities” (34), but not really because humanity is the ultimate calamity, unrelenting in pushing itself toward oblivion.

Melville’s need to establish a connection with his reader speaks volumes toward his need to feel a connection with America: A country he wrote of in narratives wholly original to what other authors were writing at the time. Yes, there were other whaling novels and there were other stories of men in modern forms of employment who ended up failing when pitted against true progress, but Melville approaches the banal from the angry angle of feeling disconnected from the very culture he seeks to influence with his writing. The people of his era simply did not get his work because most of them had neither the time nor will to experience America and the world as he had. It is only now that we have technology advanced enough to alleviate an excessive amount of manual labor, and the time to devote to seriously ruminate on the implications of reality and life that we are able to see the depth and complexity of Melville’s work. Here is a man who wanted desperately for us to realize our true potential as pioneers in a country perpetually plagued by its own arrogance.

Works Cited

Melville, Herman. “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” Melville’s Short Novels. Ed. Dan McCall. New York: W.W. Norton &Company, 2002. 3-34. Print.

—. Moby-Dick. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershell Parker. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. Print.


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