As I lay in my hammock that night, overhead I heard the slow weary draggings of the three ponderous strangers along the encumbered deck. Their stupidity or their resolution was so great that they never went aside for any impediment. One ceased his movements altogether just before the mid-watch. At sunrise I found him butted like a battering ram against the immovable foot of the foremast, and still striving, tooth and nail, to force the impossible passage. That these tortoises are the victims of a penal, or malignant, or perhaps a downright diabolical, enchanter, seems in nothing more likely than in that strange infatuation of hopeless toil which so often possesses them. I have known them in their journeyings ram themselves heroically against rocks, and long abide there, nudging, wriggling, wedging, in order to displace them, and so hold on their inflexible path. Their crowning curse is their drudging impulse to straightforwardness in a belittered world.
This passage is from the "second sketch" of "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Islands." It is an excellent example of Melville's language, and his ability to make the commonplace remarkable, or even mystical. Melville's diction takes a humorous scene—a tortoise hopelessly trying to walk through a ship's mast—and makes it seem like the epic, tragic struggle of a hero who has been "enchanted" and cannot figure out how to simply walk around an obstacle. However, all the mystical energy of the scene is dissipated by the last line, which is humorous and which seems to hint at a kind of universal truth. Anyone, even people, with such a "drudging impulse to straightforwardness" will find themselves facing obstacles in a "belittered world."