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Melville Stories

Herman Melville

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Study Questions

Discuss the behavior of The Lawyer in "Bartleby the Scrivener." Does he deal with Bartleby fairly? Does he succeed in helping Bartleby at all? Why or why not?

The behavior of the Lawyer (the narrator of "Bartleby the Scrivener") has been the focus of much critical discussion about the story. At first, the Lawyer introduces Bartleby as a particularly interesting "specimen" from his collection of stories about weird scriveners. This seems to be a rather patronizing attitude, as if Bartleby were no more than a rare insect or stamp. As the story progresses, the Lawyer seems to have an increasing amount of sympathy for him. But in the end, the Lawyer abandons Bartleby, who then dies. The question is whether the Lawyer's failure to help Bartleby comes from the Lawyer's own selfishness or a misunderstanding of how to help Bartleby.

The first hint of Bartleby's strange nature occurs when the narrator first asks him to examine a document. Bartleby replies, very politely, that he "would prefer not to." The Lawyer is stupefied by this response. Soon Bartleby is responding to every quest this way, but there is no hint of "uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner." This "passive resistance," as the Lawyer calls it, seems so rationally delivered—as if Bartleby had thought it over, and it was the only proper conclusion—that the Lawyer cannot bring himself to punish Bartleby. The Lawyer tells us several times that this rational-sounding response prevents the Lawyer from firing him on the spot. But it may be that the Lawyer enjoys having Bartleby around to spice up his life. Several times, the Lawyer tells us he asks Bartleby to do something deliberately, because he "felt strangely goaded to encounter him in new opposition." The Lawyer gets a perverse pleasure from trying to goad Bartleby into an angry response.

The Lawyer's pleasure doesn't last forever, though, and when Bartleby decides to stop writing, the Lawyer makes several efforts to make him leave. Bartleby is no longer useful in any sense of the word. But when Bartleby refuses to leave, the Lawyer, in what may be a true act of charity, decides to let Bartleby stay in the office, doing nothing—until it affects business. Then the Lawyer simply moves his offices, abandoning Bartleby. In their last encounter before Bartleby's imprisonment, the Lawyer offers to let Bartleby live in his home—a true act of charity (although the Lawyer has already told the reader that he thinks of charitable actions as "purchases" to boost his conscience). But the Lawyer makes the same mistake as he has all along: he has failed to understand Bartleby. "Can't you see the reason for yourself?" Bartleby responds when the Lawyer asks him why he prefers not to do anything. The Lawyer can't, and this is why he fails to help Bartleby—not from his own selfishness (though that's part of it), but from an inability to understand Bartleby's behavior, which, Melville seems to argue, may be the direct result of the materialism that the Lawyer champions.

How is "The Encantadas or Enchanted Islands" different from a "normal" short story? Is it a short story at all? Does it have all the typical parts of a story—exposition, rising action, climax and falling action?

"The Encantadas" is arranged as a series of ten "sketches": short sections of prose that describe some aspect of the Galapagos Islands. Each section is prefaced by a piece of poetry (usually from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen) that "evokes" the mood that the narrator wants for that section. At first glance, this structure doesn't look much like the traditional story format at all. Also, the sketches weren't published all at once, but over three issues of Putnam's magazine in 1854. Finally, the sections are written in a form that is very similar to that of a travel journal, a common form of nonfiction at the time. All these facts suggest that "The Encantadas" is not really a short story.

However, when examined more closely, there are several hints that "The Encantadas" may be more than a simple travel journal. First of all, Melville did not write them from personal experience; he didn't visit the Galapagos that extensively on his voyages (though only someone acquainted with Melville's life would know that). Aside from that, "The Encantadas" has features that make it similar to the short story. The first sketch is almost entirely made up of exposition, the background information about the Galapagos Islands that the reader needs to understand the rest of the story. The first few sketches continue to provide this exposition, while also beginning to get into the meat of the "story." As the sketches progress, there is less description of the Gapalagos (the exposition) and more history or folktales (such as the stories of the "dog-king," the Chola widow, and Oberlus the hermit). These "stories" begin with the incident of the U.S.S. Essex, then continue through the history of the buccaneers and Barrington Isle, to the "dog-king," to the Chola widow and finally Oberlus. Each story is slightly longer than the previous one, and Oberlus represents a sort of "climax" to "The Encantadas." He is the supreme example of the mysterious, haunting nature of the Galapagos Islands and the effect they can have on men. The "falling action" is the final sketch, which appropriately ends with a discussion of gravestones.

Discuss the issue of race in "Benito Cereno." Does the story seem to be pro- slavery, anti-slavery, or neither?

Literary critics have debated this question for decades. Owing to the fact that there are few sources revealing Melville's opinions on slavery or blacks, as well as Melville's tendency to obscure or avoid such easy interpretations in his fiction, there's no real right or wrong answer to this question. However, it is the most important one to today's readers of "Benito Cereno," and so it should be considered.

The two most important clues to Melville's intentions in the story is the behavior of Captain Delano and that of the slaves themselves. Delano's attitude toward the slaves is usually indifferent. He doesn't seem bothered that they're running free on the deck of the ship, rather than being chained. He is certainly impressed with the behavior of Benito Cereno's servant Babo, before Babo is revealed for the murderer he is. Delano says to Cereno, "Don Benito, I envy you such a friend; slave I cannot call him." Delano takes note of Babo's strength in relation to Cereno's weakness. However, the narrator also tells us how Delano believes blacks are naturally inclined to be servants, and that his fondness for blacks is similar to his fondness for "Newfoundland dogs." There is almost a note of irony here, as if Melville might be using such a patronizing comparison in order to make fun of the people that do treat blacks like dogs. Melville could simply be writing down what he thinks Delano's opinion of blacks would realistically be in the early 1800s, regardless of what Melville himself thinks of blacks.

The slaves, of course, turn out to be bloodthirsty savages, particularly Babo, their leader. But Babo and some of the other slaves also turn out to be fiercely intelligent: Babo controls Cereno and outwits Delano. Delano asks Cereno what has cast a "shadow" upon him, and Cereno responds "the Negro"—an important discussion in a story of race, particularly the idea that the white Cereno has had a "shadow" cast over him, which, symbolically, would make his skin darker. The end of the story leaves it ambiguous which "leader" Cereno followed to his death: his friend Alexandro Aranda who rests in the same graveyard Cereno's body is taken to, or Babo, whose lifeless head stares at the same graveyard.

As is often the case with Melville, the answer to the question of how racial relations are depicted in "Benito Cereno" is an uncertain one. The blacks do indeed turn out to be murderous mutineers, but slave owners were malicious and violent too. Delano, moreover, probably would have treated any mutineers the same way, white or black. Babo is a black credited with great intelligence, though he uses it for murderous ends; Melville was constrained, after all, by the historical fact of the blacks' revolt.

Suggested Essay Topics

Bartleby makes a point of saying he would "prefer not to" do something, rather than saying he "will not" do something. The Lawyer points this out several times, and he even begins to use the word "prefer" in odd situations himself. What is the significance of the word "prefer"? Why do you think Bartleby uses it?

Discuss the contrast between the actual "Enchanted Islands"—the volcanic humps of ash-covered rock—and the way they are portrayed in the narrator's imagination. Why does he think the ugly islands (covered with snakes, lizards and spiders) are enchanted? Does the narrator tend to focus on the nicer islands in "The Encantadas"?

Discuss the role of the narrator in "The Encantadas." Why is he telling the reader about these islands? How much of the story is told from his own experience, and how much of it is second-hand information, or even legends?

Analyze the character of Captain Delano. Why does he fail to recognize all the clues that the slaves are in control of the San Dominick?

Is the revolt of the slaves justified? Why or why not? Who is the villain (or who are the villains) in "Benito Cereno"?

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Correction to the sixth section of Encantadas

by The_Great_And_Powerful_Ass, January 15, 2013

After her husband dies, the narrator speaks of two terrible things, which he should not mention, that happened to Hunilla. What are those things? They are buried in the semantics of Melville's writing, but: 1.) Hunilla actually becomes pregnant and has to try and have the baby herself because her husband and brother died on the catamaran. 2.) After she gives birth, the baby dies, and she is raped by men on a ship that boards the island. They leave after they rape her, leaving her alone again.
Not too long afterwards is when the other s... Read more

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