Melville Stories

by: Herman Melville

"The Encantadas" (Sketches 1–5)

Summary "The Encantadas" (Sketches 1–5)

The fifth sketch tells the story of the U.S.S. Essex, an American battleship during the War of 1812 that sailed near the Galapagos. While there, it encountered a ship that it believed to be one of their British enemy's ships. When they first came close, the ship ran up an American flag, but the Essex captain still thought they were British. The Essex was pushed away by tough sea currents, and when they returned later in the day, the ship was then flying British colors. The British ship then vanished into the sea and was never seen again, according to the narrator.

Analysis

"The Encantadas" walk the fine line between fact and fiction. The sketches are based primarily on Melville's own experiences in the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos, of course, are the islands made famous by Charles Darwin when he used their wildlife to develop his theory of evolution. There was enormous public interest in these tropical destinations during this period; Melville had already had great success with Typee and Omoo, novels that were both based on his experiences in the tropics (mostly with its native peoples). After the commercial failure of Moby Dick, Melville returned to a topic he knew he could sell. However, his writing style had changed significantly since Typee, so "The Encantadas" are enriched with symbolism and contemplation. In spirit, they are closer to Moby Dick than Melville's earlier novels.

"The Encantadas" should not be mistaken for nonfiction. Though Melville is writing primarily from his own experiences, he also weaves in stories and material he has read in other sources, or heard from other sailors. In fact, Melville originally published "The Encantadas" under a pseudonym. The narrator of "The Encantadas," therefore, should not be identified with Melville any more than the first-person narrator of a true novel would.

"The Encantadas" is not really a short story, but rather a series of short stories woven together around a common theme: the Galapagos Islands and their "enchanted" nature. Melville brings together recorded history, folklore, traditions, and firsthand maritime experience in ten "sketches." The poetry that prefaces each sketch is intended to evoke a certain mood, or perhaps even a particular muse. Most of the poetic lines have something to do with the topic discussed in the sketch. For instance, the preface for the first sketch, from Spenser's The Faerie Queen is a speech from a Ferryman describing the "Wandering Islands"—mysterious lands, full of "deadly daunger and distressed plight." The poem makes a link in the reader's mind between "enchanted islands" and the Galapagos Islands that the narrator then describes in the sketch.

The actual Galapagos Islands, the narrator quickly reveals, are hardly a tropical paradise. With a few exceptions, the islands are primarily hunks of ashy, volcanic rock, littered with "clinkers" and populated by lizards, snakes and huge spiders. It is hardly an "enchanting" place—if by enchanting one means charming. (Melville does think the islands are charming, but not in a traditional way.) In this case, Melville means the islands are not "enchanting" but "enchanted"—magical, and not always in a good way. "Enchanted" can also mean haunted.

The first five sketches are primarily concerned with giving the reader an impression of the physical features of the islands, and also some of their history. But some powerful, classic Melville moments appear, such as the memorable scene in which the narrator envisions an ancient tortoise walking past, the word "Memento…" in flames on its back. The meaning of this scene is unclear, but it is a powerful image.