Analysis of Herman Melville’s Novels

Herman Melville’s (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891) career as a novelist breaks down, somewhat too neatly, into a three-part voyage of frustration and disappointment. The first part of his career is characterized by the heady successes of Typee and Omoo, the second by the frustrating failure of, among others, Moby Dick, and the third by his increasing withdrawal from publication and the final discovery of and acclaim for Billy Budd, Foretopman, thirty-two years after Melville’s death. After the initial successes of Typee and Omoo, Melville never again achieved anything approaching popular success, but it was the acclaim over those two novels that assured Melville that he should attempt to make his way as a novelist. It probably did not occur to Melville at the time, but he was introducing a new genre into American literature.

Typee struck the American public like a ray of sunshine falling into a darkened room. The fresh descriptions and intriguing narrative of an American sailor trapped among the Rousseauesque natives of the Marquesas Islands were hailed on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and its sequel, Omoo, was received even more enthusiastically. The problems inherent in Melville’s harsh treatment of missionaries and imperialism and the general disbelief of the veracity in the author’s tale aside, the works satiated a public thirst for exotic places. The fact that Typee and Omoo have survived in the estimation of critics is testimony to Melville’s art even in those early stages of his development.

Whether it is the simple narrative or the dramatic suspense of impending doom that holds the reader, Typee offers a flowing romantic atmosphere of timeless days, pointless endeavor, and mindless existence. The Happy Valley in which Melville’s Tommo finds himself trapped is an idyllic setting for the lovely Fayaway and Tommo to live and love. In Typee there is none of the agonizing speculation on life, humanity, philosophy, or the cosmos, which readers later came to expect of Melville. With only slight exaggeration and minimal research, Melville created the picture of a world beyond the ken of his readers but that would never die in his memories.

Omoo, a sequel to Typee, is only an extension of that idyll. There is a basic difference between Typee and Omoo, however; Typee is a tightly woven dramatic narrative, incorporating the day-to-day suspense of whether Tommo would be the Marquesan cannibals’ next meal; Omoo is a more picaresque representation of the events, the charm in Omoo depending solely on the loosely tied chain of events encountered by the narrator and his companion, Dr. Long Ghost, among the people of Tahiti. There is no threat hanging over them, as in Typee, and there is no necessity for escape. Omoo also differs in that it takes place in a tainted paradise. Tahiti has been, in Omoo, Christianized and settled and, thus, the Tahitians are familiar with the white sailor and his games. This reduction of innocence colors Omoo in a way not reflected in Typee.

There is an inescapable glow of romance throughout Melville’s two Polynesian novels. The record of missionary abuse and the encroachment of civilization does not make an overbearing appearance, but it does lay the groundwork for the reflections of Melville’s despair and convoluted indictments of man and his world in later, more mature works.

Mardi, Redburn, and White-Jacket rapidly followed Melville’s early successes. Mardi, opening like a continuation of Typee and Omoo, shocked readers when it lapsed into philosophical allegory. Mardi’s subsequent failure prompted Melville, in search of fame and funds, to return to sea narrative in Redburn and White-Jacket, but despite their modest successes, Melville reviled them as hackwork.

Moby Dick
In Moby Dick, there is evidence that Melville intended it to be little more than a factual account of the whale fisheries in the South Pacific detailed with firsthand tales of adventures on a whaler. When completed two years after its beginning, it was a puzzling, intricately devised literary work in which a white whale is the central character. Around this central figure, Melville weaves symbolism, speculation, philosophy, and allegory on life, God, man, and the human condition. In short, Melville had created an epic romance that stood at the brink of becoming mythology.

The plot of Moby Dick, when not interrupted by authorial asides and digressions, is relatively direct. A young man, Ishmael, comes to the sea seeking a berth on a whaling ship. He finds the Pequod; falls into a friendship with the cannibal harpooner Queequeg; discovers that the ship is captained by a madman, Ahab, who is driven to wreak vengeance on the white whale that took off his leg on a previous voyage; finds himself in a crew that is a microcosm of the world’s peoples; watches as Ahab drives the ship and crew in pursuit of Moby Dick; and is the sole survivor when Ahab is killed in a direct confrontation with the whale. By itself, the plot is thrilling but does not have the ingredients of greatness. The layers of fiction—the levels that the reader must traverse in order to rend the novel for all of its substance—make the work magnificent. To the surface adventure, Melville adds gleanings from volumes of cetological and marine lore, his own observations on the psychology of man, and, finally, his ultimate speculations on good and evil—the basic morality of man and of humankind’s place in the universe.

Melville’s frequent displays of marine erudition are often cursed as flaws in an otherwise closely woven fabric. They seem to do little for the on-rushing spectacle of Ahab and his monomania, and they almost function as literary irritants designed to interrupt the reader’s chain of thought. They are not intended to enhance the characterization of Ahab or his crew, nor are they an integral part of the narrative; they are, however, the essence of the novel’s central character, the whale. Without Melville’s lore, there is no reality to the ominously ethereal presence of Moby Dick. The periodic chapters of information and background are the author’s reminders to the reader of the whale’s presence and that the whale drives the story forward. The lore is also the foundation of belief in the whale. It promotes and maintains the physical presence of the whale by the sheer weight of scientific or pseudoscientific data. When the whale finally appears, the reader has been sufficiently educated and prepared. Melville creates the whale, vicariously, with his lore and trivia and sets the stage for its appearance.

In describing Ahab, his ship, and the crew, Melville employs a nonnarrative form of characterization, where each individual is the subject of an inquiry or is an example of a human type. Of the major characters, Ahab is the most complex, but the others form a society in which that complexity can best be displayed. Starbuck, the first mate, Stubb, the second mate, and Flask, the third mate, are only the closest of several layers of the crew around Ahab. Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo, the harpooners, formthe next layer, and the rest of the crew fill out Ahab’s world. Like Fleece, the ship’s cook, and Pip, the mad cabin boy, they all perform vignettes that enlarge and enhance the magnitude of Ahab and his quest. For example, Ahab feels compelled to explain the real reasons behind his insane search for the white whale only to Starbuck, the conscientious, scrupulous first mate. Rather than simple revenge, as Starbuck supposes it to be, Ahab proposes to strike through the “pasteboard masks” of reality by striking at the whale. In his reasoning with Starbuck, Ahab demonstrates a side of himself that is otherwise hidden; there is purpose, calculation, and preparation in his madness. Ahab’s insanity, thereby, becomes a divine sort of madness, and he transcends mere earthly logic to become an epic madman jousting with creation. It is through Starbuck and the others that the reader learns most about Ahab, and it is in such relationships that one sees the mastery of Melville’s artistry.

Ahab becomes more than a simple villain when viewed against the backdrop of Starbuck and the other characters. He becomes a monolithic character testing a universe that he sees as perverse and unkind toward human existence. He dares to confront nature itself and to challenge it to single combat. It is Queequeg who unwittingly provides the clues to the venture’s outcome. He has a coffin built when he fears he will die of a fever, and when Moby Dick rams the Pequod, it is the coffin that supports Ishmael, the only survivor. The coffin becomes the symbolic remainder of Ahab’s world. Humans and their science cannot stand against nature and hope to survive. It is Ahab’s hamartia to believe that he can survive, and his belief is the final sign of his ultimately evil nature.

Ahab would, he tells Starbuck, “strike the sun if he offended me,” and he considers himself as the equal of any other force in nature. He forgets that he is limited by human frailty—or he believes he is no longer subject to the laws of temporal existence or his own physical shortcomings. He is, in one sense, a blighted Prometheus who can offer nothing but his vision to his fellow men, and they blindly accept it. Ahab’s greatest evil is the corruption of his relatively innocent world, and its ultimate destruction is his sole responsibility.

Melville used many symbols and devices in Moby Dick, and they are important strands by which the story is held together. The names alone are important enough to demand attention. The biblical significance of Ishmael and Ahab, and of Jereboam and Rachel, needs no explanation. Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask all have significance when examined symbolically. The mythical ramifications of a voyage beginning on Christmas night enlarge as the story unfolds. The ultimate device is Ishmael himself. Ostensibly the story’s narrator, he only appears in about every fourth chapter after the first twenty-five. When he does appear, it is difficult to keep track of whether the narrator or author is speaking. Ishmael, however, is never used in an omnipotent, obtrusive manner that would belie his place on the Pequod, and, thus, the point of view remains clear. Ishmael opens the novel and announces “and I only am escaped alone to tell thee,” but he is there primarily to provide a frame for the story. This very flexible point of view is an adroit device by which the author can distance himself from the story while still involving himself in a story as few authors have or will. When Melville finds Ishmael to be an encumbrance, he sheds him and speaks for himself. It remains an open question whether the story is Ishmael’s, Ahab’s, the whale’s, or Melville’s. It is not necessary, however, that the dilemma be resolved in order to appreciate and acknowledge the massive achievement in Moby Dick.

Billy Budd, Foretopman
After the failure of Moby Dick to be a commercial success, Melville’s increasingly sour approach to novel-writing produced Pierre, perhaps the first psychological novel in American literature but also a miserable failure; Israel Potter, a rewriting and fictionalizing of a Revolutionary War diary; The Confidence Man, a sardonic, rambling, loosely constructed allegory on American society; and Billy Budd, Foretopman. The last of Melville’s attempts in the novel form, Billy Budd, Foretopman was never offered for publication by the author and was discovered and published in the mid-1920’s. Despite its checkered publication history (it has appeared in any number of flawed or badly edited forms), Billy Budd, Foretopman has come to be recognized as Melville’s final word on the great problems with which he first grappled in Moby Dick. Its formand simplicity make it the perfect companion for the epic proportions of Moby Dick. Its message is such that it seems Melville created it as a catharsis for the unanswered questions in the greater work.

Billy Budd, Foretopman is a masterful twisting of historical event into fiction in order to maintain the tension of a gripping story. While so doing, Melville explores the stirring, but somewhat less exciting, problems of the conflict between man, good and evil, and the law. Melville uses a blend of the historically significant British mutinies of the Nore and at Spithead in 1797 and the 1842 execution of three alleged mutineers of the United States ship Somers, in which his cousin Guert Gansevoort played a significant part, to mold the setting and motive for his story leading to the trial and execution of the “handsome sailor.” The events leading to the trial are relatively unadorned, and there is little question prior to the trial where the reader’s sympathies should be and which characters embody which attributes of human nature.

There is a slightly melodramatic air about the principal characters in Billy Budd, Foretopman. Claggart, by shrewd characterization and description, is the evil masteratarms who is in direct conflict with the innocent, pure, guileless Billy Budd. Melville never makes clear why Claggart develops his seemingly perverse prejudice against Billy, but a definite line of good and evil is drawn between the two men. The evil is magnified by the mysterious impetus for Claggart’s antipathy toward Billy; the good is intensified by Billy’s naïve ignorance of Claggart’s malice, even though the entire crew seems to know of it and understand the reasons for it, and by his cheerful mien not only in the face of Claggart’s bullying but also in spite of the circumstances that brought him to the Indomitable.

Billy is wronged from the beginning, when he is impressed from the American Rights of Man to the British Indomitable (the names of the ships being a sly piece of Melville commentary on Great Britain’s Royal Navy, the War of 1812, and Billy Budd’s predicament, among other things). He is instantly recognized and accepted by his new mates on board the Indomitable and becomes a full and useful member of the crew and a good shipmate. Claggart, who has the unenviable job of policing a British man-of-war and administering the Queen’s maritime justice, seems to extend himself to bring charges against the new man. When Billy is implicated in a mutiny rumor, Claggart seizes the opportunity to bring him before a drumhead courtmartial. At the hearing, Claggart concentrates all of his inexplicable venom against Billy Budd in false charges, innuendo, and lies calculated to ensure a guilty verdict for which Billy will be hanged.

The wonder of Billy Budd and Claggart is that Melville, while portraying the two extremes of human morality in human forms, avoids creating flat caricatures. Billy and Claggart seemingly are real people operating in a real world, and they develop in very believable ways, even given Claggart’s behavior toward Billy. At the climax of the trial, perhaps the most fantastic moment in the novel, there is no appreciable relaxation of the verisimilitude Melville creates, even though Billy strikes Claggart dead with one crashing blow of his fist. The other major character of the novel fills the momentary gap in the credibility of the story after Claggart’s death. Captain Vere commands not only the Indomitable but also the trial, and it is he who pushes the novel through its climactic scene and who, in essence, takes the message of the novel from Billy Budd and develops it to its fruition.

Edward Fairfax (“Starry”) Vere appears at length only from the trial to the end of the novel, but, despite the title character and his antagonist, Vere is the heart of the novel. He is everything Billy and Claggart are not. He is a complex character—a philosophical ship’s captain—and a man who is caught between many pressures as he decides the fate of a man whom he evidently likes. Faced with the precedent of the historical mutinies that Melville introduces into the novel’s background, Vere feels the necessity of creating Billy Budd as an example to other prospective mutineers. Seeing Billy’s innocence, and understanding at least part of Claggart’s fulsome character, Vere is loathe to condemn a man who probably was within his moral right to strike his superior. Even so, the need for order and the maritime sense of justice force Vere to send Billy to the yardarm. Vere, more than anyone, recognizes that he is sacrificing an innocent man for the good of his ship, its crew, and, ultimately, his society. He sentences Billy under the prescription of law, but he begs his forgiveness as a moral human being.

The sacrifice of the innocent is a theme that pervades Western literature, but in Billy Budd, Foretopman, Melville confronts the struggle between chaos and order, law and morality, and humankind and society. There is no clear decision as Vere dies in battle; Billy haunts him to his end. However, the society, the system for which Billy was sacrificed, survives and prevails. Vere remains incomprehensible except to the man he condemns. Billy Budd understands but does not have the capacity or the will to exert himself in order to save himself. He is reminiscent, in some respects, of the Christ-figure he has universally been called. In the final analysis, Vere, Claggart, and Billy are all sacrificed, and the initial skirmishes between good and evil become almost trivial when compared to the moral and philosophical riddles Melville poses.

From Omoo and Typee to Moby Dick and Billy Budd, Foretopman, Melville traverses the paths to maturity and complexity not only in prose fiction but also in philosophical and spiritual understanding. Nevertheless, there is little difference between Tommo and Billy Budd, the two innocents of civilization. Ahab and “Starry” Vere are similar enough to be recognized as brothers of the quarterdeck and of humankind. While facing different problems and decisions, they both meet them and deal with them similarly—and both die for their causes. The thread of the sea is unmistakable in Melville, but he recognized the function of the ship at sea as a symbol or as an experimental station, isolated and representative of the world he examined. Melville had his causes and injected them into his stories, but he is primarily interested in the human condition. He inspects all facets of each character ruthlessly and meticulously, without judgment and without prejudice, and he allows the results of his inspection to speak for themselves without gratuitous commentary. Since the revival of Melville studies with the discovery of Billy Budd, Foretopman, Melville’s reputation as one of America’s most significant authors is secure.

Major Works
Long fiction • Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, 1846; Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas, 1847; Mardi, and a Voyage Thither, 1849; Redburn: His First Voyage, 1849; White-Jacket: Or, The World in a Man-of-War, 1850; Moby Dick: Or, The Whale, 1851; Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities, 1852; Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile, 1855; The Confidence Man: His Masquerade, 1857; Billy Budd, Foretopman, 1924.
Short Fiction
: The Piazza Tales, 1856; The Apple-Tree Table, and Other Sketches, 1922.
Poetry: Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, 1866; Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, 1876; John Marr, and Other Sailors, 1888; Timoleon, 1891; The Works of Herman Melville, 1922-1924 (volumes 15 and 16); The Poems of Herman Melville, 1976 (revised, 2000).
Nonfiction: Journal up the Straits, 1935; Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent, 1948; The Letters of Herman Melville, 1960 (Merrill R. Davis and William H. Gilman, editors).
Miscellaneous: Tales, Poems, and Other Writings, 2001 (John Bryant, editor).

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

Categories: Literature

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2 replies

  1. Seems like a good brief summation of Melville’s importance. Only reading ‘Typee’ now, which seems hamhanded in comparison to Moby Dick. Reading Moby Dick, I was struck by the lack of references to God, but mesmerized by Melville’s prose. Billy Budd will need to be on my list. Thank you for a good overview.


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