Herman Melville’s two-part ironic sketch “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” provides in a highly condensed form the same sly insinuation and subversive conceptual punning that characterize his better-known longer works, Moby-Dick, Pierre, and The Confidence Man. In the first half, based on Melville’s trip to London in 1849, the male narrator describes an exclusive allmale enclave of convivial barristers, the Elm Court Temple Bar. Although his description is ostensibly genial, even blithe, in a manner typical of contemporary periodicals, his hyperbolic, almost inebriated, conceits are redolent with Melville’s own sarcastic undertone. In the more provocative second half, based on the author’s excursion to buy supplies from a Massachusetts paper mill in the winter of 1851, the same narrator witnesses an industrial process serviced exclusively by female laborers under virtually invisible bachelor supervision (217). This second sketch constitutes an allegory in the modern mode, in which the schema of correspondences is disjointed by “the disorder of a dream” (213) so that no fixed, unambiguous meaning can be ascribed to its phantasmatic details, although a murky conflation of sexual innuendo and socioeconomic critique is clearly discernible.
While Melville’s bipartite structure serves to highlight contrasts between a range of oppositions— masculine/feminine, bygone/contemporary, English/ American, bounty/deprivation, comfort/ toil—it also establishes an implicit comparison inasmuch as each sketch delineates a different form of containment, insularity, isolation, and repressed possibilities. There are, additionally, phrasings and imagery that subtly reveal the preoccupations of the narrator and the intentions of the author, which together organically link the two parts.
The sanguine, “sunny-faced” bachelors ensconced in the paradisiacal confines of Temple Bar and its EDENic “Temple Garden” are insulated from the cares and ugliness of the chaotic outer world. Decorous, complacent, and constrained, the bachelors live an existence superior to those the narrator calls Benedick, economically anxious “tradesmen . . . hurrying by, with ledgerlines ruled along their brows, thinking upon rise of bread and fall of babies” (202). The bachelors have avoided the burdensome responsibilities of their social inferiors inasmuch as they constitute a “Brethren of the Order of Celibacy” (205). Trouble and pain are for them mere “monkish fables” that seem “preposterous to their bachelor imaginations” (205)— which is to say, imaginations that are not fully engaged to/with the nubile world. They live “sequestered” in a phallic tower located along “a dim, monastic way, flanked by dark, sedate, and solemn piles” (202) that symbolizes the fortification of behavioral codes and pleasant distractions that shelter them from experiencing nature’s unruly dictates.
Occupying the once-hallowed precinct of the Teutonic Knights Templar, medieval warrior monks, the bachelors have established a more “affable” order (204). They wear cloth and patent leather rather than mail, wigs rather than helmets; they wield quills, not swords, and only joust in repartee (204). In a digression, the narrator half-jokingly couches his account of the degeneration of the original Knights Templar in terms of the Fall. A luxuriating “worm” (at once diabolic and phallic) “crawled beneath their guard, gnawing the core of knightly troth, nibbling the monastic vow, till at last the monk’s austerity relaxed to wassailing, and the sworn knights-bachelors grew to be but hypocrites and rakes” (203). It was generally well known in Melville’s time that the ostensibly virtuous Templars had been indicted on charges of performing elaborate sodomistic rites that sinned against the order of nature ordained by God, and therefore the narrator’s sustained allusions to these fierce progenitors serves ironically to contrast their exclusively masculine transgressions with the chaste predilections and weaker stimulations of their emasculated descendants. It is worth noting in this regard that the narrator describes the container from which the satisfied bachelors take their snuff as “a regular Jericho horn,” another debased phallic and military symbol. This reference evokes, only to deny, the possibility of siege since the bachelors’ insulated confines are under no threat of collapse—certainly not from the trumpeting of a (quasi-orgasmic) snuff-induced sneeze, which their principles of decorum prohibit in order to ensure that the quietude of neighboring bachelors is never “molested.” This systemic lack of challenge or threat is precisely what constitutes the bachelors’ security, their power (“to clog . . . avenues of the Law,” 204) and their lack of virility.
It is also the guarantor of the bachelors’ blissful obliviousness. Students of Melville’s character typologies have noted the bachelor type recurs in his other works, most notably Moby-Dick. In that novel, Ahab’s Pequod encounters another ship called the Bachelor, which is associated with successful commercial endeavor, gaiety, good-natured temperament, and an unwarranted conviction of impunity that Melville links to a superficial disinclination to credit the existence of evil (Dillingham 187). The bachelor type is thus in contrast not only with the perplexed and demoralized Benedick wedded to common defeat (Dillingham 189) but to the seeker who has sworn a vow to some monomaniacal purpose related to a malevolence discerned behind the pasteboard surface of nature. These lonely, embittered, driven men tend to eschew snuff taking, pipe smoking, and the imbibing of wine, Melvillean signifiers of the complacent, self-satisfied conviviality that defines the bachelor condition.
The tone of light mockery that characterizes the sketch of the bachelors’ artificial paradise becomes more grimly sardonic in the sketch of maidenhood’s terrain. The narrator enters this terrain as Dante enters hell, by diverging from the well-worn path into a wilderness within sight of the Woedolor Mountains (210). Traversed vigilantly by the reader aware of Melville’s penchant for sly innuendo, this netherworld landscape of dark declivities and mounds reveals itself as the nether parts of a demonized female anatomy. It is the Venusberg landscape penetrated in folklore by the Teutonic knight Tannhauser, but far more gothic—the earthly paradise of sensual delights transformed by sexual anxiety into the land of waste (in every sense of the word). Ribald signposting points the way: a deep concavity recessed among “cloven” passages, whose winds have caused it to be named “the Mad Maid’s Bellows-pipe” (210), much as “the sudden contraction of the gorge” has been named “the Black Notch” because of the “ebon” hue of its walls (211). An adjacent “purple” hollow, the Devil’s Dungeon, lies surrounded by “shaggy wooded [i.e., pubic] mountains,” while nearby flows the “redly and demoniacally boiled Blood River” (214). The descriptive terms of this allusion to the menstrual flow suggest an anxiety-ridden resistance that has recast nature’s passionate readiness for procreation as the torments of damnation. Thus it is significant that this torrent runs “into the arms of a stunted wood of gray-haired pines” (211)—a signifier of impotent masculine response. It is equally noteworthy, in view of Melville’s many oblique, and sometimes ambivalent, references to the patriarchal and commercial oppression of nature/women, that the river’s “turbid waters . . . had not changed their hue by coming under the use of man” (216).
The environs of the maids constitute an “inverted similitude” of the environs of the bachelors (214)— concavity and recession replacing both the tower’s protuberance and its stated proximity to heaven (206). A gothic wind shrieks, “as if laden with lost spirits bound to the unhappy world” from which the bachelors have escaped (212). But it also constitutes “the very counterpart of the Paradise of Bachelors” (214) inasmuch as many of the descriptors evoke frigidified masculinity. The landscape is burdened with “mail of crusted ice” (214), a pun that conflates masculinity and impenetrability. It has become an “unfeeling” landscape of “petrifaction” (212) where the semblance of potency belies a concealed vulnerability: The forest groans under the “all-stiffening influence” of the chilly wind, but “their inmost fibres penetrated with the cold”—“vertical” trunks of trees are “snapped in twain like pipe-stems” (212). This description exemplifies how Melville’s narrator unconsciously links his general impression of sterilized femininity with the more specific threat of male castration, both of which reflect back upon his earlier depiction of masculine sterility. It is notable in this regard that the narrator is delivered into this land of barren bleakness by his horse Black, who had been frightened by a felled tree, an “old distorted hemlock” looking as “undulatory as an anaconda” (212). This reference to poison and to a wriggling serpent that envelops and swallows up serves to insinuate an identification between the Fall of man and masculine sexual anxiety.
The gender of Black is not designated, but the horse certainly functions as a nightmare vehicle. The narrator’s loss of control of his horse suggests an inability of the intellect or will to control the bodily appetites. While an unruly horse is a highly conventional signifier of the instinctual drive of the masculine member, the frosty sweat that makes Black “white as a milky ram” is both a provocatively sexual and an oddly hermaphroditic image that is perhaps tinged with the negative connotations Melville elsewhere ascribes to whiteness. Melville generally tends to link the absence of color with anxiety-inducing blankness, indefiniteness, nothingness, and death. For example, the narrator describes the whitewashed mill and its frozen surroundings as “frost-painted to a sepulcher” (214)— echoing his earlier use of whited, a biblical adjective connoting a veneer that disguises a corrupt interior. William B. Dillingham has persuasively argued the relevance here of Ishmael’s long meditation, in “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter of Moby-Dick, which contrasts the “heartless voids . . . of the universe” truthfully “shadow[ed] forth” by snowy landscapes (“from which we shrink”) and the gaudy, “subtile deceits” of color—including the color on the cheeks of young girls—whose harlot “allurements cover nothing but the charnel house within” (qtd. in Dillingham 186). Ishmael concludes that if it were not for the various protective tints our delusions provide us, we would become blind from the surrounding “prospect” and its revelation of our lack of prospects. The bachelor/paradise section of Melville’s short story describes those who, having adopted rose-colored glasses, are able to enjoy life, whereas the maid/Tartarus section removes the glasses from the reader’s eyes to reveal the white shroud (187).
The narrator identifies himself as a “seedsman” who has gone to the paper mill to procure envelopes in which to distribute his seeds (211). Concomitant with this continued linking of sex and commerce are persistent indications of desire sublimated and spirit eradicated. Melville has his narrator repeatedly make comparisons between the whiteness of the female workers’ cheeks and the paper produced by machinery driven by the blood-red water. With the insistent rhythm of a machine, Melville pounds out the idea: “At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blanklooking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper” (215). This induced blankness constitutes infernal suffering for those who have no energy for desire nor time to sin. A maid, in Melville’s sketch, is not so much a sexually forestalled woman as she is a neutered one, whose generative capacity has been sacrificed to a phallic apparatus that is a synecdoche for industrial capitalism. The narrator views the factory machinery from an alienated perspective of bemused ignorance that serves to defamiliarize it, estranging it in sexual terms that clarify its rapine malevolence: “a vertical thing like a piston periodically rising and falling upon a heavy wooden block,” a signifier of blank insensibility reminiscent of the girls themselves. Meanwhile, a pallid girl tamely administers to this “thing,” “feeding” it so that each piece of paper receives the imprint of a sentimentalizing “wreath of roses” (215), which can also be read as a sign of successful defloration.
By conflating a description of the factory system’s uncannily relentless manufacture of a uniform product with a metaphoric evocation of the debilitating, neutering effect on the body of the workers, Melville degrades the industrial processes of capitalism as an extension of a patriarchal ideology that has always displayed a tendency to conceive of women as emasculated, failed men. Yet the allegorical references to the inexorable process of reproduction from conception, through gestation, to parturition are imbued with a tone of disgust that may reproduce Melville’s own Benedick-like anxiety about his excessively fertile wife (who had produced four children in the six years that his story had been gestating). However, repugnance is not limited to the female’s genital apparatus, as evidenced by the allegorical evocation of the testes as “two great round vats” sitting in a “bespattered place” and filled with a bubbling “white pulp” that travels to its destination through “one common channel” (218). The narrator subsequently enters a room “stifling with a strange, blood-like, abdominal heat, as if here . . . were being finally developed the germanous particles lately seen” (218). The whole process takes nine minutes, rather than months, and ends with the sound “of some cord being snapped” (220). To cap off the allegorical parallel between the productions of paper and human life, Melville’s narrator reminds himself of John Locke’s metaphorical conception of the incipient human mind as a blank sheet of paper “destined to be scribbled on, but what sort of characters no soul might tell” (221). However, he learns from his guide, a rosy-cheeked, cheeky, and “usage-hardened boy” he nicknames Cupid, that “we turn out foolscap most” (220).
The narrator feels uneasy as he witnesses the maids’ being made to service the “iron animals,” like mares in mysterious rites of mechanical husbandry. His voyeuristic tendencies become overt when he compares himself to Actaeon, who was dismembered by his own hunting hounds for watching the virgin goddess Diana bathing naked (216). His uneasiness is linked to an uncanny impression of déjà vu first produced by the imagined similarities between the bachelor’s “grimy Temple Bar” and the maid’s “grim Black Notch.” The narrator’s bemused insistence on similarity serves to disavow the anxiety produced by difference—the economic and social difference of women that accords with and follows from their sexual difference. Additional insight into the implications of the story’s projection of an abject sexual and maternal feminine across the topography and its description of her objectification in the economic structure can be gained from Beryl Rowland’s survey of the vernacular etymology of the word mill as slang or argot for the site (vagina, brothel) of copulation (the act of grinding). While this etymology dates back to medieval and Elizabethan usage from a source at least as ancient as biblical proverbs (Rowland 391–392), Melville, as the poet William Blake before him, has radically transformed this traditional imagery in order to expose the infernal aspects of emerging industrialized modernity.
Appalled, gazing impotently upon the “ponderous,” “inflexible iron animal,” the narrator is overawed with “dread” to think of “the inevitability as [sic] the evolvement-power in all its motions . . . the metallic necessity, the unbudging fatality which governed it” (221). The incessant and invariable mechanistic actions that characterize the sawmill are emblems of servitude and lack of autonomy, although its scythelike operations might dimly portend the eventual self-castration of patriarchal economics (consider the reference to rags made by stripping buttons from the shirts of bachelors, 217). The inability or unwillingness of Melville’s narrator to comprehend the inexorable power and precision of industrial machinery prefigures, and might usefully be placed in dialogue with, Henry Adams’s great dualistic vision “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” in his memoir The Education of Henry Adams. Viewing the paper products moving along a conveyor belt, the narrator envisions a “procession” of victimized laborers, the maids, who are themselves products of an unrelenting industrial process that has abducted and transmogrified the proper destiny mandated by biology. In his vision, they seem like martyrs moving “mournfully, beseechingly, yet unresistingly,” and, he confesses, “some pained homage to their pale virginity made me involuntarily bow” (222). But this unwilled gesture is surely as much an emblem of deflation and capitulation as it is a display of submissive deference.
Dillingham, William B. Melville’s Short Fiction, 1853–1856. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1977.
Fisher, Marvin. “Melville’s ‘Tartarus’: The Deflowering of New England.” American Quarterly 23 (1971): 79–100.
Fogle, R(ichard) H(arter). Melville’s Shorter Tales. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960.
Melville, Herman. Great Short Works of Herman Melville. Edited and with an introduction by Warner Berthoff. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.
Rowland, Beryl. “Melville’s Bachelors and Maids: Interpretation through Symbol and Metaphor.” American Literature 41 (1969): 389–405.
Stein, William Bysshe. “Melville’s Eros.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 3 (1961): 297–308.
Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Short Story
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