From Richard Gray's A History of American Literature 2nd ed.:
"Only this is such a strange and incomprehensible world!" a character called Holgrave declares in The House of the Seven Gables (1851), the second full-length fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864). "The more I look at it, the more it puzzles me; and I begin to suspect that a man's bewilderment is the measure of his wisdom!" Hawthorne was notoriously mistrustful of all speculative schools of thought, or of anyone or any movement that claimed to have solved the mystery and resolved the contradictions of life. That included the two major historical movements associated with his native New England of which he had intimate experience: Puritanism and Transcendentalism. He was someone who managed to make great art, not so much out of bewilderment, as out of ambiguity, irresolution—a refusal to close off debate or the search for truth. His friend and great contemporary, Herman Melville, spoke admiringly of Hawthorne's ability to "say no in thunder" to the fixities and definites of life; his great disciple, Henry James, declared that Hawthorne "had a cat-like faculty of seeing in the dark." Hawthorne was undoubtedly a moralist, concerned in particular with the moral errors of egotism and pride, separation from what he called "the magnetic chain of humanity." But he was a moralist who was acutely aware of just how complex the human character and human relations are, just how subtle and nicely adjusted to the particulars of the case moral judgments consequently have to be—and how moral judgment does not, in any event, preclude imaginative understanding, even sympathy. He was also someone who had inherited from his Puritan ancestors what he termed his "inveterate love of allegory." But his alertness to the dualities of experience, his sense that the world was at once intractably material and irresolvably mysterious, meant that, in his hands, allegory passed into symbolism: an object or event assumed multiple possible significances, rather than correspondence with one, divinely ordained idea. Finally, Hawthorne was, he confessed in the preface to The House of the Seven Gables, an author of romances rather than novels. "When a writer calls his work a Romance," he pointed out, "it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude"; he asks to be allowed to deviate, rather more than usual, from the illusion of reality and to cloak his subject in "some ... legendary mist." But, for Hawthorne, that greater imaginative freedom was a means, not an end. His aim, and achievement, was to maneuver the romance form so as to unravel the secrets of personality and history: "the truth of the human heart," as Hawthorne himself put it, and the puzzling question of whether the present is an echo or repetition of the past, a separate world "disjoined by time," or a mixture somehow of both.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, to Nathaniel and Elizabeth Clarke Manning Hathorne: the author was later to add the "w" to his name in a curious, but entirely characteristic, act of disengagement from but deferral to the past—in the sense that he did not drop the family name, but added to it. Both his parents were descended from prominent New England families. On his mother's side, the Mannings had migrated from England in 1679. And on his father's side, Hawthorne's earliest American ancestor, William, had arrived in Massachusetts in 1630. "The figure of that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur, was present to my boyish imagination as far back as I can remember," Hawthorne was later to say in "The Custom House," the introductory essay to his greatest novel, The Scarlet Letter (1850). "He was a soldier, legislator, judge; he was a ruler in the Church; he had all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil." Hawthorne could not help feeling involved with his New England homeplace and ancestry. New England was, in fact, to become the setting for most of his stories; and the burden of the past, the problem of inherited guilt shadowing the present, was to become a major theme because it was an integral part of his own experience. The sense of guilt was especially strong because John Hathorne, the son of that "first ancestor," had been a judge at the Salem witchcraft trials. A family tradition even had it that John had been cursed by one of his victims, declaring, "if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink." Hawthorne was later to use that curse as the basis for his second novel. And, long before that, he was inclined to attribute the subsequent decline of the Hathorne family, more than half-seriously, to this chilling event.
For decline the Hathorne family certainly did. To make matters worse, Hawthorne's father, a sea captain, died when Hawthorne was only 4, leaving his widow to mourn him in a long life of eccentric seclusion. As a boy, he was already acquiring what he would call his "cursed habit of solitude." He did go to college for a while, where he began a lifelong friendship with a future poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and a future president, Franklin Pierce. But, on returning to his mother's house, he spent the next twelve years in what he called his "chamber under the eaves," reading and writing. Hawthorne's attitude to this solitude was characteristically ambivalent. On the one hand, he could admit, in a letter to Longfellow, that he felt "carried apart from the main current of life." On the other hand, as he sensed, he was learning his craft. And he was also discovering his subject since, repeatedly in his fiction, he concentrates on people who seem to be outside of life, set apart by pride, or egotism, or innocence, or guilt. The four major characters in The Scarlet Letter, for instance, are all like this; each, for quite different reasons, seems to be cut off from ordinary humanity. So, for that matter, are the protagonists in many of his tales. in "The Minister's Black Veil" (1837), it is Parson Hopper's obsession with guilt that severs him from the human community: viewing the world through the veil of his own guilt, he thinks that he sees a black veil on every face around him. In "Wakefield" (1837) it is the eponymous hero's disengagement. A cold-hearted, selfish, vain, crafty, and strange man, Wakefield leaves his wife and home one day and does not return for twenty years; he little realizes that, "by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to the fearful risk of losing his place forever," to "become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe." And in "Ethan Brand" (1851) it is Brand's intellectual egotism, his cold detachment. Seeking to find "The Unpardonable Sin," he discovers that what he seeks is what he himself has committed: in the course of his search, separating intellect from feeling, he becomes "no longer a brother man," he realizes, but "a cold observer, looking on mankind as the subject of his experiment, and, at length, converting man and woman to be his puppets, and pulling the wires to such degrees of crime as were demanded from his study."
(One might argue that Hawthorne saw the novelist —and most particularly himself— as partaking of much of that "unpardonable sin", having much of the detached observer and the puppeteer about him; a writer is often a solitary person, involved with his writing, isolated from the magnetic chain of ordinary social intercourse. — JAGL).
In 1828 Hawthorne published his first novel, Fanshawe: A Tale, anonymously and at his own expense. An autobiographical work, it went unnoticed. But it did attract the attention of its publisher, Samuel Goodrich, who then published many of Hawthorne's short stories in his periodical, The Token. Eventually, these were reprinted in a volume, Twice-Told Tales, in 1837, then in a larger version in 1842. In a characteristically modest and self-critical preface, Hawthorne referred to his tales as having "the pale tint of flowers blossomed in too retired a shade." They do, however, include some of his best pieces, such as "The Maypole of Merrymount," "Endicott and the Red Cross," and "The Grey Champions." And, collectively, they explore the issues that obsessed him: guilt and secrecy, intellectual and moral pride, the convoluted impact of the Puritan past on the New England present. For the next five years, Hawthorne worked as an editor for Goodrich, then became involved briefly in the experiment in communal living at Brook Farm. Used to solitude, he found communal living uncongenial: its only positive result for him was the one mentioned earlier—the novel he published in 1852 based on his Brook Farm experience, The Blithedale Romance. Married now, to Sophia Peabody, he and his wife moved to Concord, where they lived in the Old Manse, the former home of Ralph Waldo Emerson. There was time for neighborly visits to Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, for the family—three children were born to Sophia and Nathaniel between 1844 and 1851—and for writing: in 1846, Mosses from an Old Manse appeared, containing such famous stories as "Young Goodman Brown," "Rappacini's Daughter," and "Roger Malvin's Burial." There was also time, after Hawthorne left a post he had held for three years as a customs surveyor, to concentrate on a longer fiction, what would turn out to be his most important work.
The germ of this work, what was to become The Scarlet Letter (1850), can be found as far back as 1837. In the story "Endicott and the Red Cross," the narrator describes a young woman, "with no mean share of beauty," wearing the letter A on her breast, in token of her adultery. "Sporting with her infamy," he goes on, "The lost and desperate creature had enbroidered the fatal token in scarlet cloth, with golden thread" so that "the capital A might have been thought to mean Admirable, or anything other than Adultress." Already, the character of Hester Prynne, the heroine of The Scarlet Letter, was there in embryo. And gradually, over the years between 1837 and 1849, other hints and anticipations appear in the journals Hawthorne kept. "A man who does penance," he wrote in one journal entry, in an idea for a story, "in what might appear to lookers-on the most glorious and triumphal circumstances of his life." That was to become the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester's secret lover and the father of her illegitimate child, preaching the Election Day Sermon. "A story of the effects of revenge, in diabolising him who indulges it," he wrote in another entry. That was to be Roger Chillingworth, Hester's husband and Dimmesdale's persecutor. Ideas for the portrait of Pearl, the daughter of Hester and Dimmesdale, often sprang from Hawthorne's observation of his own daughter, Una. As he wrote the novel, over the course of 1849 and 1850, Hawthorne was simultaneously exhilarated and wary. "He writes immensely," Sophia reported in a letter to her mother, "I am almost frightened." "The Scarlet Letter is positively a hell-fired story," Hawthorne himself wrote to his publisher; "it will weary many people and disgust some."
The tone or tenor of this "hell-fired story" is suggested by Hawthorne's general preference for calling his longer fictions romances rather than novels. It is also intimated by a passage in the introductory essay to The Scarlet Letter in which Hawthorne offers an essentially allegorical account of his own creative process. "Moonlight in a familiar room," Hawthorne explains in this passage, "is a medium the most suitable for a romance writer," because it turns the room into "a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairyland, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet." The ordinary is transfigured, assuming some of the qualities of the legendary. So the four major characters of the story, for example, approach the condition of figures out of folktale. Hester Prynne resembles the biblical figure of Eve, or the scarlet woman of folklore; Dimmesdale recalls the false priest, Chillingworth the wicked wise man, and Pearl the wise child, a presocial creature who can evidently see things hidden from the adult eye. To the moonlight, in this passage, Hawthorne then adds the figurative presence of the mirror: seen "deep within its haunted verge," the moonlit room, he observes, gravitates "one remove further from the actual, and nearer to the imaginative." What we are being prepared for here is that quality of imaginative removal that also characterizes The Scarlet Letter: the action is not only transformed by the beams of the imagination, it is also subtly distanced and framed. The story begins, after all, in the fifth act, after the pivotal event, the adulterous liaison of Hester and Dimmesdale, has taken place. We, the readers, are invited not so much to involve ourselves in a narrative action, as to contemplate the consequences of that action. And then those consequences are themselves set at a remove from us, and in a contained series of perspectives, by being presented in a basically pictorial, emblematic way. Each episode is built around a particular object or event: the prison, say, the scaffold, the forest, the governor's mansion, Hester's embroidery work. The narrator then mediates the episode for the reader, working through the possible meanings of the object or event in a tentative, equivocal way. As he does so, he tries to learn something about the truths of the human heart, which brings us to the third element Hawthorne adds in this passage, to the moonlight and the mirror. In this "familiar room," Hawthorne tells us, where the writer of romance goes about his business, there is a "somewhat dim coal fire" casting "a faint ruddiness" over everything, giving "as it were, a heart and sensibilities of human tenderness to the forms which fancy summons up." It is Hawthorne's way of reminding the reader that all his maneuvers, the imaginative transfiguration and narrative distancing, are there for a distinctly passionate purpose; his aim as a romance writer is nothing less than to search out the secrets of the inner life, to discover and disclose the torments and tensions, those fires that lie hidden within every human being.
The major tensions that Hawthorne searches out in The Scarlet Letter are related to his own ambivalent relationship to Puritanism, and his own Puritan ancestors in particular. As he intimates in the introductory essay of the story, he felt haunted by his ancestors yet different from them. He could experience what he calls there "a sort of home-feeling with the past," but he also suspected that his Puritan founding father might find it "quite a sufficient retribution for his sins" that one of his descendants had become a writer, "an idler" and a dabbler in fancy. The Scarlet Letter rehearses the central debate in nineteenth-century American literature: between the demands of society and the needs of the individual, communal obligation and self-reliance. The Puritan settlement in which the story is set is a powerful instance of community. Hester Prynne, in turn, is a supreme individualist: "What we did had a consecration of its own," she tells her lover. The conflict between the two is also a conflict between the symbolic territories that occur in so many American texts: the clearing and the wilderness, life conducted inside the social domain and life pursued outside it. And the main characteristic of Hawthorne's portrait of this conflict is its doubleness: quite simply, he is tentative, equivocal, drawing out the arguments for and against both law and freedom. As a result, the symbolic territories of The Scarlet Letter become complex centers of gravity: clustering around them are all kinds of often conflicting moral implications. The forest, for example, may be a site of freedom, the only place where Hester and Dimmesdale feel at liberty to acknowledge each other. But it is also a moral wilderness, where characters go to indulge in their darkest fantasies—or, as they see it, to commune with the devil. The settlement may be a place of security, but it is also one of constriction, even repression, its moral boundaries marked out by the prison and the scaffold. Simple allegory becomes rich and puzzling symbol, not only in the mapping of the opposing territories of forest and settlement, clearing and wilderness, but in such crucial, figurative presences as the scarlet letter "A" that gives the book its title. To the Puritans who force Hester to wear the scarlet letter, it may be an allegorical emblem. In the course of the story, however, it accumulates many meanings other than "adultress." It might mean that, of course, and so act as a severe judgment on Hester's individualism; then again, as the narrator indicates, it might signify "able," "admirable," or even "angel."
The major characters of The Scarlet Letter, too, become centers of conflict, the debate become flesh, turned into complex imaginative action. Hester, for example, may be a rebel, modeled on the historical figure of Anne Hutchinson as well as the mythical figure of Eve. But she cannot live outside of society altogether. She is a conflicted figure, unable to find complete satisfaction in either the clearing or the wilderness; and her eventual home, a house on the edge of the forest, in a kind of border territory between the two, is a powerful illustration of this. Dimmesdale is conflicted too, but in a more spiritually corrosive way. "No man," the narrator observes of him, "for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true." Torn between the image he offers to others and the one he presents to himself, his public role as a revered minister and his private one as Hester's lover and Pearl's father, Dimmesdale is fatally weakened for much of the action. In his case, the central conflict of the story finds its issue in severe emotional disjunction. And Chillingworth is there to feed on that weakness, becoming Dimmesdale's "leech" in more ways than one—apparently his doctor but actually drawing sustenance from Dimmesdale's guilt and his own secret satisfying of the need for revenge. Roger Chillingworth, in turn, is more than just a figure of retribution and a possible projection of Hawthorne's own uneasy feeling that, as a writer, he was just a parasite, an observer of life. "It is a curious observation and inquiry, whether hatred and love be not the same at bottom," the narrator comments, after describing how Chillingworth declined once Dimmesdale died. The link is passion. "The passionate lover" and "The no less passionate hater" each sups voraciously on "the food of his affection"; and the hater, rather more than the lover, reminds us that laws may well be required to curb the individual appetite. Hawthorne was enough of a son of his Puritan forefathers to believe that, as he put it in his journals, "there is evil lurking in every human heart."
Knowledge of evil, after all, and of her origins, is the means by which Pearl eventually ceases to be a child—a creature of the wilderness, associated with its streams, plants, and animals—and starts to become an adult, a woman in the world. And knowledge of evil renders each of the major characters even more vacillating and conflicted, ensuring that the debate between self and society that The Scarlet Letter rehearses remains open, for the narrator and for us, his readers.
This, perhaps, is the secret of the mysterious power of Hawthorne's major novel: it is an open text. The story explores many issues. They include, along with the central problem of law and freedom, what the narrator calls the "dark question" of womanhood. Among many other things, The Scarlet Letter considers the condition of woman in and through the story of its heroine, speculating that "the whole system of society" may have "to be torn down and built up anew" and woman herself reconstructed, freed from a "long hereditary habit"—behavior instilled by social separation and subjection—before women like Hester can assume "a fair and suitable position." On none of these issues, however, and least of all on the central one, does the narrator claim to be authoritative or the narrative move toward closure. The subtle maneuvering of the character, the equivocal commentary and symbolism, ensure that meaning is not imposed on the reader. On the contrary, the reader has to collaborate with the narrator in the construction of possible meanings, every time the book is read. To this extent, for all Hawthorne's profound debt to Puritanism, The Scarlet Letter is an extraordinarily modern book, expressing a relativist sense of experience in a form that is more fluid process than finished product. What it offers is not, in the manner of a traditional classic text, an answer issuing out of a belief in some absolute, unalterable truth, but something more like a modern classic—a shifting, disconcerting, and almost endless series of questions.
The Scarlet Letter ushered in the most productive period of Hawthorne's life. In the next three years he was to publish, not only the two further novels, The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance, but another collection of stories, The Snow Image and Other Tales (1851), and two volumes of stories for children, A Wonder Book (1852) and Tanglewood Tales (1853). He lived in England for a while as US consul, and then in Rome, returning to America in 1860. The years in Europe supplied him with the material for a novel set in Rome and dealing with the international theme that Henry James was to make his own, The Marble Faun (1860). They also resulted in a series of shrewd essays drawn from his observations in England, called Our Old Home (1863). But, back in the United States, he found it increasingly difficult to write. Four novels were started and never finished, based on the themes of the elixir of life and an American claimant to an English estate: Septimius Felton; or, The Elixir of Life (1872), The Dolliver Romance (1876), Dr. Grimshawe's Secret (1882) and The Ancestral Footstep (1883). He would begin a scene and then write "What meaning?" or "What does this mean?" in the margins. The writer who had once been inspired by the multiplicity of possible meanings that lay beneath the surface of things was stuck, frustrated by an apparent absence of meaning, his evident inability to strike through the surface. The cat-like faculty that Henry James was later to attribute to him had, Hawthorne felt, now deserted him. "Say to the public," he wrote to his publisher, when he was asked for some stories, "that Mr. Hawthorne's brain is addled at last ... and that you consider him finally shelved." It was a sad ending for a great writer. But, of course, it in no way diminishes his achievement. Even the later, unfinished work, is far more intriguing than Hawthorne, in his dejection, supposed: the American claimant manuscripts, for instance, explore the old theme of past connections to the present in new ways—as the protagonist considers whether to accept his rightful inheritance or reject it. And the earlier work, above all the major stories and The Scarlet Letter, forms an indispensable contribution to American literature, as well as to the history of the short story and the novel. Hawthorne was an intensely solitary, introspective man, but he put that solitude and introspection to powerful creative use. He was a man tortured by doubt, but, more often than not, he managed to turn that doubt to his advantage, making an art of uncertainty. At his finest, which was very often, Hawthorne searched honestly and fiercely for truth, the sources of the moral life, even though he was not often sure his search would be successful. He compelled his readers to share in that search too, and still does. As a result, to read him is to be reminded of his fundamental belief, shared with many of his contemporaries and subsequent American writers, that reading is a moral activity.
"He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief," Hawthorne once observed of Herman Melville (1819-1891), "and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other." For Melville, human experience was ruled by contraries. "There is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contraries," Ishmael declares in Moby-Dick (1851). "Nothing exists in itself." And those contraries were no more evident, he felt, than within each human being, as he or she struggled to find a basis for truth and faith, something that would really make life worth living. Melville could not resign himself to doubt, or a placid acceptance of the surfaces of things. "I am intent upon the essence of things," he has one of his characters, Babbalanja the philosopher, announce in his third novel, Mardi (1849), "the mystery that lies beyond ... ; that which is beneath the seeming." That speaks for Melville's own artistic project. What also speaks for that project, however, is an intimation offered by the narrator of Melville's penultimate novel, Pierre (1852), "Far as any geologist has yet gone down in the world," he tells the reader,
it is found to consist of nothing but surface stratified on surface. To its axes, the world being nothing but extended superficies. By vast pains we mine into the pyramid...with joy we espy the sarcophagus; but we lift the lid—and no body is there! —appallingly vacant as vast is the soul of man!
Melville wanted to probe the visible objects of the world, to discover their animating structure, their significance. But he also sensed that the visible might be all there was—and that that, too, was a masquerade, a trick of the light and human vision. He wanted to read what he called "the cunning alphabet" of nature so as to interpret its grounds, its meanings. But he also feared that all that men could see there was a mirror of their own needs and feelings. He wanted to attend carefully to the phenomenal world, as a possible emanation of the noumenal, the spiritual, to listen for its messages. But he also suspected that there was no message to be heard—that, as one of his narrators put it once, "Silence is the only Voice of our God." "The head rejects," the reader is told in Melville's long poem, Clarel (1876); "So much more / The heart embraces." That could stand as an epigraph to all Melville's work because it exists in the tension, the war between meaning and nothingness. It bears constant and eloquent testimony to the impulse most people feel at one time or another: the impulse to believe that is, even if only in the possibility of belief, however perversely and despite all the evidence.
Melville did not begin with the ambition to become a writer. Nor did he have an extensive schooling. His father died when he was only 12; and, at the age of 15, Melville left school to support his family. Working first as a bank clerk, a teacher, and a farm laborer, he then, when he was 19, sailed on a merchant ship to Liverpool as a cabin boy; the voyage, later to be described in his fourth novel, Redburn (1849), was both romantic and grueling and gave him a profound love for the sea. Several other voyages followed, including an 18-month voyage on the whaler Acushnet in the South Seas. When he grew tired of this voyage, in the summer of 1842, he jumped ship at the Marquesas and lived for a month in the islands. Escaping from the locals who were holding him captive in the valley of Typee, he then sailed on a whaler again—to Honolulu, where he enlisted as an ordinary seaman on the man-of-war United States, serving on board for just over a year, until October 1844. Ishmael, in Moby-Dick, insists that the whale-ship was the only Yale and Harvard he ever had; and much the same could be said of his creator, who now returned to land, where he was encouraged to write about some of his more exotic experiences at sea. Melville accordingly produced Typee (1846) and Omoo, a Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), novels that deal, respectively, with his experiences on the Marquesas and in Tahiti. They were romantic seafaring tales and, as such, proved immensely popular. But, even here, there are anticipations of the late Melville: most notably, in a narrative tendency to negotiage between contraries—youth and maturity, the primitive and the civilized, the land and the sea.
In his next novel, Mardi: And a Voyage Thither, Melville grew more ambitious. Based in part on the author's experience in the Marquesas, Mardi is an elaborate allegorical and philosophical narrative. Taji, the hero, visits thinly disguised satirical versions of the United States, Great Britain, and other lands. He travels with Babbalanja the philosopher, Yoomy the poet, and others, discussing fundamental issues and problems. He also meets and falls in love with a mysterious white maiden, Yillah, rescuing her from sacrifice then taking her to Mardi, the realm of transcendental beauty, where for a time they enjoy intimacy and bliss. When she vanishes suddenly, he goes in search of her. And, after many conversations and distractions, he is still in pursuit of her when the book ends: "And thus, pursuer and pursued fled, over a vast sea" are its last words. As a narrative of quest, the search for an elusive object of desire, Mardi anticipates Moby-Dick. What it lacks, however, is a fundamental narrative or imaginative drive. It was also a commercial failure. Melville learned one useful lesson from writing Mardi: if he wanted to explain deeper issues, he had to wed meaning to action, to twine them together so closely that they became inextricable from and gave strength to each other. The next two novels concentrated on action: first, Redburn: His First Voyage , and then White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War (1850), based, like Redburn, on Melville's own experience. It was after completing these that Melville turned to the work that was to be his masterpiece, dedicated, in "Admiration for His Genius," to the man who had become his friend and neighbor, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Melville had moved with his wife to Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1850, where he soon became acquainted with Hawthorne. Prior to the move there, he had written a highly appreciative review of Mosses from an Old Manse, in which he explained how much he admired the author of the stories contained in that volume for the tragic dualism of his vision. Melville was now reading widely, and Hawthorne was to be only one of a multitude of influences that fed into what was first titled "The Whale" and then Moby-Dick: or, The Whale. For the narrative incident, he drew on his own experiences and a host of books on whales and whaling, problably including an article published in The Knickerbocker Magazine, "Mocha Dick; or, The White Whale of the Pacific" by J. N. Reynolds, and a book, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex by Owen Chase. For the approach and treatment, he drew on the complex symbolic practice of Hawthorne, of course; epic stories of voyaging from the Odyssey to the Lusiad, a poem by the Portuguese poet, Camoens, about Vasco de Gama; and the work of William Shakespeare. Melville took to rereading Shakespearean tragedy at the time of preparing the story of Captain Ahab's pursuit of the great white whale; and he drew on that experience in a number of ways. There are local resemblances. Ahab addresses the skeleton of a whale, for instance, in a fashion that recalls Hamlet's famous meditation over the skull of Yorick the jester; some conversations between Ahab and his black cabin boy Pip, who has been driven mad by immersion in the sea (but "man's insanity is heaven's sense", the narrator reminds us), recollect dialogues between King Lear and his Fool; while the sense that Ahab is at once free and the victim of some "hidden lord and master," a defiantly willful man and "Fate's Lieutenant," rehearses a paradox at the heart of the portrait of Macbeth. There are stylistic resemblances. Few writers deserve comparison with Shakespeare on this score. But the author of Moby-Dick surely does. The language of the novel is extraordinarily variable, but there is a ground bass, as it were, that is richly metaphorical but vividly direct; dense, allusive, packed with neologisms, it manages the seemingly impossible feat of being both deeply philosophical and almost unbearably dramatic. And there is, above all, the conceptual, structural resemblance. "All mortal greatness is but disease," Ishmael observes early on in the narrative. That observation, as it happens, is borrowed from an essay by Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Shakespearean tragic heroes. Even without the help of such borrowings, however, it is possible to see that the conception of Captain Ahab is fundamentally tragic. Ahab makes a choice that challenges—the gods, or fate, or human limits, the given conditions of thought and existence. That choice and challenge provoke our fear and pity. And they lead, it seems inevitably, to a catastrophe that compels similarly complex, contradictory emotions: the suffering and death of many, including a hero who appears to exist somehow both above and below ordinary humanity.
The contradictions inherent in the portrait of Ahab spring from the dualism of Melville's own vision. Together, the narrator and the hero of Moby-Dick, Ishmael and Ahab, flesh out that dualism. So does the structural opposition of land and sea, which rehearses in characteristically Melvillean terms a familiar American conflict between clearing and wilderness. The land is the sphere of "safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that's kind to our mortalities"; the sea, in turn, is the sphere of adventure, action, struggle. The one maps out security and mediocrity; the other carries intimations of heroism but also the pride, the potential madness involved in striking out from the known. The one inscribes reliance on the community, the other a respect for the self. A densely woven network of reference establishes the difference between these two territories; it also suggests the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of either choosing between them or finding any appropriate border area. "Consider them both, the sea and the land," the narrator advises, "And do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?" The analogy is ambivalent, however. At one moment, the reader may be urged not to leave the land for "all the horrors of the half known life" ("God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!"). At the next, he or she may be told precisely the opposite; that, "as in landlessness resides the higher truth, shoreless, indefinite as God," nobody should "worm-like, then, oh! craven crawl to land!" The opposition between land and sea is made all the rawer by Melville's portrait of the ship, the Pequod, on which Ahab, Ishmael, and their companions voyage. The crew, "a deportation from all the islands of the sea, all the ends of the earth," are, we are told, a "joint-stock company" and "Isolatoes," They are together and alone, knit into one shared purpose yet utterly divided in terms of motive and desire. Caught each of them between the land and the sea, the social contract and isolation, they remind us that this is a ship of life, certainly, burdened by a common human problem. But it is also, and more particularly, the ship of America: embarked on an enterprise that is a curious mixture of the mercantile and the moral, imperial conquest and (ir)religious crusade—and precariously balanced between the notions of community and freedom.
All the tensions and irresolutions of Moby-Dick circulate, as they do in The Scarlet Letter, around what gives the book its title; in this case, the mysterious white whale to which all attention and all the action is eventually drawn. The reason for the mystery of the whale is simple. It "is" reality. That is, it becomes both the axis and the circumference of experience, and our understanding of it, in the novel. It is nature, and physics, a state of being and of knowing. Each character measures his understanding of the real in the process of trying to understand and explain the whale; it becomes the mirror of his beliefs, like the doubloon that Ahab nails to the mast as a reward for the first man who sights the white whale, to be valued differently by the different crew members. It is both alphabet and message, both the seeming surface of things and what may, or may not, lie beneath them. So, like the scarlet letter "A" in Hawthorne's story, its determining characteristic is its indeterminacy. How it is seen, what is seen as being and meaning, depend entirely on who is seeing it. Three characters, in particular, are given the chance to explain what they see at some length. One offers his explanation early on in the novel, even before the voyage in quest of the white whale begins: Father Mapple, whose sermon delivered to a congregation that includes Ishamel in the Whaleman's Chapel—and forming the substance of the ninth chapter—is a declaration of faith, trust in a fundamental benevolence. It is a vision allowed a powerful imaginative apotheosis in a much later chapter entitled "The Grand Armada." Here, Ishmael and his fellow crewmen move even further inward into a school of whales: from the turbulent periphery, where a "strangely gallied" group circle around in "a delirious throb" to an inscrutably serene core of "nursing mothers" and their young. The experience discloses a hope, a possibility of "that enchanted calm, which they say lurks at the heart of every commotion:" the belief that there may, after all, be an "eternal mildness," a still point at the center of the turning world. Outsede of these two moments, however, this is not a vision in which much narrative time or imaginative energy is invested. The visions that matter here, the explanations—or rather, possible explanations—that count, rehearse the fundamental division around which all Melville's work circulates; and they belong to the two main human figures in the tale, its hero and its teller, Ahab and Ishmael.
For Ahab, Moby-Dick represents everything that represses and denies. Believing only in a fundamental malevolence, he feels toward the white whale something of "the general rage and hate felt by the whole race from Adam down." Having lost his leg in a previous encounter with his enemy, he also desires vengenace, not just on the "dumb brute" that injured him but on the conditions that created that brute, which for him that brute symbolizes—the human circumstances that would frustrate him, deny him his ambitions and desires. Ahab is a complex figure. A tragic hero, carrying the marks of his mortality, the human limitation he would deny—a wooden leg, a scar running down his face and into his clothing that resembles the "perpendicular seam" made in a tree trunk struck by lightning—he is also a type of the artist, or any visionary intent on the essence of things. "All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks," he declares. "If a man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach out except but thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me." Ahab is, in fact, as much embarked on a symbolic project as his creator is, struggling to break through the surface, the seeming to what may lie beneth. An artist, he is also an American: a rebel like Hester Prynne, and enormous egotist like Ralph Waldo Emerson in the sense that he sees the universe as an externalization of his soul, and an imperialist whose belief in his own Manifest Destiny compels him to use all other men like tools and claim dominion over nature. A rich network of allusion and image establishes the several related facets of Ahab's character. He is a "monomaniac," marked by a "fatal pride," yet he also has a "crucifixion in his face" His "fixed purpose is laid with iron rails," he insists, just like the railway then marking out the domination of American nature by American culture. But, in his inaccessibility, "he lived in the world" but "was still alien to it," Ishmael observes, "as the last of the Grisly Bears lived in settled Missouri." His ship sets sail on Christmas Day initiating the first in a series of references to the story of Christ. Yet the harpoon with with which he wishes, finally, to master Moby-Dick he baptizes in the name of the Devil. "A grand ungodly, god-like man," Ahab projects his overpowering belief in himself, his will to power, on to Moby-Dick, seeing in the great white whale all that prevents a man from becoming a god. and the key to Melville's portrait of him is its dualism: it is as if the author were summoning up his, and possibly our, dark twin.
"It is by its indefiniteness," Ishmael asks of "the whiteness of the whale," "it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe...?" It is Ishmael who describes white as "a colorless all-color." It is Ishmael, too, expounding on this, who points out that "all other earthly hues" are "but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without"; produced, every one of them, by "the great principle of light," which "for ever remains white or colorless in itself," they are a matter merely of surface, seeming. It is Ishmael, finally, who declares that the whale "has no face" and is characterized by "his pyramidical silence." In short, for the narrator of Moby-Dick, the great white whale unveils the probability that the world is nothing but surface stratified on surface—that what is disclosed when we peer intently at our circumstances is neither benevolence nor malevolence but something as appallingly vacant as it is vast, a fundamental indifference. That, though, is not all there is to Ishmael. In the course of the story, he also undergoes a sentimental education. Beginning with a misanthropy so throroughgoing and dryly ironic that he even mocks his misanthropic behavior (sometimes, he confesses, "it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from ... methodically knocking people's hats off"), he ends by accepting and embracing his kinship with unaccomodated man, the human folly and weakness he sees all around him. Specifically, he embraces Queequeg, a Polynesian harpooner, whom initially he finds, even more than most of humanity, repellent. Before embarking on the Pequod, he and Queequeg share a bed, out of necessity in a crowded inn, "a cosy, loving pair"; they share companionship and each other's religions—with Queequeg joining Ishmael in attending Father Mapple's sermon, and Ishmael participating in Queequeg's ceremonies with his small idol Yojo. Then, on board ship, with a monkey-rope tied beween them, Ishmael comes to realize that, as he puts it, "my own individuality was now merged in a joint-stock company of two." It is this, Ishmael's return to a specifically human sphere—expressed, in a characteristically American way, in the bonding of two people of the same sex but from different races—that enables him, quite literally, to survive. When all other crew members on the Pequod are lost, and the ship itself sunk, after three days of struggle with Moby-Dick; when Ahab is destroyed by becoming one with that which he would destroy, tied by his own ropes to the great white whale; then, Ishmael, floats free in what is, in effect, a reproduction of Queequeg's body—a coffin Queequeg has made and on to which he has copied "the twisting tatooing" on his own skin. It is survival, not triumph. "Another orphan" of the world, an existential outcast like all humanity, Ishmael lives on because he has resigned himself to the limitations of the sensible, the everyday, the ordinary: to all that is identified, for good and ill, with the land. The difference between his own quietly ironic idiom and the romantic rhetoric of Ahab measures the gap between them: one has opted for a safety that shades into surrender, the other has pursued success only to meet into a kind of suicide. That difference also registers the division Melville felt within himself. Moby-Dick negotiates its way between the contraries experienced by its author and by his culture: between head and heart, resignation and rebellion, the sanctions of society and the will of the individual. And, like so many great American books, it remains open, "the draught of a draught" as its narrator puts it, because it is in active search of what it defines as impossible: resolution, firm belief or comfortable unbelief—in short, nothing less than the truth.
Moby-Dick was not a success when it was first published; and Melville felt himself under some pressure to produce something that would, as he put it, pay"the bill of the baker." That, anyway, was his explanation for his next novel, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities. That book, he explained while writing it, was "a rural bowl of milk" rather than "a bowl of salt water" like his whaling story. It was, he averred, "very much more calculated to popularity ... being a regular romance, with a mysterious plot to it, stirring passions at work, and withall, representing a new and elevated aspect of American life." If Melville really believed this, then he was doomed to disappointment. A dark tale, ending in the suicides of the eponymous hero and his half-sister, Pierre carries echoes of Edgar Allan Poe, not only in its macabre tone, violent tenor, and rumors of incest but in its self-reflexivity, its variations on the theme that "the truest book in the world is a lie." More painfully, for Melville, the book was a critical and commercial disaster. One reviewer was not out of step with most of the others when he called it "the craziest fiction extant"; and, in the first year of publication, it sold less than three hundred copies. Israel Potter: His fifty Years of Exile (1855), a weak historical romance set during the Revolution, was similarly unsuccessful. The Piazza Tales (1856) was far more accomplished, containing Melville's major achievements in short fiction: "Bartleby the Scrivener" and "Benito Cereno," but it attracted little attention. Melville's audience was evidently not ready for the one tale that tells of a man so convinced of life's futility and fatality that he would "prefer not to" do anything—or the other that dramatically interrogates the American optimism of its narrator and the European pessimism of its protagonist, Cereno, under the "shadow" of slavery. Melville did, after this, explore the issues that obsessed him in two other works of prose fiction. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857) offers complex multiple versions of the mythical figure of the trickster; it is at once a bleak portrait of the "Masquerade" of life, and a biting satire on the material and moral trickery of American society. Billy Budd, written in the five years before Melville's death and not published until 1924, in turn, reworks the traditional tale of the Handsome Sailor, so as to consider the uses of idealism, so as to consider the uses of idealism, heroism, and innocence in a fallen world. However, to support himself and his family, Melville was increasingly forced to turn to other, nonwriting work and to express himself, he turned more and more to poetry. Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, based on a tour to the Holy Land the author himself had taken, is typically preoccupied with faith and doubt. It was privately financed for publication; so were the poetry collections John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) and Timoleon (1891). In his shorter poems, published here and in Battlepieces and Aspects of the War (1866), Melville is concerned, just as he is in his novels, with the tragic discords of experience; and he expresses those concerns here in a style that is itself often discordant, abrupt. In "The Portent" (1886), for instance, he presents the militant abolitionist John Brown, the subject of the poem, as an alien and "weird" Christ figure, whose thwarted aspirations and misdirected zeal become an emblem of the failure visited on all those who try to realize their dreams in the world. The poem, for all its ironic use of the Christ comparison, is not cynical; it does not deny Brown greatness of ambition and courage. As in Moby-Dick, though, admiration for, even envy of, such courage is set in tension with the imperative of survival; in its own small way, this poem rehearses again the issue that haunted its creator—the necessity and the absurdity of heroic faith.