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literature

Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-B  C-E  F-L  M-Z

     
Melville, Herman (1819-1891)  
 
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Pierre

Although Moby-Dick is now generally regarded as the most important of Melville's works, it received a baffled if not hostile response (the Athenaeum called it "so much trash"), and Melville sought to reclaim his reputation with a new novel that he called "calculated for popularity," Pierre.

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It is hard to imagine what he was thinking. Only recently has psychoanalytic theory begun to offer ways of dealing with the unresolved impulses of this strange text, at once classical tragedy, domestic romance, and urban narrative.

Pierre is divided in his love between two women, his intended bride Lucy and the darker Isabel, his illegitimate half-sister. As Newton Arvin noticed more than 50 years ago, Pierre's desire is "to preserve the incestuous bond with his father by uniting himself to this mysterious girl who . . . strongly resembles that parent."

That the heterosexual drama is in fact a disguised or unrecognized homosexual one is confirmed by the allusion to Shakespeare's Sonnet 144 at the end of the book: The Good Angel and the Bad Angel are to be understood not only as innocence and experience but even more as homosexual and heterosexual.

By choosing Isabel, Pierre also loses his friendship with his cousin Glen Stanley, which is described in the ideal terms of male friendship. The boys' love-friendship gives way to the claims of heterosexuality and paternity.

How much of this content was conscious remains uncertain, but James Creech has recently seen Pierre as concealing a conscious homosexuality that is conveyed to knowing readers by what amounts to a series of winks. Whatever the importance of such a subplot, Pierre failed to win Melville many new readers, and he increasingly withdrew into a dark sense of dejection and failure.

"Billy Budd"

Melville's final sustained treatment of power and desire comes in the novella "Billy Budd," left in manuscript at his death. It has often been taken as a kind of testament since it would seem to represent Melville's last thoughts, but many readings (including that of Benjamin Britten's opera) have been far too willing to see a final reconciliation to the world.

The novella recapitulates many of the themes of the earlier works, such as the injustice of power on shipboard, but it is much darker about the possibility of resistance. It is also far less optimistic about the possibility for affection.

In part, these shifts may be due to Melville's increasing age and isolation, but they also reflect a shift in the conceptualization of homosexuality. What was seen in the 1840s as a characteristic of non-Western societies, or as a set of forbidden acts, was seen by the 1890s as an object of medical scrutiny.

Writing now as a contemporary of the early Freud, Melville sees his villain Claggart as a repressed homosexual whose desires for Billy can only be translated into a false accusation against him. Claggart's evil (or "depravity" by nature) is the product of a failure to acknowledge his own desires.

Unlike the love that threatens to disrupt order in Moby-Dick, the emotions here do not include love, except in its parodic version of paternal love in the figure of Captain Vere. Billy is accused of spreading mutiny on shipboard; his inability to speak leads him to strike out against Claggart and inadvertently kill him. Although the men on board the Bellipotent are fond of Billy, they are not moved to rebellion by his execution.

The only tribute they offer Billy is the sentimental ballad, "Bristol Mary," which serves to safely heterosexualize the story. All the accounts, Melville insists, amount to falsifications. The surgeon's scientific observation of the absence of ejaculation at the moment of the hanging illustrates the failure to understand the emotional and erotic roots of the story.

Billy Budd, the "new" homosexual, is a victim of everyone around him. Too beautiful, too "rosy," too androgynous, he cannot offer an effective alternative to the masculine authority of the ship. Billy's illiteracy is both real and symbolic. Unable to read, he cannot understand the social text that surrounds him or see the signs of hatred that he provokes.

It is Vere, the apparently kind man who is willing to sacrifice Billy for his own advancement, who remains the dominant figure of the tale. Such genteel fathers collaborate with the more directly violent police figures such as Claggart. Together they rule in the name of masculinity.

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