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"Why moralize upon it?" : Questions of morality and guilt in Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener", "Benito Cereno", and Billy Budd, Sailor

Becker, Niels

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The question of what constitutes morally sound behavior informs all of Melville’s writing and, to a large degree, accounts for its continuing appeal. Some of the most probing examinations of the human capacity for good and evil can be found in two short stories that Melville wrote for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine between 1853 and 1856: "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1853) and "Benito Cereno" (1855). Although very different in setting and "surface topic" – Wall Street capitalism on the one hand and slavery on the other – both stories have a very similar basic configuration: a confident person is unexpectedly confronted with the mysterious "other" that challenges his snug and comfortable outlook on life. In both cases, this other figure is dead by the end of the story and the reader is left with the nagging question of who is to blame for what has happened. This basic pattern also applies to a short novel which Melville began thirty years after writing for Putnam’s and which was left unfinished at his death in 1891. Billy Budd, Sailor (1924) shows yet another "man of the world" who is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, the devil being the iniquitous master-at-arms and the deep blue sea being the blue-eyed Handsome Sailor. While all three stories invite moral judgment of their non-title characters, they never openly prescribe what kind of verdict readers should pass on them. In the present study I use a comparative approach to offer some new insight into the nature of the moral dilemmata that Melville examines and the kind of conclusion that readers are encouraged to reach. The most important aspect that is considered is the way in which Melville uses narrative technique – and in particular point of view – in describing morally ambiguous situations. How does the choice of one particular perspective - first-person narration in "Bartleby", a limited point of view in "Benito Cereno" and an omniscient narrator in Billy Budd - determine our understanding and evaluation of the actions of the morally challenged protagonists in these stories? A secondary aspect that is considered to answer this question is the use of Christian and classical imagery and allusions. How are the two categories made to interact in the three stories and what does this tell us about the message that the narrator intends to convey? One final aspect concerns the construction of character constellations. How does the use of a particular point of view and a certain combination of Christian and/or classical images contribute to the description of the main characters of the stories and how do they relate to one another? Of particular interest in this context is of course the central non-title character facing a morally difficult situation. The more general aspects just mentioned translate into largely comparable approaches in the analysis and interpretation of the three texts. In the case of "Bartleby", the narrator is shown to be a conscious narrator who uses the piece of literature he composes for an extended self-portrait and as a means of contemplating his situation in life. It becomes clear that his use of Christian and classical imagery hints at an understanding of what is right and wrong and some – partial – awareness of his own moral deficiency. The figure of Bartleby, as well as the other three office clerks, can be seen to function as fictitious constituents of the process of introspection that the lawyer engages in. In dealing with "Benito Cereno", the deliberate structuring of the story and the conspicuous parallels between the first part and the deposition in the second part are examined. The narrator deliberately uses a limited point of view in order to condemn the "good-natured" American Amasa Delano, who is wholly unaware of the actual power relations on board the San Dominick. The use of Christian imagery adds to the indictment of European colonization in particular and Western arrogance and racism in general. Billy Budd, finally, emerges as the most conspicuously incongruous of all three texts, both with regard to the omniscient narrator, who does not seem to follow any identifiable ideological agenda, and to the use of Christian and classical allusions, which, unlike in "Bartleby", are not used to contrast clearly discernible moral categories. Thus, if Melville’s last work is also his most ambiguous, this is due to the way in which the narrator misleads the reader by confronting him with hopelessly incoherent and contradictory pieces of information.

Translation of abstract (German)

Wissenschaftliche Arbeit im Fach Englisch im Rahmen der Wissenschaftlichen Staatsprüfung für das Lehramt an Gymnasien.

Item Type: Master's thesis
Date Deposited: 02 Jul 2010 14:35
Date: 2009
Faculties / Institutes: Neuphilologische Fakultät > Anglistisches Seminar
Subjects: 810 American literature in English
Controlled Keywords: Moral, Moralisches Handeln, Schuld, Melville, Herman, Melville, Herman / Bartleby the scrivener, Melville, Herman / Benito Cereno, Melville, Her
Uncontrolled Keywords: Griechisch-römische Metaphorik , Christliche MetaphorikNarrative technique , Point of view , Morality , Christian metaphors , Greco-Roman metaphors
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