Weird and wonderful, the short stories of Herman Melville, from the story of the incorrigible scrivener Bartleby, to the homo-eroticism of ‘Billy Budd’ to Melville’s mellifluous imagery ‘The Piazza’, a kind of lachrymose wisdom is embedded within Melville’s stories of lugubrious loners and insouciant individuals who inhabit the fictional world created by Melville.
The bucolic short story “The Piazza” is the tale of an unnamed narrator’s perambulations across the idyllic Massachusetts countryside. The narrator, although broadly satisfied with his abode, laments the fact that there is no piazza, thus inhibiting his ability to truly enjoy. A kind of heir to Don Quixote, who is just of the literary characters name-checked by the erudite narrator, he is often too caught up his dreams and fantasies to truly appreciate the beauty of the world around him-nevertheless this is Melville’s most poetic work, in which his pen shimmers and shines with beautiful imagery;
“For not only do long ground-swells roll the slanting grain, and little wavelets of the grass ripple over upon the low piazza, as their beach, and the blown down of dandelions is wafted like the spray, and the purple of the mountains is just the purple of the billows, and a still August noon broods upon the deep meadows, as a calm upon the Line;but the vastness and the lonesomeness are so oceanic, and the silence and the sameness, too, that the first peep of a strange house, rising beyond the trees, is for all the world like spying, on the Barbary coast, an unknown sail”
Eventually the narrator comes across a woman-who may or may not just be a figment of his imagination, who is also caught up her sense of isolation-what good is beauty if it is punctuated so often with boredom? During their dialogue she wistfully wishes that she lived in the house she can occasionally see across the valley, whose inhabitant she realises must be a completely happy person-with the narrator realising that the house she is talking about his own. In some ways the novel is about the joys of the imagination, of hours spent in febrile fantasies and delirious day-dreams, but it many ways it is about appreciating what you have, about not spending your life wistfully wondering about what may have been or could have been, but on appreciating what you have.
“Bartleby”, however, is the true highlight of this collection of short stories. The principle character, aside from the narrator, a nameless, nondescript lawyer, is Bartleby, a scrivener whose pretty much sole dialogue in the story is the response of “I would prefer not to” to any work which he feels beneath him which, eventually, applies to any work at all. It is hard to really understand what-if any-moral Melville wanted us to take away from the story, outside the sense of non-conformity and individuality which Bartleby demonstrates in his inability to interact with other individuals in anything approaching a normal manner-instead he acts a kind of phantasm who haunts the life and conscious of the well-meaning if slightly dull lawyer who employ and eventually inadvertently houses him. In some ways the story is a kind of precursor to Kafka’s nightmarish descriptions of office life, of its meaningless tasks, the sense of conformity it enforces on and the ultimate meaningless of it all (Nippers and Turkey seem like the kind of characters who Josef K would run into in the office blocks he explores in ‘The Trial’) however irrespective of whichever moral message Melville was attempting to promote, ‘Bartleby’ remains one of the most original short stories of he 19th century.
‘Billy Budd’ is a story pervaded with homo-eroticism, of the beautiful Billy Budd and the jealous, highfalutin John Claggart who, presumably is swept in a physical passion for Billy which festers into hatred and causes him to falsely accuse Billy of treason. As with Moby Dick, Melville is able to capture both the excitement and dreariness of life at seas, the drudgery of every-day tasks juxtaposed with the excitement of discovery and the raucous dynamics between the crew. However, more than this ‘Billy Budd’ is the story of loss of innocence, of the innate goodness of Billy Budd, whose death by hanging is captured in the full-light of dawn and which, Christ-like illuminates the innate goodness of his soul in a world too corrupt for Billy to survive in.