By Charles Matthews

Friday, October 29, 2010

7. Great Short Works of Herman Melville, pp. 202-237

Great Short Works of Herman Melville (Perennial Classics)The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids; The Bell-Tower
The first of these is another of Melville's compare-and-contrast pieces, like "The Two Temples" and "Poor Man's Pudding and Rich Man's Crumbs." In London, the narrator spends a convivial evening in the Temple, the center of legal life, with "nine gentlemen, all bachelors, at the dinner."
It was the very perfection of quiet absorption of good living, good drinking, good feeling, and good talk. We were a band of brothers. Comfort -- fraternal, household comfort, was the grand trait of the affair. Also, you could plainly see that these easy-hearted men had no wives or children to give an anxious thought. ... Pain! Trouble! As well talk of Catholic miracles. No such thing. -- Pass the sherry, sir. 
It's a piece characteristic of Melville, not only in the anti-Catholicism, but also in the celebration of male camaraderie that equally finds its way into his stories of the sea.

But here it doesn't stand alone. In the next section we are sent into the Devil's Dungeon -- a New England valley in the midst of winter, as far from the coziness of the bachelor's quarters in the piece's first half as possible. And specifically to a paper mill where the narrator goes to order envelopes for his business: selling seeds. And just in case we don't get the significance of Devil's Dungeon, it lies in the shade of Woedolor Mountain. But the narrator hasn't got the significance yet: He finds "this mysterious mountain nook" to be "the very counterpart of the Paradise of Bachelors, but snowed upon, and frost-painted to a sepulchre."

And then he realizes that instead of "gay bachelors" the place is filled with young women: "At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper." And instead of the cheery chat of the bachelors,
Not a syllable was breathed. Nothing was heard but the low, steady overruling hum of the iron animals. The human voice was banished from the spot. Machinery -- that vaunted slave of humanity -- her stood menially served by human beings, who served mutely and cringingly as the slave serves the Sultan. The girls did not so much seem accessory wheels to the general machinery as mere cogs to the wheels. 
When he sees the women feeding rags to a machine fitted with menacing-looking scythe-like blades, he reflects "that among these heaps of rags there may be some old shirts, gathered from the dormitories of the Paradise of Bachelors."

He asks one of the mill's managers a question that seems to come from far ahead of Melville's own time: "Why is it, sir, that in most factories, female operatives, of whatever age, are indiscriminately called girls, never women?" He is told it's because all of them are unmarried -- they don't hire married women because they request too much time off. "We want none but steady workers: twelve hours to the day, day after day, through the three hundred and sixty-five days, excepting Sundays, Thanksgiving, and Fast-days."

And then the contrast between the Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus -- the place of suffering -- of Maids comes home to him.

Berthoff calls "The Bell-Tower" "inept," "arthritically clumsy," "labored and erratic." And he's right for the most part. A sample sentence: "Meantime, his seclusion failed not to invest his work with more or less of that sort of mystery pertaining to the forbidden." The prose in the story never gets much better than that. Still, for all its clumsy verbosity, it has a creepiness to it that makes you wish it were better. A Renaissance "mechanician" named Bannadonna (a name encountered nowhere else than Melville's story) builds a great tower, which is both bell-tower and clock-tower, though, Melville's narrator observes, the two functions at that time were usually housed in separate structure.

During the casting of the bell, Bannadonna [I'm sorry, but every time I type that name I want to make it Roseannadanna] kills one of the workmen. I think he hit him in the head and part of his skull fell into the mixture, but Melville puts it more ornately and obscurely: He "smote the chief culprit with his ponderous ladle. From the smitten part, a splinter was dashed into the seething mass, and at once was melted in." He is acquitted of the murder on the grounds of, well, "transports of esthetic passion."

So the work proceeds, and before the grand dedication of the tower and the first ringing of the bell to mark the hours, Bannadonna has "a heavy object hoisted to the belfry, wrapped in a dark sack or cloak." The object seems to have a human shape, but no one is allowed to see what's underneath the wrappings, even the pair of magistrates who accompany Bannadonna up the tower to inspect it. He does show them the clock-bell, which has been cast with "twelve figures of gay girls, garlanded, hand-in-hand, [dancing] in a choral ring -- the embodied hours." He explains that the first stroke of the bell will be tomorrow at one o'clock, when the hammer will strike the clasped hands of the first girl, whom he calls Una, and the second, called Dua.

As they descend the stairs, the magistrates hear what sounds like someone moving above, but Bannadonna assures them it's just bits of undried mortar falling. And that night people at the foot of the tower hear "sounds -- not only of some ringing implement but also -- so they said -- half-suppressed screams and plainings, such as might have issued from some ghostly engine."

The next day, the crowd waits around the tower for the hour of one to strike. Instead, "a dull, strangled sound -- naught ringing in it; scarcely audible, indeed, on the outer circles of the people -- that dull sound dropped heavily from the belfry." When they go to inspect, they find Bannadonna dead at the feet of Una, "his head coinciding with her left hand, clasped by the hour Dua." Over him stands a figure that "seemed clad in scaly mail, lustrous as a dragon-beetle's. It was manacled, and its clubbed arms were uplifed, as if, with its manacles, once more to smite its already smitten victim. One advanced foot of it was inserted beneath the dead body, as if in the act of spurning it."

Bannadonna had created an automaton that he envisioned as "nothing less than a supplement to the Six Days' Work; stocking the earth with a new serf, more useful than the ox, swifter than the dolphin, stronger than the lion, more cuning than the ape, for industry an ant, more fiery than serpents, and yet, in patience, another ass.... Talus was to have been the all-accomplished Helot's name. Talus, iron slave to Bannadonna, and, through him, to man." But when the hour came for the bell to ring, Bannadonna was absorbed in putting the finishing touches on the figure of Una and the creature, set on the task Bannadonna had given him of striking the bell, "dully smote the intervening brain of Bannadonna, turned backwards to it."

At Bannadonna's funeral, it was decided that the bell would be rung, but when the bell-ringer pulled the rope, the belfry collapsed. It was discovered that the bell had a small flaw that had  given way -- evidently the bit of the murdered workman that had gotten into the molten metal. "And so," Melville clunkily concludes, "pride went before its fall."

The obvious comparisons, Faust and Frankenstein, are made by Berthoff in the introduction, where the word "Hawthornesque" is also used. But Melville, for once, failed to rise above his influences.

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