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Great Short Works of Herman Melville Summary & Study Guide Description
Great Short Works of Herman Melville Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
Don Benito Cerenoappears in Benito Cereno
Benito Cereno, the title character of the novella, is captain of San Dominick, an aged Spanish galleon. In the story, Cereno transports several guests including his lifelong friend along the west coast of South America. Cereno is captured during a slave revolt aboard ship and he watches helplessly as all of his officers and senior men are murdered over the course of a few days. Cereno is spared as he is the only one left capable of navigation. The slaves cause him, under threat of death to himself and his few remaining crew, to steer a course of Senegal, where they believe they can live without reprisal. Cereno complies until reaching the deserted island of Santa Maria, where he expects to be able to take on water. However, there another ship is already anchored. The black leaders vacillate about whether to land or to put to sea again—water is critically short. They devise a complex stratagem of lies and then allow the other ship's captain, Amasa Delano, to board. Aboard ship, he assists in bringing the ship into the harbor and then begins plans to assist in repairs and provisioning.
Throughout Delano's hours-long stay, Cereno behaves nervously and is despondent. He knows that any obvious sign of warning will cause the slaves to fall upon both himself and Delano, and thus he feels compelled to go along with the slaves' designs—they plan to capture Delano's ship and kill most of its men. At a critical moment, Cereno acts by leaping into the sea as Delano's boat pulls away. Cereno thereafter tells Delano, already deeply suspicious, what is really going on. Delano's men quickly recapture Cereno's ship and both vessels proceed to port. There, Cereno gives lengthy but often disorganized testimony about the rebellion and subsequent brutalities. Cereno proves broken in body, spirit, and mind by the tortuous event. He retires to a local hospital where he lingers on for several weeks and finally dies.
Captain Amasa Delanoappears in Benito Cereno
Amasa Delano is captain of the Bachelor's Delight, a large sealer and trading ship plying the western coast of South America. Delano appears to be a typical captain in nearly all respects—strong, charismatic, decisive, and intelligent. His ship's voyage has been marked by very limited success, which has caused many of his seasoned crewmen to abscond at various ports. Delano has been forced to staff his ship with raw recruits, and among them are several desperate men. For several months before the opening of the narrative's primary timelines, Delano has struggled with training his crew and keeping them in line. Alternating discipline with rewards, he has become successful in welding his crew into a functioning whole—as is demonstrated by their actions within the narrative. Delano calls upon the island of Santa Maria to water and has nearly completed that operation when the ship San Dominick is seen entering the harbor. San Dominick's handling is very tentative, and after some time Delano concludes that they must require some assistance. He therefore travels to the ship in his own ship's boat and offers assistance, primarily as a pilot. On board San Dominick, Delano immediately is aware of several bizarre things going on, and during his several-hours' stay he sees many more inexplicable actions and situations. Chiefly, he is incredulous at the various moods and statements of Benito Cereno, the apparent captain of San Dominick. However, Delano's essentially trusting and forthright nature cause him consistently to act as if nothing is untoward, and he eventually departs San Dominick having brought her to anchor and minimally resupplied her. At this point, Delano is surprised when Cereno and other sailors leap into the sea from San Dominick; shortly, Delano learns that San Dominick is in fact a mutinous ship and that Cereno and others have been held captive aboard her. True to his nature, Delano orders a boarding action which recaptures San Dominick; he then renders substantive aid to Cereno and his crew, bringing both ships safely to a primary port. While Delano himself is not overly-interested in prize money garnered from San Dominick, he does use that potential remunerative award to stimulate his own crew to greater interest in rendering aid.
Bartleby the Scrivenerappears in Bartleby the Scrivener
Bartleby is a pale young man of slight stature and nearly no personality who appears in the eponymously named short work "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street". Bartleby moves into his employer's workplace—literally living there round the clock—and gradually comes to refuse to perform any work whatsoever. The business owner fails to eject Bartleby, and eventually relocates to get rid of Bartleby. Subsequently, the new tenant sends Bartleby to the poor house where he languishes and dies. Bartleby is often interpreted as a personification of Melville's writing work—at first Bartleby writes copious amounts of text that is very well received by the narrator, his employer. Later, Bartleby's output diminishes and then ceases altogether. Bartleby thereafter is not appreciated by anyone. This mirrors Melville's own popular reception during his early great successes and later falling out of favor with the public.
The Lightning-Rod Manappears in The Lightning-Rod Man
The story The Lightning-Rod Man features a door-to-door salesman of lightning rods. He promotes his own lightning rod as vastly superior to the competition and urges the product on the reluctant narrator. In most respects, the lightning-rod man can be interpreted as a preacher of a particular Christian sect. The narrator's response suggests that man needs no intermediary to achieve salvation; it also repeats a common theme in the stories in the book dealing with the alienating impact of modern developments.
Hautboyappears in The Fiddler
In The Fiddler, the narrator meets a forty-year-old man named Hautboy. Hautboy is described as an overgrown child, always smiling and happy, always receptive to good humor, possessed of a good appetite and chubby body, and a person generally optimistic in outlook. The narrator notes that Hautboy's enthusiastic presence is contagious and uplifting. During the narrative, it develops that Hautboy was once a famous fiddle player of wide renown and many riches; however, such a life did not make Hautboy happy. Thus, Hautboy deliberately repositioned himself into obscurity and made his now-paltry income as a fiddle instructor. Nearly destitute and entirely unknown, Hautboy becomes the happy person the narrator meets. Many critics have pointed out that Hautboy's life mirrors Melville literary career—an early period of great success followed by a long period of literary failure such that Melville, like Hautboy, ends up unknown on the street.
Cupidappears in The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids
In The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids, Cupid is a young boy who works in the paper factory visited by the narrator in the second half of the narrative. Cupid understands the machinery and processes of the factory and gives the narrator a thorough and informative tour at the request of the proprietor. His odd name is symbolic of his introduction of the narrator to the factory girls—really women—and the subsequent feelings the narrator espouses for their plight. For his own part, Cupid seems totally nonplussed at the appalling working conditions of the factory. Throughout the latter part of the story, Cupid provides many insightful comments—many of which are fairly droll and meant to simultaneously impress and entertain. Aside from giving tours, Cupid's exact role in the factory is not well-established; he is probably a factotum.
Bachelorsappears in Many
Many—perhaps most—of the characters in the collected stories are bachelors, that is, widowers or men who have never married. Examples include Bartleby, Jimmy Rose, the Marquis de Grandvin, John Gentian, John Marr, Daniel Orme, and Billy Budd. If seamen, bachelors are typically excellent physical and nautical specimens; if not seamen, they are usually much devoted to philosophy, the arts, smoking, and wine drinking. Melville seems to consider bachelors of middle-age or advanced years as particularly noteworthy examples of philosophic men—the type recurs with great frequency in Melville's work.
Billy Buddappears in Billy Budd
Billy Budd is the title character of the collection's concluding novella. He is described as a perfect physical specimen of young manhood. His body is strong, healthy, and perfectly proportioned. His face is beautiful, open, and honest. His personality matches his appearance and nearly everyone likes him. He is twenty-one years old, a virgin, and in general naïve, honest, and devoid of any malicious characteristics. Indeed, throughout the narrative he is described, more or less, as a perfected male. At the opening of the novella, he is pressed out of the merchant ship Rights of Man into HMS Bellipotent, a 74-gun ship-of-war. He is there assigned to the foremast top; some editions of the novella include 'Billy Budd, foretopman' in the sub-title. Budd makes many friends on the ship-of-war and is favored by the captain because he is diligent in performing his duties and very punctual. In fact, Budd is eager to perform his duty well as he has a natural aversion to being disciplined. Most of Budd's shipmates like him and he enjoys a variety of nicknames, most of them referring to his physical beauty. Because of Budd's naïve nature, one old shipmate habitually refers to him as Baby Budd. Budd's only physical defect is that he stutters when frustrated or antagonized. When Budd is very upset he loses the ability to speak and has a tendency to fly out in rage—this happens at least once aboard Rights of Man and happens again in the climax of the novella, when Budd strikes Claggart. During one early exchange with ship's officers, it develops that Budd was a foundling infant and does not know who his parents were, where he was born, or really even how old he is. The narrative subtly compares Budd with the Biblical Jesus Christ, Adam, Moses, and Able. Although Budd is the primary character of the novella, his principle biography is found in Chapter 2.
Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vereappears in Billy Budd
Vere is captain of Bellipotent and therefore the ultimate judge over all matters concerning the ship and crew while on independent service at sea. He is described as a bachelor of forty, capable, modest, and of an aristocratic bearing. The narrator describes him as sterling but not brilliant, and within the Royal Navy he is usually referred to as Starry Vere. Vere is quite intellectual and spends nearly all of his free time aboard ship reading. He is something of a Luddite and prefers the old ways to new-fangled ideas and devices. Slightly pedantic, in personal qualities he is somewhat dry, reserved, and bookish. Vere has spent his life in the service, has an exceptional amount of command experience—both in an out of combat—and has been present at several historic naval engagements. His minor officers respect him and his men generally approve of his actions. Due to recent circumstances, however, Vere is particularly frightened of losing his command to mutiny. Because he is so reserved, he does not seem to have sufficient intimate contact with his crew accurately to gauge their feelings on this matter. Vere, though honest and forthright, errs on the side of military caution when he reviews Budd's case during the latter portion of the novella. While Vere believes his condemnation of Budd was correct, in addition to being expedient, his actions torture him for the rest of his life. Within the narrative, as Budd is presented as a Christ-figure, so Vere, condemning Budd to an unjust and undeserved death, assumes the role of God; in other interpretations that of Pontius Pilate. While Vere appears with regularity throughout the latter portions of the novella, his principle biography can be found in Chapters 6 and 7.
John Claggart, Master-at-armsappears in Billy Budd
Claggart is a petty officer, the master-at-arms of Bellipotent; the title is a little misleading, as discussed in Chapter 8, because Claggart's official role aboard ship is to maintain order, somewhat like a police constable—he does not instruct anyone in the use of arms. Because of his role, Claggart is of necessity quite unpopular with the crew, who refer to him as Jimmy Legs. Claggart has several mates, including one nicknamed Squeak, who help him gather information and administer punishment. Claggart is thirty-five years old, spare and tall, and well-formed except for a large protruding chin that mars his appearance. He is possessed of an above-average intellect and has risen rapidly through the ranks, being first shipped some few years previous as a landsman. Nothing is known of his past, though most assume him to have been some type of petty criminal, impressed directly from jail. Claggart's great moral failing is described as "natural depravity" (p. 457); in more-familiar terminology he is a predatory homosexual. The ship's boys are all afraid of him and avoid him as much as possible, and the ship's older and wiser crewmen, as symbolized by the Dansker, know of and disapprove of Claggart's activities—but are of course powerless to prevent them. Claggart is quickly infatuated with Billy Budd because of his great physical beauty; he subsequently grows envious of Budd and then begins deliberately to haze and persecute Budd, realizing that Budd is beyond his sexual sway. Over the course of several weeks, Claggart's frustrated envy and desire turns toxic and he charges Budd with severe crimes; this confrontation, before Captain Vere, precipitates the central climax of the novella. Just as Budd is a symbol of the Christian Jesus Christ, so Claggart becomes a symbol of Judas Iscariot. Claggart's presentation is also several times equated to a snake, further strengthening the allusion to evil.
This section contains 2,277 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)