Marya: A Life - Back in Print
A Bloodsmoor Romance: back in print
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism

Melville and the Tragedy of Nihilism

by Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Spring 1962, and reprinted in The Edge of Impossibility

Like Shakespeare, Melville is obsessed with the fragmentary and deceiving nature of "reality"; unlike Shakespeare, he is obsessed as well with the relationship of man to God. Melville's God can take any shape, being magically and evilly empowered—He is a primitive God, related to or actually contained in a beast; He is an intellectual God, existing only in the imagination of man; He is a God of all that is antihuman, perhaps the Devil himself. Melville felt most passionately about the role of the artist, that highest type of man—here is the statement he makes after having read Hawthorne:

There is the grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes lie; and all men who say no—why, they are in the happy condition of the judicious unencumbered travellers ... they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag—that is to say, the Ego.1

The artist becomes a kind of antipriest, a naysayer in the face of all illusion. Certainly he is a guardian of the blackest of truths, for Melville felt that no intelligent mind is ever detached from the concepts of "innate depravity" and "original sin." In his essay on Melville in the popular The American Novel and Its Tradition Richard Chase fixes Melville's world as "insolubly dualistic": man cannot transcend his finite situation, and wavers between the antipodal forces of good and evil, heaven and hell, God and Satan, head and heart, spirit and matter.2

This naysaying Melville seems impossible to reconcile with the general tone of his last work, Billy Budd—that strange, exhausted, flawed tragedy, a work of fiction only partway imagined, in which Melville's powerful rhetoric tries vainly to do the work of his imagination. The problem of Billy Budd—its role as a "testament of acceptance" or a pure, dispassionate rejection of the accidental or humanly manipulated injustice of life—is a critical problem that, on the level of an assumed antithesis in its conception, will never be solved. The "dualism" Chase sees in Melville's world has become, perhaps, a dualism for the critic as well. But the problem of the place of Billy Budd in Melville's work and the more general, and less obvious, problem of Melville's attitude toward art, life, and nature are not insoluble, at least not unapproachable, if the current critical appeal to Melville—usually as the basis upon which to work out more general phases of American literature—is recognized as not consistent in Melville himself, and, in fact, not borne out by his later major writings.

The "No! in thunder" describes well a youthful climate of mind found in such an early work as White Jacket (1850). White Jacket, arraigned at the mast, about to be flogged, is overwhelmed by the thought of escape: he could murder his captain and commit suicide. He thinks:

I felt my man's manhood so bottomless within me that no word, no blow, no scourge ... would cut me deep enough ... I but swung to an instinct in me—the instinct diffused through all animated nature, that same that prompts even a worm to turn under the heel.3

White Jacket is saved at the last moment from this instinct. His rebellion is not transformed into action, and he will say, later, when the man-of-war world approaches harbor:

Let us leave the ship on the sea—still with the land out of sight—still with the brooding darkness on the face of the deep. I love an indefinite, infinite background—a vast, heaving, rolling, mysterious rear! (p. 373)

The "infinite background" of White Jacket is the ocean of a romanticism that is, somehow, always pure in spite of its experience with, and frequent obsession with, the forces of "evil." It must not be considered a romanticism that would eclipse a vision of evil such as Melville has already expressed as early as Typee, but rather a romanticism that sees past the existential to the essential, beyond the immediate suffering in man to his capacity for new experience, new roles, an invasion into the universe, perhaps even a masculine victory. The tone of White Jacket, for all its social protest, is one of an irrepressible optimism: the optimism that grows out of a faith in one's self and in the solidarity of man as a species, without which the "no" one cries against the devil would be meaningless.

The most famous naysayer of American literature, Captain Ahab, inhabits a world of an "infinite background," which is intolerably hidden from him by the masks of physical reality. Yet it is a temptation to him because he wills it to be so; the nightmare of Moby Dick (the annihilation of man by an utterly devastating nature) is not without redemption for us because we are made to understand continually that the quest, whether literal or metaphysical, need not be taken. Man chooses this struggle. The doom that overturns upon the human constituents of the drama is a doom that they, as willful human beings, insist upon: for Ahab does insist upon his doom. The choice has been made, and action may seem compulsive in the present; the weaving ball of "free will" surrenders to the fateful cry from the whaleman's lookout, yet this is still a compulsiveness that is self-inspired, a creation of the ego. And, in the end, it is not really deceived. The grandeur of human consciousness, even of futility, gives us the sense of a choice of nightmares.

When Ahab says:

"What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it, what ... cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time ... ? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?"

he is calling upon secret yet somehow knowable patterns of reality that sustain his world, and his hatred for this world. Ahab's monomania does not exclude a recognition of his confusing role in the drama—is he Ahab, or is "Ahab" someone else? What is his identity? Does he exist as an autonomous being or is he merely the actingout of a decree of another will? His consciousness of his own futility, at times, suggests that he is a tragic hero of a new type—one who knowingly and willingly chooses his "fate," however mistaken this may seem to others. He is a romantic hero, in relation to the white whale as Milton's Satan is to God, an alternately raging, alternating despairing rebel against the supreme order. The human victim within such a tautology is a victim who demands disaster; we feel that if the personified universe did not destroy him, he would have to destroy himself. Yet an important distinction between Melville and Milton must be made: while Milton gives us the godly side of the struggle for man and leaves the reader no doubt as to the ultimate meaning of Paradise Lost, Melville gives us only man's side, and his constant tone is one of ambiguity. A tragedy of ambiguous meanings is a modern tragedy, in which certain classical remnants appear amid the chaos of a post-Copernican universe.

Ahab does surely say "No," and he would say it to God as well as the Devil. Unfortunately, God is no more present than the Devil—in fact, God is less present than the Devil. Ahab has created a world of an irreconcilable dualism in which he not only believes, but to which he has surrendered himself; without this terrific dualism—without his religious faith in it—he would topple from the height of a pseudo-god to the level of the merely human. The merely human is a condition in which, perhaps, the voicing of a "No" to the universe is not only futile but without meaning. Up to this point in Melville's works, and a little beyond, the emphasis upon the "No," upon the dualism and the blackness as evil, is surely legitimate. These central passions are the catalysts for the inner rage of the works, and their relationship to similar themes in American literature is certainly valuable to criticism.

Though to Lewis Mumford it seems that Melville "conquered the white whale in his own consciousness"4 through the creation of Moby Dick, the appearance of Pierre in the following year would suggest that few problems had really been worked out, that even more had been discovered. Pierre is the tale of a quest on land that, like Ahab's on sea, is to lead to a confrontation of "truth" and a definition of the self measured by this truth—ideally; it should lead to a victory and a rejection of the conventional world of social and physical and psychological arrangements. The movement in the novel is away from the appearance of things to the penetration of a supposed reality; it is a concern for the definition of this reality, a qualification of truth by endless ambiguities in the self as well as in the world. Thus the novel seems a psychological fantasy, where the will of the hero creates events in the way in which an author creates: Pierre wishes for a sister, and the sister miraculously appears; Pierre wishes for an "objective" justification of his seemingly idealistic, Christlike behavior, and the pamphlet on "Chronometrical and Horologicals" appears; Pierre wishes for a neutralizing of his passion for his suspected half sister, Isabel—or perhaps a salvation from the necessity of dealing with it responsibly—and his "good" angel, Lucy, arrives to live with them. Pierre, in rejecting the horological life (the compromising, accommodating life), believes that he is giving himself to truth. This is identified with the heart as against the head, the pure passion against the corrupting intellect. So far as Pierre's rejection of appearance is sincere, and even so far as his gradual awareness of the ambiguity within his own heart is considered in terms of a real dichotomy between good and evil, Pierre belongs to the sphere of the pre-Adamic figure turned Adamic and fallen, in turn changed to the Faustian figure somewhat akin to Ahab—that is, a man involved in a real struggle with appearance and reality, good and evil, God and Satan. The casual linking of these archetypal roles suggests the extent to which Melville, like many "modern" writers, thinks in terms of mythical role-taking; but where in the hands of a less talented writer these figures could turn into empty allegorical abstractions, Melville gives life to the abstractions themselves, dramatizing the plight of the Adamic man who loses his innocence and is precipitated to an immediate Faustian hubris and audacity.

The human heart (the human "unconscious") is always an enigma, but it can be read as no more than the superficial confusion of an underlying order, an essential pattern that the seeker must discover. Pierre says:

"Is it possible, after all, that spite of bricks and shaven faces, this world we live in is brimmed with wonders, and I and all mankind, beneath our garbs of commonplaceness, conceal enigmas that the stars themselves, and perhaps the highest seraphim cannot resolve?"5

The presence of the enigma does not indicate any movement of Pierre beyond Ahab: it is the assumption itself, and even the form of the question, that asserts Pierre's confused faith in at least the ultimate order of nature. But it is the beginning of a profound metaphysical doubt. He will search, on his pilgrimage, for the "talismanic secret" to reconcile that world with his heart, but he will find only silence—"that profound Silence, that only Voice of our God" (p. 290).

From the ambiguity of his small cloistered world to the ambiguity of the outer world and, finally, to the ambiguity of his own "pure" and unquestioned motives, Pierre is led to the discovery of a world of lies. It is not only a world that tells lies but a world that has been committed—created—in lies. The questioning of Pierre's own motives in protecting Isabel provides one of the most interesting of the novel's ambiguities, for even the motif of incest will not serve as an adequate explanation of sorts for the conflict of the novel. While it can be assumed that the gradual awareness of an incestuous desire for his "sister" comes to Pierre to typify both the ambiguity of the world and his own corrupted purity, the incest-motif might not be the concern or fear of the protagonist at all, but rather its opposite: he is really afraid of a healthy and normal love relationship. Perhaps the suspicion of incest is a protective device, and so far as it does keep Pierre "pure" in the obvious sense in which Billy Budd is pure, and even Roderick Usher is pure, it is a device that works successfully. The incompatibility of innocence and even normal experience in American literature is never surprising, but its manifestations can assume at times monstrous distortions. It is as if an act of heretical blasphemy were somehow less shameful than the most natural physical act.

On another level, the section in Pierre that deals with Plinlimmon's essay tells us important things—considered from the point of view of its moral rather than its psychological nature. It is here that critical interpretation is divided. Some critics, for instance Yvor Winters in Maule's Curse, see the "virtuous expediency" as the solution of Pierre's problem; however, Winters and critics of similar conviction appear to be victims of Pierre's rationalization in the same way that Pierre is a victim. As Henry Murray points out in his brilliant, hundred-page introduction to the 1949 Hendricks House edition of Pierre, the correlation of Pierre's role with chronometrical (Christ's) truth is a sophistry, another example of the "willed" creation of the central consciousness as he negates the outer world and makes his own, as if by magic. The complexity of Pierre rarely admits to a one-one ratio of character with projected metaphor, for the consciousness of Pierre himself so conditions the truth of the work that, though we can always question the depth of Melville's subtlety, we must accept the subtitle of the work—"The Ambiguities"—as a warning for the reader as well as, presumably, for Pierre.

But it is not the moral ambiguity of Pierre that concerns us here so much as the metaphysical ambiguity. The climate of a swollen, pretentious rhetoric at the beginning of the novel gives way—as nature gives way abruptly to the city—to the statement of nihilism that Pierre offers, partly to rationalize his passion for Isabel, partly as a judgment upon life. He says of Virtue and Vice: "a nothing is the substance, it casts one shadow one way, and another the other way; and these two shadows cast from one nothing; these, seems to me, are Virtue and Vice" (p. 382). Considered in the light of the latter part of the novel, the much-criticized rhetoric of the beginning is justified; it is the "nothing," the sickly, sweet, distorted pastoralism of nature and of human relationships that are to be investigated and found hollow. However, the distortion of nature and of relationships, most specifically those of Pierre with his "sister"-mother, is not balanced by any countervision of a healthy nature; there is no alternate vision. Distortion gives way only to further distortion, so that the suspected "evil" of the city and its apparent metamorphosis in Pierre's cousin Glen Stanley is presented through a confused and hysterical prose, a kind of Dickensian or Shakespearean nightmare that is on the brink of becoming its own caricature.

But Pierre has already declared this world an illsuion. "It is all a dream—we dream that we dreamed we dream" (p. 383). And he goes on to say: "How can one sin in a dream?" Melville is asking here a profound question. How is it possible to commit sins, that is, acts of conscious will, in a world of illusions—the most terrifying of all illusions being the mastery of the self by the ego? The order of Saddle Meadows and of nature has disintegrated into a chaotic dream of solipsism, a fantasy in which the hero is divided against himself, raging against himself, over a matter that he has really forgotten and that was, in itself, never worth this ordeal. Pierre has said his "No," but he does not end in defiance: "Pierre is neuter now," he states. He does not belong to the infinite universe of the earlier novels. Like the symbolic Enceladus, he is "heaven-aspiring but still not wholly earthemancipated"; he is, then, the pseudo-god who is, in a way that Ahab never is, slammed back to earth, to his own finite consciousness of himself. Just as nature is not her own interpreter, but a "cunning alphabet whereby ... each man reads his own peculiar lesson ...," so is the apparent dualism between good and evil an illusion, a fantasy that must die with the imagination that could create and sustain it. So the "good" angel and the "bad" angel die along with Pierre, who was their creator and measure; they do not survive him. Good and evil exist only in man, as confused (because simplified) abstractions.

Pierre has been considered in such detail because it marks the beginning of the apparent Timonism of The Confidence-Man, which is a continuation of the theme of Pierre; and it marks also, though the relationships may appear puzzling, the beginning of that climate of mind that can give us, without incongruity, the work Billy Budd. We see how in Pierre the dualism of the world is rejected, and the power of blackness, if there is any, is so ubiquitous as to dissolve into a meaningless generality. The "No, in thunder!" notion, if considered in relationship to Pierre, seems now inconclusive and misleading. The dramatic naysaying with which one is to confront the Devil becomes for Melville, in 1853, the turningaway of Bartleby to the wall with his knees drawn up, the final withdrawal from a world that was, to Bartleby, not violent but only a little cruel—but a world in which, nevertheless, he did not prefer to live. In this withdrawal it would be difficult to discover even a quiet heroism; the identification of the self-disqualification from life that Bartleby wills upon himself, and that is at the same time an obvious desire for death, with a somehow valuable gesture for the writer (as Leslie Fiedler suggests),6 seems only puzzling.

This surface display of negation, and of a concern for a dualistic universe of irreconcilable forces, is dealt with in the next of Melville's novels, The Confidence-Man, written in 1857. Long unpopular because of its apparent pessimism and its wearying and often inconclusive narrative, The Confidence-Man is centrally flawed in that its "comedy of action" dissolves backward into a comedy of speculation, to reverse Melville's stated intention. So the work, concerned with philosophical problems, does not always translate itself into art but remains conversation, vaguely dialectical, at its worst accumulative and concentric.

It will help to think of The Confidence-Man as a series of tales of a perhaps feigned Manichean dualism, about which the confidence-man dreams a long and complicated dream. The atmosphere of the dream, so much more strident than in Pierre, allows the confidence-man a certain omnipotence—the power of assuming and rejecting identity, or the various forms of his central identity; he is, then, in the unique position of an author. If the tales constitute a dream, at their core we find the atmosphere of a fallen world and the peculiar desire on the part of the protagonist to posit faith and test it, perhaps a secret desire for this faith to triumph: for surely if the confidence-man continually triumphs in his gulling of victims, it is Christianity that triumphs, paradoxically, because its innocence and charity cannot recognize hypocrisy ("only God can recognize a hypocrite"). When the confidence-man is defeated, Christianity itself is defeated, for it is no longer innocent. The loss of the confidence-man is a token of the hypocrisy of Christianity itself—like the life preserver examined in the concluding pages of the novel, it "looks so perfect—sounds so hollow." The confidence-man is the hero of this world, and the measure of his odd heroism is not his own confidence or cunning but rather the vulnerability of the world that he can easily seduce. The pattern of clashes of will and dialectical movement to a resolution (usually the confidence-man's victory) suggests a dualism, a representation of opposed forces. But an examination of the assumptions of the confidence-man will show that this surface dualism is but an appearance, and the underlying motif of the novel is not the tension of antipodal forces but rather the fact of no tension—of a final nihilism.

The surface dualism is suggested at the outset in the juxtaposition of the Christlike mute and the Negro beggar, and the doctrine of charity and the "no trust" world. To take the first figure as an antithesis to the guises of the confidence-man that follow would be to read the story on the level on which the dualism of the theological universe—in a sense Christian, but in a cruder sense Manichean—is taken as a legitimate struggle. The figure might also be seen as the ironic counterpart of the distrustful world which is preyed upon, a figure suggestive not only of the ironic incompatibility of earthly ethic and earthly practice—the Christian value of charity and the fact of individual materialism and national capitalism—but also of the basic incompatibility of this earthly ethic and the divine metaphysics in which it is presumably grounded. Here the "chronometrical and horological" antithesis would be a true metaphor, as it is not in Pierre. The figure of innocence, however, may also be interpreted as part of the masquerade itself, displaying the lulling platitudes that the confidence-man will subsequently exploit. But the most satisfying interpretation of the mute is to take him not as a character discrete from the action of the story, and not simply as the first of the confidence-man's guises, but rather as the symbolic representation in the mind of the dreamer (the authorlike central consciousness) of a heavenly ethic that is, indeed, to be proved unsuited for the world, and the purity of which will be rhetorically sustained as the ideal of Christian principle that, in its particularized forms, is to be tested and exposed.

It is the personality of the confidence-man in his role of testing this principle, and undergoing an education of his own, that unites the novel. The confidence-man cannot be understood except as the embodiment of an idea. He posits himself as the diabolical agent seeking to lure and betray an unsuspecting "good," and while it is certainly going too far to suggest that the confidence-man really represents Christian value in discord with a secular world, it is assuming too much to see him as an agent of the Devil—or the devil himself—as if this were the extent of the problem Melville sees. The confidence-man is in many ways less human than Milton's Satan, to whom he bears some resemblance, and he has none of the vicious sensuality that characterizes Chaucer's Pardoner, the faux-semblant of another pilgrimage. The confidence-man is a man—that is, human and finite—but he is not human in the sense in which these two characters are human, for it is precisely what is human that must be fiercely resisted. It is, finally, the avarice and sensuality of the Pardoner that disqualify him for real evil and, to a lesser extent, the undercutting recognition of the absurdity of his position that thwarts Milton's Satan. The Pardoner represents a complexity of character that does not need discussion here, but the frustration of his capacity for any real or ultimate evil is the result of his commitment to the human—for the forces of hell must be as little tempted by lust as by love. Melville surely had some aspects of Milton's Satan in mind, however, in creating his confidence-man: he is equated with the Devil "gulling Eve"; he is associated with snake imagery—he "writhes"; he exercises a hypnotic fascination upon his victims and, in an ironic reversal, he is suggested as the creature who charms man (as opposed to the usual snake-charming human being). But Milton's Satan recognizes a belief—however despised—in the Christian myth that the confidence-man would not be prepared to make. Satan is doomed to defeat within a vast hierarchical tautology, while the confidence-man's problem is more complicated, more resourceful, than the usual struggle between good and evil, between God and the Devil with the earth as the stage; at bottom it is a concern obsessed with the sheer burden of defining this struggle.

As the herb doctor, the professor of confidence says: "'Granting that [dependence] on my medicine [is] in vain, is it kind to deprive him of what, in mere imagination, if nothing more, may help eke out, with hope, his disease?' "7 At this point he is speaking to the Missouri bachelor about a third person, a sick man. The assumption is that the myth of charity, as it protects man against a reality too heartless to be borne, is to be valued for its illusory nature; the motif is one of a constant tension between truth—the pitiless ground base of nature's indifference and the "no trust" of the human heart—and the illusion of man's creation, which is confidence. The Missouri bachelor, who presents a skeptical counterpoint to the confidence-man, is later gulled; his cynicism is not so deep, nor so sophisticated, as that of the confidence-man. The education of the confidence-man himself, however, is only now to begin. In his guise as the cosmopolitan he says, " 'Life is a picnic en costume; one must take a part, assume a character, stand ready in a sensible way to play the fool' " (p. 161).

The confidence-man is obsessed with a desire to penetrate through the mask of humanity to the heart within. The metaphor for this obsession, however diminished, is the mysterious interlude of "Indian-hating." As measured against the whole of the novel, what is hated is not the gullibility of the human heart—and not even its persistent eagerness to believe contrary to nature in the kind of confidence the confidence-man so glibly advocates—but rather in the condition of man himself, of the human heart. The vengeance is necessarily a vengeance back upon the self. Like most victimizers, in fiction at least, the confidence-man is himself a victim; he has not the vacuum of conscience, the lack of self-consciousness that is the virtue of the true "Indian-hater." This Indian-hater "commits himself to the forest primeval; there, so long as life shall be his, to act upon a calm, cloistered scheme of strategical, implacable, and lonesome vengeance" (p. 179). The Indian-hater works out his vengeance upon a comparatively simple level. He does no more than isolate his idea of depravity or evil into a segment of humanity, and then attempt to exorcise this evil. He has a "devout sentiment": he does not possess the ultimate cynicism of the confidence-man; he has not the flashes of self-consciousness that undercut the mission of another "Indian-hater," Captain Ahab. Ahab is much more complex: the white whale is never diminished by his hatred but is instead given a meaning beyond itself. The Indians, however, are diminished out of their humanity by the Indian-hater and, on the level of a personified abstraction, can be destroyed with righteousness. The confidence-man, however, cannot so simplify his role.

That his confidence is feigned is suggested all along and revealed most obviously in the tale of the gentleman madman, one of the many tales within the novel. The confidence-man sees his consciousness of the condition of the human heart in relation to his external role of confidence en oostume as the grave hidden by the flowers that are "made to bloom over it." This insight is expressed shortly afterward by the cynical transcendentalist disciple: " 'I will hear nothing of that fine babble about development and its laws; there is no development in the opinion and feeling but the developments of time and tide' " (p. 260). What is changeable is the human heart, and from this everything stems. Melville sees, as does Hawthorne in his conclusion to "Earth's Holocaust," "the heart, the heart—there was the little yet boundless sphere wherein existed the original wrong of which the crime and the misery of this outward world are merely types."

The education of the confidence-man progresses in proportion to the degree of complexity and cynicism expressed by the people he meets—though, since the novel does have the persistent atmosphere of a dream, one feels that the confidence-man already possesses whatever knowledge is revealed to him. The "cold prism" of the transcendental intellect is more than a match for the confidence-man's charm: he cannot defeat it; his professed faith in confidence is seen as a philosophy "contrary to the ways of the world ... a cheat and a dream"; he himself is seen as the charmer who must expect to be victimized by those he charms. He is educated not to the truth of transcendentalism, or to its finer ethics, but rather to the essential cruelty and inhumanity, even the triteness, of the transcendental ethic when it has been enticed down to the level of the particular.

There is a fault in assuming that, given two apparently antithetical points of view, one must necessarily be right and the other wrong. Melville's intention is to display the hollowness, the inadequacy, of both points of view: the truth that will not be comforted, the "no trust" world, the grave beneath the flowers, the transcendental ethic, the discomforting reality that underlies appearance—and, against this, the world of professed Christianity, the faith in charity, in confidence. The confidence-man's defeat at the hands of the transcendentalist disciple is a token of the ultimate defeat of the surface confidence of the heart by the irrefragable reality that underlies it—the grave beneath. But the confidence that cannot be betrayed, that does not even exist, is more deadly than the instrument that would betray this confidence. Here there is no longer, to use Conrad's phrase, a "choice of nightmares." To read the novel as a working-out of the theme of the necessity of coming to terms with evil through a compromise of divine ethics and earthly necessity, as James E. Miller, Jr. suggests8 (the "virtuous expediency" of Pierre?), is to accept the fallacy that there is a necessity beyond the tautological discipline of philosophical logic that truth must lie within one of two opposing points—that, given the confidence-man's deceit, the rationalism of the transcendentalist disciple is, then, what Melville condones. A compromise of what is divine and what is human in a mean of adaptation of divine law is not the struggle here: the struggle is rather one of the consciousness of the confidence-man that there is, perhaps, no real struggle at all, no polarity of "good and evil," "truth and falsity," and nothing to sustain the struggle through time. Both transcendentalism and the feigned confidence of the cosmopolitan are but the expression of the time's vast descendentalism of spirit that reduces even the consciousness of an intelligent irony to this sequence of cheap tricks.

After his symbolic defeat by the transcendentalist, the confidence-man begins to move away from us. The final betrayal, the episode of the old man and the solar lamp, seems a parallel of the first chapter. The fantasy, coming to an end, is rawer, reveals more of itself; the persons involved, especially the boy who seems conjured up to test the old man's faith, seem little more than products of the confidence-man's imagination. The game itself has become hollow; there is no longer any contest. We have at the end not only a confidence-man who does not believe in confidence, but a Christian who does not believe in Christianity—who is, therefore, not a Christian. Confidence is, in a final irony, to be equated with God; the confidence-man says, "I believe in a Committee of Safety ... in an invisible patrol. ... In short ... Jehovah shall be thy confidence." But the solar lamp, the symbol of truth, of confidence, of God, of the "conscience" in Father Mapple's sermon on Jonah, begins to dim. The final movement is a movement into darkness: it is not the triumph of evil over good but rather the negation of struggle, the disintegration into an underlying nihilism that has resulted, within the novel, from the long series of negations that constitute the confidence-man's experience. The daedal boat of the tale, the Fidele, speeds "as a dream." When Pierre asks how one can sin in a dream his question is predicated by a sense of the foundationless belief in ethics, in good or evil, or sin, that is sustained generally in his world and in the world of The Confidence-Man through the communion of superficial souls. It is important to see, though the observation may appear odd, that for the force of evil as well as the force of good the struggle must be sustained, the disintegration into nihilism must be resisted. On the more immediate level, without confidence in man, in society, one falls into despair; and the condition of man is a shuttling movement between the illusory contentment of charity and the confrontation of the truth that will not be comforted—that is, despair. That the novel is a comedy, for all its bitterness, for even its final pessimism, is a token of the presumption involved in the attempt of man to penetrate the world of appearance—to believe in an ethic as well as create it, to formulate an ethical value of truth in a world in which, in the end, ethics can have no real foundation.

Lawrance Thompson believes that the essential element in Melville's thought is disappointing because "[it] narrows down to the sharp focus of a misanthropic notion that the world was put together wrong, and that God was to blame. He spent his life ... sneering at God, accusing God ... and (as he thought) quarreling with God .... Like his own Captain Ahab, he remained a defiant rebel, even in the face of death."9 Thompson, to be true to his thesis, even to the title of his book, Melville's Quarrel With God, cannot go with Melville to the point of nihilism. To interpret Billy Budd as Thompson does, so that it makes sense in such an argument (that Melville is somehow "quarreling" with God), requires a certain distortion of the obvious mood of the story. It is far easier to read Billy Budd as Melville's final expression of acceptance, of a heroism in the face of injustice that is able, by its own will, to create justice. But the problem for a critic as well as for the general reader of Billy Budd may well lie in the reversal of values that we commonly accept—the idea of conscious, historical, civilized life as a good, and the idea of death as an evil. Once the normal human assumption that death is evil is removed, Thompson's entire argument dissolves. In Billy Budd, the quest theme of Melville has run its course. We have no Adamic-turned-Faustian hero, a superman of sorts like Ahab, Pierre, and the confidence-man; we have instead individuals like Billy and Vere and Claggart, one-dimensional, almost passive role-takers in a triangle of archetypal scope.

The problem of Billy Budd, then, stems from the disintegration of the quest and from the acceptance of death as not evil—which leads romantically to the sailor's apotheosis in the folklore of his time, and classically to the acceptance of social necessity, of forms and order. But the intent of the work may well transcend this compatible dichotomy to suggest an acceptance of impending death, of annihilation, in somewhat Nirvanic terms, for the work is "angry," or represents part of a "quarrel" only if death is taken, as it conventionally is, to be at least painful and frightening. The terror of the white whale, infinity pressing back upon its perceiver (or creator), becomes here the transcendental dissolving of considerations of good and evil, of struggle, of life itself. Walter Sutton interprets Billy Budd in the light of Melville's interest in Buddhism and Schopenhauer, and sees the movement of the novel as a renunciation of the will that is the "highest consummation of life."10 The Nirvanic quest has no faith in Buddha as a god, but only in Buddhism as an expression of negation. Thus the end of life—by extension, never to have lived—is the equivalent of the Christian's ascension and final communion with his God. So Vere does little to save Billy's life, and Billy's last words—to be contrasted, surely, with the savage rebelliousness of a White Jacket—are words of a positive nature, perhaps of gratitude. The untouched innocence of Billy, his pre-Adamic condition, is saved from the world of experience that wounds Captain Vere; untouched, both are apotheosized and annihilated: "God bless Captain Vere!" Billy says, and his words precede a double death, that of Billy and Vere himself.

The experience of Vere is in broad terms that of the father who manipulates the figure of innocence into the transcendent Nirvana of nonexperience and nonidentity that he himself will earn, after a time, but that he has reached only after this experience—which invariably wounds—in the painful world of appearances, of good and evil, of constant struggle, and, most perniciously, of unnatural, repressed lusts. For a writer whose aim is to penetrate into a "basic truth," the sustainment of any two points of view will suggest, in the end, the mockery of assigning to one of two antithetical views a positiveness worthy of one's faith—worthy of one's life. The quest ends, ideally, in the negation and not in the compromise or resolution of tension in Melville's irreconcilable world of opposites; it is at once a transcendence and an annihilation, no longer an image of romantic diffusion as in White Jacket, surely not an image of the vicious and self-consuming pessimism of Pierre.

The intention of this essay has not been to examine critically all facets of Melville's apparent drift into nihilism—this would involve, as well, as close study of Melville's reading of Schopenhauer—but rather to undercut the general tone of simplicity in which Melville is often discussed. The cliché of the "defiant rebel" represents but an arresting of Melville's thought at a point fairly early in his career; a study of Melville's movement away from this stance, as well as to it, is necessary to provide a fair view of the metaphysical and ethical implications of his work. Nineteenth-century in his conception of the forms of fiction and of "characterization," Melville is strikingly contemporary in his conception of the internal tensions that comprise a work. In a sense he is not a writer of "fiction" at all, but a writer of ideas who is using the means of fiction; let us speculate that he used fiction because of its essential ambiguity, its "muteness," and because of the possibility of his hiding behind its disguises. Just as he dares to do no more than hint at the homosexual perversion of sailors in White Jacket and Billy Budd, so, in mid-nineteenth-century America he can do no more than hint at the blankness behind the age-old negotiable forms of virtue and vice, good and evil, God and the Devil.


  1. Julian Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthome and His Wife: A Biography (Boston, 1885), I, 338.
  2. Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition (New York: Doubleday, 1957), p. 91.
  3. Herman Melville, White Jacket (New York, 1959), p. 269.
  4. Lewis Mumford, Herman Melville (New York, 1929), p. 187.
  5. Herman Melville, Pierre (New York, 1929), p. 195.
  6. Leslie Fiedler, "No! in Thunder," Esquire (September, 1960).
  7. Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man (Evergreen, New York, 1955), p. 133.
  8. James E. Miller, Jr. "The Confidence-Man: His Guises," PMLA, LXXIV (March, 1959), p. 102-111.
  9. Lawrence Thompson, Melville's Quarrel With God (Princeton, 1952), p. 425.
  10. Walter Sutton, "Melville and the Great God Budd," Prairie Schooner, XXXIV (Summer 1960), p. 128-133.