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David C.
Honors English 11 Pd. 2
Mr. Burns
20 December 2007

Symbolism in Melville’s Works


Herman Melville’s use of symbolism was distinctive as it conveyed itself in subtle, yet distinct :ways. By using both obvious and seemingly unimportant symbols, obscure in metaphorical purpose but obvious in functionality with the plot, he was able to accentuate deep allegorical messages without it forcing a shift in plot to accommodate the symbols.
In his novella Billy Budd, Melville writes of an impressed Royal Navy sailor, Billy Budd, whose :trials and experiences on board the Bellipotent and eventual demise illustrate a message of the harsh reality of man’s impossible situation regarding human nature. The characters of the book are an allegory of the nature of man, with Billy representing the ultimate good characteristics of man yet ignorant of evil, Claggart the equivalent of mans ultimate evil yet ignorant of the knowledge of good, Captain Vere serving as the symbol of the balancing element in human nature, neither absolute good nor absolute evil, yet inclined to do justice as pertained by the laws of society. Melville carefully conveyed his message through use of Christian symbols, such as Christ’s image and dying for humanity (crucifixion). Either Billy or Vere could represent Christ, as they both represent the good side of humanity with no inclination to do evil. Billy’s execution most closely represented Christ at crucifixion in the way he died so to serve an example to the crew; to die for their sins.
In Bartleby the Scrivener, Melville uses absurdist symbology in the way the character, Bartleby, :acts and behaves. The narrator, who remains unknown, tells of his own personal experience in a law firm on Wall Street. This short story is very different from his other works notably in the sense how modern it seems due to its setting than that of Billy Budd or Moby Dick, and in its message obscured by the absurdist statement “I would prefer not to” of Bartleby repeated many times. The story seems to point again at the class issues in the mid 19th century, with the wealthy possessing the power and the workers remaining servile laborers. Bartleby symbolizes the revolt against the capitalist machine, by choosing not to give in to the system designed to enslave him, ultimately leading to his own death by “preferring not to eat.”
Melville’s classic Moby Dick is very much like Billy Budd in the common setting on a ship out at :sea. In both novellas, the sea provides isolation, a vacuum in which all present members are active in a certain conflict or situation without being obstructed by outside forces. In a sense, the ship represents all of humanity and the conditions on board the ship represent each man’s situation. In Moby Dick, the symbol of the whale and the madness of Captain Ahab are an allegory of man’s inability to control his situation and his desperate rage against it. Melville goes a step further and tells the struggle from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, applying Ahab’s personal struggle to the choices leaders make for their followers and the effects they have.
In conclusion, Melville’s writing style in the aspect of symbolism is uniquely different in all of :his works. Whether his own political commentary is told through a good vs. evil situation, absurdism made brilliant, or man vs. nature, they all share the commonality of their deep symbolism that is truly the genius of Herman Melville.
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