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Herman Melville wrote some of the most widely read works in the history of literature during the late nineteenth century. He has become a writer with whom the romantic era is associated and a man whose works have become a standard by which modern literature is judged. One of his most well-known and widely studied short pieces of fiction is a story entitled, simply, Billy Budd. In this short story, Melville tells the tale of Billy Budd, a somewhat out-of-place stuttering sailor who is too innocent for his own good. This enchanting tale, while inevitably entertaining, holds beneath it many layers of interpretive depth and among these layers of interpretation, an idea that has been entertained in the literature of many other romantic writers. Melville uses a literary technique of developing two characters that are complete opposites in all aspects and contrasting them throughout the narrative, thus allowing their own personalities to adversely compliment each other. Melville also uses this tactic in another well-known short story, Bartleby the Scrivener. Much like Melville's two stories, another romantic writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, uses this tactic in his short story, The Artist of the Beautiful when he creates two completely different characters who vie for the same woman's love. Both writers use the contrary characters to represent the different facets of the human personality. Using this idea and many others, these romantic writers, Melville and Hawthorne, created works with depth of meaning that were both interesting to read and even more intriguing to interpret.
In his short story, Billy Budd, Melville uses this romantically based idea of characteristic opposites in two of his main characters, Billy Budd and Claggart. To give the comparison even more strength, Melville also puts these two characters in virtually opposing roles in the story. Billy represents the good that is present in humans and Claggart represents the bad. Similarly, Claggart takes on an intelligent persona while Billy appears to be a bit innocent and uneducated in the ways of the ship. These two men are essentially at odds and appear to represent the dueling facets of the human conscience, the sort of angel and devil on the shoulder. Claggart wishes to rid the ship of Billy and eventually, the captain of the ship is forced to hang Billy because of Claggart's malice.
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In Bartleby the Scrivener, Melville also creates two characters that are both the antithesis and the nemesis each other. The situation in this story is not as consciously cruel as in Billy Budd, but nevertheless the two main characters stand on opposing sides of one important issue. The title character, Bartleby, is a newly hired scrivener for the narrator of the story and all goes well until Bartleby refuses to read over the copies he has made. He says, simply, "I would prefer not to", a phrase that eventually angers the narrator to drastic measures (Melville 51). These two men play a mostly mental tug-of-war game throughout the story, heightening the tension to extreme proportions. Perhaps this tension is heightened also because of the great differences between the two men. As far as appearances go, the narrator seems to be a hearty, healthy man while Bartleby is described as gaunt, pale, and sunken. The narrator also has the brisk manner that his occupation often requires at the same time as Bartleby's character possesses nothing of the sort. Likewise, on a more interpretive level, Bartleby is well acquainted with human mortality, specifically his own, in his slow progression toward emaciation. He forces the narrator to deal with his own mortality, a subject that he has not yet dealt with at his advanced age. In Bartleby the Scrivener, Melville creates the characters of Bartleby and the narrator to further demonstrate the many differing aspects of human personality and appearance.
Another romantic writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, also includes opposing characters in his stories. In his short story, The Artist of the Beautiful, Melville creates two completely different characters who vie for the love of one woman. Owen Warland and Robert Danforth are both in love with Annie Hovenden. They both, at the beginning of the story, would love her hand in marriage, but they have completely different personalities. Robert is a big, burly working man who spends hours of his day mindlessly clunking at his blacksmith's anvil. Warland, on the other hand, is a watchmaker who is small and fragile in appearance with a sharp mind and a passion for the intricately beautiful. Warland has a visionary mind while Danforth possesses a simple mind and a down-to-earth personality. Hawthorne best illustrates these great physical and intellectual differences in the comparison of the men's hands. "He [Danforth] laid his vast hand beside the delicate one of Owen (Hawthorne 269)". Despite these two men's differences, they are both enamored with the beautiful Annie Hovenden, a woman who seems to appreciate the men for their individual qualities (or at least sympathizes with Owen's predicaments). Of course, only one man may have the honor of her hand (in marriage). Thus, Hawthorne creates the tension between these two very different men. These men represent the different qualities that may be present in people and the good and bad things that they produce. With Annie, Danforth creates a sturdy little child and with his own intelligence and foresight, Owen creates, for a moment, pure beauty.
These two romantic writers use different characters to represent the different facets of human personality and appearance. They create the personalities of the characters throughout the plot and then compare them while telling an entertaining story. A reader may read just the surface story or may enjoy the depth that each tale presents. Through these three short stories, Billy Budd, Bartleby the Scrivener, and The Artist of the Beautiful, these writers create a standard for romantic literature that will be upheld for years to come.
1. Arvin, Newton. Hawthorne's Short Stories. Vintage: New York, 1946.
2. Bethoff, Warner. Great Short Works of Herman Melville. Harper: New York, 1969.