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In the mid-nineteenth century, the United States heralded the coming of the “new industrial order.” With the advent of railroads, industrialization went into full swing. Factories and mills appeared and multiplied, and the push for economic progress became the grand narrative of the country. Still, there was a conscious effort to avoid the filth and poverty so prevalent in European factory towns. Specifically, the town of Lowell, Massachusetts, was held up as an exemplary model of industrial utopia. The mill town included beautiful landscaping and dormitories for the women workers. Indeed, it looked much like a university campus (Klein 231). Nevertheless, this idealized vision eventually gave way to the reality of human greed. The female factory workers worked long hours for little pay as their health deteriorated from the hazardous conditions (238). (Specifically, Carson’s Mill in Dalton, Massachusetts, served as the model for Melville’s short story [Melville 2437].) In this way, industrialization (and the subsequent desire for economic wealth) became incompatible with democratic principles. Originally, the prevailing consciousness was that industrialization would further democracy and the two would become a complimentary pair. However, the reality was that these societal changes brought economic divisions; the boundaries were drawn more clearly between the privileged class and the working class.
Industrialization finally results in the separation of the classes and the subsequent dialectical tension of production and consumption. This dualistic separation is made possible through the machine, the integral element that cements the unequal distribution of power. In his moral diptych, Melville questions industrialization by exploring these class divisions and the power relations within them. Ultimately, he concludes that it results in an exploitative system that thrives on both connection and isolation. Although the two spheres are physically and emotionally separated, they depend on each other for their continuation. Melville’s “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” expertly shows this interrelationship between the owners of the means of production (the bachelors) and the workers (the maids), and how it finally results in the oppression of the workers.
The first part of the tale illustrates the paradoxical life of the industrial class; they are gluttonous consumers and yet live out an empty existence. This wealthy class is represented in the form of bachelor lawyers.
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Conversely, the maids live a life of unending, dehumanizing production; they even become products themselves to the machines they are slaves to. They exhaust themselves with this unceasing work until they are as blank as the sheets of paper that are spit out as a result of their fruitless labor. The narrator encounters a young girl in the factory whose face is “young and fair” (Melville 2448). The next girl, evidently one who has been there longer, has a brow that is “ruled and wrinkled” (2448). The fact that her brow is “ruled” is particularly significant. Not only is she literally being written on by the machine, but she is also tyrannized by it. The workers are controlled by their environment. They are actually working themselves to their deaths.
Melville creates a spatial separation between the two spheres, by using Heaven and Hell imagery and non-traditional narrative form, to show the dominant ideology of capitalist culture. The bachelors’ paradise is presented as a heavenly haven removed from the “care-worn world,” an oasis in a dry and barren desert (Melville 2437). “The apartment was well up toward Heaven,” the narrator relates (2441). This is precisely what industrial society would have one believe - that the industrial class is closer to Heaven and, thus, goodness and purity. Finally, it is admitted to be “a city by itself.” The truth is, however, it is not an isolated retreat.
Although removed both physically and ideologically, the bachelors’ paradise functions as a very important part of the system. Their superior position depends upon the maids of the factory, presented by Melville as a dark and hellish underworld. Its location is at Woedolor Mountain, “among bleak hills” (2444). At the Dantean gateway, it seems fitting to abandon all hope (Young 217). To further illustrate the separation of the classes, the tale is organized into a subversive narrative form. The gap between stories shows the gap between people. Traditional narrative form is without these gaps, showing how “society is generated by the interactions between autonomous free agents” (Thomas 178). The maids are not free agents and thus have no control over the circumstances of their lives. Instead, their desolate reality is controlled by the powerful upper class who they financially support.
The machine - the god of the industrial age - ensures this division of the privileged and the workers through emotional separation. The system functions on both necessary connection and detached isolation. The workers are oppressed by the unaware, obliviously content aristocracy. The thing that separates them is the machine. This machine has a dehumanizing effect. In 1823, James Kent observed a new factory in Lowell and was “completely fascinated by the power and efficiency of the machinery and recording no awareness of the condition of the women workers” (Thomas 178). In effect, the living and breathing person takes a back seat to the new technology, causing them to become something less than human. Machine and animal imagery is used throughout Melville’s text to describe the factory workers. “The girls did not so much seem accessory wheels to the general machinery as mere cogs to the wheels” (Melville 2448). And later, they are referred to as being “like so many mares haltered to the rack” (2449). These perpetual maids are married only to their machines; husbands or children would only disrupt the factory process and slow industrialization.
The two parts to Melville’s tale are not simply a contrast; they present a revealing juxtaposition which ultimately shows how each world makes the other possible. They simply cannot exist without each other. The indulgent and comfortable life of the bachelors is supported by the work-weary women of the paper mill. “Paradise is purchased by the bachelors at the expense of the maids” (Weyler 468). It is even significant that the product manufactured by the women is paper. It is this paper that allows the lawyers to maintain their lofty position in the world (Thomas 179). At the conclusion of the work, the narrator exclaims “Oh! Paradise of bachelors! and oh! Tartarus of maids!” (Melville 2454). This exclamation indicates not only empathetic feelings for the mill workers, but an understanding of the relationship between the two ways of life. The narrator rethinks his original position that the bachelor’s life is paradise when he sees firsthand at what cost it comes. This epiphany is the crucial point of the work; it shows how industrialization drives a wedge between society, leaving an extraordinarily wealthy higher class and an overworked, underpaid, dehumanized lower class.
Melville’s moral tale was published in Harper’s Weekly in 1855 - just when industrialization was beginning to take hold of the country as a way of life. As a social critic, he examined the effect that this had upon the structure of society. It was composed of two sharply contrasting worlds, with the machine as mediator between the two, guaranteeing that the dualism would remain. In the emerging capitalist market economy, the aristocracy secured a dominant position within the culture. The working class was left behind, the underprivileged minority upholding the system that oppressed them.
Klein, Maury. “The Lords and the Mill Girls.” Portrait of America: From the European Discovery to the End of Reconstruction. Vol 1. Ed. Stephen B. Oates. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983. 230-240.
Melville, Herman. “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter, et al. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. 2437-2454.
Thomas, Brook. Cross-Examinations of Law and Literature: Cooper, Hawthorne, Stowe, and Melville. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.
Watts, Emily Stipes. The Businessman in American Literature. Athens: Georgia UP, 1982.
Weyler, Karen A. “Melville’s ‘The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids’: A Dialogue About Experience, Understanding, and Truth.” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Summer 1994): 461-469.
Young, Philip. “The Machine in Tartarus: Melville’s Inferno.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, an Bibliography 63 (June 1991): 208-224.