“Life, about change”: symbolism and money in Ali Smith’s Hotel World’

People go past. They don’t see Else, or decide not to.
Ali Smith, Hotel World, p. 39.

From ‘[t]wo ten pence pieces’ and ‘a handful of coppers’ to ‘the five pound note’, Ali Smith’s Hotel World (2001) is a novel that is strewn with money; indeed, the language of ‘capital, transaction, and accumulation’ that pervades every interaction between her characters reflects the contemporary status of capitalism as the dominant world order.[i] It is a world order that was anticipated by Francis Fukuyama who, after witnessing the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, proclaimed that the ‘end of history’ was at hand:

‘the [twentieth] century that began full of self-confidence in the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy seems at its close to be returning full circle to where it started: not to an “end of ideology” or a convergence between capitalism and socialism, as earlier predicted, but to an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism’.[ii]

Unlike Fukuyama, who revels in the ‘ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy’, Smith rejects capitalism as an inherently oppressive system that repeatedly disenfranchises the poor. Her criticism echoes Jacques Derrida’s own disavowal of contemporary capitalism in Specters of Marx (1994):

‘it must be cried out, at a time when some have the audacity to neo-evangelize in the name of the ideal of a liberal democracy […] never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity’.[iii]

Specters presents a theory of ethics that demands a ‘certain responsibility and answerability’ from society in response to the injustices of capitalism; in Hotel World, Smith repeats this demand.[iv] Indeed, the novel begins with a testimony from the ghost of Sara Wilby, who returns from beyond the grave with an urgent ‘message for you’ (‘[y]ou. Yes, you. It’s you I’m talking to’), insisting that the reader pay attention and ‘[l]isten’ (pp. 30-31). As Smith exposes the violence of a system that is built on the exploitation of labour, the reader, in turn, is asked to bear witness to the harsh reality of these injustices.

Yet if, as Esther Peeren argues, the ‘ghostly system of capitalist production […] renders labor and its value invisible’ by ‘mak[ing] workers converge with their labor’, then how can it be possible to bear witness to the ‘invisible’ iniquity and oppression of a ‘ghostly’ system?[v] For example, the current alarming rise in homelessness is a result of the inequalities inherent within capitalism, a connection that Smith makes explicit in the novel through the headlines on the newspaper pages that Else, a homeless girl, wraps around her feet for extra insulation; the headlines read, ‘BRITAIN MASSIVELY MORE UNEQUAL THAN 20 YEARS AGO. ONE IN FIVE PEOPLE LIVES BELOW BREADLINE’ (p. 45). As Peeren identifies, however, the victims of these social injustices often ‘resemble dispossessed ghosts in that they are ignored and considered expendable’; indeed, passers-by ignore Else on the street, not seeing her, or ‘decid[ing] not to’, as she is made invisible by the dispossessing system of capitalism that marginalises her suffering (p. 39).[vi] How, then, does one act ethically and bear witness to the spectral?

Using Derrida’s concept of conjuration as a theoretical framework, I argue that Smith finds the answer to this paradox of bearing witness to the spectral through money; she commodifies the body and pathologizes money through the abject in order to conjure the exploitation of labour under capitalism. Thus, Smith ultimately causes the ‘magical spell’ of capitalism ‘to be undone and the reality of exploitation to be revealed’.[vii]

In Hotel World, Smith converges the human working body with the corporate ‘body’ of the Global Hotel. Whilst remembering the events surrounding her death, Sara’s ghost states that she had been working as a maid on the top floor of the hotel, which:

‘used to be the servants’ quarters two hundred years ago when the house had servants in it, and after that the house was a brothel and up there was where the cheap girls […] were put to sell their wares (p. 6).

Through the history of the corporate hotel, Smith creates a continuity of human labour that demonstrates how the worker’s body has been commodified under capitalism. It is from this top floor of the hotel that Sara then falls to her death in the dumb waiter. The reoccurring image of the long, vertical shaft of the dumb waiter is repeatedly associated with the human body: Penny, a guest, is ‘appalled’ by the dark ‘nothing’ of the shaft that ‘[runs] the length’ of the hotel ‘like a spine’ (p. 145) ; Else imagines a wall ‘made of phlegm’ inside her that ‘goes from her abdomen to her throat’ and mirrors the ‘hotel wall’ against which she rests her back (p. 40); Lise, the receptionist who worked at the Global Hotel before her illness, describes her bodily illness as a fall, ‘as if she had been upended over the wall of a well’ and ‘had been falling in the same monotonous nothing way for weeks’ (p. 84). By conflating the corporate ‘body’ of the hotel with the human body, Smith then pathologizes capitalism, specifically through money.

The material body of money, as Derrida asserts, provides the means through which to reify the abstract system of capitalism; it conjures the specter. Derrida defines the act of conjuration as that which ‘makes come’ what ‘is not there at the present moment of the appeal’.[viii] To conjure, then, is to make visible that which was previously there but invisible. Money, described by Derrida as the ‘[a]pparition of the bodiless body’ of capitalism, can therefore be understood as fulfilling this role of conjuration; its material form provides a ‘body’ for the otherwise ‘bodiless body’ of capitalism to manifest itself. Thus, money in its material form reifies the specter of capitalism, conjuring what was abstract and invisible into a real and visible form.

In Hotel World, Smith pathologizes capitalism by constructing money as waste. She continuously divests coins of their monetary value: a copper coin ‘tastes like meat gone off’ (p. 38); a homeless woman’s coins are ‘piled like a mistake, like rubbish’ by her side (p. 67); and the hotel receptionist carries a ‘wastepaper basket full of small change’ (p. 113). More specifically, money is routinely compared to bodily waste. After putting some coins into her mouth and spitting them back out, Else describes them as looking like ‘shining sick’; similarly, the taste of the catarrh that she frequently coughs up also reminds her of the ‘taste of money’, ‘always lurking at the back of her throat’ (pp. 37-38). As forms of bodily waste (‘sick’, ‘catarrh’), money is abjected, cast off and purged by the human body. In her essay, Powers of Horror (1980), Julia Kristeva discusses the abject, and the state of abjection. She describes the ‘spasms and vomiting’, the ‘repugnance’ and ‘the retching’ that turn her away from ‘body fluids’, ‘defilement’, and ‘shit’, all of which she categorises as the abject; it is ‘not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection’, Kristeva states, ‘but what disturbs identity, system, order’.[ix] By constructing money as bodily waste to be purged and rejected by the human body, Smith pathologizes capitalism through the abject. She suggests that capitalism is not an abstract or spectral economic system, but something violent and threatening that ‘disturbs’ by dispossessing the poor and the vulnerable through systemic oppression.

The language of money that structures every aspect of the novel reflects the contemporary culture of consumerism and commodification. As Catherine Belsey identifies, however, there is one aspect of the human experience that resists commodification:

‘[t]o the degree that [the] postmodern condition implies an unbridled consumerism, the cultural logic of late capitalism, pleasure for cash and a product to gratify every possible impulse – if not, indeed, to construct the impulse in the first place – love is a value that remains beyond the market.[x]

For Smith, the human emotion of love serves as an antidote to the violence of capitalism. Indeed, when Sara’s ghost proclaims that ‘[l]ife’ is ‘about change’, change refers to money, but also recognises the potential for a transformation that, for Smith, is motivated by human love that ‘cannot be bought’.[xi] Whilst sat begging for money outside the Global Hotel, Else remembers putting a coin into her mouth with a past boyfriend, musing that:

the taste was metal. After that when Ade had kissed her he tasted of metal too. He passed a ten pence piece into her mouth, in past her teeth and off his tongue, flat on to her tongue like a communion wafer (p. 37).

For Else, the taste of the coin now reminds her of the man she once loved, who had ‘kissed her’ and ‘tasted of metal too’. Smith reinscribes the coin with a symbolic value that is not monetary, as suggested by its comparison to a ‘communion wafer’. A similar reinscription of the value of money also occurs when Clare, Sara’s sister, meets Duncan, the only person who witnessed Sara’s death in the Global Hotel. While recounting Sara’s death, Duncan tells Clare that Sara had ‘bet him a fiver she could get into the lift’; now unable to pay his debt to Sara, Duncan gives Clare the fiver instead (p. 204). Clare accepts the money and addresses Sara in her interior monologue, stating, ‘I put the five pounds in the cabinet too I won’t ever spend it it is yours […] I will keep it for you it is worth more than anything’ (pp. 215-216). By keeping the five-pound note ‘flattened […] out between two books’ in her cabinet, Clare removes the note from being circulated again, and imbues it with non-monetary value as a memorial for her dead sister (p. 216). Smith suggests that love, purer than the capitalist desire for consumerism and commodification, is a transformative agent that reinscribes monetary value with a symbolic value that is far deeper, more intimate and, ultimately, more human.

In her foreword to Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (2013), Marina Warner states that Smith’s fiction ‘quests’ to ‘reinvigorate the important things that matter to life, grappling with the meaning of love and loss without shying away’.[xii] In Hotel World, Smith criticises the contemporary culture of capitalism and commodification, under which the vulnerable are regularly disenfranchised. By amplifying these marginalised voices, Smith asks the reader to bear witness to the systemic injustices of capitalism; indeed, she asks the reader to hope for better by prioritising the ‘important things that matter to life’, such as love and compassion. When Sara’s ghost returns from beyond the grave, she returns with a message for everyone, from ‘the people in the cinema queue’ to the ‘check-out girls’ at the supermarket, and to the reader:

‘[h]ere’s the story.
Remember you must live.
Remember you most love.
Remainder you mist leaf.’

Cover Image:
Front Cover of Penguin’s 2002 edition of the novel. See Ali Smith, Hotel World (London: Penguin, 2002).

[i] Ali Smith, Hotel World (London: Penguin Books, 2002). All further references to this novel are to this edition, and page numbers are given in parentheses in the body of the post.

[ii] Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest, 16 (1989), 3-18 (p. 1).

[iii] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 85. From this point onwards, I will give the title in shorthand, thus referring to Specters of Marx as merely Specters.

[iv] María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, ‘The Spectral Turn/Introduction’, in The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory, eds. by María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), pp. 31-36 (p. 33).

[v] Esther Peeren, The Spectral Metaphor: Living Ghosts and the Agency of Invisibility (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 21.

[vi] Ibid, p. 14.

[vii] Ibid, p. 21.

[viii] Derrida, Specters, p. 41, emphasis in original.

[ix] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), pp. 2-3.

[x] Catherine Belsey, Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p. 72.

[xi] Ibid, p. 72.

[xii] Marina Warner, ‘Foreword’, in Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, ed. by Monica Germana, and Emily Horton (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. viii-ix (p. ix).

Written by Akancha Gurung.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.


Wuthering Heights: Reverse Colonialism and the Imperial Gothic Tradition

Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week’s income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together?’ 
– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, p.40.

In Gothic fiction of the Victorian period, concepts of the racial other become inextricably linked with fin-de-siècle fears of imperial decline and subsequent degeneration. More specifically, characters that are denounced as racially distinct are often viewed as figures of abjection and fear; they are the ‘marauding, invasive other[s]’ in which ‘British culture sees its own imperial practices mirrored back in monstrous forms’.[1] This monstrosity is accentuated through a denouncement of the racial other as recidivist, linked intimately to notions of both moral and physical degeneracy. However, this degeneracy in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights not only internalises fears of Victorian England’s ‘devolution’ into a more primitive and morally degraded state of being, but more widely comes to critique and accentuate the increasing fragility of the British empire itself. This Victorian Gothic work is an example of the ‘imperial Gothic’, playing on Victorian anxieties.[2] In their respective representations of the racial Other, the texts come to highlight anxieties surrounding Victorian societies supposedly morally supreme status, presenting images of reverse imperialism to accentuate the decline of the British empire.

Anxieties surrounding colonial decline are clearly accentuated in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a novel which Susan Meyer argues acts as ‘an extended critique of British Imperialism.’[3] Heathcliff, an orphan of ambiguous racial origin, becomes the embodiment of the racial ‘Other’; his social position and actions threaten the rigid imperialistic class structures engrained in the fabric of the rigid model of the Victorian family home, as well as the position of England as colonial superior. Throughout the novel, Heathcliff is repeatedly collocated with notions of racial inferiority; he is frequently compared to darkness and criminality, his uncertain race alluding to a supposedly corrupted underlying spirit.[4] These notions of otherness are first accentuated through Heathcliff’s introduction to the Earnshaw family. Nelly declares that:

We crowded round, and, over Miss Cathy’s head, I had a peep at a dirty, ragged, black-haired child; big enough both to walk and talk- indeed, its face looked older than Catherine’s – yet, when it was set on its feet, it only stared round, and repeated over and over again some gibberish that nobody could understand.[5]

From his very introduction, Heathcliff is displaced as a figure of ‘Otherness’ that is scarcely acknowledged to even belong to the same species as those surrounding him. His ‘black’ hair, coupled with his ‘dirty’ and ‘ragged’ appearance (p.25), places him entirely at odds with the middle-class Earnshaw children. Heathcliff’s racial ambiguity consequently becomes associated with the dirt that masks his face, contrasting starkly with the white skinned ‘purity’ of Catherine and Hindley.[6] Heathcliff’s otherness further becomes demarcated through the Earnshaw’s inability to comprehend his speech, resulting in the denouncement of Heathcliff as merely speaking ‘gibberish’ (p.25). It is in the adjective ‘gibberish’ that racial superiority is ultimately compounded; in speaking ‘gibberish’ (p.25), defined as ‘unintelligible or meaningless speech or writing; nonsense’, Heathcliff finds himself silenced through a racial prejudice that denounces his voice as unimportant ‘nonsense’. [7] In doing so the Earnshaw family, including Nelly, attempt to silence Heathcliff under the colonial gaze; the family denounce Heathcliff as racially inferior in order to affirm their own colonially superior social position.[8] As Susan Meyer observes, Heathcliff finds himself ‘pronounced upon as if he were a specimen of some strange animal species’, ‘subjected to the potent gaze of racial arrogance deriving from British imperialism.’[9] Through this gaze, Heathcliff finds himself marginalised and consigned to social and class inferiority.

However, although treated as an inferior racial other, continual interest in Heathcliff’s ambiguous racial ancestry accentuates the liminality of his position and the threat this poses to the surrounding gentrified families. Throughout the novel, Heathcliff finds himself continually collocated with countries synonymous with imperial resistance and political uncertainty.[10] These fears are clearly evoked in Nelly’s speculations; she tells Heathcliff that he is ‘fit for a prince in disguise. Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week’s income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together?’ (p.40). At the time of Wuthering Heights’ publication in 1847, both India and China proved to be countries fraught with colonial uncertainty. Although the British empire had almost entirely established political control in India, English rule in China had been marred by the effects of the Opium wars. The subsequent decline in trade left England with far less confidence surrounding their ability to control and assimilate countries into their once burgeoning empire.[11] Through a collocation of Heathcliff with an ancestry closely tied to notions of colonial decline and uncertainty, Nelly’s narrative essentially gives voice to ‘prospect of an alliance’ between the two countries ‘and the possibility of their joint occupation of Britain.’ [12] In the suggestion of Heathcliff’s families purported wealth, which would ultimately give him the ability to buy up both Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights for as little as ‘one weeks income’ (p.40), Brontë highlights the possibility of the conqueror becoming the conquered by countries before considered colonially inferior.

These economic fears appear to be realised on Heathcliff’s return, who subsequently subverts and monopolises the imperial gaze that once consigned him to racial inferiority. In his power over both the Linton and Earnshaw families, Heathcliff seemingly confirms Nelly’s conjectured anxieties. Revelling in his new position of economic power, Heathcliff enacts his revenge on his ‘colonisers’ and invokes a course of reverse imperialism. Through this reversal, Heathcliff’s position as racial ‘other’ provides him with the liminality to rise above and conquer those once considered his colonial superiors. This inversion is not only demonstrated through his economic ruining of Hindley and the stripping of Linton’s family home, but also in Heathcliff’s horrific oppression of Isabella Linton. Isabella, once superior to Heathcliff, finds herself subjected to a radical class inversion in the hands of her captor/husband. Isabella, who once looked from a position of social superiority on the man who looked ‘exactly like the son of the fortune-teller’ (p.34), finds herself oppressed by the same colonising gaze that she once deployed to belittle her husband. As Isabella is subjected to Heathcliff’s gaze, Brontë describes Heathcliff as looking upon her ‘as one might do at a strange repulsive animal: a centipede from the Indies, for instance’ (p.76). This results in Isabella turning ‘white and red in rapid succession’ and using ‘her nails’ to free herself from Cathy’s grip (p.77). Isabella, reduced under the imperial gaze inflicted upon her, becomes a figure collocated with animalism. She is not only colluded in the passage with both a ‘centipede’ (p.76), but is also denounced as a ‘tigress’ (p.77) by Cathy for her animalistic clawing of her arm in an attempt to escape Heathcliff’s gaze. Paralleled thus with the wildlife abundant in the West Indies Isabella finds herself, in the same way as her husband, ‘pronounced upon as if [s]he were a specimen of some strange animal species’.[13] Through this reduction, Heathcliff’s monopolisation of the imperial gaze is complete; his ability to wield this gaze, coupled with the class liminality provided to him through his ambiguous racial ancestry, subsequently allows him to enact his legal domination over the colonially superior figures that become the embodiment of the British Empire in the narrative.

As Meyer thus comes to argue, ‘the “vivid and fearful” scenes in Wuthering Heights, of which Charlotte Brontë complained, are primarily scenes in which the ugliness of starkly wielded colonial power, usually exercised in areas remote from the reach of British law or putative moral standards, is enacted through Heathcliff’s fearful reversals.’[14] It is in this way that the novel proved so horrifying to its Victorian readership; Heathcliff’s enactment of ‘fearful reversions’, as well as his meteoric rise, threaten the imperial superiority engrained in the social and moral values of the British Empire. However, Meyer further suggests that this threat is felt most sharply through the location of Heathcliff’s reversions being in England.

Featured Image
–  Illustration by Fritz Eichenberg, as taken from the 1943 Random House edition of Wuthering Heights. See Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847; London: Random House, 1943).

[1] Stephen D. Arata, ‘The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonisation’ in Dracula: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. Glennis Byron (London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 1999), pp.119-145, p.121.

[2] The term ‘imperial Gothic’ was first introduced by Patrick Bratlinger. For more background information on the term, see Patrick Bratlinger, ‘Imperial Gothic: Atavism and the Occult in the British Adventure Novel, 1880- 1914’ in Reading Fin de Siècle Fictions, ed. Lyn Pykett (London: Longman, 1996), pp.184-210.

[3] Susan Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p.100.

[4] For more information, see Max Nordau, Degeneration (New York City: D. Appleton and Company, 1895).

[5] Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847; Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 2000), p.25. All further references to Brontë s text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically.

[6] Throughout the novel, Brontë continually deploys light imagery to contrast the racial ambiguity of Heathcliff with the purity of the middle-class Earnshaw and Linton families. The use of dirt and mud is once again evoked at the start of Chapter 7 on the return of Cathy to Wuthering Heights. Cathy’s passage from ‘savage’ (p.36) to gentrified is starkly contrasted with Heathcliff, who is described as having ‘thick uncombed hair’, ‘clothes […] which had seen three months’ service in mire and dust’, and a ‘beclouded’ visage (p.37).

[7] Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/gibberish [Accessed 17/03/2018]

[8] In postcolonial theory, the imperial gaze is often defined by the observed finding themselves defined in terms of colonially superiors own set of social systems and moral values. From this perspective, the imperial gaze thus infantilizes the object of the scrutiny whilst simultaneously denouncing the observed as racially and socially inferior. This is the concept of the imperial gaze, as first introduced and subsequently developed by E. Ann Kaplan, that this blog post will focus on and expand in relation to the supposedly racial inferior monopolising this gaze to enact discourses of reverse imperialism. For more information on the imperial gaze, see E. Ann Kaplan, Looking for the Other: Feminism and the Imperial Gaze (London: Routledge, 2012).

[9] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.97.

[10] Not only is Heathcliff associated with India and China in the novel, but also with the American Civil War. As Lockwood conjectures of Heathcliff’s meteoric rise in fortune, did ‘he earn honours by drawing blood from his foster country [?]’ (p.67). This, as Susan Meyer contends, further places Heathcliff into a discourse of ‘successful colonial rebellion’. For more information, see Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.114.

[11] For more information, see Ross G. Forman, China and the Victorian Imagination: Empires Entwined (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[12] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.114.

[13] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.114.

[14] Meyer, Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, p.118.

Written by Steph Reeves.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Fragile Masculinity and the Development of Industrial America in ‘The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids”

‘Male authors fixated on factory women’s sexual identity in an attempt to control their activities rhetorically, but in the process they symptomatized the many ways women’s labor no longer clearly evidenced male dominion.’
Megan M. Wadle, ‘“Rightly Enough Called Girls”,  p.55.

The American short story traces the development of women’s role in industrial America. In ‘The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids’ it becomes clear that women are integral to the new, industrial America as they work tirelessly in the paper mill. Over the course of the nineteenth century, women were fundamental workers within the factory. Thomas Dublin notes how they encouraged industrial and capitalistic progress. He says, ‘over the second half of the nineteenth century, employment in New England textiles doubled and cloth production quintupled in value.’[1] The women’s industrial importance is particularly noteworthy when contrasted to the lives of the bachelors in Melville’s short story. Kevin J. Hayes suggests:

‘the descriptive trappings of a bachelors’ Elysium in “The Paradise of Bachelors” would have been familiar to most of Melville’s readers […] like many nineteenth-century bachelors, he is a flaneur, one who cloaks himself in an identity presaged on leisurely observation.[2]

Against the backdrop of the growing industrial world, which women were so involved in, Melville’s story is a contemporarily relevant way of depicting idleness of men. The bachelor’s behaviour, recognisable to the contemporarily reader, depicts a world in decline. Their lifestyle is rendered obsolete when noted against the economic growth emerging from the mills and factories women worked in. Thomas Dublin highlights the success as he notes, ‘in 1850, cotton and woollen textile mills in New England employed about eighty-five thousand workers producing goods valued at just over $68 million.’[3] The growing industrial success of the female factory workers further renders the bachelor’s lifestyle and idleness as outmoded. Melville makes reference to the outdated aristocracy of the Templar Knights, an old fashioned European organisation shrouded in mystery and romance. He says, ‘do we understand you to insinuate that those famous Templars still survive in modern London? […] Surely a Monk-Knight were a curious sight picking his way along the Strand’[4] (p.86) Melville’s constant references to the past hint that the world of the bachelors is a product of fantasy, one which is being romanticised so the men can cling onto an outdated lifestyle. The narrator continues to call them ‘degenerate’ and says, ‘the bold Knights Templars are no more.’ (p.87) The narrator himself sets off the idea of the outdated, anachronistic lifestyle of the Templars. Even the current day bachelors, who he claims have ‘wit and wine […]of sparkling brands’ are depicted as idle. In the story, all they do is eat, drink and take ‘snuff very freely’ before returning to the street to either ‘call a hack’ or ‘be driven snugly to their distant lodgings.’ (p.93) The masculine past that the narrator is clinging to no longer has a place in society. The old, Christian world in London contrasts so greatly to the new industrial present. Kevin J Hayes argues that:

‘at a moment of cultural transition, when gender and sexual categories were solidifying and many Americans had become interested in labelling identities […] he [Melville] styled himself “the last lingerer on a generational threshold.’[5]

Melville’s story recognises a societal change which renders the bachelor lifestyle obsolete. He clings onto an outdated aristocratic lifestyle, knowing that is no longer has a noteworthy place in America. Gender categories were being redefined and Melville’s story is one way to track the process of change in America.

Whilst it becomes clear that the aristocratic male world is in decline, Melville still does not depict the industrial female experience in a positive way. The women live trapped to the patriarchal world and are treated as human machines. The story begins with a description of the bleak landscape, correlating with the bleak experience of the women inside the mill. Melville manipulates the language to dramatize the harsh setting of the story. The mountain the mill is placed on is named ‘Woedolor’.  This name immediately introduces the fundamental theme of commerce and transaction in connection with sadness. These themes are then placed in the feminine landscape. The journey the narrator takes in order to arrive at the ‘Devil’s Dungeon’ is described as ‘bleak’, with a wheel-road that is ‘dangerously narrow.’(p.94)  The story mediates gender politics through the landscape, particularly since the river is named ‘Blood River.’ Melville connects the hellish, unpleasant and dangerous landscape with blood to evoke images of pain, but also menstruation, an innate female experience. The location of the paper mill is a direct contrast to the ‘paradise’ of the Temple Bar, which is described as being ‘dreamy’ and ‘charming.’ (p.86) Melville depicts the old, aristocratic world of men as idle and outdated. However, the new, industrial female world is likened to hell and described in cold, harsh language. It becomes clear that the gender discourse of new America has not yet been figured out. Martin Schofield argues, ‘the luxury depicted [in the first story] can be seen to depend, economically and psychologically, on the suffering in the second story.’[6] It seems that old, masculine America needs to depend on female suffering in order to reaffirm patriarchal superiority. The male world needs to reconfirm its own identity within the ever-growing female industrial space. The aristocratic Templars are depicted as outmoded, the new discourse of industry and women workers has not yet been figured out. Megan M. Wadle argues:

‘Male authors fixated on factory women’s sexual identity in an attempt to control their activities rhetorically, but in the process they symptomatized the many ways women’s labor no longer clearly evidenced male dominion.[7]

Therefore, in this instance, Melville uses female suffering in order to highlight the fragility of masculine identity within the development of industrial America. Melville’s story depicts the male anxiety of trying to reconfirm an identity in the growing industrial society. The American short story traces the decline of the bachelor’s world and the rising female industrial world. In doing so, it notes the patriarchal response to the continuous growth of capitalist America.

Featured Painting: Gustave Courbet, The Ornans Paper Mill (c.1865), Oil on Canvas, Musée Courbet, France.

Megan M. Wadle, ‘“Rightly Enough Called Girls”: Melville’s Violated Virgins and Male Marketplace Fears’ in American Literature: A Journey of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography (2018) Vol.90 No.1 p.55.

[1] Thomas Dublin, Transforming Women’s Work: New England Lives in the Industrial Revolution (New York: Cornell University Press, 1995) p.230the-ornans-paper-mill.jpg!Large

[2] Kevin J Hayes, Herman Melville in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) p.g n/a

[3] Thomas Dublin, Transforming Women’s Work: New England Lives in the Industrial Revolution, p.228

[4] Herman Melville in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, ed. by Joyce Carol Oates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) pp.86-106 (p.87) All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically within the body of the essay.

[5] Kevin J Hayes, Herman Melville in Context p.g n/a

[6] Martin Schofield, The Cambridge Introduction to the American Short Story,  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) p.50

[7] Megan M. Wadle, ‘“Rightly Enough Called Girls”: Melville’s Violated Virgins and Male Marketplace Fears’ in American Literature: A Journey of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography (2018) Vol.90 No.1 p.55

Written by Sarah Culham.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.