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Melville’s Descriptions of the Oppression of Workers

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Imagery is perhaps the most effective way to emphasize a theme. Ironically, Herman Melville chooses to use blankness as his image of choice, and while at first glance, the lack of something may not seem to be a powerful symbol, Melville’s application of it to the common people makes it quite relevant. In “Tartarus of Maids” and “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Melville uses the recurring motif of blankness to inspire sympathy for the plight of the working class and show how their condition allows for the creative and economic survival of the wealthy.

By accentuating the pallid nature of all that composes the working class, Melville expresses the inevitable death of spirit that pervades their existence. In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the narrator remarks on the initial work ethic of Bartleby by saying, “At first Bartleby did an extraordinary amount of writing . . . I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote out silently, palely, mechanically” (Bartleby 4). The narrator sees the distinct difference between being cheerfully industrious and simply being industrious. There is no doubt that Bartleby copies a large amount of work, yet it is his attitude that troubles the narrator. He has no enthusiasm for what he does, causing the lack of color that the narrator observes, both in his appearance and his demeanor, which becomes evidence for his despondent life. Ultimately, without a spirit to drive him, Bartleby’s body wastes away, sealing Melville’s attempt to win the reader to the cause of the workers.

Melville carries over the image of this depleted existence in “Tartarus of Maids.” In this story, the man who heralds from the paradise of bachelors observes, “At rows of blank looking counters sat rows of blank looking girls with blank white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper” (Tartarus 215). The word ‘blank’ appears over and over again just as dismal routine of maids’ lives occurs over and over again. They are like machines, doing exactly the same thing, exactly the same way, every day. Just as machinery is soulless, the girls cannot retain their spiritual-selves for long after they begin work. With the oppressive monotony of blandness and tedium hanging over them, the factory girls are alive, yet with no spirit to drive them, they do not really live. The narrator recognizes this lack of life as he says, “So, through the consumptive pallors of this blank, raggy life, go these white girls to death” (Tartarus 218). Melville nearly personifies the pallor of the girls, saying that the blankness that surrounds their work and graces their flesh will ultimately consume them. Not only will this incredible lack of stimulation bring about the spiritual death of the factory workers, their physical demise is sure to follow, since the body cannot live without the soul, as Bartleby’s death demonstrates. In the factory and in the office of Bartleby, Melville depicts the doomed state of the working class, hoping to win the reader over to its cause.

Melville shows how the lower class feeds the creativity of the upper class by providing the blank means in which their own originality can take root. In “Tartarus of Maids,” the narrator observes the work of the factory saying, “Looking at that blank paper continually dropping, dropping, dropping, my mind ran on in wonderings of those strange uses to which those thousand sheets eventually would be put. All sorts of writings would be written on those now vacant things” (Tartarus 220). The narrator marvels at the myriad possibilities that lie in the blank paper, yet there are no such possibilities for the factory girls. The maids are not the ones who will write poems and letters and birth certificates; their chance to exercise originality is wasted to ensure that the wealthy can live and thrive in creativity. Furthermore, the narrator notices a large, ponderous machine in one corner and observes this:

“Before it – its tame minister – stood a tall girl, feeding the iron animal with half-quires of rose-hued note paper which, at every downward dab of the piston-like machine, received in the corner the impress of a wreath of roses. I looked from the rosy paper to the pallid cheek, but said nothing” (Tartarus 215).

The girl in the corner feeds the machine, not only with paper, but also with her lost chances to create. The time she spends at the machine is time that she could have used to encourage her own originality, but because of her position in society, her creativity is sacrificed so that the lovely ideas of the upper class can be realized. The wreath pattern is not hers, nor is the rose hue of the paper, which can be seen symbolically in the lack of color on her cheek. Finally, in a conversation between the narrator and the boy, Cupid, the narrator asks, “‘You make only blank paper; no printing of any sort, I suppose? All blank paper, don’t you?’ ‘Certainly; what else should a paper factory make?’ The lad here looked at me as if suspicious of my common-sense” (Tartarus 216-217). This question about the absence of printing in the factory simultaneously concerns the lack of creativity. Cupid’s response is simple and answers both questions: there is no printing done, and thus there is no creativity. Cupid seems surprised by the question, indicating that he believes it to be common knowledge that the lower class does not create. Clearly, it is the lot of the workers to provide the means for the upper class to thrive, for as Cupid says, ‘what else should a paper factory make?’ The wealthy acquire the means for both their creativity and their social status by suppressing the expression of the lower class.

By producing only blank paper and copies, the working class provides for the economic extravagance and success of the wealthy. In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the narrator explains the advancement of his office, saying, “Now my original business . . . was considerably increased by receiving the master’s office. There was now great work for scriveners” (Bartleby 4). As the narrator rises to a higher state, that of a master, he must hire more scriveners to perform the menial work that his business relies on. The more he advances in his wealth and societal position, the more reliant he becomes on the working class. Although his promotion provides jobs for the lower class, Bartleby proves that the work is a detriment to one’s spiritual and physical wellbeing, and thus no favor at all. The uncreative copying of Bartleby upholds the economic security of the narrator, for without his bland work, the narrator would perish.

In the same way that the copiers uphold narrator in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the work of the factory girls supports the economic success of the bachelor’s seed business. In “Tartarus of Maids,” the bachelor comments, “It need hardly be hinted how paper comes into use with seedsmen, as envelopes. These are mostly made of yellowish paper . . . of these small envelopes I used an incredible quantity, several hundred thousand per year” (Tartarus 211). The blank work of the factory girls, that which removes the passion from their lives, serves to uphold the extravagant life of the bachelor. Melville pointedly includes the vaguely exorbitant number of ‘several hundred thousand’ to highlight the immensity of the upper class’s dependence on the blank toil of lowly workers. Clearly, the bachelor’s business, and thus his monetary stability, could not do without the sacrifices of the working class. The narrator says, “This is the very counterpart of the Paradise of Bachelors, but snowed upon and frost painted to a sepulchre” (Tartarus 214). The bachelor can see that the white abode of the girls is the ‘counterpart’ to his home of perpetual wealth; one upholds the other. The factory unfolds before his eyes as the foil for his paradise; yet it is a white sepulchre, a place of death. The bachelor is able to achieve economic extravagance only through the bereavement of his fellow human beings.

In much of Melville’s work, he champions the common man, showing that his achievements are far superior to the trivial prattle of the upper class. However, in “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Tartarus of Maids,” Melville weaves an image of the working class in order to inspire sympathy in the reader. By allowing blankness to accentuate the plight of Bartleby and the factory girls, Melville brings out what he believes to be the true relationship between the poor and the rich; the death of the former ensures the survival of the latter.

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GradesFixer. (2018, April, 15) Melville’s Descriptions of the Oppression of Workers. Retrived October 16, 2019, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/melvilles-descriptions-of-the-oppression-of-workers/
"Melville’s Descriptions of the Oppression of Workers." GradesFixer, 15 Apr. 2018, https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/melvilles-descriptions-of-the-oppression-of-workers/. Accessed 16 October 2019.
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