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Domestic Assault in Hawthorne's and Melville's Story The Paradise of Bachelors

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By the 19th-century, according to Hawthorne and Melville, a man’s home was no longer his castle, but an effete parlor-room, a locus of stripped and castrated masculinity that hampered the development of classically intellectual and original literature in favor of the mawkish and uniform. While Hawthorne’s and Melville’s story “The Paradise of Bachelors” both show domestic residences under assault from a sentimentalizing feminine influence, the respective atmospheres emerge from a different set of authorial concerns. Hawthorne’s anxiety comes from a defensive standpoint. He causally views the feminization of the house as a symbolic castration of masculine authority and a negation of the strong ethic of writing (assuming we consider the work of writing an “ethic,” since it was, and still is, a leisure activity at odds with traditional work). Melville, while addressing in “The Paradise of Bachelors” some of Hawthorne’s focus on the origins of this problem, finds more compelling the effects of sentimentality in “The Tartarus of Maids.” A subtler version of Hawthorne’s castration, writing becomes a mode of mechanical reproduction, a repetitive imprinting of mass-manufactured emotion. From Melville’s sterility to Hawthorne’s impotence is but a step, yet an irreversible one, in that Hawthorne is able to prescribe an anti-domestic Viagra, while dissemination in Melville’s story only occurs metaphorically in the production and distribution of paper (the very problem to begin with), and not in a re-seeding of barren pages.

Hawthorne opens by describing the foundations of the Pyncheon house, historical and physical. To defy the curse of witchcraft – a feminine association, despite Matthew Maule’s position behind it – that hangs over the house, Colonel Pyncheon arms himself with masculine traits and actions that will later recur as increasingly sexualized images: “Endowed with common sense, as massive and hard as blocks of granite, fastened together by stern rigidity of purpose, as with iron clamps, he followed out his original design, probably without so much as imagining an objection to it” (4). Hawthorne contrasts this iron structure with the literary world. Consider the portrait of Pyncheon: “…holding a Bible with one hand, and in the other uplifting an iron sword hilt. The latter object, being more successfully depicted by the artist, stood out in far greater prominence than the sacred volume” (23). Since Pyncheon has been given a second screen by the artist’s hand (or a third, if we include Hawthorne’s role), the choice to emphasize the sword may have resulted from the painter’s own notions of masculinity, and not Pyncheon’s. In any case, the sword may be mightier than the pen but, so far, not at the pen’s expense.

Melville does find the pen lacking, however, and echoes Hawthorne’s imagery of solid and flaccid masculinity: “But the iron heel is changed to a boot of patent-leather; the long two-handed sword to a one-handed quill” (204). We must return to the scene of Pyncheon’s death to locate the antecedent for this transformation. Hawthorne follows the path of the wind, described as “a loud sigh,” over the even more effeminate audience whose gender becomes indeterminate by their ornaments: “It rustled the silken garments of the ladies, and waved the long curls of the gentlemen’s wigs” (8). We see the precipice from which Pyncheon has fallen. Sitting under his sword-wielding portrait (the reader does not yet learn the subject matter), he is interrupted by death at the moment of writing, frozen “with a pen in his hand” and with “[L]etters, parchments, and blank sheets of paper” in front of him (8-9). The blank sheets gain importance with Melville, but for now, the central image is that of an oppressive domesticity usurping Pyncheon’s formerly iron-clad patriarchal authority.

Just as Pyncheon is halted from writing and thus muted, so must Hawthorne appease the sensitized reader with a playful but barbed critique of political correctness: “Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon…began what it would be mockery to term the adornment of her person. Far from us be the indecorum in assisting, even in imagination, at a lady’s toilet!” (21) The double usage of “dressing” words, “adornment” and “indecorum” (as “unfitting,” a sartorial pun, but also by extracting the Latin roots of “decor-us”) reminds us that Hawthorne is prevented from “addressing” the female act of robing by the feminization of literature – and recalls another obsolete and self-conscious meaning of “decorum”: that which is proper “esp. in dramatic, literary, or artistic composition” (OED, 1a). If the writer is unable to relate his art without euphemism, what chance do his created characters have? Melville, too, indirectly comments on this. During the epicurean feast, the narrator interrupts his ludicrous description of the food (“its agreeable flavor dissipated my first confounding of its main ingredient”) four times with parenthesized justifications for the bachelors’ consumption of alcohol: “(By way of ceremony, simply, only to keep up good old fashions, we here each drank a glass of good old port)” (206-207). The parentheses may produce a rising comedic effect, but the underpinning moral evasions on the narrator’s part force the reader to question his giggly response.

But Hawthorne’s narrator may step aside, for Hepzibah contributes most to the castration of the house. A “time-stricken virgin,” she simultaneously exhibits a fear of the phallus and curiosity about sex (24). The chairs in the Colonel’s room continue the motif of sexualized, rigid objects held over from his time, and their description shows how Hepzibah might regard them: “Half a dozen chairs stood about the room, straight and stiff, and so ingeniously contrived for the discomfort of the human person that they were irksome even to sight” (23). Hepzibah reacts to her phallic fear by appropriating the masculine role in sex and overturning the fact that she has taken little part in life’s “intercourse and pleasures” (21). Her interaction with the house’s interiority is rife with further sexual puns that beg Freudian interpretation:

First, every drawer in the tall, old-fashioned bureau is to be opened, with difficulty, and with a succession of spasmodic jerks; then, all must close again, with the same fidgety reluctance. There is a rustling of stiff silks; a tread of backward and forward footsteps to and fro across the chamber…We heard the turning of a key in a small lock… (21-22)

The act of intercourse recreated through her domestic and dominant machinations, Hepzibah’s efforts end by finding a treasured picture of an effeminate man whose sensual features “seem to indicate not so much a capacity of thought as gentle and voluptuous emotion” (22). She clearly prefers an absence of intellectuality to an abundance of sentimentality, but how does Hepzibah go about castrating masculine presence within the house?

The setting up of shop seems the ultimate downfall for the once-proud Pyncheon house, and we can trace Hepzibah’s sexual anxieties as a female virgin within her duties as a shopkeeper. She experiences an unwanted orgasmic reaction to a customer’s entrance through the doorway, rigged by a bell:

This little bell…was so contrived as to vibrate by means of a steel spring, and thus convey notice to the inner regions of the house when any customer should cross the threshold. Its ugly and spiteful little din (heard now for the first time, perhaps, since Hepzibah’s periwigged predecessor had retired from trade) at once set every nerve of her body in responsive and tumultuous vibration. (30)

The numerous allusions to virginity and the vagina aside, it is also important to note that the first customer is a man – and Holgrave, at that, quite the opposite of her beloved young man in the portrait. As the virago proprietress, we see Hepzibah recast as the witch from Hansel and Gretel. First, Hawthorne repeatedly points out her poor eyesight (22, 24, 27), a trait common to witches as detailed in the Grimms’ tale. The similarities in the prose are too perfect to discount; “her stiff and somber intellect,” Hepzibah’s seizure of the masculine mind through the “stiff” motif, is perplexed with “how to tempt little boys into her premises” (26). The details match nearly perfectly, with Hepzibah and the witch from the gingerbread house entrapping children with the same food, but with Hepzibah’s treat meeting an inevitable, and willful, demise:

Now she places a gingerbread elephant against the window, but with so tremulous a touch that it tumbles upon the floor, with the dismemberment of three legs and its trunk; it has ceased to be an elephant, and has become a few bits of musty gingerbread. (26)

The elephant loses its elephantine essence through Hepzibah’s “tremulous” dismembering touch, an action I view as subconsciously purposeful as a literal Freudian slip. She has done the same with the house, dismembering its masculinity out of her own sexual anxiety and damming up any literary irrigation through her patriarchal arrogation.

Melville takes these truths as self-evident and moves on to a finer exploration of the ramifications of female authority in the second half of his diptych with “The Tartarus of Maids.” The treatment of the blankness of the white page calls to mind Paul Valry’s explanation for why he could not write novels: “I could never begin to look at a white sheet of paper and begin to write “The duchess went out at five.'” We may now regard this example in the light of 20th-century bastardization of the reportorial, Hemingway-influenced style, but the anxiety over defacing pure white paper, glowing with poetic potential, with factual, novelistic writing was not the main concern in Melville’s time. More destructive was the mechanical, iterative sentimentality that filled out those blank pages. Melville foreshadows and calls attention to this treatment of blankness in a paragraph retelling the narrator’s seemingly banal movements:

Then, blanketing my horse, and piling my buffalo on the blanket’s top, and tucking in its edges well around the breast-band and breeching, so that the wind might not strip him bare, I tied him fast, and ran lamely for the factory door, stiff with frost, and cumbered with my driver’s dread-naught. (215)

The six alliterative words starting with “b” (and two different parts of speech stemming from “blank”) anticipate the six instances of “blank” two paragraphs later for the female workers, but also presage the narrator’s own gradual progression towards verbal blankness and sterility. He, too, is stripped bare of his ability to make new configurations of language in the passage’s stifling, and not poetic, assonance – it is he, after all, who runs “lamely,” is “stiff” only because of the cold, and ends up “cumbered.”

Of Billy Budd, Barbara Johnson writes that the plot “could conceivably be seen as a consequence not of what Claggart does but of what he does not say.” Likewise, the blankness here – and that “[T]he human voice was banished from the spot” – boldfaces the lack of male presence and diminished authority. Masculinity survives only in the form of the predatory sexual imagery of the “ponderous iron, with a vertical thing like a piston periodically rising and falling upon a heavy wooden block,” but the imprint is of a wreath of roses – sentimental and repetitive (215). The traditionally antithetical terms of mechanization and femininity begin their confluence here, and the word “periodically” sets the stage for the advancement of this conceit. Cupid points out that the pulp swims “’round and round'” in the vats, and the proprietor of the factory refuses to hire married women because “they are apt to be off-and-on too much” (218, 222). The stress on regularity and cyclicality finds fruition in the catamenia imagery of mechanical reproduction. The initiating water-wheel (“‘This sets our whole machinery a-going'”) is itself set into motion by the “turbid waters of Blood River,” and the paper-making room is “stifling with a strange, blood-like abdominal heat” (216, 218). But the menstrual associations foster a climate of sterile creation – menstruation is the paradoxical sign of a fertile body that has, for the preceding month, at least, resisted impregnation. This is why the confused narrator finds it “‘strange that red waters should turn out pale chee – paper, I mean'” (217).

Any doubt that Melville is drawing an explicit parallel between paper-making and pregnancy is banished when Cupid reveals that the process from gestation to ejection out of the metaphorical vaginal canal takes not nine months, but minutes, and ends with the umbilical cord’s release of a “scissory sound…of some cord being snapped” (220). John Locke’s comparison between the “human mind at birth to a sheet of blank paper” as “something destined to be scribbled on” solidifies the conceit, but Melville problematizes the transference by showing that, in fact, little does pass from progenitor to child under these sterile auspices (221). The narrator marks a piece of test paper, not with his name, since, ostensibly, he has none, nor any identity to speak of, but with Cupid’s – and which, nine minutes later, returns with “my ‘Cupid’ half faded out of it” (220). The ownership is dubious; the narrator purports to possess the paper, although Cupid’s name is (barely) stamped on it. As with Pyncheon’s carpet, “originally of rich texture, but so worn and faded in these latter years that its once brilliant figure had quite vanished into one indistinguishable hue” (Hawthorne often uses “texture” as a signifier of something written), identity is effaced (Hawthorne 23). The resulting dilution and confusion of literary identity leaves the machine as the only certain “writer,” an author whose mechanical reproduction eliminates human touch and progressive authority in favor of a cloying strike and a stalled intellect.

The narrator’s only recourse is to leave the factory, and there the story ends. Hawthorne, on the other hand, finds solution in escape. Clifford’s development stands as a metaphor in itself for the castrating effects of the home. A man-child in reality, Clifford is reduced to the role of a child in his dreams, the illustration of which carries Hawthorne’s signifiers of textuality: “But the nightly moonshine interwove itself with the morning mist, and enveloped him as in a robe” (130). Paired with the fact that he sleeps “open-eyed” cues us to the qualities of reading and writing in dreaming – telling in that the one place where Clifford creates and evaluates “literature” on his own, he participates in self-castration (130). Normally, he requires the “golden texture” of Phoebe’s musical voice to make literature intelligible, and without which is as illiterate as “a blind man” (104, 111). His metamorphosis from unlettered quasi-eunuch to “manhood and intellectual vigor” is made possible only through his release from the domestic shackles into the mobile exterior of the train, where he and Hepzibah trade places of authority (198). There he articulates Hawthorne’s rabid anti-domestic judgments: “The soul needs air; a wide sweep and frequent change of it. Morbid influences, in a thousandfold variety, gather about the hearts, and pollute the life of households” (200). This sounds much like Ishmael’s manifesto at the start of Moby Dick, published the same year, that “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November” in his soul, he accounts “it high time to get to see” as soon as he can (Moby Dick, 1). Melville took this advice far more to heart than Hawthorne did, shipping out and migrating often, unlike his celebrated friend, who spent most of his life in the dreary confines of Salem, Massachusetts, where he concluded his depressed and unproductive final four years. Perhaps this explains Hawthorne’s obsession with his Clifford’s need to flee the oppressive home, and Melville’s more casual acceptance of such a reality. Salem would stifle anyone’s creative drive, but sea air always clears the mind.

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Domestic Assault in Hawthorne’s and Melville’s story The Paradise of Bachelors. (2018, May 19). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 28, 2023, from
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