DEAL ME IN – WEEK 15
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Week 15 of my Deal Me In 2015 project started with me having to look up a word in the title of a story, Herman Melville’s “A Paradise of Bachelors and A Tartarus of Maids” which I chose by drawing the Queen of Spades. I discovered “Tartarus”, in essence, means hell – it was a lower region of Hades in Greek mythology. And, therefore, “Paradise” can be assumed to mean heaven. Melville uses both of these words figuratively in a story that Joyce Carol Oates (in an introduction to The Oxford Book of American Short Stories of whom Oates is editor) suggests could make him the first American feminist. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
I can’t say that this story has a plot, but it has words – and Melville’s poetic and magical words are enough. As the title suggests, it’s a contrast of two situations. In the first section, the unnamed narrator visits London, England for business purposes. He has a grand time among lawyers and businessmen – all of whom are bachelors:
In mild meditation pace the cloisters; take your pleasure, sip your leisure, in the garden waterward; go linger in the ancient library; go worship in the sculptured chapel; but little have you seen, just nothing do you know, not the sweet kernel have you tasted, till you dine among the banded Bachelors, and see their convivial eyes and glasses sparkle. Not dine in bustling commons, during term-time, in the hall; but tranquilly, by private hint, at a private table; some fine Templar’s hospitably invited guest.
The second section brings the narrator back to the United States, somewhere in New England. He visits a paper factory to buy envelopes for his seed company. Here, he encounters a group of women working in drudgery with no rest. Melville throws his sympathies to the ladies even if he doesn’t have a solution:
To and fro, across the sharp edge, the girls forever dragging long strips of rags, washed white, picked from baskets at one side; thus ripping asunder every seam, and converting the tatters almost into lint. The air swam with the fine, poisonous particles, which from all sides darted, subtilely, as motes in sunbeams, into the lungs.
An obvious contrast of genders exists in this story so it begs Joyce Carol Oates’ question in her introduction “Herman Melville, our first native feminist? – can it be so?” (p.1, Oxford). Written in the mid-nineteenth century, it’s difficult to see Melville as a feminist by today’s standards; however, it’s easy to see the beginning recognition of inequality.