“something destined to be scribbled on, but what sort of characters no soul might tell”

“The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” published in 1855 by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, is split into two parts just as its title suggests. The Paradise of Bachelors “lies not far from Temple Bar” and is full of “quiet cloisters” where singler lawyers can eat, drink, and be merry. Melville’s treatment of the Paradise is him at his most joyous and silly—at his most convivial, if you will. But now, to the Tartarus of Maids.

For the second part of the story Melville turns to New England. The narrator has “embarked on a large scale in the seedsman’s business,” and decides that he’s expanded enough that it makes sense to buy paper wholesale from a mill to make his seed envelopes. In the dead of winter he takes a trip “not far from Woedolor Mountain,” where “the violent Gulf Stream of air unceasingly driv[es] between…cloven walls of haggard rock,” past Black Notch and Blood River to Devil’s Dungeon. In this frigid, snow-covered place work dozens of young women, pale as the paper they make as factory workers.

Whiteness and blankness are the great features of the Tartarus of Maids. “The whole hollow gleamed with the white,” the factory itself is “whitewashed” and surrounded by other buildings that had a “cheap, blank air.” The setting is “[a] snow-white hamlet amidst the snows.” The narrator, who by the time he reaches the hamlet has white spots on his cheeks from the cold, describes it to himself thus:

“This is the very counterpart of the Paradise of Bachelors, but snowed upon, and frost-painted to a sepulchre.”

The maids are also white and blank, their faces “pale with work.” Lest you think I’m finding anything subtle:

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.”

This harping is typical Melville, and as in so many other cases here the motifs reach much further than the story at hand. Besides the whiteness of the jacket and the whiteness of the whale, there is the importance of white blankness in Typee, where Tommo won’t allow his skin to be drawn upon by the tattooist. Here, in New England, girls are bleached white by working in the whiteness of the rag room; those whose task is to monitor the machine that makes ruled paper are “ruled and wrinkled” themselves.

Moby-Dick also has a white face full of wrinkles, which are the only thing Ishmael can try to read in his vast, stark mass of blankness. In the more swirling mysticism of Moby-Dick, Ishmael feels the frightening blank infinity of whiteness; in Typee white countenances are readable where tattooed faces have had their meaning covered up; in White-Jacket whiteness itself is a mark. “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” makes the issue of unreadable whiteness explicit by bringing it right home to paper.

Here, the narrator is clearly worried by the emptiness of meaning in the factory with its empty, white paper. He thinks of Locke’s comparison of “the human mind at birth to a sheet of blank paper,” and only a few breaths afterward contemplates the fatalism of the “inflexible iron animal” that pumps out more and more blankness with “metallic necessity,” governed by “unbudging fatality.” But the “thin, gauzy vail of pulp” can’t help following, docilely, the “autocratic cunning of the machine.”

2 comments to “something destined to be scribbled on, but what sort of characters no soul might tell”

  • Huh.

    And at the last, aloft for goal,
    Like the ice-bastions round the Pole,
    Thy blank, blank towers, Jerusalem!

    Clarel, I.1.60-61

    “Blank” is a favorite word of Emily Dickinson, too (#761, 1863).

    From Blank to Blank –
    A Threadless Way
    I pushed Mechanic feet –
    To stop – or perish – or advance –
    Alike indifferent –

  • Oh noes you’re giving away Clarel!!

    But yeah, I noticed that last night myself. And it’s funny you should mention Dickinson: I’ve been thinking vaguely about reading her, because I’ve been thinking vaguely about reading more poetry, because…I’m feeling kind of jazzed about Melville’s. I’m pretty sure that’s not what’s supposed to happen.