Solitude in Literary Fiction

The Works of Herman Melville

Melville Herman Melville (1819-1891) shares with Joseph Conrad the distinction of being, in the popular mind, a writer of sea stories, though not as many and essentially dominated by one novel: Moby Dick. In fact, all of Melville's stories are vehicles for the presentation of solitude in many manifestations. In chapter 27 of Moby Dick, Melville coins the word "isolatoes" to describe the crew of the Pequod, and thereby the quintessential solitary (his emphasis):

They were nearly all Islands on the Pequod, Isolatoes too, I call such, not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own.

Every solitary is an isolated being, living in his or her own world or own continent and not in the world familiar to the average person. Many characters in Melville's fiction are involuntary solitaries estranged by others for their personality, habits, or background. In Typee the narrator scorns others, while in Mardi he finds no one "with whom to mingle sympathies." The narrator of Moby Dick opens the novel by declaring: "Call me Ishmael," thus identifying himself with the exiled son of the biblical Abraham, exiled into wilderness and forever cursed by circumstances. In Pierre, the femaile character Isabel is the involuntary isolato. In Israel Potter, the title character wanders like the Hebrews in the desert. Finally, too, the character of John Marr (in the late collection John Marr and Other Sailors) finds himself unable to make "sympathetic communion" with others, who reject him. These hapless victims of involuntary isolation are scrutable and sympathetic.

Equally within a separate world but interacting afflictively on others are the voluntary solitaries, especially Ahab in Moby Dick and Pierre in Pierre. The latter is presented as an arrogant and selfish egoist who browbeats the women of his interest. The story tested the contemporary limits of domestic fiction with its theme of incest, and thus circumscribes the voluntary solitude of its protagonist to sociopathy.

But the character of Ahab makes Moby Dick one of the great novels of American literature.

Critics have viewed Ahab as a precursor to the Nietszchean overman, a supreme individualist and implacable egoist. But if that is the case, Ahab is supremely doomed to defeat and destruction. His tragic fate becomes what one critic calls "a fearful symbol of the self-inclosed individualism" that Melville, while a solitary himself, did not espouse. Indeed, while Melville was initially influenced by Emerson's essays on solitude, he concluded that Emerson's postulated egoism was not self-contained reflectiveness but a dangerous narcissism. Thus, for example, Emerson writes:

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of [one's] own mind. ... What I must do is all that concerns me, not what people think.


If I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil. No law can be sacred to me but of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to this or that; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he.

As Cahir notes:

These characteristics, the willingness to persist in a private vision, no matter the cost to others; the ability to dismiss the needs, feelings, and opinions of all other people; and the tendency to live a life of acute solitude frame the defining qualities of Melville's devil child -- the self-reliant isolato.

Cahir quotes a letter of Melville to a friend, criticizing Emerson:

I could readily see in Emerson, notwithstanding his merit, a gaping flaw. It was in the insinuation that had he lived in those days when the world was made, he might have offered some valuable suggestions. These men are all cracked right across the brow.

Captain Ahab is Melville's paragon of willfulness and self-destruction, counterpart to the biblical King Ahab as Ishmael is the counterpart to the biblical exile. The contrast of ego and virtue is foreshadowed by Father Mapple's sermon, which Ishmael hears before yet boarding the ill-fated Pequod. Mapple enjoins blessings upon he "who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth ever stands forth his own inexorable self." Mapple thus distinguishes self resisting pride and power proffered by the world versus corrupting ego.

Ahab succumbs not only to an earthly power but rails against heaven as well, insisting on his plan to slay the white whale:

[I curse] that mortal interdebtedness which will not do away with ledgers. I must be free as air; and I'm down in the whole world's books.

I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. ... Who is over me? Truth hath no confines.

Truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity and has ventured to trust himself for a task-master.

To the last I grapple with thee ... From hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee."

In contrast, Ishamel, called by Cahir a "social isolato," struggles to resolve involuntary solitude through the sailors' common tasks and duties, as Conrad would later show, work binding otherwise isolated souls. For the social isolato is "one who takes part in society, often affably, and who welcomes fraternal relationships, yet who nevertheless remains profoundly isolated." A fraternal sense escapes Ahab, while Ishamel rhapsodizes on the possibility of fellow-feeling, a way of transcending "social acerbities," though it is admittedly a "strange sort of insanity," ultimately eluding humanity.

Human isolation cannot be overcome by ego but by a transcendent loving-kindness, Melville suggests. He shows affection and sympathy for his isolatoes, even for the vile Ahab, who in a moment of clarity says:

When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a captain's exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the greencountry without -- oh, weariness! heaviness! Guinea-coast of solitary command!

Can there by a breakthrough to what Cahir calls the "mystery of a person's ontology?" Melville sketched isolatoes to experiment with this possibility, himself having suffered a life of depression, social isolation, poverty, and eventual neglect. Thus the character of Bartleby in the novella Bartleby the Scrivner comes to represent Melville's last insight (his later fiction penned for income).

If Ahab is Emerson's or Nietzsche's devil child, then Bartleby is what critics Stempel and Stillians call "Schopenhauer's saint." The demure Bartleby enters employment as a copyist in the narrator's law firm, but soon announces that he "prefers" not to work any more. The narrator treats Bartleby with exasperating patience and tolerance, unable to penetrate Bartleby's mind or heart> As the days pass, Bartleby takes to living day and night in his corner of the office, "prefering" not to do anything. At wit's end, the narrator moves his office. The next tenant, not inclined to patience, has the police remove Bartleby to jail, where Bartleby quits eating and dies. The enigmatic isolato achieves a Schopenhaurian philosophical understanding eluding the narrator, who at story's end sighs: "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!"

Melville's sympathy for isolatoes paints them in varied psychologies and depths not fully appreciated in the mid-19th century, nor fully explored even today. Melville's fiction is the work of a writer profoundly sharing the fate of his characters, impeccable portraits of the complexity of solitude. 


Relevant works include R. E. Watters: "Melville's Isolatoes" in PMLA, v. 60, no. 4, 1945, p. 1138-1148; Daniel Stempel and Bruce M. Stillians: "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Parable of Pessimism" in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, v. 27, no. 3, 1972, p. 268-282; and Linda Constanzo Cahir: Solitude and Society in the Works of Herman Melville and Edith Wharton. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.