Gendered Perspectives: Debunking Hegemonic Gendered Discourse through the Narrative Speaker in Herman Melville’s "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" and Margaret Fuller’s "The Great Lawsuit"

         Herman Melville (1819-1891) and Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) are revered American historical literary figures who have contributed a great deal into American literary history. Melville, in The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids (1855), revealed his concern regarding unequal gender treatment. Fuller was one of America’s first leading feminists and an avid advocator for the education of women. In her essay, The Great Lawsuit (1843), she called for an equal treatment between the genders, urging men to recognise the untapped potential of women, and emphasised the value of female independence.

         Both Melville and Fuller’s texts address the reader in an engaging way that instruct and inspire. While I believe their writing styles are different, they both adopt a similar tone; one that is direct, engaging and it allows the narrator’s perspective to bridge the gap between the reader and the author. Melville’s narrator appears more conversationalist, while Fuller’s narrator mimics a courtroom lawyer, or even debater. By analysing the use of language, I therefore posit that the didactic tone of the two texts adopt the gendered voice of the narrator, who, by creating a direct relationship with the reader, critically presents gendered perspectives using satire and dialogism, therefore debunking the great inequities of hegemonic gender discourse.

         Each text opens with a second-person narrative perspective which establishes a direct relationship with the reader; while both narrators adopt a rather didactic tone, Melville’s narrator is more conversational, while Fuller’s is formal. The instructional tone that Melville’s narrator employs in the opening section of The Paradise of Bachelors engages in a first-hand involvement with the reader. By describing the setting of the Temple, the narrator addresses the reader directly by saying “you adroitly turn a mystic corner” (Melville 1495). The usage of the pronoun “you” breaks the fourth wall and establishes a direct connection with the reader. As the narrator directs the reader to “turn a mystic corner […]” to eventually “[…] stand beneath the quiet cloisters of the Paradise of Bachelors” (1495), it compels the reader to follow the narrator’s journey as Melville uses an instructional tone to establish a strong connection with the reader, directing him along the sentences and into the narrative word of The Paradise of Bachelors. As readers, we are likely to follow the narrator into his or her exploration, the pronoun “you” distributes the agency of the narrator (who is also the protagonist) with the reader. Thus, the narrator is no longer the sole individual of the journey, the reader shares that with him as well.

         A similar connection between narrator and reader is employed in Fuller’s text, albeit more passively. She does so by posing a question after a couple of thought-provoking statements regarding an unanswered problem of gender inequity:

This great suit has now been carried on through many ages, with various results. The decisions have been numerous, but always followed by appeals to still higher courts. How can it be otherwise, when the law itself is the subject of frequent elucidation, constant revision?

(Fuller 725)

         The narrator adopts a formal and demanding tone, with almost a hint of exasperation and urgency. This urgency stems from a need to address the recurring problem that “has now been carried on through many ages” to which the narrator then directly questions the reader. In the quotation above, the narrator begins by two equivocal statements, followed by a rhetorical question – this mimics the style of a debate, perhaps even a courtroom hearing. The narrator addresses us like how a lawyer would address a judge as Fuller’s writing style favours an oratory disposition as she is “fully subscribed to the idea of the revelatory power in conversation” (Quawas 131). The direct relationship established between narrator and reader through the rhetorical use of the question, is not done to obtain an answer, but to state a point as directly as possible to whoever reads it. The title of The Great Suit could also allude to the idea of a ‘lawsuit’, which is an issue brought to the court of law that demands adjudication. Following this reading, Fuller is the lawyer, and we are the jury or judge. Both narrators therefore adopt a didactic tone that demands and establishes a direct relationship with the reader. In Melville’s case, we cannot be certain that the narrator is the author (given that the authorial function can be representative instead of reflective). However, with regard to Fuller, considering that The Great Lawsuit is an academic essay published in The Dial which addresses readers of a certain social class, it is safe to conflate the narrator’s voice and Fuller’s as one.

         I believe that the language of both narrators are inherently gendered in their own respect. By “gendered”, I refer to the propensity for the speaker to develop a bias towards his or her own gender.

         In The Paradise of Bachelors, the narrator expresses a profound feeling of awe and pride at the site (and sight) of the Temple, by identifying the “long lines of stately portraits in the banquet halls, [that] show what great men of mark – famous, nobles, judges, and Lord Chancellors – have in their time been Templars.” (Melville 1497) The choice of the adjectives “stately” and “great” hints at the narrator’s compelling need to hoist these men as deserving of greatness and respect. The narrator also alludes to the “oases in Sahara […] the isle-groves of August prairies;” (1495) in order to exaggerate the “sweet[ness]”, the “charm” and the “most delectab[ly] dreamy” (1495) location of the Paradise of Bachelors. However, the narrator’s choice of adjectives of the paper mill’s setting in The Tartarus of Maids, reveal a stark contrast between the perception of male and female. The path to the paper mill is fraught with “bleak hills”, “cloven walls of haggard rock”, “shaggy-wooded mountains”, with the old paper mill being “tumbled all together, in long abandonment and decay,” (Melville 1502). The jarring switch in the narrator’s choice of adjectives between the landscape of the Paradise of Bachelors and the old paper mill in The Tartarus of Maids reveal a largely male-biased discourse on the narrator’s part.

         In The Great Lawsuit, Fuller’s uses a critical tone in her description of males, denouncing their ignorance and passivity through the use of sarcasm. She claims that “man has, now and then, enjoyed a clear triumphant hour […] But, presently, he sought repose after his labors, when the crowd of pigmy adversaries bound him in his sleep.” (Fuller 725) The phrase “now and then” suggests a lack of clarity and a nonchalant desire on the narrator’s part, to define this clarity. The line “now and then”, when juxtaposed against the “clear triumphant hour” that man “enjoyed” (725), reduces the legitimacy of the latter sentence. This is due to the former sentence’s colloquial nature in evoking a rather informal and unclear concept, therefore making it hard to believe the clarity in man’s “clear triumphant hour” (725). The illegitimacy of man’s “triumphant hour” is elevated with the following paradox of “pigmy adversaries” (725) which is used as a form of sarcasm to mock and mean the opposite. “Pigmy” connotes insignificance, but when used together with “adversaries”, which suggest problems of great significance (as it comes from the word ‘adverse’), the narrator mocks the frailness of the male and how small and insignificant problems are ‘adverse’ enough to “bound him in his sleep.” (725) As a result, Fuller’s narrative voice is gendered critically against the male while Melville’s narrator revers the male.

         However, this gendered use of language that Melville employs is used satirically in order to emphasise the exact opposite of the biasedness that was established earlier. Melville’s narrator, using his male-centric voice, satirically caricaturises the Templars and bachelors in The Paradise of Bachelors, making them appear like objects of ridicule.

         The caricaturising of the Templars in The Paradise of Bachelors is reminiscent in the military imagery that is evoked during the process of the dinner banquet. The narrator first reveals that he was “unprepared to learn that Knight-Templars (if at all in being) were so entirely secularised as to be reduced from carving out immortal fame in glorious battling for the Holy Land, to the carving of roast-mutton at a dinner board” (Melville 1496). The Templars of the past, also known to be great crusaders who fought brave battles, are reduced in the present. Melville satirically juxtaposes the grandiose of the “carving out immortal fame in glorious battling for the Holy Land” to the “carving of roast-mutton at a dinner board” (1496). This juxtaposition is filled with levity and foregrounds the rest of the first part in The Paradise of Bachelors insofar that Templars have lost their sense of chivalry (Tan 23).  

         Following this, Melville’s narrator uses a great deal of military imagery to narrate the process of the dinner banquet to mimic a war, thus reducing the legitimate chivalrous quality of the Templars and likening them to caricatures. The banquet begins with the “ox-tail soup inaugurat[ing] the affair”, which is then followed by “the heavy artillery of the feast” that “marched in” (Melville 1499). Drinks and wine are described to march in like “Blucher’s army coming in at the death on the field of Waterloo,” and the host is described to be an “old field-marshal” who is “superintend[ing]” the “manoeuvrings of the forces” (1499). The military imagery of the dinner banquet presents a comedic spectacle – an interesting unravelling of events given that the narrator has already identified the loss of chivalry in the Templars earlier. Interestingly the gendered language of the narrator raises the issue regarding an ignorant passivity of the male. This is taken more seriously when articulated by the male narrator, who, existing within the dominant gender hegemony, goes against all hegemonic discourse of strength and chivalry, to portray the male as carefree and unbothered.

         We can also consider the significance in the dialogic use of the word ‘men’ and ‘women’ in both texts as it seeks to alter the hegemonic gender discourse that surface in the narrative. It redefines the meaning of these words by exposing its combative quality (Robinson) and polysemic inclination. Borrowing briefly from Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of “dialogism” – a work that “constantly engages with and is informed by other works and voices, and seeks to alter or inform it”, it also  “is always in an intense relationship with another’s word” (Robinson). The combative quality of the word ‘men’ is revealed when it can also mean ‘boy’. Similarly the same can be said for ‘women’ and ‘girl’.

         In Melville’s The Tartarus of Maids, the word ‘girl’ appears at the end when the narrator asks why the maids are referred to as “girls” and not “women” (Melville 1510). The explanation that follows – that girls are precisely favoured for their non-reproductive quality (as they are not yet fertile), and thus securing a consistently productive work ethic – suggests the redundancy of women (1511). Although ‘women/females’ seemingly become the collective noun that is subjected to unfair and mechanised treatment as maids, the word ‘girl’ brings a whole new discourse to the table – that girls, as maids, are useful to society as well; they are the main drivers of the production of papers are thus the essential backbone of the economy.

         Fuller uses the term ‘boy’ in order to distinguish between the childish nature and a man’s potential to aid cause for the equal treatment of women. Fuller identifies that strong and independent women often appear intimidating for ‘men’, as the latter are “stained with vanity” and “does not feel strong enough to retain a life-long ascendant over a strong nature” (Fuller 736) that is present in the independent woman. However, Fuller notes that “the boy wants no woman, but only a girl to play ball with him, and mark his pocket handkerchief.” (736). The collective noun of ‘man/men’ who are criticised for their ignorance regarding the subjugation of women, is distinguished by the word “boy” (736). The “boy”, in all his immaturity, “wants no woman, but only a girl to play ball with him” (736). Fuller’s narrative voice is not gendered against the male, but is critical of it. She employs the dialogic use of ‘man’ and ‘boy’ to distinguish between her concerns to put forth a new discourse that men are not at fault for not standing up for women, boys are.

         In conclusion, the speaking voice of the narrator emphasises gender inequities through a first-person perspective, for there is a “revelatory power in conversation” (Quawas 131), in engaging directly with the reader. By presenting their own genders critically, Melville and Fuller both debunk the great inequities between genders that favour the male, while Fuller explicitly calls for a greater effort in abolishing this unfair treatment.  

Works Cited:

Fuller, Margaret. “The Great Lawsuit.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Ninth Edition, Volume B, edited by Robert S. Levine, Michael A. Elliott, Sandra M. Gustafason, Amy Hungerford, and Mary Loeffelholz, 9th ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 725-759.

Melville, Herman. “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Ninth Edition, Volume B, edited by Robert S. Levine, Michael A. Elliott, Sandra M. Gustafason, Amy Hungerford, and Mary Loeffelholz, 9th ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 1495-1511.

Quawas, Rula. “Margaret Fuller’s Conversations: Speaking as Revision and Feminist Resistance.” Studia Anglica Posnaniensia, vol. 47, no. 2-3, 2012, pp. 129-146, doi:10.2478/v10121-012-0008-6.

Robinson, Andrew. “In Theory Bakhtin: Dialogism, Polyphony and Heteroglossia.” Ceasefire Magazine, 11 Jan. 2012,

Tan, Willaine Gatusino. “Herman Melville: The Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids.” EN3231 American Literature I, 10 Apr. 2019, National University of Singapore. Journal Submission, pp. 22-25.

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