Melville's unfolding selves : identity formation in Mardi, Moby-Dick, and Pierre.




Thomas Horton, Margy.

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Mardi, Moby-Dick, and Pierre share striking parallels in form and content: each is narrated by an introspective yet adventurous narrator who encounters various triggers for his development, including authorities, mysterious people and phenomena, and evidence of the social contracts binding society together. All three novels juxtapose conflicting ideologies and culminate in an ambiguous integration of the narrator-protagonist into the larger world. Throughout the narration process, the narrator gradually progresses toward knowledge of self and world by learning from mistakes and altering behavior. These narrative characteristics are not drawn wholly from Melville’s imagination and experience, but rather typify a European genre, the Bildungsroman, that Melville read closely around 1850. Before now, scholars have assumed or argued that Bildungsromane did not exist in America as early as the mid-nineteenth century, with some scholars even denying that Bildungsromane can be written in an American context. However, this study shows that Melville wrote three novels that draw upon the conventions of that genre while revising them to depict a uniquely American process of identity formation, one in which no stable authority figure defined the path to maturity. Like America herself, the American Bildungsroman protagonist had to develop a means of self-invention. Melville’s major revision to the Bildungsroman is in his modification of the “portrait self” motif. In the European Bildungsromane Melville read, the portrait self is a text or image presented to the protagonist by an authority figure with the intent of showing the protagonist either who he is or who he should strive to be. The portrait self crystallizes the pedagogy designed by the protagonist’s father or guardian and is intended to motivate and focus the young man’s efforts toward positive change. In Melville’s American Bildungsromane, the narrator-protagonist constructs his own portrait self: in Mardi, he constructs a dream self (Taji); in Moby-Dick, a remembered self (young Ishmael on the Pequod); and in Pierre, a fictional self (the character Pierre). As each narrator imagines and describes his portrait self’s formation, he himself is formed. The protagonists strive increasingly toward independent self-invention but find themselves still entangled in their cultural inheritance. Melville’s conception of identity formation challenges the still-current view that humans are capable of absolute self-invention; paradoxically, it also enables today’s readers to see that, however environmental, social, or political factors may work against one’s cultivation, resources for constructing one’s own pedagogy are always available.



Melville, Herman., American literature., Bildungsroman., Mardi., Moby-Dick., Pierre.