Melville’s Agatha

Published by Robert Lunday on

Near the end of their two-year period of close friendship, Herman Melville passed on to Nathaniel Hawthorne a story he’d picked up in New England from a New Bedford lawyer. In the letter he wrote to Hawthorne, he argued it would make a fine piece of fiction.

The story was of a woman, Agatha, daughter of a sailor resigned from his seagoing to operate a lighthouse. During a fierce storm, Agatha saves the sole survivor of a shipwreck. She marries the survivor, a man named Robinson, bears his child, and waits for him when he again goes to sea.

Seventeen years later, Robinson returns. He doesn’t stay, but disappears again, without warning. Another year later, after a second visit, he informs Agatha that he had taken a second wife, now deceased. After this second visit Robinson never returns, though he continues until his death to send money to Agatha and their now-married daughter.

Neither Hawthorne, too busy with political affairs at that time, nor Melville produced a surviving work from these details – though a possibly-missing work of Melville’s, “Isle of the Cross,” might have been the story of Agatha’s waiting. Melville’s proposal to Hawthorne, however, offers an ur-story of compelling qualities, informative as to his creative processes.

“I do not at all suppose that his desertion of his wife was a premeditated thing,” he says of Robinson, tentatively formed in Melville’s epistolary musings as a nascent character: “He was a weak man, & his temptations (tho’ we know little of them) were strong.”

Asa Weston Twitchell’s portrait of Melville, ca. 1847; public domain.

The sketch Melville composes in the letter is tentative – the fiction of a fiction –so we are sometimes shown the interiority of Robinson, and sometimes only an outline of his actions. “The whole sin stole upon him insensibly,” Melville imagines of the unfaithful husband, “so that it would perhaps have been hard for him to settle upon the exact day when he could say to himself, ‘Now I have deserted my wife’; unless, indeed upon the day he wedded the Alexandran lady.” Melville means the second wife residing in Virginia, but I hear an echo of the ancient Alexandria, where on Pharos Island stood the most famous of lighthouses.

In his letter it’s Agatha, not Robinson, who holds Melville’s attention. He creates a mystic, panoramic scene for her, within which she enacts the virtues he assigns: patience, fortitude, endurance. She inhabits the imagined seascape thus:

Young Agatha…comes wandering along the cliff. She marks how the continual assaults of the sea have undermined it; so that the fences fall over, & have need of many shiftings inland. The sea has encroached also upon that part where their dwelling-house stands near the light-house. – Filled with meditations, she reclines along the edge of the cliff & gazes out seaward. She marks a handful of cloud on the horizon, presaging a storm tho’ [through?] all this quietude.

and further:

Suddenly she catches the long shadow of the cliff cast upon the beach 100 feet beneath her; and now she notes a shadow moving along the shadow. It is cast by a sheep from the pasture. It has advanced to the very edge of the cliff, & is sending a mild innocent glance far out upon the water. Here, in strange & beautiful contrast, we have the innocence of the land placidly eyeing the malignity of the sea.

What’s most beautiful and telling in these descriptions is the animation of the scene in its transitions, whether of decay or livelier transformation. It is a verbal lithophane: translucent layers, sparely and carefully etched, emphasizing presence through emblems of absence and disappearance.

Around Agatha we see the vivid life of land, sea, air; in the animal presences that Melville places in this fragment of a tale. Agatha herself seems a condensation of these forces. It’s not the missing sailor we seek, but the inescapable presence of Agatha, projected and receiving life, in forms that can’t be lost, for they’re all connected. Her resilience is elemental and extends to us.

Robinson’s form, too, blends with the landscape. Agatha’s grief responds daily to the progressive decay of the shipwreck that brought him to her. Here is how Melville animates the emblem:

Now this wrecked ship was driven over the shoals, & driven upon the beach where she goes to pieces, all but her stem-part. This in course of time becomes embedded in the sand – after the lapse of some years showing nothing but the sturdy stem (or, prow-bone) projecting some two feet at low water. All the rest is filled & packed down with the sand.– So that after her husband has disappeared the sad Agatha every day sees this melancholy monument, with all its remindings.

Likewise, Agatha’s hope dies by degrees, and is refracted in the environment. In the next passage, the mail-post stands in for Robinson, or rather, for Agatha’s hope of return:

And at the junction of what we shall call the Light-House road with this Post Rode [sic], there stands a post surmounted with a little rude wood box with a lid to it & a leather hinge. Into this box the Post boy drops all letters for the people of the light house & that vicinity of fishermen. To this post they must come for their letters. And, of course, daily young Agatha goes – for seventeen years she goes thither daily. As her hopes gradually decay in her, so does the post itself & the little box decay. The post rots in the ground at last. Owing to its being little used – hardly used at all – grass grows rankly about it. At last a little bird nests in it. At last the post falls.

The post is a fulcrum between the real and ideal. The tableau creates such a precise yet simple measure between hope and despair, with the miniature intensity of a nickelodeon sequence. Something human-like, something marking a point of connection, re-enters the state of wildness that frames everything.

Missingness, in some of its iterations, is a sensitivity to the atavistic sense of boundaries between ourselves and the wilderness, or the world without us.

Agatha is Penelope, but Robinson is no Odysseus; there is no heroic circumscription of the world, no tension between the known and unknown through which a center might redefine itself. In slight form, the wayward husband is antiheroic, Modern – the imploded form of manhood we see in Dostoevsky, Kafka, and other works.


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