Imagine you are sitting out on a piazza—a roofed porch. You gaze forth and see a giant turtle. Then you see a copyist who refuses to speak to you, and falls over dead. Then you see a bloody mutiny on board ship. Then a surprising robot attack. Then you wonder, "What on earth am I doing out on this veranda? Why has Shmoop taken me here? Should I defend myself from the robot by whacking it about the head-shaped bit with the turtle?"
These are all fine questions (except maybe the last one; seriously, a turtle isn't going to help you against a robot.) The answer to them (more or less) is that this is how The Piazza Tales work. Herman Melville, the author, is best known for his rip-roaring adventure novel Moby Dick, which has whales and shipwrecks and giant metaphors flopping about on every page.
But The Piazza Tales is different. In the first place, it's not a novel; it's a collection of six short stories, most of which were first published in Putnam's Magazine before they were printed as a book in 1856. Moby Dick not only flopped metaphorically, it flopped literally with critics, who hated it. The Piazza Tales, perhaps in reaction, is less ambitious, less epic, more small scale.
Many of the pieces in the collection seem like sketches or curiosities. You look out from your piazza and contemplate some strange individual passing by, or some strange incident with a curious twist.
Moby Dick was a book that wanted you to say "wow"! The Piazza Tales go more for "huh"? They want to pique your interest with the nifty, the exotic, the unexpected. Some of them could almost have click-baity Internet headlines. "Woman Shipwrecked Alone For Years on a Desert Island!", "Bell-Tower Tragedy: The Shocking Truth!", "Stubborn Scrivener Prefers Not To!" Okay, that last one doesn't work so well, but you get the idea.
So did the critics love the new, more curious, more click-baity Melville? Well, sort of. "The Encantadas, or The Enchanted Isles" was highly praised at the time. "Bartleby the Scrivener" is today considered one of the greatest short stories in the English language, and "Benito Cereno" is also very highly regarded—both have been adapted for stage and screen numerous times.
None of this really helped out poor Melville, though. The Piazza did not provide him with the serious book sales to help him out of his financial troubles. Give the public a whale; they don't like the whale; give them a piazza, they don't like the piazza. That's the way it goes, sometimes. If only Melville had tried sparkly vampires.
We'll will admit it; at points Melville seems like he's deliberately set out to see if he can get you not to care. "The Encantadas", highly regarded at the time, can seem like some sort of plot-less interminable torture device for modern audiences. To be stranded for years, nay decades, upon some rocky, brutal atoll with only dogs for company—you start to feel like you could face that fate with cheer if only you didn't have to finish reading this dreadful novella.
But, as Melville tells you, "even the tortoise, dark and melancholy as it is upon the back, still possesses a bright side." (5.22) The point here isn't so much that there's good with the bad (though there is that). Rather, the point is that The Piazza Tales are built to flip over and surprise you. You look out on the landscape you think you know, and then suddenly, it turns out that the stupid stubborn copyist is more than a stupid stubborn copyist, and that the servant and the master aren't what they appear at all.
Sometimes Melville gives you trick endings, like O. Henry. But more often, he gives you trick realities. The world looks one way, and then he moves you about, and it looks different, though nothing has really changed. It's like you try to flip the turtle over and wind up on your shell with your turtle feet waving in the air. Melville gives you a chance to see what brightness or darkness is down there, on the side of you that you don't often see.
Melville: The Website
A website devoted to Melville's life and work, with biographical information, excerpts from his novels and stories, criticism, history, and enough info to stuff a medium-sized whale.
The Enchanted Annotations
The New Bedford Whaling Museum has posted a complete annotations of the short story "The Encantadas." Hugely helpful.
Herman Melville's Porch
"The Piazza" is fiction, but Melville did have a house he probably looked out of sometimes. It was called Arrowhead, was located in Massachusetts, and is now a historical site. This is the associated website, which includes biographical information, exhibit discussions, news and more.
This is a list of online literary criticism, focusing on scholarly and peer-reviewed sources. If you want to start in to criticize Melville, for a paper or just because you feel he needs criticizing, this is a good place to begin.
Benito Cereno (1969)
A French adaptation of the novella.
There are a number of shorts and TV movie adaptations of Melville's short story. This is one of the few full length features, though; it's a British production set in 1970s London.
Set in the contemporary U.S. and featuring Crispin Glover, who seems like he was born to play Bartleby.
The Real Benito Cereno
An account of the true story on which "Benito Cereno" was based.
Don't Root for Benito Cereno
An academic critical essay arguing that "Benito Cereno" wants you to identify with the slaves, not with the slavers.
Is Bartleby a Revolutionary? Or Does He Just Not Feel Well?
An essay that looks at whether or not "Bartleby" is meant to have a political message.
Travel to This Scenic Hellhole
A discussion of the context and meaning of "The Encantadas"
You Never Know What You're Seeing From the Piazza
A look at style in "The Piazza" and other stories, and how it signals that the narrators are unreliable or confused.
Drawing Benito Cereno
A short version of "Benito Cereno", with cute drawings and ominous music.
A Biography of Melville
A short video biography of Herman Melville.
A documentary about the Galapagos, or as Melville called them, the Encantadas.
Bartleby the Reader
An audio reading of Bartleby the Scrivener. It takes about an hour and a half.
Reading "Benito Cereno"
An audio reading of "Benito Cereno". It takes about four hours.
Map of the Galapagos
This is a modern map, so the names of the islands aren't the ones Melville uses in "The Encantadas", but you can get a sense of what the islands look like, at least.
Herman Melville and His Beard
A painting of Melville
Wall Street in 1850
What Wall Street in New York would have looked like while Bartleby was working there.
A Galapagos Tortoise
The tortoise sees something interesting. Tortoises live long enough that this one might have been alive when Melville published The Piazza Tales.