There's a lot of compassion in "The Piazza Tales". The narrator in "The Piazza" feels sympathy and pity for Marianna for example—which is a little odd because Marianna seems to just be a figment of his imagination. Of course, all the characters in the books are just figments; they're stories. The book creates them and makes them miserable so you can feel bad for them. Suffering is a spectacle; it's carefully arranged and imagined the better for you, sitting on your porch, to appreciate and sympathize. It feels good to feel bad; compassion is entertainment.
In The Piazza Tales you can tell which people are supposed to be good because those people feel compassion.
In The Piazza Tales, feeling compassion doesn't necessarily make you good.
Melville is known as a writer of rip-roaring, whale-snorting sea stories, so it makes sense that The Piazza Tales would have some tales of folks marooned and abandoned far from home. Melville's also a Very Serious Author, though, so "exile" for him doesn't just mean desert islands and catastrophic adventure; it also means the sad, lonely exile of the lost soul. Bartleby is a kind of exiled adventurer in his cubicle; a drifting sailor lost amidst the paperclips.
The reader in "The Encantadas" is made to experience the feeling of exile.
The reader in "The Encantadas" is not really an exile, but a tourist.
As with exile, isolation can by physical or spiritual. With Melville (who likes his metaphors physical) it's often both at once, like out in the Galapagos, where folks sit on the islands all alone except for the occasional passing turtle, or hang out on a piazza all alone, imagining someone else out there over the mountains all alone. And then sometimes, like Benito Cereno, you can be isolated even while surrounded by people—or especially because you're surrounded by people, in Don Benito's case.
Amaso Delano is isolated by his ignorance.
Beinto Cereno is isolated by his knowledge.
Babo pretends to be a slave; Bannadonna hides his clockwork contraption; Bartleby won't say where he's from. Melville's work is filled with deception and little twist endings, many of which don't twist at all, but just remain mysterious. He's a travel writer in some ways, but a lot of his travel writing is about how you get someplace else and end up looking at a faceful of mist. Melville sails through a tricky world; even the landscape, sometimes, seems like it's trying to fool you.
In "Benito Cereno", Babo is a brilliant deceiver.
In "Benito Cereno", Delano mostly deceives himself.
There's a lot of literature in The Piazza Tales. Melville constantly refers to other writers and books—Spenser, Shakespeare, the Bible, Greek myths (Yes, you can Shmoop all of those). These allusions are often supposed to be cute, or funny, or show that the narrator is well-read or smart. At the same time, the one writer in the book is Bartleby, a mid-level, white-collar judge. So there's a tension between literature as intellectual, highbrow awesomeness, and the writer as a passive functionary starving to death. (It's probably worth mentioning here that Melville was not a very successful writer by the time he wrote these stories. Not as unsuccessful as Bartleby, but still, he may have identified a little.)
In "Benito Cereno", Babo is a great writer.
"The Piazza" and "Bartleby the Scrivener" are both about failing as a writer.
Melville is an adventure writer who likes to talk about just sitting there. "The Piazza" and "Bartleby" are both about nothing happening…but even "Benito Cereno", which has swashing and buckling in copious quantities, spends a lot of time on telling you how Benito Cereno is passive and filled with lassitude, and on how Delano is going back and forth and thinking the same things over and over without doing anything about them. Even when he describes excitement and murder and bloodshed, you get the feeling that Melville would prefer not to. He'd rather sit on his porch and dream.
Bartleby is utterly passive.
Bartleby is extremely aggressive.
Whose side is Melville on in "Benito Cereno"? Is he, like Captain Delano, a racist, who thinks the slaves are evil revolutionaries who deserve death? Or does he think Delano is a vicious clod, whose inability to detect the plot covers over his deeper inability to see the humanity of Babo and other black people? It's difficult to tell. But whatever Melville's intentions, the story urges you to look beneath the surface and see what Delano does not. As a result, whether or not Melville did so, it's easy now to read "Benito Cereno" from the perspective of Babo and the freed blacks, and to see the end, not as victory, but as tragedy.
"Benito Cereno" is a racist story.
"Benito Cereno" is an anti-racist story.
Reality in Melville's stories is often tricky. There's Mariana spinning in her house, and then whoops she isn't; Babo is a good servant and then not so much; "The Encantadas" are called the Enchanted Isles, but instead of being Enchanted they're a barren hellhole. Reality is hard to find under all the different interpretations and dreams and stories. Bartleby may have seen it once, hiding in his inkstand; but then, like many another Melville protagonist, he preferred not to.
In "The Piazza", Marianna is a dream of the narrator's.
In "The Piazza", the narrator is a dream of Marianna's.