Study Guide

The Piazza Tales Themes

By Herman Melville

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    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.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Are there any women in The Piazza Tales who are not primarily objects of compassion or sympathy?
    2. Is Babo supposed to be an object of compassion in "Benito Cereno"? What evidence do you have for your answer?
    3. The narrator feels sorry for Bartleby. Do you? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Exile

    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.

    Questions About Exile

    1. Is Bartleby an exile? Why or why not?
    2. Is Babo an exile? Why or why not?
    3. Is Marianna in "The Piazza" an exile? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Isolation

    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.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Does Bartleby isolate himself? Or who is responsible for his isolation? Explain your answer.
    2. Are Babo and the black people aboard the ship isolated? Explain your answer.
    3. Are the Galapagos tragic or frightening because they are isolated? Or is the isolation what makes them interesting?

    Chew on This

    Amaso Delano is isolated by his ignorance.

    Beinto Cereno is isolated by his knowledge.

  • Lies and Deceit

    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.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. How does Bannadonna deceive the townspeople, and why does he get away with it?
    2. Is the Lightning-Rod Man trying to pass himself off as Jupiter? Explain your answer.
    3. Is Benito Cereno trustworthy? Explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    In "Benito Cereno", Babo is a brilliant deceiver.

    In "Benito Cereno", Delano mostly deceives himself.

  • Literature and Writing

    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.)

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Do you think the narrator in "The Piazza" is a writer? What clues are there?
    2. Is Bartleby a writer? Explain your answer.
    3. What function do the quotations from Spenser serve in "The Encantadas"? Would the story lose anything if they were removed?

    Chew on This

    In "Benito Cereno", Babo is a great writer.

    "The Piazza" and "Bartleby the Scrivener" are both about failing as a writer.

  • Passivity

    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.

    Questions About Passivity

    1. How is the narrator of "The Piazza" similar to Bartleby?
    2. Who is more passive, Bartleby, or the lawyer who narrates "Bartleby"?
    3. Is Benito Cereno passive? Explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    Bartleby is utterly passive.

    Bartleby is extremely aggressive.

  • Race

    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.

    Questions About Race

    1. Is Babo treated as a human being in "Benito Cereno"? Or is he a racist caricature?
    2. What if this story were told from Babo's perspective? How would it be different? How would Delano appear?
    3. Is "Benito Cereno" a story about racism? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    "Benito Cereno" is a racist story.

    "Benito Cereno" is an anti-racist story.

  • Versions of Reality

    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.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. How do the townspeople see Bannadonna? Is there vision of him accurate? Why or why not?
    2. In what way is Babo a dream like Marianna?
    3. What version of reality is the Lightning-rod man trying to sell?

    Chew on This

    In "The Piazza", Marianna is a dream of the narrator's.

    In "The Piazza", the narrator is a dream of Marianna's.