This article analyses Herman Melville’s diptych of short stories entited ‘The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids’ (1855). Meville’s stories were written at a time when the desire to create the ideal industrial nation led to the widespread recruitment of female factory workers, a process well established in early nineteenth-century New England. While belief in the improving effects of industrialization were strong, fear that masses of unsurpervised women together, away from the influence of small-scale Puritan communicities, would lead to profligacy led to the establishment of supervised manufacturing communities, such as .the model manufacturing-community Lowell in Massachusetts. Melville’s ‘The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids’ envisions results of (self) control on the sexual identity of women once suspended between traditional paternalistic models. As this article demonstrates, they did not escape commodification as the role of their sexuality was undergoing changes in a new industrial environment. Looking at texts written in The Lowell Offering and The New England Offering by such women, we shall see how women workers combined their new roles as economic producers and producers of texts to avoid masculinisation by reinventing themselves as a new type of commodity. Taking part in what had been a predominantly masculine mode of production in Europe (industrial and literary) American society colluded in making these women producers and agents only of their own popular and personal reinscription as objects.In ‘The Paradise of Bachelors’, the celibacy imposed on mill girls might require them to write creatively to sustain life and identity as much as it requires them to submit to a new sexually commodifying, gendered world view.


Herman Melville wrote his diptych of short stories, ‘The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids’ (1855), at a time in American social history when republican ideology had long since succeeded in fostering a belief in an ‘ideal’ industrial nation. Factory workers would not just raise the standard of living in the country in general, allowing a majority to pursue higher goals in life, but would themselves become better educated and more useful people in the process — as forewords in early manuals, written with the progress of technology in mind, never ceased to argue. Arguments for the feasibility of this proposed national self-improvement through technology were originally based on recruiting young women from rural communities, something which was successfully achieved in New England in the first half of the nineteenth century (Zimiles, 1973, 168). Mechanization would make up for the shortcomings and inadequacies, moral and economic, of young women ‘who could do little on the farm’ but could usefully operate machinery for profit from age twelve or so, according to Thomas Jefferson [1]. This employment of the nation’s females would encourage a move back to America’s original ‘spirit of public virtue’ and domestic duties and away from the ‘idleness and sloth’ which threatened to produce only ‘luxury, effeminacy, and extravagance’ (Kasson, 1976, 18).

The manufacturing ideal became reality, at least insofar as the daughters of New England farmers had come to populate model mill communities worthy of admiration from industrial tourists. But underlying the assumptions about the improving effects of industrialization were also specific American ideas about the nature of the women who would be employed under new circumstances. While work itself might be considered improving, from a Protestant point of view, massing together large groups of women, though necessary for industrialization to work, encouraged latent concerns about gender and virtue: Women together, away from the influence of small-scale and Puritan communities, might not protect each other from effeminate and extravagant vices at times when work itself was not curbing their idle and corruptible tendencies. They might in fact be found to encourage each other to dream about romances, to spend their money on luxury goods and their leisure time on reading fictions about ‘fine clothes, fine marriages, fine houses, or fine life’ instead of those texts which ‘inculcate habits of self-denial and contentment’ in proper Protestant fashion (Dickens, 1985, 117/8).

To counter such cultural suspicions, the model manufacturing-community Lowell in Massachusetts, which would replace the domestic networks to which these girls belonged, boasted strictly controlled and supervised factories and boarding house environments which combined to control the moral and material welfare of young women from their mid-teens until they were ready to be married. Such at least was the conception of the benefits of manufacturing life for women – surveillance and rigorous codes of behaviour not only created dependable workers to fit the new routines required by mechanized labour but were effective tools to convince fathers they were passing daughters on to another paternalistic system rather than ‘a life of sin and degradation’ (Zimiles, 1973, 168). Moreover, at this time of religious revival in New England, young women themselves sought acceptable ways of resocializing themselves within religious networks, thus transferring back into a context of prescribed self-control, recognizable from their homes [2].

Melville’s ‘The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids’ envisions results of (self) control on the sexual identity of women once suspended between traditional paternalistic models. As we shall see, they did not escape commodification as the role of their sexuality was undergoing changes in a new industrial environment. Looking at texts written in The Lowell Offering and The New England Offering by such women, we shall see how women workers combined their new roles as economic producers and producers of texts (roles reserved usually for men, Irigaray’s producer subjects and agents of exchange and consumption or the Bachelors of Melville’s texts) to avoid masculinisation by reinventing themselves as a new type of commodity. They produced, in some senses, their own commodity value via an insistence on old religious values and new industrial ones stressing sexual control and a mechanical regularization of the (female) body within a changing hom(m)osexual economy (Irigary, 1977, 176, 168). They accepted the need to become asexual mass products of the mills in which they worked, but also hoped to sell themselves as ‘new improved’ women according to emerging Romantic and middle class ideals. Taking part in what had been a predominantly masculine mode of production in Europe (industrial and literary) American society colluded in making these women producers and agents only of their own popular and personal reinscription as objects.

If a general belief in the tenets of America’s ‘ideal domestic industry’ prevailed, at the time Melville writes the actual material and social benefits of mill life had been undermined. Work was no longer as financially rewarding as before, nor was marriage a necessary ‘reward’ at the end of a brief career. What should have been, in some ways, a liberating/emancipating journey for women into wage earning, which would also improve their commodity value on the matrimonial market, was turning into a kind of enslavement, robbing them of property as agents/producers and of value as objects. Melville’s depiction in ‘The Tartarus of Maids’ of female mill-workers’ fates provides an evocative metaphor for the ills of mechanization while drawing on a genuine social concern: the realities of factory life for young women. The way Melville goes about this, especially in view of his approach to the ‘Paradise’ story preceding his ‘Tartarus’, draws attention to aspects of a new American attitude to sexuality which were formed, or deformed, as the United States were leaving behind a Puritan and colonial past.

In the first of Melville’s diptych or paired short-stories, the narrator, an American man visiting London, is invited to join in a dinner party held at an apartment in Temple, one of London’s four Inns of Court or Honourable Societies of Barristers, in the ‘smiling month of May’ (Melville, 1993, 190). On his way to join a party of nine unmarried lawyers who live and dine there, the narrator muses on the nature of the celibate and war-hardened Knights Templar, who owned the area in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and considers how these ‘warrior-priests’ have degenerated into mere lawyers (Melville, 1993, 189). The present-day barristers who have taken their place at Temple are still bachelors, however, and do battle not just in court but at a well-laden dinner table. The narrator shares in a sumptuous meal, an abundance of alcohol and entertaining anecdotes, before the bachelors retire for the night and the narrator leaves the brotherhood in elevated spirits contemplating how the life of such a fraternity of ‘easy–hearted men’, unburdened by wives and children, is ‘the very Paradise of Bachelors’ (Melville, 1993, 194/4).

The second of the two short-stories sees the narrator returned to New England and ‘the seedsman’s business’ (Melville, 1993, 196). On a bitterly cold January day he sets out for a remote paper-mill to buy cheap paper for seed envelopes. Where the walk to the pleasures of the quiet, cloistered Eden of the Old World bachelors saw the narrator ‘glide down a dim, monastic way, flanked by dark, sedate, and solemn piles’, he now has to force his horse and sleigh through shrieking winds at ‘a dusky pass’ named Mad Maid’s Bellows’-pipe in order to reach a ‘great, purple, hopper-shaped hollow, far sunk among many Plutonian, shaggy-wooded mountains’ (Melville, 1993, 187,195). In this secluded place called the Devil’s Dungeon, next to a strange torrent called Blood River, the narrator finds a white-washed paper-mill. It is owned by a bachelor, Old Bach, and the only other man present, a ‘usage-hardened boy’ named Cupid, shows the narrator around the factory where pale and silent spinsters work the machines (Melville, 1993, 202) The narrator is sickened by the poor working-conditions and reduced humanity of the blank maids he encounters and reflects on the ‘inverted similitude’ between the ‘sweet, tranquil Temple garden’ by the Thames and this ‘frost-painted sepulchre’ by the ‘turbid brick-coloured stream’ (Melville, 1993, 198,195). Pale and cold, he finally exclaims ‘oh! Tartarus of Maids!’ as he makes a swift escape from this hell for unmarried women.

The Paradise story depicts the latent (homo)sexuality which seems a result of old world luxuriousness – something from which not just Puritans but industry boosters in republican America vociferously distanced their society. Tench Coxe had warned against America’s ‘untimely passion for European luxuries’ which ‘threatened convulsions and dissolution to the political body’ (Coxe qtd. in Kasson, 1976, 31). The fear was not as much one of a homosexual paradigm applied to American politics and society but a suspicion towards the female body, prone to desires and fancies, which from the time of the revolution had necessitated a particular effort on the behalf of women to seem hardworking (displaying ‘domestic production’ of sensible cotton products at public spinning bees) and resilient towards the temptation of silken luxuries from Europe (Coxe qtd. in Kasson, 1976, 31). Producing a Protestant work ethic for women in particular could remove the new republic from the consuming passions of its imperial masters.

Melville’s American ‘Paradise’ narrator visiting the inner sanctum of London’s degenerated and emasculated Templars is seduced by their non-domestic consuming passions only to find himself in the ‘Tartarus’ section confronted with the ascetic ‘ideal’ of ‘frugality and industry’ which Americans would logically offer as ‘potent antidotes to the vices of mankind,’ in Coxe’s words (Coxe qtd. in Kasson, 1976, 31). Finding American women working so hard and acting so mechanically they have become impervious to sexual or material temptation, the narrator is sickened. Atoning perhaps as much for the existence of extravagance and effeminacy in the world of the bachelors as for any sexual crimes of their own, these Danaïds of Tartarus slave away interminably, erasing their own threat to male society while furnishing its luxuries [3]. Mass production, insofar as it threatened to encourage consumption and effeminacy in the USA, was also offering itself as the antidote to the ‘convulsions and dissolution’ by acting directly on the female body and behaviour at factories. Turning American women into industrial novices and regularizing their (sexual) bodies out of existence, Melville’s vision implies, does not rid the new world of the potentially depraved ‘Bachelor’ of the old world but only serves to pervert the ‘natural’ course of female sexuality as well – in the accumulation of wealth rather than in its, uneven, distribution [4].

As the American System of manufactures had been based to a great extent on the possibility of using women as the ‘raw material’ for industrialization, Melville is perhaps uniquely aware of the strange complications this caused for the view of sexuality at a time when gender was involved subtly in industrial developments and religious revival. His short stories dramatize the complex ties between (de)formation of sexuality and the formation of an industrialized nation at the heart of which was the interplay between Puritan, Protestant or capitalist motives. As the writing of some of the desexualized ‘mill girls’ will show, changes dictated by this industrial model were to affect the (self)definition of young women, their work identity already moving them towards mass products rather than nubility. The transition, or rather incorporation of Puritanism into a modern capitalist project restructured the ways in which their sexuality, religious feelings and social possibilities would be perceived, by themselves, by the society into which they were now to be fitted, and by outside observers.


Having sped through the sexualized topography of Devil’s Dungeon to get to the ordered reality of the paper mill, the well-travelled narrator of Melville’s stories acts the outside observer of the arrangements industrialization has dictated for the Maids of Tartarus. He is, in fact, an active participant in the society which demands or acquiesces to these arrangements, just as he was an active participant as much as an observer of the luxurious banquet of the Bachelors. Though the seedsman narrator laments seeing them ‘haltered to the rack’ of capitalist production, the role of female workers in the economic health of the still young nation was doubtless appreciated (Melville, 1993, 201). But the necessity of their labour was not to tied as much to the original ideology of thrift and financial rewards for society as to discourses concerning the public moral benefits of removing ‘idle young women [who] were particularly prone to depravity’ to secluded industrial ‘convents’ (Eisler, 1977, 19). Instead of offering a solution for American industrialization as a wage-earning workforce, these young women found themselves treated as latently promiscuous; problems to be contained by industrialization itself. One could thus argue that the industrialization process (striving for autonomy and self-justification) ironically came to require or further a reinforcement of the ‘unreliable’ sexualized body of Puritan times — which had been contained within matrimony but would now be circumscribed in a process of social mechanization — at a time when women were also being desexualized, partly through their own Protestant strategy to secure power through moral superiority (Cott, 1979, 168). Religion and industrialization were both vying for and cooperating in sustaining control over women as erotic beings — something peculiarly reflected in the strong institutional presence of many denominations in New England mill communities [5]. Both encouraged women to internalize control mechanisms which would make them work obediently at the machines and exhibit acceptable behaviour outside of the mill. Puritan women (keeping sex within matrimony for the purpose of reproductive labour) were respected for working, also outside of the domestic sphere, but by the 1840s, after the initial romance of industrialization wore off and factory work threatened to become the permanent career move marriage once were, American society no longer approved of women working outside home, unwed. On the one hand, a Protestant work environment would have to contain the female sexuality a Puritan marriage had appeared to do, on the other hand and as part of a peculiar exchange, to be economic producers women compensated for the loss of respect as workers with a loss of sexuality (Lerner, 1979, 184).

In the case of New England’s daughters, a mechanized environment defined by a Protestant work ethic was increasingly being conceived of in terms of necessity for their own purity of body instead of economic necessity to a newly independent society. Melville manages to depict this neutering of women, blank or pure white as the driven snow, in an environment where the machinery which impresses itself upon them physically, dictates the speed and direction of their every movement, and denies them biological reproduction has in fact become itself intensely sexualized. In this second exchange of sexuality, the factory, in Melville’s Tartarus, has usurped the means of production and grown its own reproductive organs, male and female. The male genitalia have become ‘great round vats’ combined by one ‘common channel’ through which the white, wet, pulpy ‘beginnings’ go ‘leisurely, to the great machine’ which replaces the womb. The pace in the Paradise of bachelors was likewise leisurely but the machine, into which the female has been turned, works more efficiently: the productive process between gestation and birth now takes only nine minutes (Melville, 1993, 203). Melville’s fiction suggests a pre-electronic cyborgian redefinition of sex which goes beyond the emerging cultural definitions of gender within an industrial context. His image of the intimate place women occupied in early American industry makes flesh, metal and paper a new female body image at a point where the ‘difference between machine and organism’ had started to blur (cp. Haraway, 1991, 165). In some respects the logic applied in ‘The Tartarus of Maids’ goes beyond both a cyborgian definition and a traditional binary gender division: although industrialization requires human components it is placed in a capitalist system and a sexual ideology which allows it independent life between production, exchange and consumption by requiring bachelors and mill girls alike to become non-reproductive and eventually, in the case of women, fully replaceable by machinery.

Puritan women had been definable as ‘baby machines’ but not subject to a mechanical regulation of their cycles or sexuality above and beyond the boundaries dictated by religious morality. Industrial women were in a sense losing not just their sexuality but their gender identity in exchange for becoming producers (on different terms from domestic reproducers). Approaching a neuter gender they were sliding from de-sexed to inanimate. Becoming mechanical agents they were not entering a masculine area but at risk of being defined by the double state of loss of not even being feminine: a mechanical emptiness we see in the working cyphers of the ‘Tartarus of Maids’. The threat of neutering of women producers thus correlates with a double reification of females as commodities by exacerbating their ‘thingness’ even as they become active producers and wage earners — something Melville’s automata women illustrate starkly and Offering writers enact by using their writing to encourage women to see themselves as the (self) improved products of communities like Lowell, as much as the things they actually produce.

Where the first exchange was within an economy of morals the second sexual exchange is industrial: in Melville’s fiction it transgressed the rhetoric of efficiency within which it was conceived. Textually, Melville illustrates some of the repercussions this shift in ideological justification had sexually, in turning the production process into an impossibly rationalized version of reproduction and in diverting a female impulse to enjoy any sexual power or self-determination. Other texts, some written by mill girls themselves show, however, how women entering the job market both submitted to such processes of neutering by ideological requirements but also use the paper they make or the money they earn to purchase a space in which to explore their own power as consumers and potential as commodities on a sexual market, whether it is defined by pre-existing Puritan ‘love’ ideas which centred on reproduction within and for the benefit of the family unit, or an emerging bourgeois definition of ‘Romantic’ love which played off the power of purity against sexual attraction between individuals (D’Emilio, 1997, 171). The reality for mill girls may have been closer to Melville’s vision: a permanent working class less likely to escape through marriage than to die from work related consumption. The fictional imagination displayed by women writing for The Lowell Offering/New England Offering in the 1840s, however, rarely related to their role in industrialization and a capitalist system as actors but instead to themselves as love ideals. Where Melville shows their working conditions as literally alienating them from the reality of birthing labour, female factory workers often show themselves alienated from their industrial labour by perceiving it not as a means of income but as an investment in themselves in a brief transitional phase between being owned by their father’s family and a prospective husband (cp. Dickenson, 1997, 119/20). This gap between ownership by father and husband also at this time seems to enact a gap between the Puritan and Romantic model of female sexuality: women relinquish the reproductive model as they redirect their potential towards industrial production but experience complications as they try to reinvest themselves with sexuality, through their wages, insofar as feelings of desire and attraction could exist only within very specific parameters in the romantic courtship model. Women who had entered the new, industrial, labour market experienced a double alienation or reification of sexuality, informed or interpreted by these greater ideologies, but also exacerbated by the interstice between them.

As a result of the second, neutering exchange of sexuality within a mechanistic or industrial economy working women could have been looking to the repressed sexuality of the romantic love model as a means of reasserting their feminine sexuality, although it also (re)established them as commodity objects in a homosocial world. It did so, observing the first, moral economy of sexual exchange, by insisting on the repressive element in romantic courtship. Women became untouchable and pure at the same time as displaying desirable qualities more openly. Not necessarily considered sexual, these attractions were thought of by Lowell women as qualities attained through education, modesty of behaviour and physical and sartorial beauty: some of which could be acquired in the shops, circulating libraries and Lyceum lectures of larger mill communities. But where expenditure was had on the latter, external qualities, women soon found themselves back up against moral suspicions aimed at their ‘luxurious’ natures. Just as the Protestant work ethic taught them to save their wages in the bank, it taught women, puritanically or romantically, to save themselves for their husband. A woman who spends her wages thus risks challenging not the work ethic but a sexual one which sees spending as promiscuous because she takes charge of what she is worth, in the value she has created with her working body, by using the value she has produced as she desires. Only if she can argue, in the Lowell Offering stories which give her a voice to justify her financial promiscuity, that her purchases were aimed at enhancing her chances of a good marriage can she defend herself against a suspicion of enacting a furtive prostitution by being a working girl who might enjoy its ensuing pleasures rather than its (re)productive goals (D’Emilio & Freedman, 1988, 80).

Society might insist on seeing mills as convents, and preferring to see working girls dressed as nuns, but rape cases show that they were also considered loose or fair game through their occupation. Sexual passionlessness, or virtue, such as Cott defined it, ‘applied primarily to native-born, middle-class women’; working-class, immigrant and black women continued to be seen as sexually passionate and thus sexually available’ (D’Emilio & Freedman, 1988, 39, 46). New England mill girls were struggling, through their written testimony in the Offering, to associate themselves with Puritan and romantic, middle-class values instead of being identified with the vices of a working class. Their defence of their virtue included attacks on the Irish immigrants who ruined their reputation — by allowing wages to be lowered — although their moral and sexual devaluation had really started with the original ideas behind the American System of manufacture.


The appalling conditions of poorly-paid factory girls were certainly a reality in the early 1850s, when Melville and others commented upon them. More than a decade earlier, when The Lowell Offering began publication, speed-ups, stretch-outs, lay-offs and reduced wages were already common. Written by mill-girls themselves, the Offeringwas probably the most famous publication to come out of the mills. How authentic a vision of their lives it provided was a matter of debate at the time. Even as the first volume of collected articles appeared in 1841, the journal’s failure to expose the evils of the manufacturing system saw it condemned as a mouthpiece of the factory proprietors. One contributor defended the romantic glossing-over of facts by claiming that the ‘Stygian’ qualities of work in the mills were already being overly emphasized elsewhere (Ella, 1841, 375). It seemed the most popular writing by and about working women had chosen to define itself in opposition to the no longer negligible voices from within the community and from overseas observers which compared the use of women in this ideal republican industry to the dark satanic mills of England and the slavery of the Southern states of the US [6]. Indirect reservations about the factory system are evident in the numerous slice-of-life stories in the early Lowell Offering but for the sake of employee morale, such complaints are invariably resolved following the intervention of an older and wiser worker who counsels endurance and satisfaction to aberrant or dissatisfied girls, as well as, indirectly, to mill-girl readers. This trend in the Offering is what makes Dickens see it as instruction to the nuns of Lowell in the ‘habits of self-denial and contentment’ (Dickens, 1985, 117/8).

At a point in political and industrial history where the position of women in the New England mills was being reviewed, the Offering tried to hold to the old ideals and to reassert them amongst their readership. In some respects the tools of self-control were those of nostalgia for the republican ideals of manufacture which had launched mill communities like Lowell, in other respects, even the Offering shows evidence that these ideals were increasingly contestable at a time of transition from an older, Puritanical framework to one where women would have to negotiate a new and awkward position as producers and/or objects in a male or industrial model of American culture. Publications such as The Lowell Offering although it reaffirms their commodity values to solve the problem of allowing them to be producers (of paper in ‘The Tartarus of Maids’) in a male world, also puts them in a space traditionally imaged as a male space: that of creative, literary production on paper. Although female labourers left little written evidence of life in paper mills like the Dalton one on which Melville based his story, operatives in cotton mills at Lowell made up for this in literary production which let them be seen as the objects and subjects of their own literary production.

The dreams and desires, and restrictions, exercised by writers in the Offering contrasts with Melville’s treatment of this duality of the women producers of/on paper, who are also consumable. In the homoerotic, masturbatory atmosphere of ‘The Paradise of Bachelors’ where women, nearly silenced even as a concept, and their reproductive forces have been de facto ousted from Eden, food (forbidden or not) replaces not just warfare but sex: feminized and softened these men have become consumers rather than producers (Melville, 1993, 187). Apart from symbolic innuendo, the remains of (non-reproductive) sexuality are reflected in the reading of Boccaccio’s Decameronshort-stories — most of which play with adultery or the breaking of clerical celibacy vows. In ‘The Tartarus of Maids’ the narrator’s and reader’s gazes are confronted by nun-like women who produce the blank paper upon which such saucy bedtime reading might later be inscribed. They surrender their sexuality and romantic aspirations to produce the medium that affords such male fantasies. Offering writers often seemed to write about their own romantic fantasies (involving miraculously improved marriage prospects after a stint at the mills). In doing so they play with the power to produce oneself, not primarily as any (woman) writer but as a product relying on new romantic conventions to catch the desirous gaze of eligible bachelors — by making itself ‘desirable and worthy of being chosen’ [7]. This type of fictional writing acts out in literature the perceived desires and fantasies of man, disguised as women’s own, dubiously romantic, attraction to lives of fine clothes, marriages, and houses. Finding such fantasies published amongst other writings insisting on the Puritanically based strictures of women living on their own and on the Protestant rewards for working hard, which in the mill communities were so rewarding in terms of self-control and self-improvement, does not constitute the expected clash since all stages of this transition see women as products to be produced, stored safely, displayed, advertised and ultimately sold.

At the beginning lies the production of a commodity, which women workers and writers themselves helped sell as attractive both to the old puritanical paternal origins and to the new independent desires of courtship in the form of mill life as a valuable form of self-improvement or education. Ostensibly, a factory is not an educational institution. It neither produces nor spreads ideas, and Melville’s mill cares not whether the paper it produces can be used to convey seeds of thought. This the seedsman discovers when he asks if no printed matter but only blank paper is made. ‘Certainly; what else should a paper-factory make?’ Cupid answers, with more than utilitarian puzzlement (Melville, 1993, 201). The function of the product is less interesting than the production of and demand for it. Yet during the initial years of industrialization there had been a strong argument that humans were themselves a product, in addition to whatever else factories produced [8]. This ethos was certainly present in the Waltham-style mills, where rigidly run boarding houses and paid factory work lured decent farmers’ daughters into the new American work force by promising personal improvement as well as a chance to earn and save cash [9]. Just as working twelve hours a day for a living in a factory was promoted as a good lesson in prudence and the Protestant work ethic, so time spent in the boarding- houses was considered morally uplifting and educational. Two to three years in the mill, it was suggested, would improve a girl’s chances of making a good marriage afterwards. She would have learnt frugality and self-discipline, proved herself hard-working, and saved several hundred dollars out of a wage of around two dollars, clear of board, per week [10]. While the money might have gone to the upkeep of parents and siblings at home and only a little on her own ‘fineries,’ the romantic tales favoured by these young women claimed that the working girl would have improved her potential social mobility by becoming better educated and thus more culturally refined had she spent her free time reading, attending lectures or learning to play an instrument.

In the model community Lowell was held to be, education and moral improvement were also high on the agenda, not least as image-builders for the benefit of visitors and to attract the local workforce. Indeed, the fact that factory workers would have the opportunity and ability to play instruments struck many visitors as the result of unusual cultural philanthropy. Dickens, for one, thought it would startle his readers at home. But if a joint-stock piano, a circulating library and a periodical written by the female employees themselves were features of Lowell in 1842, by 1855 in ‘The Tartarus of Maids’ and for many factories that was no longer (or never had been) the case. In Melville’s mill there is no printing of any sort, only blank paper impressed with rules or ironically romantic images. The mark of the literary mill-girls on the writing paper is minimal and predetermined, and most of the paper leaves the factory as foolscap to fulfil its potential for recording the trivialities of life elsewhere. As for music, in place of a piano they have a ‘long apparatus, strung with long, slender strings like any harp’, which is in fact part of the production line (Melville, 1993, 199). The much-vaunted educational qualities of factory life may have been present at Lowell, where in 1850 ten thousand workers employed in over fifty mills owned by a dozen corporations made Lyceum lectures and whatever other facilities proprietors might support viable (The New England Offering, 8, 1850, 1). But communities like Lowell were exceptional, and the smaller scale mills (which enraptured foreign visitors were rarely taken to see) were often, like the Tartarus paper-mill, located in remote, inaccessible places. Tied of necessity to sources of water power rather than urban centres, they only rarely offered opportunities for cultural improvement, instead girls were themselves the ‘paper’ produced blank and ‘ruled’ by machinery (Melville, 1993, 199/200).

Where education might be thought to improve women for future life and marriage, their physical health and attractiveness and earning money was not necessarily allowed to be as apparently selfish. It was in fact the transitional stage between selling and purchasing the female product which might be described as ‘storing’ her safely so as not to lose the value she had originally or had gained through self-improvement. One, anonymous, writer remarked on the ‘Duties and Rights of Mill-girls’ in a way proprietors surely would have appreciated. Staying healthy was in her opinion a duty owed to not only the mill-girl’s employer but also her family and future generations, given that ‘hundreds and thousands of New England’s daughters… are to be the mothers of so large a portion of the next generation, and… are to bequeath to them robust or sickly constitutions, according, in a great degree, as their own has been well or ill preserved’ (Farley, 1848, 4). It is hard not to see these mill-girls as so many brood mares ‘haltered to the rack’ (Melville, 1993, 201). The author of ‘Duties and Rights’ also clearly perceived the girls not just as producers but as product – one in severe danger of declining in value following a stay at the factory. One daughter leaves her parents ‘a plump, rosy-cheeked, strong, and laughing girl, and in one year comes back to them – better clad, t’is true, and with refined manners, and money for the discharge of their little debts, and for the supply of their wants, – but alas how changed!’ (Farley, 1848, 4). Having also been their breadwinner, the weak and weary girl would not be able to take up her domestic duties, tending to her parents. Yet her pallor and weakness do not, in this author’s view, indicate that factory work is too hard and wearing; rather it is such light work that mill-girls’ appetites are understimulated. They get ‘the morbid craving’ and fill up on frivolous ‘confectionery’ instead of regular, if unappetizing, boarding- house fare (Farley, 1848, 4). What remains an unspoken assumption in this particular text is the deterioration in that girl’s marketability as object of desire for men — viz. possible future husbands. Not unspoken is an assumption of personal responsibility for unattractiveness directed at women themselves: Between the Protestant ethos of industrial regularity and the Puritan insistence on natural reproduction as part of moral health, working women found themselves the non-possessing keepers of a contested body. Divisions between these powerful ideas of the definition of virtue resulted in focusing blame for shortcomings on women themselves. Whether overtly sexual overtones or the mere lack of control were perceived, essentially, blame was turned inward at women whose gender remained the locus of the effeminate extravagance, luxury and uncontrollability feared by both ideologies.

Posed as a solution to the corruption of women’s bodies the mechanical regulations imposed on the human system of bodily functions by the manufacturing system’s limitations on time could not be denied as a factor in the demise of the ‘health of body and health of soul’ of the mill girl (Farley, 1848, 79):

She must eat when the iron tongue bids her, or not at all. She must take her out-door exercises then, or not at all, whatever may be her inclination or the requirements of her individual system founded on peculiar organizations of habits of health (Farley, 1848, 79).

It is as if the threat of consumption truly takes on its ambiguous meaning, as factory girls are as likely to waste away from sickness as from consuming too much. The welfare-disease of luxury may be welcome to bachelors but is a threat to maids. Mechanization thus struck at the physical roots of sexuality as well as attacking the limited sexuality allowed within the cultural constructions of gender. ‘The nuns of Lowell,’ as Michel Chevalier termed them, were slaves ‘whose movements are regulated like clockwork’ (Chevalier qtd. in Fisher, 1977, 86). They were subjected to the iron tongue of the bell, regimented by the rhythm of the machine, and at the mercy of a boarding-house matron who profited on bad cooking. Instead of functioning in loco parentis, matrons were another liability to a worker’s health, even if the latter’s virtue was still allegedly being protected by a list of rules so strict as to be ‘fit to prepare an aspirant for canonization’ (Zimiles, 1973, 168). Close supervision of the girls at work by overseers took on the air of surveillance as it extended into their homes.

Yet the Puritan morals sustained in boarding-houses lived side by side with romantic dreams and gentle flirting, if we are to believe the writing and reading favoured by the girls of Lowell. Here we find the approach to the final destination of the woman as commodity: the displaying and advertising with a view to selling her on to an attracted and attractive husband. In Dickens’ mind their urge for social climbing had caused scores of Mary Annes change names and become Bevelinas, an urge for alternative identities which the fanciful names behind which Lowell Offering creative writers hid seem to bear out (Dickens, 1985, 168). In this sense, the Offering does support the belief that the lives of many girls were centred on dreams of miraculously good marriages and ribbons and silk dresses financed by their savings. It also suggests that, asymmetrical as the relationship between male buyer and female product might be, women engaged in active advertising strategies as well as product improvement to attract men.

Although it might be an act of compliance with a masculine economy, factory girls were considered frivolous consumers for working twelve hours a day producing cotton fabric, only to spend their wages on more luxurious fabrics (at a higher textile exchange rate). Even if a silk dress could be presented as an ‘investment’ to attract a better class of husband, such social ambition was suspicious. The desire for a silk dress for themselves, the extravagance and flouting of economy – ‘domestic laws’, from GreekOiko-nomia – displayed by women’s earning their own money, was almost more threatening than whatever chances of love and romance these girls had. Somehow, spending power in their hands was unpredictable. Worse still, paired with their New England independence and roots in good revolutionary families, it led to a new problem: early mill-girls not only showed a growing interest in their financial situation but in the mid-1830s engaged in turn-outs, or strikes, for better wages in America’s model industrial city.

Perhaps the threat posed to corporate financial interests by an awakening of self-worth in women made the danger an erosion of their sexual morals posed to society in general seem negligible by comparison — especially as the neutering of minds and bodies achieved by mechanization had been so successful. In fact, the Lowell girls were allowed little more sexuality than that displayed by the Tartarus girls, whose only love affairs are with the machines to which they are subjected. When Dickens saw a baby in Lowell, he found himself ‘unconsciously wondering where it had come from: never supposing… it could have been born in such a young town as that’ (Dickens, 1985, 114). The problem was not that the town itself was young or that the mill-girls were too young to reproduce; that they should do so was unthinkable. This was either because any impropriety would lose them their place — in lodgings and factories where they might be blacklisted, in effect ousting them from Lowell — or, because, as in ‘The Tartarus of Maids,’ they were seen as asexual: industrially productive to the complete exclusion of biological reproduction. It was such all encompassing mechanization of the female which made one woman write that her article published in the radical Voice of Industry, on July 17, 1845, was not written to ‘evince that there is “mind among the spindles”; but to show that minds here are not all spindles’ (Bagley qtd. in Selden, 1983, 159).

Resisting biological reproduction, but not mechanical production, women were allowed to be productive with paper: literally in Tartarus, literarily in Lowell. Their dreams of men were safely reproduced in The Lowell Offering, while private letter writing offered another romantic outlet. Such desires could be expressed with the aid of the ‘Union Bookstore, no. 39 Central St. Lowell,’ which sold (presumably mainly for love letters) ‘French fancy note papers. Of all sizes, with Silver-Coloured, Embossed, and Painted Flowers, and Vignettes. Fancy Envelopes to suit the above’ – precisely the sort of rose-hued stationary stamped with ironic rose wreaths in Tartarus. For more everyday letters, they also sold ‘Plain Paper, of the best possible quality and highest finish’ [11]. Like the foolscap in Old Bach’s paper factory, that would have been good enough for most things in life: if not ‘love-letters,’ then certainly ‘marriage certificates, bills of divorce, registers of birth’ (Melville, 1993, 205). Melville’s chronology here mischievously suggests reproduction out of wedlock, followed by ‘death warrants’ (Melville, 1993, 205). From such bureaucracies is life rewritten after the ragged people of the world are pulped in the melting pot of America (like the rags in the Tartarus pulp vat) and turned out as white blank raw material on which the USA could be inscribed: individualities shredded and reproduced in ‘a democracy of quantity, of foolscap mediocrity’ in the process (Fisher, 1977, 88, 93). As Cupid suggests, for ordinary lives and everyday romance there was no call for ‘royal sheets’ or ‘crème-laid’ when impressing your intimate thoughts upon your loved ones in the new republic (Melville, 1993, 204).

However safe or ordinary writing was perceived to be, even as an outlet for necessarily repressed passions, it allowed sex to slip back into the factory. Like the clothes the mill-girls were meant to covet, so paper itself, of high-status quality or just lovingly inscribed, became an object of desire. In fact, in the paper mill the fabric intersects with the love-letter almost obscenely. Before the Civil War, extensive literacy, the growth in mass-circulation printing and extensive publishing had worsened a chronic paper shortage (or, rather, left the rags from which paper was then made in very short supply). Paper mills had long appealed to women’s patriotic instincts to encourage them to collect and hand over scraps of linen. In one North Carolina paper mill advertisement for raw material, ‘young Ladies’ were ‘assured, that by the sending to the Paper Mill an old Handkerchief, no longer fit to cover their snowy Breasts, there is a Possibility of its returning to them in the more pleasing form of a Billet Doux from their Lovers’ [12]. The strangely titillating possibility of intimate garments ending up conveying intimate thoughts also occurs to Melville’s narrator. He ponders the likelihood that ‘among these heaps of rags there may be some old shirts, gathered from the dormitories of the Paradise of Bachelors’ (Melville, 1993, 201). Insofar as rags were gathered from as far away as ‘Leghorn and London’ this was quite possible, though the thought of intercourse, in any form, between the maids and the bachelors seems ridiculous. No Bachelor’s Buttons flower in Tartarus, after all, but fantasies — whether essentially masculine or feminine — might nonetheless blossom on industrially manufactured paper handled by creative women.


To contemporary readers Melville’s story illustrates the evils of mechanization: we see in it the oppression of female operatives, the redirection of their sexuality and the subjection of their mothering instincts by the machine as much as in the depletion of the virgin forest around the mill and the pollution of water resources by manufacture. But what Melville’s story cannot show as well as an analysis of contributions to The Lowell Offering in a social, sexual and historical context is the subtle resistance women writers in factories can be said to have exerted, even though it reinscribed them within a(nother) patriarchal definition of the feminine gender. Like Melville’s seedsman who inevitably takes part in the to him repulsive process in order to get the envelopes which will eventually contain his germinous message, women attempted an eventual escape from mechanization by writing themselves back into femininity; by allowing the traffic or exchange of them between men, via a stay in the factory. This transitional phase, in time and location, which industrialization can be perceived to be in this context, threatened the value of the woman whose object was still to be transferred — although it claimed to add as much surplus value as it extracted from the daughters of New England. But women (writers) themselves ran that risk of devaluation and preferred imagining themselves as products taking part in a gender system to being doubly voided and reified at the ideological core of the rationalizing, industrial system. Being pulped in the phallic vats of the factory and becoming the blank paper upon which bachelors might inscribe their masturbatory desires as well as any heterosexual fantasies, with which these writing women largely cooperated, seemed preferably to becoming parts of the mechanical process which replaces the need for the female sex once women have been reduced to mere ‘accessory wheels to the general machinery’ (Melville, 1993, 200).

Melville’s narrator is uneasy with the ‘metallic necessity’ with which the ‘wheeling cylinders’ made unresisting females as much part of the machine as the product (Melville, 1993, 205). It is against this metallic necessity the surrender to male fantasies and a new repressive but sexually oriented commodification of women in romantic love ideals can come to seem a subtle kind of resistance — even a long term strategy to participate or to ‘stay in the paper envelope’ long enough to grow more freely somewhere far away from those ‘wheeling cylinders’ which mass producing woman as a uniform, industrial product. Going some way towards believing in the values factory life could add to their commodity status, women writers moved towards the romantic model of courtship: It allowed them to think that with an appropriate commercial display of themselves, advertising their ‘new, improved’ qualities, they could go to market with a feeling of uniqueness, attractiveness and a latent power or freedom instead of recognizing that they were, all the same, the surplus mass-product of the mill for which new selling tactics were required. Taking part in an emerging discourse of love before marriage and attraction between partners lead them back on the road to intercourse — selling with sex, essentially — without the Puritan insistence on reproductivity and within a framework of purity which allowed the prospective buyer to look and desire but not touch.

What may be elicited from tendencies in the writings of the Offering is that, to allow the initial, imaginative release from the original Puritan New England patriarchy, mill girls paid the cost of temporarily subscribing to industrial strictures and regulations (accepting their responsibility towards a paternalistic domestic ideal of marriageability and worth to the family by looking after their bodies) in order to buy the appearance of sexual freedom in modern relationships (for those diminishing numbers who managed to leave the factory) [13]. To get out of the factory was not just a social struggle but a psychological one to resist neutering and assert femininity. Working women at places like Lowell walked a Protestant tightrope. On balance, they could purchase femininity with the rewards of industrial labour — wages and desire mostly being reinvested to make a better sell at the final transition to a sexual, married life — but risked falling to luxurious extravagance in the process of living out ‘selfish’ desires as they discovered economic independence from fathers and husbands, thanks to the permanent ‘bachelor’-owners of industry. Such excessive revelation of material sexuality might disqualify girls from marriage: they became too freed from moral regulation to be contemplated as appropriate love objects and came instead to be perceived as sexually available. Exiting the patriarchal systems, new and old, at the transitional phase industrial work provided did thus not release working women into personal, sexual and imaginative freedom but transferred them into another male discourse and sexual fantasy, where their commodification merely required an exchange of money or violence instead of wedding vows.

In Melville’s narrative we find discourse and intercourse – communication and (reproductive) sexuality – suggestively related, at once reproductively (paper-production and writing), destructively (deforestation and dehumanizing production circumstances) and meta-fictionally, insofar as the writing of the short story itself is a sexual, reproductive activity in which words on a page, like seeds, might germinate, not futilely in the envelope, but in the mind or soul of the reader-recipient. Paper conveys life: envelopes can contain seeds and thoughts but also, as ‘French letters’ thwart reproduction and redirect sexuality. Writing itself could be a way to experience ‘sexual’ jouissance of creativity while avoiding the ‘rise of bread and fall of babies’ (Melville, 1993, 187). Melville’s depiction of utilitarian carelessness in the industrial production of paper, as biographers have suggested, may even be a form of self-incrimination, as his wife and children suffered from his obsession with writing (textual production displacing sexual reproduction and nurturing)[14]. Where his writing required a kind of celibacy, a redirection of masculine creativity to other channels investigated critically in ‘The Paradise of Bachelors’, the celibacy imposed on mill girls might require them to write creatively to sustain life and identity in the face of the inanimate (maybe even to get in touch with a ‘masculine’ producer agent within) as much as it requires them to submit to a new sexually commodifying, gendered world view.


  1. Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Maury, June 16, 1815 and to Thaddeus Kosciusko, June 28, 1812 quoted in John F. Kasson, Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776-1900 (1976; NY: Hill and Wang, 1999), 25.
  2. The example of Sarah Hodgdon’s move from the Freewill Baptist Church of her home in Rochester to that of Lowell in 1830 is given in Farm to Factory: Women’s Letters, 1830-1860, ed. Thomas Dublin (NY: Columbia University Press, 1981), 39-46.
  3. Melville’s choice of Tartarus over Hell as the counterpart to Paradise supports the evocation of the vat-filling Greeks maids punished for killing their husbands. The Berkshire maids are blameless yet become part of the punishing process themselves: as much the empty, interchangeable alabaster vessels as the indistinguishable pulp that fills the vat in this story.
  4. Recent readings of ‘The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids’ which focus on cultural structures of difference include Robyn Wiegman, ‘Melville’s Geography of Gender,’ in Myra Jehlen (ed), Herman Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1994), 187-97; David Harley Serlin, ‘The Dialogue of Gender in Melville’s The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,’ Modern Language Studies, 25, 2 (Spring, 1995), 80-87.
  5. A visual presence also in the collection of images of Lowell’s church buildings printed throughout The Lowell Offering: A Repository of Original Articles, 1. Lowell, Mass: Powers and Bagley, 1841.
  6. Offering texts address the slavery and Tartarean accusations occasionally. Other, more militant voices heard in the Voice of Industry spoke directly about the ‘Stygian’ qualities of Lowell and won many subscribers within the community. See for example Bernice Selden, The Mill Girls: Lucy Larcom, Harriet Hanson Robinson, Sarah G. Bagley (NY: Atheneum, 1983).
  7. Definition of ‘eligible’ in Collins English Dictionary, third edition, (Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991).
  8. In this regard Marx’s sense that factory labour transformed the worker was by no means unique; it was his belief that such labour converted the worker into a commodity drained of value which distinguished him from mid-nineteenth century apologists for industrial development. See Karl Marx, ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’ (1844) in Early Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin/New Left Review, 1975), 323-326; Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1 (1867), chapter 15: ‘Machinery and Modern Industry.’
  9. Whether the daughters of New England farmers primarily desired working for money or whether industry required their fathers to help extract their surplus value more efficiently than through marriage by handing them over to the mills is a good question. Gayle Rubin ‘The Traffic In Women’, Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1975), 210.
  10. The best source on working conditions in the Western Massachusetts paper industry is Judith McGaw, Most Wonderful Machine: Mechanization and Social Change in Berkshire Paper Making, 1801-1885 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), Chapter 10. For women in Lowell, see Thomas Dublin, Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1820-1860 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977); Kasson, Civilizing the Machine, Chapter 2. Wages fluctuated widely during the mid-nineteenth century and many different figures have been suggested. Those cited here are from The New England Offering, 8 (January, 1850), 1. This journal, the successor to The Lowell Offering, itself cost $1 per year – in advance.
  11. New England Offering, vol.1 (April, 1848), advertisement on inside front cover.
  12. Walter Clark, The State Records of North Carolina, XI 804; The North Carolina Gazette, (November 14, 1777), quoted in Lyman Horace Weeks, A History of Paper-Manufacturing in the United States, 1690-1916 (New York: Burt Franklin, 1916), 66-67.
  13. This long matrimonial road to sexual freedom and feminine desire in an industrialized America would not see results for many decades. D’Emilio and Freedman, 173-76. Escaping the ‘enveloppes trompeuses’ may be utopian as a project of resistance to the traffic in women; certainly, seeking freedom from the male ‘vendeurs-acheteurs-consommateurs’ by asserting a lesbian, androgynous or genderless strategy was not a realistic possibility for the (literary) maids in Melville’s New England. Irigaray, 193. Rubin, 183, 204.
  14. Newton Arvin, Herman Melville (1950; New York: Vintage, 1957), 238; Leon Howard, Herman Melville: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951), 218; Edwin Haviland Miller, Herman Melville: A Biography (New York: Braziller, 1975), 260.


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