Herman Melville’s Redburn is characterized by a prevalent theme of innocence versus corruption. Narrated by Wellingborough Redburn as an adult, Redburn recounts his first professional sea journey as a young and immature boy. Determined to prosper on his own following the death and financial disaster of his father, Redburn ventures out to the sea. Melville sets the tone early on letting the reader know that Redburn’s “taste for the sea was born and bred in him.” His first real encounter with the ship’s personnel sets the tone for a series of unfortunate events marked by innocence and inexperience on Redburn’s part and his clash with those hardened by life’s difficult experiences. After all, he “was then but a boy.”
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Mr. Jones, a friend of Redburn’s brother who is assisting Redburn with securing employment aboard the Highlander misinforms the ship’s Captain that Redburn is a person of means with the result that the youth is denied an advance on his salary. In the absence of an advance in salary Redburn is ill-equipped for the sea journey. He therefore boards in frayed clothing and without the necessary items for travel the crew has no difficulty ridiculing the young man for his state of disrepair. Making matters worse he views the working of the crew as “in an uproar.” Redburn recalls the comments made of him by the chief mate upon learning that Redburn was a member of the crew:
“’A sailor!’ he cried, ‘a barber’s mate you mean; you going out in the ship? What, in that jacket? Hang me, I hope the old man hasn’t been shipping any more greenhorns like you – he’ll make a shipwreck of it if he has. But this is the way nowadays; to save a few dollars in seamen’s wages, they think nothing of shipping a parcel of farmers and clodhoppers and baby-boys…”
From the onset the Highlander’s crew is determined to isolate Redburn as an outsider. They view him as a youth who is not amenable to the hardships of a career as a seaman and dismiss the idea that he has the markings of a gentleman. Redburn slowly comes to the realization that the crew’s hard line is nothing more than a façade and beneath the surface they are no stronger than he is. When a man commits suicide by throwing himself over board, the crew takes note of Redburn’s fear and tells him that they see those sorts of things all the time as seamen and are quite accustomed to it. Redburn describes this kind of advice as “false hearted” and “insincere.” In fact he goes on to lament:
“But I did not believe this; for when the suicide came rushing and shrieking up the scuttle, they looked as frightened as I did; and besides that, and what makes their being frightened still plainer, is the fact, that if they had any presence of mind, they could have prevented his plunging overboard, since he brushed right by them.”
Be that as it may, Redburn has no such misgivings about Jackson, the crew’s leader. In Redburn’s innocence, Jackson is evil personified and he is both in awe and fear of him. Redburn introduces him to the reader with a question:
“Did you ever see a man with his hair shaved off, and just recovered from Yellow Fever?”
Ironically, Jackson is physically the weakest crew member but as Redburn put it:
“But he had such an overawing way with him; such a deal of brass and impudence, such an unflinching face, and withal was such a hideous looking mortal, that Satan himself would have run from him.”
While evil and cruelty have challenged Redburn in his inexperienced youth he comes face to face with another aspect of life’s cruel reality. Once the Highlander docks in Liverpool Redburn encounters abject poverty in the streets where his father once travelled some thirty years previously. He comes to the realization that “this world… is a moving world…it never stands still.” The poverty and crime only serves to disenchant the young Redburn who notes that:
“Every variety of want and suffering here met the eye, and every vice showed here its victims.”
He takes a momentary escape by leaving for London with Harry Bolton, a gentleman-like fellow he meets in Liverpool. He spends one night in London in a gambling house and returns to the harsh realities of life when he sets sail once again on board the Highlander, this time to America.
This time, more of life’s most cruel fates await Redburn in the form of poverty and evil. The intolerable crew is not the only unpleasant aspect of the Highlander. There is a cargo of poor and famished Irish immigrants in the steerage and Redburn paints a gloomy picture:
“…with the friendless emigrants, stowed away like bales of cotton, and packed like slaves in a slave-ship; confined in a place that, during storm time, must be closed against both light and air…”
Once again Redburn is confronted with life’s cruelty via abject poverty. Moreover, his friend Bolton who had lost his money at the London gambling house takes on a job aboard the Highlander and his initiation is not unlike Redburn’s. Redburn marvels over Bolton’s contrast among the crew members:
“…in his striped Guernsey frock, dark glossy skin and hair, Harry Bolton, mingling with the Highlander's crew…”
Bolton is likewise ill-equipped and also suffers the humiliation and ridicule that Redburn himself had suffered earlier.
Melville uses a number of significant symbols throughout Redburn. The first symbol of note is the little glass ship on display in the family’s living room. This glass ship is viewed as the inspiration for Redburn’s career at sea. Ironically, over time, the glass spars and ropes on the ship have broken away and the glass sailor fell off altogether. Redburn’s description follows:
“…but many of her glass spars and ropes are now sadly shattered and broken…”
In fact Redburn’s sister observes that the glass sailor only fell off the very day that Redburn set sail aboard the Highlander. Redburn identifies with the broken sailor and notes that “… between him and me there is a secret sympathy…”
On the morning that Redburn sets out to sign on as a crew member aboard the Highlander his observations are symbolic of the life ahead of him. He notes that:
“It was early on a raw, cold, damp morning toward the end of spring, and the world was before me, stretching way a long muddy road, lined with comfortable houses…”
The muddy road represents the uncertain and gloomy journey that Redburn was about to undertake. The comfortable houses are metaphors for those who refuse to venture out and choose to live their lives in such a way that they are cut off from the abrasive outside world. Still Redburn’s ambivalence is symbolized as follows:
“The cold drops of drizzle trickled down my leather cap, and mingled with a few hot tears on my cheeks.”
Redburn’s shooting jacket is also symbolic of his journey through life. At first the jacket is representative of the fact that Redburn is the son of a man of means.As he starts out Redburn points out that “the gray shooting jacket was on my back.” However, as times wears on the jacket shrinks each time it is exposed to the elements at sea. The shrinking jacket is symbolic of Redburn’s diminished social status and is also symbolic of his lack of ability to adjust to a life at sea. The jacket is no longer consistent with who Redburn has become. Another important symbol is Redburn’s father’s guidebook which he used to trace his father’s travels throughout Liverpool. During his short stay in Liverpool, Redburn discovered that many of the landmark buildings referred to in his father’s guidebook no longer existed. This outdated guidebook symbolized the fact that Redburn’s dead father was no longer a useful source of guidance for him. Redburn puts it thus:
“I little imagined that the Liverpool my father saw, was another Liverpool from that to which I, his son Wellingborough was sailing.”
Although the novel Redburn is deeply pessimistic, there is some humor in it. For example the vices of man are comically portrayed through the eyes of a naïve youth when he observes the sailors’ drinking, cursing and smoking. He tries to “laugh off their banter.” All in all Redburn is a complex narrative of a youth’s exposure to the harsh realities of life although told by a fully mature man. The reader comes away with the clear impression that the initiation into manhood is a difficult journey no less challenging than Redburn’s first journey as a seaman aboard the Highlander. The cycle continues and Redburn is only too aware of this when he witnesses the initiation of his friend Harry Bolton aboard the Highlander. The underlying message, is that the journey to manhood is a necessary evil that all boys must endure. It is a symbolic journey, one which Redburn had the “chance to survive.”
Melville, Herman. (1976) Redburn. Penguin Classics
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