‘The Fiddler’ by Herman Melville: Short Story Analysis
‘The Fiddler’ is a realistic nineteenth-century Victorian short story penned in 1854 by American novelist, short story writer, and poet Herman Melville. Melville is considered one of America’s greatest writers and is well remembered for his classic novel Moby Dick. He is one of the important writers who were part of the American Renaissance. The short story titled ‘The Fiddler’ is a story about Hautboy, once a prodigy who now felt genuine happiness by being away from the clamor of people and the adulation of crowds. He was a great musician, a fiddler who could enchant a person even if he played familiar layman tunes. The short story’s main theme is ambition, where Melville emphasizes that ambition and talent do not bring happiness. Instead, happiness lies in the love of the mundane and being content with one’s abilities, the state in which one is, and enjoying life to the fullest in every way possible. However, one must not forget the negative side of power, fame, talents, or riches. One must be able to assess all these with an unbiased mind to achieve fuller satisfaction in life. Hautboy could play his fiddle like an enchanter, but he had given up the fame that such power attracts. He had opted to live a simple and holistic life and was the better for it. One wonders whether Helmstone, the narrator of this story, is none other than Herman Melville himself since both the narrator and Melville were poets. There is a clear possibility in this regard. Also, one can see the poetic side of Melville coming into focus in this story. We notice that he is moralizing on the themes of ambition, talent, prodigies, etc. in this excellent piece.
There are only three main characters in this story: all men in their midlife state, probably two of them were in their thirties while Hautboy was around forty. Standard and Helmstone were friends who were in their thirties, and Standard introduces Helmstone to Hautboy. This was a very emotional moment to have introduced any friend to Helmstone because Helmstone had just received a critical review for his poem. Helmstone was affronted, angry, and frustrated by the critic’s remarks. Helmstone was then at the Broadway and banged into his old friend Standard who introduces him to Hautboy. There is a bit of comedy where Standard mistakes Helmstone’s talk of his failed poem to that of the show at the circus, commendable on Melville’s part. However, that is the only comic effect here in this almost moralistically didactic short story titled ‘The Fiddler’.
Even though the clown performs excellently in the circus, this story’s focus is Helmstone’s personality analysis of Hautboy. Helmstone is mesmerized by Hautboy. He can’t take his eyes off him. Hautboy seems to diffuse comfort, friendliness, happiness, sheer youthfulness, joy, delight, and so much else in his surroundings that make Helmstone forget his poem for a while. Helmstone feels that Hautboy cannot be a charismatic person because the man lacked ambition, drive, fame, intellect, and talent. Now, ordinarily charismatic people are usually very talented. That is why they attract crowds. It was highly presumptuous and extreme self-centeredness and overriding jealousy that prompted Helmstone to think that Hautboy was a man without talent. Here we see the self-centered aspect of Helmstone. He is more concerned about equating himself and his abilities with every other person he encounters. He does love the company of Hautboy. He even tells Standard on his face that he loves Hautboy and wished that he would become another Hautboy. But remember, he said this because he thought Hautboy was happy being devoid of ambition, intellect, and talent, thereby trying to tell himself and Standard that he wanted to but couldn’t be a Hautboy because of the attributes mentioned.
Standard realizes that his old friend Helmstone has been overpowered by his pride and needs to come back to Earth. He thus agrees when Hautboy comes back to Taylor’s to go to Hautboy’s room so that Helmstone could hear Hautboy play the fiddle. Standard realized that his old friend would be put in his place about Hautboy’s erroneous personality analysis, but the man would have to see the fiddler playing to learn that. Standard is a good listener though a bit sarcastic when he can see Helmstone going overboard with his presumptions and miscalculation of facts. He wants Helmstone to understand the truth about Hautboy, but was ready to hear Helmstone out about his ideas regarding Hautboy:
- That Hautboy was good-natured.
- That he had a remarkable cheerfulness about him.
- That his great good sense, was apparent.
- He was unpossessed of genius.
- That Hautboy could never be a genius because all geniuses should look like William Shakespeare’s character Cassius in the play ‘Julius Caesar’ indicative that a genius should look lean and thin.
- He had average abilities.
- He had no lessons to teach either Standard or himself. This is because Standard was a handy fellow, while the narrator Helmstone was a self-proclaimed genius.
- Hautboy’s opinions were explicit.
- Nothing tempted him, and nothing restrained him.
- He was docile.
- He would be calm from the cradle to the grave because he had no ambition. Therefore, he had nothing to teach Helmstone, so he has no new life pattern to compel Helmstone to follow in the future.
Standard listens to all these falsities until they hear the fiddling of Hautboy. Standard knew that the master’s fiddling would shut-up the sneering and sarcastic Helmstone. These days, we don’t allow people to speak their minds. We prefer to interrupt them all the time. We don’t hear people out, and if their thinking is different from ours, we cancel them out. I have mentioned this in a book I read and reviewed recently titled A Warning by Anonymous, which you can check out on my blog. So, Standard hears Helmstone out but does not contradict his viewpoints until the end, until it comes from Helmstone’s mouth to honestly want to know who Hautboy was.
Notice that Helmstone always asks Standard who Hautboy was because he felt pulled by Hautboy’s magnetic persona. However, in the beginning, Helmstone asked about Hautboy with pride and selfishness. Only towards the end, he urges Hautboy’s true identity in humility and genuineness, which Standard answers by whispering in his ear. We are left to conjecture who Hautboy was. Our wants as readers are not satisfied. But we realize that when we get rid of ambition and accept the way we are, either with or without fame, only then will we achieve and exude lasting happiness, which others can perceive. Standard wanted to see Helmstone’s humility before he was ready to divulge who Hautboy was. Standard was aware of the poem that had failed, which was penned by Helmstone. However, he only mentions it at the end when he realizes that Helmstone now truly knows the personage of Hautboy.
Charisma is compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others. Even after having failed in some way down his prodigious life, Hautboy still retained the positive charisma that not only had drawn Standard towards him but also Helmstone, who seeks to learn from him how to play the fiddle. I have read about people with charisma, but a recent book I read of a charismatic person was about former President Barack Obama. The book’s title is To Obama: With Love, Joy, Hate, and Despair by Jeanne Marie Laskas. You can check out my review for your reference.
The title of this short story is ‘The Fiddler’ which is indicative of many possibilities:
- That the title directly pertains to Hautboy.
- That it is indirectly about Helmstone and people like him who are presumptuous and proud of themselves.
- That it pertains to the talent that Helmstone was looking for in Hautboy to fit his viewpoints about a truly gifted human being.
- That it pertains to the enchanting fiddling of Hautboy that mesmerized Helmstone. There is a comparison made of Hautboy to Orpheus, an ancient Greek legendary hero endowed with superhuman musical skills who could enchant animals with his divine music.
- That the title pertains to everyone on planet Earth who strive for perfection, ‘fiddling’ their way through life.
Coming to the clown in the circus, Helmstone, Standard, and Hautboy, when they meet up, go to the circus show to see the clown’s act. We see the charisma, talent, and ambition in the famous circus clown’s personage. Indeed, everyone in New York wanted to go to the circus because of the clown’s fantastic act. Here again, we see the playing of talents, prodigy, and genuine brilliance. Helmstone mused in the story whether he would be well received in the circus theatre if he were to read a poem of his. He realizes he would be hooted off, which shows his disdain for the critics in his life. One must not be disdainful of critics; one must take the positive from them and work on the negative. Hautboy enjoyed the clown’s act like a twelve-year-old boy. There is a mention of Hautboy seeming to roll the jokes of the clown under his tongue like Magnum Bonums, which are sweet juicy plums or apples. When Helmstone looked at Hautboy during the entire circus, he showed that he really was starting to like and even love Hautboy’s personality but still tried to compare him with his excellence chart. There is a mention of the poem probably penned by Helmstone, which was criticized. It was a lofty and historical topic concerning the time of Argos, which in Greek history refers to the ancient city of Argos.
The story ends with Helmstone tearing up all his lofty manuscripts and becoming the pupil of the fiddler, Hautboy. Helmstone has finally come back down to Earth and realizes that Hautboy is truly a genius and has been wronged in life but has taken it so well that this otherwise seeming ‘curse’ is a ‘blessing’ lived by Hautboy every day of his blissful and happy life. Helmstone mentions Cicero, the Roman statesman and orator remembered for his mastery of Latin prose, who was moved with pity when he saw the downfall of an Eastern kingdom. Now, Helmstone felt that empathy for Hautboy.
Here are some takeaway points from this short story after which I will wind up my analysis:
- A prodigy child named Master Betty was a popular child actor of the nineteenth century, known as “the Young Roscius.” He became a very famous English actor at a young age. The thought of Master Betty drifted in front of Standard’s mind when he and Helmstone were conversing about Hautboy at Taylor’s after Hautboy had left.
- Helmstone compares genius with consumption, saying that a person who had it could not shake it off quickly. He forgets that the very word ‘consumption’ indicates that the person who has it will be ‘consumed’ by it or destroyed by it. Hautboy was not destroyed by consumption, but Helsmtone himself could have been destroyed by it.
- The reason why Hautboy decides only to play simple songs while he fiddled was to hide the fact that he was a genius of the art. However, he could not be hidden long because he played even simple songs and tunes with such refinement and excellence that spoke words in his favor.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story by American writer Herman Melville. I read his novel, Moby Dick when I was in my seventh grade, and I highly recommend this American classic to everyone. If you are an educator or parent and are trying to get your ward to cherish the classics, then you can purchase my self-help book titled Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them. You can buy the book by visiting my products page.
I hope to read, review, or analyze more American literary works in the coming days till early January. This is in keeping with the fact that the decade’s most decisive elections have taken place in the USA. I wish to celebrate American books, short stories, essays, poems, and other works by reviewing or analyzing them. So, if you are looking for American bookish content, keep watching this site.
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