Essays and Appreciations in Honor of Michael J. Colacurcio’s 50 Years of Teaching
Melville’s Comedy of Gender: The Battle for Domesticity in “I and My Chimney”
Analyses of Melville’s short story “I and My Chimney” (1856) often begin with the problem of message. What lurks beneath this seemingly straightforward tale of domestic absurdity? What kind of meaning is Melville attempting to pack in to the “doll-house proportions” of “I and My Chimney?”1 Where, in this comic edifice, is the “secret closet” containing the real significance of the narrative? Numerous critics have pointed to threads of autobiography, political commentary, gendered logic, and metaphysical questioning within the story.2 All of these valences exist in the text: the house which is the focus of the tale is an ostensibly humble country dwelling whose timbers invoke allusions to Versailles and Ancient Rome, while the narrator’s power struggles with his wife unfold in equally grand and cosmopolitan scope. He is Charles the V, Cardinal Wolsey, and Holofernes, engaged in marital spats that are nothing less than pitched battles over regency and abdication. In the confined space of the domestic sphere, the layers of allusion and metaphor overlay each other so closely that they at times threaten the structural integrity of the piece, a kind of metaphorical insecurity that, like the chimney itself, dwarfs the domestic edifice that supposedly contains it. At stake, ultimately, is ownership of this richly signifying space—just who rules over the domestic edifice capable of containing so many multitudes?3 Ultimately, it’s the debate, rather than the answer, that drives the story and provides its comedy.
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