Melville utilized imaginary conversations throughout his career and nowhere are they more sophisticated and complex than in Clarel (1876). Long dismissed as unreadable, Clarel is now understood as a play of voices, a polyphony of competing perspectives set forth with utter conviction and passion yet not necessarily harmonious with the author's views. Through the subtle conversational techniques of one major character, the liberal Anglican clergyman Derwent, Melville constructs meaningful if sometimes vitriolic dialogues among speakers with contradictory, even intransigent, views and beliefs. Derwent, often considered a facile "skimmer," regularly employs polite discourse that sustains productive conversations while foreshortening uncivil or even pointless arguments. His rhetorical finesse makes him an important dialogical mediator and allows even his detractors to speak frankly and espouse their personal opinions on religion, politics, ethics, history, science, and modernity. Through irony, satire, polyvocality, and similar unsettling literary techniques, Melville destabilizes thematic certainty and calls attention once more to the importance of form in his writing.


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pp. 133-156
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