“Quite an Original” — Herman Melville on Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Satan

Books, Literature, Writers

This is Chapter XLIV of Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man:

“Quite an original:” A phrase, we fancy, rather oftener used by the young, or the unlearned, or the untraveled, than by the old, or the well-read, or the man who has made the grand tour. Certainly, the sense of originality exists at its highest in an infant, and probably at its lowest in him who has completed the circle of the sciences.

As for original characters in fiction, a grateful reader will, on meeting with one, keep the anniversary of that day. True, we sometimes hear of an author who, at one creation, produces some two or three score such characters; it may be possible. But they can hardly be original in the sense that Hamlet is, or Don Quixote, or Milton’s Satan. That is to say, they are not, in a thorough sense, original at all. They are novel, or singular, or striking, or captivating, or all four at once.
More likely, they are what are called odd characters; but for that, are no more original, than what is called an odd genius, in his way, is. But, if original, whence came they? Or where did the novelist pick them up?

Where does any novelist pick up any character? For the most part, in town, to be sure. Every great town is a kind of man-show, where the novelist goes for his stock, just as the agriculturist goes to the cattle-show for his. But in the one fair, new species of quadrupeds are hardly more rare, than in the other are new species of characters—that is, original ones. Their rarity may still the more appear from this, that, while characters, merely singular, imply but singular forms so to speak, original ones, truly so, imply original instincts.

In short, a due conception of what is to be held for this sort of personage in fiction would make him almost as much of a prodigy there, as in real history is a new law-giver, a revolutionizing philosopher, or the founder of a new religion.

In nearly all the original characters, loosely accounted such in works of invention, there is discernible something prevailingly local, or of the age; which circumstance, of itself, would seem to invalidate the claim, judged by the principles here suggested.

Furthermore, if we consider, what is popularly held to entitle characters in fiction to being deemed original, is but something personal—confined to itself. The character sheds not its characteristic on its surroundings, whereas, the original character, essentially such, is like a revolving Drummond light, raying away from itself all round it—everything is lit by it, everything starts up to it (mark how it is with Hamlet), so that, in certain minds, there follows upon the adequate conception of such a character, an effect, in its way, akin to that which in Genesis attends upon the beginning of things.

For much the same reason that there is but one planet to one orbit, so can there be but one such original character to one work of invention. Two would conflict to chaos. In this view, to say that there are more than one to a book, is good presumption there is none at all. But for new, singular, striking, odd, eccentric, and all sorts of entertaining and instructive characters, a good fiction may be full of them. To produce such characters, an author, beside other things, must have seen much, and seen through much: to produce but one original character, he must have had much luck.

There would seem but one point in common between this sort of phenomenon in fiction and all other sorts: it cannot be born in the author’s imagination—it being as true in literature as in zoology, that all life is from the egg.

In the endeavor to show, if possible, the impropriety of the phrase, Quite an Original, as applied by the barber’s friends, we have, at unawares, been led into a dissertation bordering upon the prosy, perhaps upon the smoky. If so, the best use the smoke can be turned to, will be, by retiring under cover of it, in good trim as may be, to the story.

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7 thoughts on ““Quite an Original” — Herman Melville on Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Satan

  1. Are you currently reading this or did you pull out the quote for another reason? I continually pull it off my shelf only to put it back on again. My copy is really thin, so I go to it when I want a short book, only to open it and looking at the print and margin size, remember it ain’t short at all.

    1. No, I’m not currently reading it, although I have made two serious attempts. It’s kind of all over the place. Olson mentions this passage in his study of Melville, so I dug it out (i.e. I searched for it on the Kindle) and I think it’s just a great passage so I shared it.

  2. Hamlet, Don Quixote, Satan: add Ahab, Bartleby, maybe even Ishmael, although it remains debatable how much of a ‘character’ he really is. You can’t help but wonder at Melville’s thoughts while writing this chapter. A literary genius of the absolute highest order and almost entirely unrecognized for it in his own lifetime, save Hawthorne (and his wife Sophia, who saw Melville clearer than he) and one or two young men in Manhattan not long before his death in ’91. Tragic, in a way. But maybe if the fervor over Typee’d kept up we wouldn’t’ve got all that great literature out of him. (Interestingly, it must’ve been Whitman, newly the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle when Typee was published in ’46, who gave Melville one of his first glowing reviews. I know I’m not the only young man to’ve found spooky the disparate trajectories of those two 19th century lives, born and dead within a year of each other, in between writing all that could be written about their America, and a great deal of ours, too. Whitman was the river, Melville the sea.)

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