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The necessary melancholy of bachelors: melancholy,
manhood, and modernist narrative



This chapter is not about bachelor uncles, although it could have been.
The bachelor uncle is a stock character in popular and literary writing of
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a ¬gure so prevalent that the
±µ°s Harper™s story ˜˜Why My Uncle Was a Bachelor™™ might almost as
plausibly have been entitled ˜˜Why My Bachelor Was an Uncle.™™¹ In
¬ctional plots of inheritance and education, adoption and guardianship,
illegitimate fatherhood and incest, the ¬gure of the bachelor uncle
registers the boundaries of normative bourgeois familial and sexual
relations, as well as the permeability of those boundaries.² The function
of the bachelor uncle as a threshold ¬gure who marks by crossing the
boundaries of familial and sexual normativity is evident, for example, in
a ±° Putnam™s Magazine piece, entitled ˜˜The Necessary Melancholy of
Bachelors.™™ While the essay is amply substantiated with melancholy
bachelors from history and literature “ Shakespeare™s Antonio, Lord
Macaulay, Robert Burton, Thomas Gray, Oliver Goldsmith, and
Charles Lamb are all brought forward as evidence “ the narrative mise en
scene also testi¬es to the essay™s premise. It is no coincidence that the
`
melancholy bachelor who narrates this essay is also a bachelor
uncle.
The essay™s narration is framed by a reported exchange between the
bachelor uncle and his niece, who initiates the conversation by observ-
ing that money is necessary to bachelor comfort and therefore to
bachelor happiness. Her uncle disagrees, maintaining that despite the
fact that ˜˜[b]achelors . . . are the most comfortable people in the world,™™
they feel ˜˜a fundamental lack in the lack of responsible love . . . [which]
shows itself in a mild melancholy that may not be deeply marked, but
that is persistent and clear enough.™™³ The body of the essay does not,
however, consist of their debate on this topic: when his niece ˜˜choos[es]
not to follow my lead™™ on this ˜˜unpleasant™™ subject, the bachelor
contines to speak ˜˜but in soliloquy, for she had turned to the piano. I did
±·
±·
Melancholy, manhood, and modernist narrative
not choose . . . to let her soft music woo me from my thoughts™™ (p. µ).
His resistance to her ˜˜woo[ing],™™ musical and otherwise, is not absolute:
he does momentarily ˜˜yield . . . to the thoughts of the days she had made
pleasant for me™™ and, in his closing lines, allows himself to be led back to
happier thoughts:

Let us be charitable, therefore, and say that most men drift into bachelorhood,
and that many have it thrust upon them. There are many, yes, very many
causes. It is seldom the deliberate choice of any man “ for which God be
thanked.
To which happy conclusion I was led by my gentle niece, who had sat down
by my chair, and slipped her hand into mine. (p. ·)

The bachelor™s ˜˜happy conclusion,™™ illustrated with a drawing of the
melancholy-miened bachelor uncle with his equally sober-faced niece
seated by his knee, manifestly denies the possibility of adequate alterna-
tives to marriage, that is, of styles of domesticity that are equal to yet
di¬erent from married life. But in its evocation of the marital coupling of
husband and wife or perhaps the familial dyad of father and daughter,
the concluding vignette also tells a more complex story. By allowing
himself to be led away from his morbid reveries in this moment of
domestic a¬rmation, the narrating bachelor uncle complicates his
claim that lack, and hence melancholy, is the inevitable and unmitigated
portion of bachelors.
Although the narrator contends that the possession of ˜˜real, vital
a¬ection, and its responsibilities™™ (p. ) distinguishes the lot of the
married man from that of the bachelor, a¬ection and responsibility
seem equally intrinsic to bachelor life in this essay. For instance, the
uncle instructs his niece that ˜˜[a] real bachelor . . . needs a sympathetic
little niece . . . two maiden aunts to advise regarding investments, and a
nephew whom he can advise regarding the conduct of his college
course, and some married friends of his youth, the patronage of whose
wives will teach him humility™™ (p. µ). As portrayed here, bachelor-
hood is sustained by a range of familial and quasi-familial a¬liations,
varying in their degree and kinds of reciprocity, dominance, even
voluntariness. The emotional and relational variety within just one of the
bachelor™s non-marital a¬liations is exempli¬ed by the minuette of
leading and being lead executed by the uncle and his niece in the
narrative frame of the essay. Their domestic partnership is character-
ized by indulgences and renunciations, intimacies and distances, happy
±· Bachelors, manhood, and the novel
endings and melancholy moods. Their alliance is, moreover, familial
but not nuclear; domestic but not marital; conducted between adults but
not intragenerational; eroticized but not explicitly sexual. The uncle/
niece pairing stands in this essay as an alternative to more conventional
marital and familial domesticity, and also signi¬es the depressing ˜˜lack™™
of such alternatives: ˜˜To the elemental demand for simple and ¬rst-
hand a¬ection, the best possible response is a strong friendship or two
that may be sincere, even beautiful, but that is lacking in a certain
necessary vitality™™ (pp. µ“). In short, the bachelor may accept certain
substitutes for wife and marriage, but he must also reconcile himself to
lack.
This essay™s manifest connection of bachelorhood with lack, and of
lack with melancholy, together with its ambivalent presentation of the
bachelor uncle™s and his niece™s domestic coupling as a legitimate
alternative to marital domesticity, inform our understanding of the
popular and literary ¬gure of the bachelor more generally. Of course,
the ˜˜necessary melancholy™™ described in this essay is limited neither to
¬ctional bachelor uncles nor even to bachelor ¬gures more generally. It
is one of the de¬ning moods of a familiar strand of modernist writing.
This modernist melancholia, a self-de¬ning sense of pervasive loss
coupled with a refusal to recognize that loss, di¬erent from the experi-
ence of grief and acceptance associated with normal mourning, is
perhaps most famously articulated in Eliot™s ˜˜The Lovesong of J. Alfred
Prufrock.™™ The vexed object relations of melancholia also shape the
two-protagonist form which is a staple of modernist ¬ction. While
double protagonists appear in a wide range of modernist novels “
Ulysses™s Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus, Mrs. Dalloway™s Mrs.
Dalloway and Septimus Smith, even the double“voiced ˜˜I™™ of Gertrude
Stein™s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas come to mind “ this con¬gur-
ation is particularly notable, and particularly melancholic, in three
¬rst-person bachelor-narrated modernist novels that bear the name of
another man: Lord Jim, The Good Soldier, and The Great Gatsby.⁴
Much of the energy of these ˜˜o¬-centered™™ or ex-centric ¬rst-person
narratives is expended in negotiating the honori¬c modi¬er: the great-
ness, goodness, or lordliness of the cipher-like antiheroes at the heart of
these novels. Indeed, the primary anxiety of these novels™ bachelor
narrators is that their exemplars of authentic manhood may prove to be
˜˜hollow men,™™ men whose outward form hides inward emptiness, or
worse, a heart of darkness. The fear of a moral vacuum behind the
±·µ
Melancholy, manhood, and modernist narrative
facade is a preoccupation of modern life and modernist literature, but in
these texts it insistently expresses itself, or is formed by, these bachelors™
identi¬cation with and desire for other men. In these bachelor-narrated
stories of the other man, gender trouble and epistemological trouble go
hand in hand. The fragmentation, temporal displacements, and other
formal elements that foreground the problem of interpretation register
the ambivalent relation of the bachelor narrators to the men of their
dreams. These male objects of the bachelors™ identi¬cation and desire
are all men with ˜˜soft spots™™; the failure of these ¬gures to live up to an
heroic ideal ultimately reveals competing, and ultimately incompatible,
models of manhood against which the narrators measure them. In The
Good Soldier and The Great Gatsby, the desires of the titular heroes both
invite and confound the narrators™ attempts to canonize them, produc-
ing fault lines within their narratives. The narrators™ repudiation of the
sentimentality of their idols reveals the melancholic sense of masculine
lack that inspires their narratives.
The unrealizable desire for oneness with the male other in Ford™s and
Fitzgerald™s novels is pre¬gured in the quasi-familial a¬liations that
drive Conrad™s Chance and Lord Jim. These Marlow-narrated texts in¬‚u-
entially demonstrate the gap between idealized heroism and the realities
of a modern world barren of adventures, a gap revealed in con¬‚icts
between men and between incompatible styles of manhood within
individual male ¬gures. Like Dowell™s narration of Edward Ashburn-
ham™s story and like Nick Carraway™s narration of Gatsby™s story,
Marlow™s narration of Jim™s story is ¬ssured by the irreconciliability of
vindication and indictment, commemoration and forgetting, intimacy
and distance, and of homoerotic desire and its homophobic disavowal.
Quasi-familial mentor ¬gures in Chance contribute to our understanding
of Marlow™s performance as ˜˜good uncle™™ to Jim, a performance which
¬gures within the novel™s more pervasive reinvention of family and
home life in terms of the racist and sexist evolutionary model of the
˜˜Family of Man.™™ Anxiety about modern and male lack, and the
melancholic response of incorporating, and hence failing to relinquish,
the lost and abjected male object of identi¬catory desire, animates all of
these bachelor narratives. The marking and crossing of boundaries
between individuals and spheres characteristic of the bachelor narrator
tradition thus engenders the more familiar tensions of modernist ¬ction,
especially those between alienated subjectivity and intersubjective
bonds.
±· Bachelors, manhood, and the novel

     ¬ ®   ®¤  ˜˜ §  ¤ µ ®  ¬ ™ ™:
CH AN C E  ®¤ LO RD J IM

Not until Chance, when Conrad revived Marlow for his swan song
thirteen years after Lord Jim, is this most famous of Conrad™s narrators
explicitly identi¬ed as a bachelor. It is Marlow, in fact, who calls himself
a ˜˜careless bachelor in farmhouse lodgings,™™ a characterization that
links him to such bachelor predecessors as Ik Marvel™s comfortable yet
slovenly bachelor-in-the-country in Reveries, Bronte™s Lockwood as rural
¨
gentleman tenant, and Hawthorne™s Coverdale as temporary farm-
house boarder and hotel-room habitue.µ In describing himself with
´
reference to his rented lodgings, Marlow evokes the uncertain status of
the bachelor in relation to conventional married domesticity.
Tellingly, this moment of naming occurs at ˜˜The Tea Party™™ (the title
of chapter µ), to which Marlow invites the married couple, Mr. and Mrs.
Fyne. He issues the invitation in response to Mrs. Fyne™s request for his
advice on the delicate matter of how to prevent the marriage of her
brother, Captain Roderick Anthony, to Flora, the novel™s heroine and
the daughter of the convicted bankrupt ¬nancier de Barral. Marlow
explains the oddity of Mrs. Fyne™s asking for his guidance in such family
matters:

She had formed a very favourable opinion of my practical sagacity . . . This was
the ¬rst I ever heard of it. I had never suspected that Mrs Fyne had taken the
trouble to distinguish in me the signs of sagacity or folly . . . I prepared myself for
the afternoon™s hospitalities, calling in the farmer™s wife and reviewing with her
the resources of the house and the village. She was a helpful woman. But the
resources of my sagacity I did not review. Except in the gross material sense of
the afternoon tea I made no preparations for Mrs Fyne . . . It was impossible for
me to make any such preparations. I could not tell what sort of sustenance she
would look for from my sagacity. (C, pp. ±±“°)

Continuing to lean heavily on the word ˜˜sagacity,™™ Marlow sarcastically
denies credit when Mrs. Fyne compliments him on the comfort of his
lodgings:

˜˜I engaged these rooms by letter without asking any questions. It might have
been an abominable hole,™™ I explained to her. ˜˜I always do things like that. I
don™t like to be bothered. This is no great proof of sagacity “ is it? Sagacious
people, I believe, like to exercise that faculty. I have heard that they can™t even
help showing it in the veriest tri¬‚es. It must be very delightful. But I know
nothing of it. I think that I have no sagacity “ no practical sagacity.™™ (C, p. ±±)
±··
Melancholy, manhood, and modernist narrative
Marlow™s emphatic denial of his own ˜˜practical sagacity™™ amounts to a
verbal assault on Mrs. Fyne. Marlow™s hostility towards Mrs. Fyne is
based in part on his antipathy towards feminists; elsewhere in the novel
he suggests his preference for the ¬ne ˜˜privilege™™ of ˜˜femininity™™ over
the coarse ˜˜attitude™™ of ˜˜feminism™™ (C, p. ±·). His hostility towards her
also reveals his resentment towards women more generally: ˜˜[f ]or
myself it™s towards women that I feel vindictive mostly . . . Mainly I
resent that pretence of winding us round their dear little ¬ngers, as of
right™™ (C, p. ±±). But Marlow™s attack stems most directly from his
dislike of her snobbishly hypocritical wish to prevent a convict™s daugh-
ter from marrying into her family. So intense is Mrs. Fyne™s desire to
exclude Flora that it drives her to the drastic measure of inviting Marlow
into her domestic circle. Under normal circumstances, the Fynes would
be no more likely to allow a ˜˜careless bachelor™™ a place of authority
within the familial sanctum than they would be to allow a dog indoors.
The Fynes™ dog “ a recurrent motif in the novel that Henry James
found particularly ludicrous⁶ “ serves here and throughout the text as an
emblem of the exclusions of conventional domesticity, and particularly
of Marlow™s own uncertain place at the domestic tea table. The Fynes
bring their dog to Marlow™s tea party, but then tie him outside the house
where he barks incessantly, making a noise ˜˜like stabs through one™s
brain.™™· Having ˜˜bribed the Fyne dog into some sort of self-control™™
with a piece of cake, Marlow asks Mr. Fyne ˜˜Why don™t you let him
come inside?™™:
Oh dear no! He couldn™t think of it! I might indeed have saved my breath, I
knew it was one of the Fynes™ rules of life, part of their solemnity and
responsibility, one of those things that were part of their unassertive but ever
present superiority, that their dog must not be allowed in. It was most improper
to intrude their dog into the houses of the people they were calling on “ if it
were only a careless bachelor in farmhouse lodgings and a personal friend of the
dog. (C, p. ±µ)
The Fynes™ bourgeois ˜˜rule of life™™ is a home rule that bars undesirables
including dogs, bachelors, and convicts™ daughters. In paying lip service
to Mrs. Fyne™s higher domestic authority “ ˜˜[s]he was familiar and
olympian, fenced in by the tea-table, that excellent symbol of domestic
life in its lighter hour and its perfect security™™ (C, p. ±) “ Marlow
challenges both Mrs. Fyne and the ˜˜perfect security™™ she represents.
Marlow resents her conventional domesticity not so much because it
˜˜fence[s]™™ her in, but because she hypocritically uses it to fence others
out.
±· Bachelors, manhood, and the novel
It is another ˜˜careless bachelor™™ who, with an apparent lack of
self-control and a seeming disregard for propriety, casts Flora in the role
of Mrs. Fyne™s sister-in-law. Like Marlow himself, Mrs. Fyne™s brother
strikingly resembles the bachelor on the Reveries model, a likeness appar-
ent in Marlow™s description of him as ˜˜a man of long and ardent reverie
wherein the faculty of sincere passion matures slowly in the unexplored
recesses of the heart™™ (C, p. ·). Marlow™s own Reveries-esque preference
for sitting ˜˜feet up on the sill of an open window, a book in my hands
and the murmured harmonies of wind and sun in my heart making an
accompaniment to the rhythms of my author™™ (C, p. ) is matched by
Captain Anthony™s habit of lying in the grass, smoking his pipe, and
daydreaming away the hot summer days, a habit which provokes his
nieces to ˜˜exchang[e] jeering remarks about ˜lazy Uncle Roderick™™™ (C,
p. ±µ). While Mrs. Fyne abhors the vice of Roderick™s ˜˜amazing indol-
ence™™ (C, p. ±), Marlow defends it as ˜˜the force of a contemplative
temperament™™ (C, p. ±µ). His sedentary ways notwithstanding, this
bachelor uncle acts swiftly when confronted with the su¬ering of the
young woman described by Mrs. Fyne as ˜˜an orphan ˜to a certain
extent™™™ (C, p. °). Although ˜˜he [is] actually too shy to get on terms
with his own nieces™™ (C, p. ±), Uncle Roderick essentially adopts Flora
de Barral, thereby enacting a version of that perennially favorite motif:

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