Mardi is Melville's first pure fiction work (while featuring fictional narrators, his previous novels were heavily autobiographical). It details (much like Typee and Omoo) the travelings of an American sailor who abandons his whaling vessel to explore the South Pacific. Unlike the first two, however, Mardi is highly philosophical and said to be the first work to show Melville's true potential. The tale begins as a simple narrative, but quickly focuses upon discourse between the main characters and their interactions with the different symbolic countries they encounter. While not as cohesive or lengthy as Moby-Dick, it shares a similar writing style as well as many of the same themes.
As a preface to Mardi, Melville wrote somewhat ironically that his first two books were nonfiction but disbelieved; by the same pattern he hoped the fiction book would be accepted as fact.
Mardi was a critical failure. One reviewer said the book contained "ideas in so thick a haze that we are unable to perceive distinctly which is which". Nevertheless, Nathaniel Parker Willis found the work "exquisite".
Nathaniel Hawthorne found Mardi a rich book "with depths here and there that compel a man to swim for his life... so good that one scarcely pardons the writer for not having brooded long over it, so as to make it a great deal better."
The widespread disappointment of the critics hurt Melville yet he chose to view the book's reception philosophically, as the requisite growing pains of any author with high literary ambitions. "These attacks are matters of course, and are essential to the building up of any permanent reputation—if such would ever prove to be mine... But Time, which is the solver of all riddles, will solve Mardi."
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- Online versions
- Mardi (1864 reprint, vol. 1 of 2) at Project Gutenberg
- Mardi (1864 reprint, vol. 2 of 2) at Project Gutenberg