The Encantadas

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The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles is a novella by American author Herman Melville. First published in Putnam's Magazine in 1854, it consists of ten philosophical "Sketches" on the Encantadas, or Galápagos Islands. It was collected in The Piazza Tales in 1856. The Encantadas was a success with the critics,[1] but it did not help Melville out of his financial troubles.


Like all of the stories later included in The Piazza Tales, Melville wrote The Encantadas while in financial straits after the failure of his novels Moby-Dick and Pierre: or, The Ambiguities. Putnam's invited him to contribute material in 1852; he began to write, but never finished, a story on the abandoned wife Agatha Hatch Robertson that year,[2][3] and submitted his famous work "Bartleby, the Scrivener" in 1853. In 1854 he contributed The Encantadas, which became the most critically successful of the Piazza Tales.[1]


An anonymous narrator unites the ten disparate "Sketches", each of which begin with a few lines of poetry, mostly taken from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. All of the stories are replete with symbolism reinforcing the cruelty of life on the Encantadas. "Sketch First" is a description of the islands; though they are the Enchanted Isles they are depicted as desolate and hellish. "Sketch Second" is a meditation on the narrator's encounter with ancient Galápagos tortoises, while "Sketch Third" concerns the narrator's trip up the enormous tower called the Rock Rodondo. "Sketch Fourth" details the narrator's musings from atop the tower, and his recollection of the islands' accidental discovery by Juan Fernández.[4] "Sketch Fifth" describes the USS Essex' encounter with a phantom British ship near the area during the War of 1812.

Sketches Sixth through Ninth tell stories of individual islands. "Sketch Sixth" describes Barrington Isle, once home to a group of buccaneers. "Sketch Seventh, Charles's Isle and the Dog-King" is about Charles's Isle, formerly the site of a colony governed by a soldier who had taken the island as his payment for his role in the Peruvian War of Independence. He maintained order through his group of vicious attack dogs, but was eventually banished by the colonists who fell to even greater levels of lawlessness.

"Sketch Eighth, Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow" is one of the most celebrated of the segments. In a manner similar to the rescue of Juana Maria, the "Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island" in California, who had been rescued only a year prior to The Encantadas' publication, the narrator describes how his ship had found a woman who had been living alone on Norfolk Isle for years. Hunilla, a "chola" (mestizo) from Payta, Peru, had come to the island with her newlywed husband and her brother to hunt tortoises; the French captain who dropped them off promised to return for them, but never did. One day, the husband and brother built a raft to go fishing, but hit a reef and drowned. Hunilla was utterly alone on the island until the narrator's ship arrived, except for one occasion in which she encountered whalers (what happened was so horrible that neither Hunilla nor the narrator would speak of it), and the sailors are so moved by her story that they return her to land and give her whatever money they can scrape up. The narrator last sees her riding to her hometown on the back of a donkey, an image strongly evoking Christ's ride into Jerusalem in John 12:12-20.

"Sketch Ninth, Hood's Isle and the Hermit Oberlus" tells the story of Oberlus, a former sailor who takes up residence on Hood's Isle and eventually captures four men he makes his slaves. He murders passersby and takes their possessions until his behavior finally runs him afoul of the authorities. "Sketch Tenth, Runaways, Castaways, Solitaries, Gravestones, Etc." is the narrator's description of the human aspects of life on the Encantadas and the relics left behind by former inhabitants.


Kenneth Gaburo completed a one-act opera, The Widow, based on The Encantadas in 1961.[5] Four years later, Portuguese director Carlos Vilardebó directed an adaptation in a Portuguese-French coproduction, starring Portuguese fado singer and actress Amália as Hunilla (the film is essentially based on "Sketch Eight").[6][7][8]


  1. ^ a b Branch, Herman Melville, the Critical Heritage. p. 35.
  2. ^ Melville described this story in a letter to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. See Billy Budd and Other Stories, pp. viii–ix.
  3. ^ Brenda Wineapple (May 20, 2002), "Melville at Sea", The Nation 274 (19), p. 38, retrieved December 3, 2013 
  4. ^ Fernández discovered the Juan Fernández Islands sometime after 1563, the date given in the story.
  5. ^ David Ewen (1982). American Composers: A Biographical Dictionary. G.P. Putnam's Sons. ISBN 978-0-399-12626-0. 
  6. ^ As Ilhas Encantadas, 'Cinept - Cinema Portugues', Universidade da Beira Interior (Portuguese)
  7. ^ As Ilhas Encantadas, IMDB
  8. ^ A maldição das "Ilhas Encantadas", Jorge Mourinha, Público, 12 July 2011


  • Branch, Watson G. (1974). Herman Melville: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Watson G. Branch. London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 0-7100-7774-2.
  • Melville, Herman; Busch, Frederick (Ed.) (1986). Billy Budd and Other Stories. New York: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-039053-7.

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