115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Seeing Double: Self-Examination Through the Eyes of the Other in Moby Dick and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Bethany J Avalos, Claremont Graduate University

Reversing the traditional direction and power relation of the gaze, Herman Melville in Moby Dick and Mark Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court present anti-imperialist arguments by pairing each protagonist with a native “Other” through whose eyes he comes to see himself and society more clearly. 

Proposal: 

In Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Mary Louise Pratt explains how the writings of British explorers in the late 1700s created the newly acquired territory as a landscape on the page, empty and available for use, removing the native people from the place altogether. As Pratt explains, “The travelers are chiefly present as a kind of collective moving eye on which the sights/sites register” (58). Although seeing is a passive experience, the active power of the gaze becomes evident when it is transferred to the page, with the eye commanding its prospect and the landscape passive and acquiescent. The power of the gaze is most intense, however, when human presence does appear. As Matthew Frye Jacobson acknowledges in Barbarian Virtues, travel writing is full of Westerners staring at natives. Rather than being passive, Jacobson asserts the gaze constitutes a kind of consumption, a “feasting of the eyes” (114). This highlights the power relations between the gazer and the gazed upon. Yet, R. Radhakrishnan asserts, “Philosophically and theoretically speaking, the Self requires the position as well as the gaze of the Other for its own self-recognition” (“Why Compare?” 23-24). In other words, we see ourselves most faithfully through the eyes of another because we are blinded by our own cultural biases.

Both Moby Dick by Herman Melville and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain adhere in some measure to the conventions of travel writing. In each novel, the protagonist arrives in unfamiliar surroundings, is thrust into the position of outsider, or Other, by his circumstances, and begins making observations and judgements of his host society based on comparisons with his home society. However, in each case, the author complicates the formula by pairing the protagonist with an Other, through whose eyes he comes to see himself and Western society more clearly. Melville and Twain turn the gaze of the “Other” back on white society, specifically the United States, through the friendship or marrying of characters from different cultural backgrounds and call into question the discourses which surround and justify imperialism. Thus, Melville and Twain construct their argument against American imperialism through the double vision of protagonist seeing through the eyes of the Other. Further, by aligning the reader with the protagonist, Melville and Twain lead the reader to share in the protagonists’ new vision. In this paper, I will examine how the foreign setting/character mirrors the domestic space and enables the American protagonist/reader to recognize and accurately see himself through the eyes of the Other. Through these relationships, each of these novels holds up a mirror that requires self-examination on the part of the reader. 

Topic Area: