As early as 1839, in the juvenile sketch "Fragments from a Writing Desk" a problem occurs which would reappear in the short stories "Bartleby" (1853) and "Benito Cereno" (1855): the impossibility to find common ground for mutual communication. The sketch centers on the protagonist and a mute lady, leading scholar Sealts to observe: "Melville's deep concern with expression and communication evidently began early in his career." According to scholar Nathalia Wright, Melville's characters are all preoccupied by the same intense, superhuman and eternal quest for "the absolute amidst its relative manifestations." There can be no doubt that this is the essence of every segment of Melville's whole body of work: "All Melville's plots describe this pursuit, and all his themes represent the delicate and shifting relationship between its truth and its illusion." It is not clear, however, what the moral and metaphysical implications of this quest are, because Melville did not distinguish between these two aspects. Throughout his life Melville struggled with and gave shape to the same set of epistemological doubts and the metaphysical issues these doubts engendered. An obsession for the limits of knowledge led to the question of God's existence and nature, the indifference of the universe and the problem of evil.
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