2. How does Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” help to clarify one or more of central themes we have discussed in this course?
Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” or “The Whale” that was published in London in 1851 appeared in the same socio-economic, political and cultural context in America as described in the first question. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signed in 1848 presents the pattern of expansion representative of the century, the political sphere was occupied by personalities with ideologies ranging from Jefferson’s to Jackson’s, and the Civil War was approaching when Melville was in process of drafting “Moby Dick”. Dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author of “The Scarlet Letter”, this book is considered to be one of the best American literary works, although it was widely overlooked at its time. The novel takes place in a world which is constructed through symbols and metaphors and it echoes an eclectic variety of intertextual links. Notably, “Moby Dick” comprises Biblical names and references, such as the Book of Job, while providing encyclopedic explanations of whaling lore along an adventurous story that serves as a meditation on the core existential questions. “Moby Dick” is also a reflection on autobiographical elements since Herman Melville himself was a whaler. In a way, its non-linear narration and interplay between various genres foresee the upcoming literary experiments. Now, Herman Melville’s work is significant not only as a literary landmark but in a less exaggerated form as efforts of “literatus”, as defined by Whitman, to embody the American spirit and to find a tone of its own.
Herman Melville starts building the plot with Ishmael who introduces himself as a narrator. After a trip to New Bedford where he meets a strange looking but, seemingly, a kind spirited man from the South Pacific called Queequeg, they decide to find work together in the whaling industry. Having come across a ship Pequod led by a one-legged Captain Ahab, Ishmael and Queequeg join its diverse crew and hit the road. Soon they find out about Moby Dick, the great whale that epitomizes evil who deprived the captain of his leg and learn Ahab’s intentions to kill him. The man to do it is offered a prize and so a hunt begins as more and more whales are spotted when moving southwards. In the process, a crew of men led by Fedallah that constitutes Ahab’s personal harpoon previously unknown for the narrator emerges. Characterized by skills and prophetic abilities, they seem to be a good asset in a search of Moby Dick. As the voyage proceeds, Pequod comes across another ship carrying a prophet Gabriel who tells destiny of those who pose a potential danger to Moby Dick. In fact, his predictions seemed to make sense since one of the harpooners who had hunted down the other whales in search of Moby Dick was saved from drowning thanks to Queequeg. Shortly after, Queequeg gets sick and due to predicted death has a coffin made for him which later becomes a life preserver of the ship. Soon, Ahab himself hears a prophecy of his death that makes him assume it will happen in the land. Yet, when a typhoon hits a ship, some take it as a bad sign seeing murdering Ahab whose willingness to destroy Moby Dick intensifies as a potential salvation. As this desire grows, Pequod’s Prophetic figure, the crew member Pip, who became so after having been left in the middle of the ocean, makes Ahab’s regular companion. To tension grows when Pequod comes across more whaling ships destroyed by their confrontations with Moby Dick. When Ahab finally spots it as well, days-long sisyphic struggle follows to hunt it down. Finally, Moby Dick sinks the Pequod killing everyone but Ishmael who is saved when spotted floating in Queequeg’s coffin by another ship looking for its own lost crew members after a confrontation with a Moby Dick.
Although the reader experiences the story articulated by Ishmael, he does not have a crucial role in a way the novel develops. Yet, he provides with his knowledge on whaling, art, literature and other subjects creating an image of Rennaisancian man knowledge spans a number of various areas. This intellect of his provides the author with a voice from the Pequod’s crew to tell the story which likely would not be accessible from the other characters. Then, Ishmael’s tattooed friend Queequeg in search of adventure whom he meet at the very beginning embodies characteristics of various cultures and diversity. Parallels can be drawn between the influx of immigration experienced by the United States at that time and the crew of the ship which is a bounded space with a diversity within that everyone has to deal with. Besides Queequeg, other characters show this idea as well. While Fedallah represents an “Oriental” character strengthened through his “exotic” appearance, Tashtego is a Native American harpooner portrayed as a “noble savage”, and Pip is an African-American character who gains importance after the emergence of his prophecies which bring him closer to Ahab. The latter seeks to destroy the whale in an obsessive and tend to act as a despot but his charisma helps persuade the crew of his aspiration do find Moby Dick.
Moby Dick, on the contrary, is not really a character but rather a figure that represents a certain uncontrollable force that does not depend on human beings. Its thoughts or motivations are unavailable for the reader and, thus, it strikes as an all-powerful creature which is bigger than Ahab’s or other Captain’s ambitions or plans. Also, it reminds of the prior symbolism of a whale, such as in “Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes or Cetus in Greek mythology. Ishmael’s descriptions depict how whales mimic the environment, how they are rarely available for human observation and never appear from the sea as a whole. It describes the infinite that Moby Dick represents – it is not available for human knowledge but it is always there, underneath the surface acting as this all-driving inescapable force which is both appealing and frightening because of its greatness.
At the same time, whaling was an exploitive activity driving these animals to near extinction when Melville was gaining this experience and writing his novel and, in parallel, many other activities moving America forward were too. Whaling represented in “Moby Dick” could be linked to gold mining, as it was also observed in Royce’s works about California, writing his novel and so was the territorial expansion liked to the manifest destiny or unfair trade with Native Americans of which there are also hints in Royce’s “California”. In fact, Ahab’s desire to chase after the whale is revealing on its own. The reason why he got to this activity, to begin with, was to search for profit made out of oil. When he loses his leg, Captain Ahab is ready to go wherever it might take him to seek revenge. Even when he is warned that there are forces that go beyond the human capabilities, he insists on the necessity of destroying the great white sperm whale without taking hindsight. Yet, this narcissistic and rather stubborn stance does not only destroy the Captain but also all crew of his as well. Meanwhile, Ahab’s crew members accepting and traveling with him are submissive to his authority and expose their own selves to risk while counting on his definition of Moby Dick as the great evil. Ahab does not doubt in his capacity, contrary to three Pequod´s friends Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask whose religiosity deters them from seeing themselves as able to tame higher forces and, contrary to Ahab, they embody deterministic thinking certain to Christian thought which claims that everything happens for a reason and, therefore, there is little on can go to alter it.
“Moby Dick” also helps to highlight and challenge the ideas of transcendentalism, truly 19th-century American philosophical movement, as it appears in Whitman’s, Thoreau’s or Emerson’s works. In short, transcendentalism sees an individual as good as such but deprived of this purity by corrupt institutions and society. Transcendentalists believed in the existence of truth that stretches beyond our comprehension, they evoked the motives of nature, inner spirituality, and self-reliance and derived from the assumption of the inherent goodness of people. In these terms, while Ahab demonstrates a desire to be himself unleashing his destructive character and conflicting with transcendentalist ideas, Ishmael, on the contrary, seems to embody the idea of self-reliance and his perception of nature pertains to divinity, he is struggling to reconcile his passion of facts about it with its uncomprehensive essence. Yet, Melville is more pessimistic about the nature of an individual and with an example of Ahab envisions potential dangers of one person having an unlimited belief in himself. Also, nature in “Moby Dick” is not as uplifting and refreshing as, say, in Thoreau’s or Emerson’s texts. On the contrary, for Melville, the natural world demonstrates violent and it frightens the human beings.
Finally, not only can Moby Dick be interpreted in the context of the 19th and earlier centuries, but its relevance transforms with time adapting to socio-economic, cultural and political contexts of the moment. The self-centered manner in which Ahab tells the Pequod’s crew of his mission reminds of Trump’s tone as well. He also tells a story of a country in danger and on the verge of humiliation that needs to mobilize and direct its Pequod towards the destruction of this evil – be it the immigrants, the other nations of religions embodying this “whale”. And even more parallels can be found in the recent history. Remember G.W.Bush’s combat with the “whale” which brought his as far as to Afghanistan in a reactionary chase of terror. Again, the end of this voyage was similar to that of Ahab being more destructive than successful. Indeed, it looks that Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” potential is inexhaustible and it does not only clarify themes we have discussed in this particular course but could equally serve in the others ranging widely from literary theory, cultural studies to political science.