5 Herman Melville: Moby Dick

Mr. Subham Chowdhury

epgp books

Herman Melville


Herman Melville was born in New York City on 1st August, 1819, to Allan Melvill and Maria Gansevoort Melvill. He belonged to an aristocratic family. But, the failure of business and poor planning by his father caused a rapid decline of fortune. As a result, Herman Melville and his seven siblings were soon deprived of the privileges that aristocracy would have provided. Melville attended the Albany Academy, from October 1830 to October 1831, where he took the standard preparatory course, studying penmanship; arithmetic, English grammar, geography, natural history, universal, Greek, Roman and English history, classical biography, and Jewish antiquities. But, he had to leave when the family was no longer able to pay for his education. With the death of his father in 1832, Melville forever left the life of a student. Already, at the age of 14, Melville had to work at a bank for sustenance. Thereafter, he shifted through a series of jobs, including teaching. It is thus that Ishmael comes to suggest for himself a reputed ancestry like his creator’s that makes him out of place as a sailor: ‘True, they rather order me about some, and make me jump from spar to spar, like a grasshopper in a May meadow. And at first, this sort of thing is unpleasant enough. It touches one’s sense of honour, particularly if you come of an old family in the land, the Van Rensselaers, or Randolphs, or Hardicanutes.’ The Danish-English Van Rensselaers happened to be cousins of the Melvills.


On June of 1839, Melville signed abroad St. Lawrence, a merchant ship, and embarked on the first of the many maritime journeys he would be a part of. Redburn: His First Voyage (1849) was the consequence of this experience. Thus, his experiences at sea began to serve his fictions, and, in time, produced Moby-Dick. Probably, inspired by Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, Melville first signed for a whaling ship, the Acushnet, which also acquainted him with the natives of the South Pacific. In July 1842, Melville deserted the Acushnet and spent three weeks on the Marqueseas Island. The immediate result of it was Typee (1846). On his return, he boarded the Australian whaler Lucy Ann, and also participated in the mutiny abroad. Melville was imprisoned for that. Finally, he returned to America on the frigate USS United States, in 1844. He later drew on these experiences to write Omoo (1847) and White-Jacket (1850).


Melville’s experience as a sailor was significant not only for providing the first hand material for his fiction, but also for making him a self-taught scholar. In White-Jacket, Melville devoted a chapter to ‘A Man-of-War Library’ where he made it clear that much of his time on the sea was spent on reading. Likewise, Ishmael insists that ‘a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.’ Thus, as an autodidact, Melville brings the anti-institutional suggestion that life has much more to teach than any established institute. In another anti- establishmentarian move, he shocked his readers with his sympathy for pagan society and contempt for Western civilization in his novels, especially Typee. Despite this controversial element, his novels up to White-Jacket sold well enough to provide financial support. When, in 1851, he published Moby-Dick, however, the sales dropped. This was anticipated by the writer who knew that he was attempting something different and more ambitious in this novel.


It was not till the second half of the nineteenth century that the novel gained the attention of the English readers. In America, Moby-Dick started to be counted among the greats afterwards, in the 1920s, when F. O. Matthiessen recognized it as one of the representatives of the ‘American Renaissance’. Melville, who died in September 28, 1891, could not witness his own rise to greatness.



Ishmael decides to go on a whaling expedition. At Nantuket, he and Queequeg – a savage from the South Sea Islands he has befriended – join the whaler Pequod. Before the ship sets sails, Ishmael hears mysterious warnings from a man named Elijah, and in Father Mapple’s sermon on the prophet Jonah and the whale. In the sea, he comes to know Ahab, the captain of the ship, and a monomaniac bent on hunting Moby-Dick, the legendary sperm whale that had ripped apart one of Ahab’s legs. Ahab’s oratory flourish convinces the crew aboard – a combination of men from diverse ethnic groups – to pledge themselves to his cause. Only Starbuck has his reservations about the fate of such an expedition.


Ahab, later, reveals his own boat crew, led by Fedallah, who have been secretly there on the ship. The novel swings between the story of Pequod’s voyage and the reflections by the narrator. These private reflections involve details of the whaling business, popular representations of the whale, and philosophical meditations. On the other side, incidents occur, like Pip’s falling overboard and his lapse into melancholic insanity, and Queequeg’s ordering a coffin following a fever. He, later, revives from fever and discards the coffin. Following the news of sighting Moby-Dick by the British whaler, the Samuel Enderby, Pequod comes across Moby-Dick and chases it for three days. In the course of it, Fedallah drowns and Ahab’s artificial leg is snapped on the second day of the chase. On the third day, Moby-Dick smashes Pequod, drowning all aboard. Ahab gets entangled in the line of the harpoon that he stuck into the whale and is taken down with the whale. The only survivor is Ishmael who operated as Ahab’s bow man. He floats with Queequeg’s empty coffin and lives to tell the tale.

Moby-Dick as an Epic


In his introduction to the novel, Alfred Kazin enumerates the characteristics that raise Moby- Dick to the standard of an epic: ‘the spaciousness of theme and subject, the martial atmosphere, the association of these homely and savage materials with universal myths, the symbolic wanderings of the hero, the indispensable strength of such a hero in Captain Ahab.’ It is the Protestant imagination in Melville, with its ‘habit of moralizing and the transcendental passion for symbolizing all things as examples of higher laws that has contributed a symbolical dimension to this otherwise realistic prose narrative. Thus, in his essay on Melville, Albert Camus observes: ‘if it is true that talent recreates life while genius has the additional gift of crowning it with myths, Melville is first and foremost a creator of myths.’


The arrival of the European Romantic movement appealed to the revolutionary spirit of the Americans and brought about American Transcendentalism through the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The two movements came to provoke Melville in his private reflections to divinity and the essence of existence. Though guided by Emerson, Melville’s own reflections were more complex and troubled than what Emerson could arrive at.  Hence,  after  once  attending  a  lecture  by  Emerson,  Melville  gave  his  ambivalent appreciation: ‘I was very agreeably disappointed in Mr. Emerson. I had heard of him as full of Transcendentalism, myths and oracular gibberish […] To my surprise, I found him quite  intelligible, tho’ to say truth, they told me that night he was unusually plain […] I could readily see in Emerson, notwithstanding his merit, a gaping flaw.’ Moby-Dick, in response,  consists  of  Melville’s  own  account  of  the  nature  of  existence,  in  which  evil  and  the unintelligible are much more persistently present.


    Hence, as an epic, Moby-Dick is an unusually ambitious work. It brings together two traditions of epic. On the one hand, there are aspects of the ancient or primitive national epic tradition that centres on a (physical) conflict (as in Iliad and Beowulf). It focuses on Ahab. On the other hand, there are aspects of the modern epic tradition that centres on a spiritual quest, on the search for a transcendental order or significance of human life (as in the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost). Ishmael represents this epic tradition. Thus, Alfred Kazin writes, ‘two rhythms – one reflective, the other forceful – alternate’ in the text. For Ishmael, the entire journey is a pursuit of knowledge. That knowledge dislodges Emerson’s optimistic notion that human beings can make sense of Nature and reality. Chapters on ‘the whiteness of the whale’ and on the classification of whales repeatedly lead Ishmael to surrender before the inexhaustibility of his material: ‘God keeps me from completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught.’ Ahab, on the other hand, demands a finished text, a perfect mastery of his subject, and a victory over Moby-Dick. Kazin writes: ‘He seeks to dominate nature, to impose and to inflict his will on the outside world—whether it be the crew that must jump to his orders or the great white whale that is essentially indifferent to him. As Ishmael is all rumination, so Ahab is all will.’


If Paradise Lost is an epic on man’s fall, Moby-Dick is an epic where humanity is condemned to a purposeless existence without God. Neither is Moby-Dick a symbol that will yield to Ahab, nor will Ishmael’s reflections penetrate it at all points. For instance, in the 76th Chapter, ‘The Battering Ram’, the forehead of the sperm whale presents such a metaphorical dead-end of investigation: ‘the front of the sperm whale’s head is a dead, blind wall, without a single organ or tender prominence of any sort whatsoever.’ In his Introduction, David Herd explains in a reference to this passage, ‘it is the same blind, dead wall by which Ahab batters on towards his purpose.’ Unresolved as their subject is, Ishmael and Ahab exhibit two modes of approach that come together to form the novel: ‘So whereas Ishmael’s sensibility is formed by the act of inhaling, his narrative taking all things in, Ahab’s sensibility is formed by this act of piling, a process which hardens him to everything but his object’.


We have this passage in Chapter 28: ‘There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance. […] [M]oody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.’ Behind his might and his woe alike stands Ahab’s monomania concerning Moby-Dick. In ‘The Madness of Ahab’, Henry Nash Smith, shows how monomania was a term of much consideration at the time, considerations to which Melville was not unrelated: ‘Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (whose daughter would become Herman Melville’s wife in 1847) stated in an opinion written in 1844 that in cases of monomania, “The conduct may be in many respects regular, the mind acute, and the conduct apparently governed by rules of propriety, and at the same time there may be insane delusion, by which the mind is perverted.”’ Thus, Ahab is not a simple madman. Simple madness goes beneath the dignity of a hero, and would have been ludic rather than of epic standard. He has his wits upon himself, and is aware enough of the ‘rules of propriety’. Monomania is something of a spiritual malady that makes him able to display a tragic hero’s hubris. Ishmael tells us: ‘Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations.’

Moby-Dick as an American Novel


Moby-Dick evokes a picture of solitude, a picture of man left on the mercy of natural elements, desperate to know and master nature. Beside this metaphysical drama, Moby-Dick, however, is not a novel without any bearings on contemporary American society. In ‘Hawthorne and His Mosses’, Melville notes that: ‘Great geniuses are parts of the times, they themselves are the times, and possess an correspondent coloring.’ The novel captures the importance of sperm whaling to the American economy. Charles Olson, writing on this point, notes that in 1844, the whaling industry amounted to a hundred and twenty million dollars, a figure that ranked high among the industries of the time. Until the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvanian in 1859, it was an essential source to the country. So, in Chapter 24, ‘The Advocate’, Melville is justified in his claim that in writing on the whaling industry, he is encompassing considerably multiple aspects of American as well as European societies.


Hence, it will not be an exaggeration to see Pequod as a representative of America on its way to gain economic prosperity. The people of different races and languages in it – French, Icelander, Red Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, English – have come together under the banner of one country to chase the American Dream. The novel dramatizes the inevitable self- destructive consequences when a society is so bent on economic dreams.


In the essay ‘Cannibalism, Slavery, and Self-Consummation in Moby-Dick’, Homer B. Pettery shows how this motif of self-destruction is brought out in the novel as the idea of ‘cannibalism’ is extended to the status of ‘a sociopolitical metaphor’: ‘In Moby-Dick, Melville uses cannibalism in order to attack the cruel institutions of slavery and capitalism which were eating away at American culture.’ Melville makes use of the fact that the actions related to cannibalism are simultaneously present as whaling activities – hunting, killing, possessing, dismembering, and consuming. Pettery further suggests that: ‘Structurally, the novel moves from ritualized exocannibalism to narcissistic autocannibalism.’


Moby-Dick addresses the questions of social order and democracy that were on rise in the nineteenth century America. The crew appears to go by Ahab’s cause wilfully. As such, the organization on Pequod portrays a society, a fraternity, as expected in a democracy. However, there is an undercurrent in Ahab’s hypnotic command to the crew. As Ishmael notes, there is in Ahab’s charisma a ‘sultanism that became incarnate in an irresistible dictatorship.’


In ‘Its wood could only be American!: Moby-Dick and Antebellum Popular Culture’, David S. Reynold relates Melville’s connections with the popular radical democrats of his time with Melville’s ‘willed fusion of the justified criminal and the oxymoronic oppressor’. These radical democrats like George Lippard, A. J. H. Duganne, George G. Foster, and George Thompson carried out social protests ‘to expose what they regarded as the prevailing depravity of America’s ruling class’. Their target was the self-contradictory figures like ‘the outwardly respectable but inwardly corrupt social leader who variously appeared as the churchgoing capitalist, the religious slaveholder, the unctuous reverend rake, and so on.’ And hence, we have in Moby-Dick this ambiguous assessment of the democratic order. The final taking over of democracy by the sultanic will of Ahab happens in the course of the journey. This is what finally leads to the falling apart of the whole society on the ship. Thus, Melville delivers his pessimistic apprehension of the future of the country.


Another current in American society that Reynold identifies as influencing Melville is what he calls ‘dark’ or ‘immoral’ reformers of the 1830s. These reformers engaged with the murky sides of society to bring about reformations. Often, they were reveled to have fraudulent objectives, as with the anti-prostitution reformer John McDowall and the dramatic orator John B. Gough. Particularly relatable to Melville is the post-Calvinistic temperament and the mythic metaphors that they often used in their oratory. Thus, addressing the social vises that troubled America, a writer writes in Liberator (edited by Garison): ‘The whale which swallowed up the recreant prophet [Jonah] may be likened to the many monsters which swallow up the aberrant sinner of our own days.’ The similarity with Father Mapple’s sermon is unmistakable.


Reynold notes that ‘Temperance, antislavery, socialism, anti-Catholicism, antiwar—these and other popular reforms provide a wealth of images to Melville in Moby-Dick.’ However, Melville regarded these popular reformists somewhat ironically. His ambiguous attitude towards them is visible in a letter from Melville to Hawthorne: ‘It can hardly be doubted that all Reformers are bottomed upon the truth, more or less; and to the world at large are not reformers almost universally laughing-stocks?’ This accounts for the fact that Melville approaches the reformative purposes with such a deal of impersonal voice, not directly endorsing them.


Among these motives, the Abolitionist discourses are particularly relevant. Melville shows a determined endeavour for overhauling racist prejudices as he makes the South Sea cannibal, Queequeg the narrator’s friend and spiritual guide. Ishmael’s preconceptions about this ‘infernal head-peddler’ are dismissed as he comes to know the savage towards the beginning of the novel. He is impressed by his ‘not only a civil but a really charitable’ behaviour, and comes to the conclusion that ‘the man’s just as human as I am.’ With reassurance, he concludes that it is ‘Better [to] sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian’, and on the next morning he finds himself in Queequeg’s ‘bridegroom clasp’, as if ‘I had been his wife’. Melville thus dismisses the demarcation of race upon which slavery could justify itself.


Moby-Dick, however, allegorizes the fact that antebellum Massachusetts shipping and industrial interests outweighed Afro-American and fugitive slaves’ rights. A digressive fugitive account can be seen to occur with Pip’s jumping overboard. The Alabama cabin-boy leaps out of Stubb’s boat to become a loose fish, and is accidentally rescued by Pequod since he got entangle in a whale line. Stubb ignored Pip in favour of hunting whales. The novel registers the evolving definition of slavery following the Abolitionist movement. As Reymond cites: ‘Ishmael’s ironic query “Who aint a slave?” would seem to owe much to the fiery New York radical Mike Walsh, who in the late 1840s famously universalized the notion of slavery by stressing that both Northern wage slaves and Southern chattel slaves were equally oppressed.’

Literary Influences on Moby-Dick


Formal education for Melville ended at the age of 12, due to the failing economy of his family. Following that, Melville has been an autodidact, and his readings came to have a direct influence on his writings. Referring to him, the poet Charles Olson says, ‘He read to write’.


Behind Moby-Dick lies as much a body of literary voices as his personal experiences. The ‘Extracts’ at the beginning of the novel is an indication of that. It contains references to William Shakespeare, Edmund Bruke, Oliver Goldsmith, Charles Lamb, Rabelais, John Milton, newspaper accounts, and also the Bible. Written about the same time when he was composing Moby-Dick, Melville’s essay ‘Hawthorne and his Mosses’ (1850) shows how he absorbs influences. Referring to Hawthorne’s connection with ‘the dark half of the physical sphere’, he writes: ‘this great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeal to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free.’ Certainly, this great power of blackness comes to taint Ahab in his Faustian pursuit of the whale. This is what makes Melville claim for Moby-Dick the title ‘wicked’ in a letter to Hawthorne himself.


Along with Hawthorne, the essay is a testimony of Melville’s indebtedness to Shakespeare. The circumstances and consequences of the pursuit of the mysterious and that of knowledge form the core of the novel, and this model gets its prototype in Shakespeare: ‘But it is those deep far-away things in him; those occasional flashing-forths of the intuitive Truth in him; those short, quick probing at the very axis of reality: these are the very things that make Shakespeare, Shakespeare.’ This has its direct bearing on the language and characterization of Ahab, giving him the loftiness and tragic dignity of a Shakespearian hero.


At the end of January 1848, Melville began reading the second book of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel. As David Herd notes in the Introduction of the Wordsworth edition of Moby-Dick, Rabelais did prompt Melville in the conception of the novel: ‘And it was reading Rabelais that enabled Melville to become this kind of writer, Gargantua and Pantagruel provided him with a model of a structure within which to make the kind of loosely associated philosophical and observational digression which would eventually so charaterise Moby-Dick.’ Rabelais, therefore, provided not only the epic proportions of the whale and the novel, but also ‘a way of handling his reading.’

In Its wood could only be American’, David S. Reynold traces Moby-Dick in a current of popular fictions of whaling expeditions. Among them are J. N. Reynolds’s ‘Mocha Dick, or The White Whale of the Pacific,’ a story in the May 1839 issue of the New York Knickerbocker, and ‘Whaling in the Pacific. Encounter with a White Whale,’ a tale published in October 8, 1842, in the popular Boston weekly Uncle Sam: these stories are similarly about the chase of a legendary sperm whale. Some of these books get mentioned among the ‘Extracts’ – Joseph C. Hart’s Miriam Coffin (1834), William Comstock’s The Life of Samuel Comstock, the Terrible Whaleman (1840), and Harry Halyard’s pulp novel Wharton the Whale-Killer! (1848).


Melville’s novel, however, differs from these in its realistic treatment of whaling expedition, as well as in the mythic dimension that he incorporates into this issue. In fact, a regular intention of the novel has been that of correcting the rumors, and the fantastic accounts that cloud the reality of the sperm whaling. Hence, Reynold writes: ‘On the one hand, Melville includes an unprecedented amount of factual information about the whale in order to counteract what Ishmael calls the “curious imaginary portraits of him which even down to the present day confidently challenge the faith of the landsman”’

you can view video on Herman Melville: Moby Dick