The Romantic Chase in Herman Melville's Moby Dick
Herman Melville was a writer of the Romantic period of American literature. He published Moby Dick in 1851, at a time when the American whaling fleet numbered over 700 ships and exemplified the country’s confidence to expand its influence throughout the world. Moby Dick is a story told on three levels: 1. a magnificient adventure novel of the sea and whaling; 2. a novel of fantasy and symbolysm; 3. and a psychological novel, about man’s relationship to the universe.Melville’s novel is a most extraordinary work including many literary types—sermons, drama, non-fiction. The author has contrasted a romance, a tragedy, and a natural history, not without numerous gratuitous suggestions on psychology, ethics, and theology, etc.—encyclopedic scope. A form that fits the national character.The ship featured in the novel had 30 crewmembers, the exact number of states in the United States of America at the time Melville wrote the book. The varied crew members (African, Polynesian, French, Chinese, and Americans) stand for all humanity in general and for the melting pot of America in particular.We may find some of the prose of Moby Dick over-romantic. At a first reading it is undoubtedly the great story of the insulted demoniac Ahab pursuing his vengeance that takes our imagination. We may be inclined to skip the many technical chapters about whaling, and whaling history, and the history of whales, which are disposed about the book but once the great drama is known to us, it is these curious details that often recall our attention. They are seen to be parts of an ambitious and comprehensive picture through which Melville is creating one particular world in all its completeness, a microcosm of life itself.Most objects in the novel, such as characters and settings, are representative of more symbolic meaning. Ahab, indeed, is a melodramatic exaggeration, and Ishmael is little more than a mouth-piece; but the harpooners, the mates, and several of the seamen, are truthful portraitures of the sailor as modified by the whaling service.... The delineation of character, too, is sharp, individual and never-to-be-forgotten.Ahab, the Pequod’s obsessed captain, represents both an ancient and a modern type of hero. Like the heroes of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, he suffers from a single fatal flaw. His tremendous overconfidence leads him to defy common sense and believe that, like a god, he can enact his will and remain immune to the forces of nature. However, Ahab suffers from a fatal flaw both psychological and physical, that is inflicted by life in a harsh world. He is as much a victim as he is an aggressor, and the symbolic opposition that he constructs between himself and Moby Dick propels him toward what he considers a destined end.Ahab bears the name of the biblical king who defied Jehovah by breaking the first commandment brought down by Moses from Mt. Sinai. And King Ahab was killed in battle. Jehovah swiftly took revenge. Analogically Ahab seeks revenge on Moby Dick who begins to resemble a godhead, but he is destroyed in the attempt.Ishmael, too, bears the name of a biblical personage, namely the offspring of Abraham and Hagar. Lest Israel be ruled by a king of foreign blood, Ishmael is banished from the kingdom and doomed to roam the earth, an orphan. Thus he is a lone man, expelled from society, a spectator.
Despite his centrality to the story, Ishmael doesn’t reveal much about himself to the reader; he even disappears from the story for long stretches, replaced by dramatic dialogues and monologues from Ahab and other characters. What we learn about him is only that he is a Christian, schoolteacher, and part-time sailor who has gone to sea out of some deep spiritual malaise and that shipping aboard a whaler is his version of committing suicide—he believes that men aboard a whaling ship are lost to the world.. Ishmael’s role in Moby Dick is to interpret the happenings about the Pequod and its crew. He interprets and looks for understanding a number of reasons for any specific action where other characters only understand one reason. It is apparent from his frequent digressions on a wide range of subjects—from art, geology, and anatomy to legal codes and literature—that he is intelligent and well educated, yet he claims that a whaling ship has been “Yale College and Harvard.” He seems to be a self-taught man, good at everything but committed to nothing.Ishmael befriends one of Pequod’s crew members, Queequeg, who is a cannibal. Even though Queequeg is physically very ugly, Ishmael sees that Queequeg has an honest heart, great honor, and is courageous. This friendship had a positive influence on Ishmael’s behavior, because it taught him not to judge others on outward appearances.Another symbolic relationship, which was very short, was between Ishmael and the Pequod’s Captain, Ahab. For the first few days aboard the Pequod Ishmael only saw Ahab in the shadows. When he finally saw the captain in full light shivers ran through his body. Ishmael could sense Ahab’s attitude of determination, dedication and hatred towards Moby Dick. This relationship impacted Ishmael in a negative way; he feared Ahab and did not want to befriend such an evil person. Ishmael was good-natured and did not want to be corrupted by Ahab’s evil, that’s why he keeps himself from being near Ahab.Another central figure in the novel is Moby Dick. In a sense, Moby Dick is not a character, as the reader has no access to the White Whale’s thoughts, feelings, or intentions. Instead, the white whale is an impersonal force, a representation of God, all-powerful being that humankind cannot understand. Moby Dick cannot be defeated but only avoided. Ishmael tries to describe whales in general, but without success. Indeed, as he points out, the majority of a whale is hidden from view at all times. In this way, a whale mirrors its environment. Like the whale, only the surface of the ocean is available for human observation and interpretation, while its depths conceal unknown and unknowable truths. Furthermore, even when Ishmael does get his hands on a “whole” whale, he is unable to determine which part—the skeleton, the head, the skin—offers the best understanding of the whole living, breathing creature; he cannot localize the essence of the whale. This ånigma is a metaphor for the human relationship with the God: God is unknowable. The white whale is a symbol of all that is unattainable in the universe.As a part of the natural world, it represents the destruction of the environment by the expansion.The color of the whale being white could mean so many different and conflicting things that it can’t be narrowed down to one meaning. There are two main interpretations of the whiteness. First is Ahab’s. He considers Moby Dick the embodiment of evil in the world, and he pursues the White Whale monomaniacally because he believes it his inescapable fate to destroy this evil. However, this obsession of Ahab to revenge at any expense becomes an even darker manifestation of evil. The second is Ismael’s. He includes in his numerous interpretations that “whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day” (2324). However, he also says “that ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness, even more loathsome than terrific, to the dumb gloating of their aspects” (2325) asserting that the color white makes scary things even scarier, such as with ghosts—since ghosts, as everyone well knows, are much scarier in white sheets than not in white sheets. With these varying interpretations and his concluding assertion that Moby Dick encompasses all the interpretations for his color, Ishmael demonstrates the ambiguity of good and evil. Moreover, according to Ishmael, the boundary between good and evil is non-existence, which he shows also in the conflicting theories of Ahab and Starbuck. Ahab feels with all his heart that Moby Dick is a malignant creature who attacks out of malice. Starbuck, on the other hand, thinks that Moby Dick attacks people simply to save his life—he exhibits the natural animal instinct of self-preservation.The Pequod’s three mates are used primarily to provide philosophical contrasts with Ahab. Starbuck, the first mate, is a religious man. Sober and conservative, he relies on his Christian faith to determine his actions and interpretations of events. He is aware of his captain’s growing madness but cannot do anything to save himself, the crew and the ship, though he had the opportunity for mutinity or even murder when he was alone with the sleeping captain, because obedience to authority is the first law of his life.Stubb, the second mate, is another type of American, ready with a smile and joke, and cool in moments of crisis. He has worked in the dangerous occupation of whaling for so long that the possibility of death has ceased to concern him. A fatalist, he believes that things happen as they are meant to and that there is little that he can do about it.Flask simply enjoys the thrill of the hunt and takes pride in killing whales. He doesn’t stop to consider consequences at all and is “utterly lost to all sense of reverence” for the whale.All three of these perspectives are used to accentuate Ahab’s monomania. Ahab reads his experiences as the result of a conspiracy against him by some larger force. Unlike Flask, he thinks and interprets. Unlike Stubb, he believes that he can alter his world. Unlike Starbuck, he places himself rather than some external set of principles at the center of the cosmic order that he discerns.The place that is a representative of a larger idea is the sea. The sea represents a man’s life, it symbolizes the fears that a man must overcome in life in order to gain a fuller understanding of life. Its depths are mysterious and inaccessible to Ishmael. This motif represents the larger problem of the limitations of human knowledge.The sea is a constant presence throughout the novel, as it is the background of almost every scene. The metaphors Melville is using indicate the condition of man and about man’s uncertainty in the universe we live in. His tone is that of man choosing his own destiny through his own actions. Melville’s attitude is that of Man’s absolute insignificance in the universe. There is nothing Man can do to improve the present state of the universe once he has acted on his decision. Another aspect of his philosophy is Man’s continual struggle with himself in this universe. The vastness of the universe and man’s place in it is difficult for the average man to comprehend. At best they can just figure out one meaning, but there could be more.The sea is frequently described in land images compared to the bounty of vast prairies, the surface presented in the comforting terms of homey farming images while underneath lurk the sharks, the destroyers.Melville’s descriptions of nature have a romantic sense to the crew of the Pequod:Yonder, by the ever-brimming goblet’s rim, the warm waves blush like wine. The gold brow plumbs the blue. The diver sun—long dived from noon,—goes down; my soul mounts up! she wearies with her endless hill. Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy. Yet is it bright with many a gem; I, the wearer, see not its far flashings; but darkly fell that I wear that, that dazzlingly confounds. ‘Tis iron—that I know—not gold. ‘Tis split, too—that I feel; the jagged edge galls me so, my brain seems to beat against the solid metal. (Chapter LV)The Pequod is a symbol of the world, containing a crew typical yet larger than life of all whaling ships of the time – men of all nations, savages and civilized, recruited both in the New England ports and in various stopping stations during the voyage. The Americans come from inland as well as from coastal areas.Named after a Native American tribe in Massachusetts that did not long survive the arrival of white men and thus memorializing an extinction, the Pequod is also a symbol of doom. It is painted a gloomy black and covered in whale teeth and bones, literally bristling with the mementos of violent death. It is, in fact, marked for death.In the following passage from Moby Dick Herman Melville’s uses of phrases and words such as “unholy,” “huge pronged forks,” “red hell,” “flames,” and “blackness” show the Perquod as the vehicle of a satanic captain:As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like flame from the furnace; as to and from, in their front, the harpooners wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Peqoud, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul. (The Try-Works)Queequeg’s coffin alternately symbolizes life and death. Queequeg has it built when he is ill, but when he recovers, it becomes a chest to hold his belongings and an emblem of his will to live. He perpetuates the knowledge tattooed on his body by carving it onto the coffin’s lid. The coffin further comes to symbolize life, in a morbid way, when it replaces the Pequod’s life buoy. When the Pequod sinks, the coffin becomes Ishmael’s buoy, saving not only his life but the life of the narrative that he will pass on.Melville's last and best and most wildly imaginative story has influenced attitudes and beliefs on the destiny of man and has shown that there is more than one view of every object. It shows people that they need to be open-minded and examine things from more than perspective before passing judgment. One of Melville’s goals was of indicating man’s uncertainty in the universe. Melville also shows the reader about Man’s absolute insignificance in the universe. He represented objects with ideas and beliefs of deeper meaning. Throughout the book man’s insignificance in the universe is represented by the relationship of the crew to the ocean. It is also shown how a man’s decision, once executed, cannot be changed. Moby Dick is a significant piece of writing to every reader who is seeking to know more about man’s relation to the universe.
References:Melville, Herman. Moby Dick, Spencer Press, Inc. 1936.Moby Dick, Internet. 10/01/96 Available:
www.compclass.com/~vincent/motor.city/mobydick.htmlHerman Melville, Internet. 10/01/96 Available: