Although his early adventure novels—Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Redburn (1849), and White Jacket (1850)—brought Herman Melville a notable amount of popularity and financial success during his lifetime, it was not until the 1920’s and 1930’s, nearly fifty years after his death, that he received universal critical recognition as one of the greatest nineteenth century American authors. Melville took part in the first great period of American literature—the period that included Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau. For complexity, originality, psychological penetration, breadth, and symbolic richness, Melville achieved his greatest artistic expression with the book he wrote when he was thirty years old, Moby Dick.
Between the time of his birth in New York City and his return there to research and write his masterpiece, Melville had circled the globe of experience—working as a bank messenger, salesman, farmhand, schoolteacher (like his narrator, Ishmael), engineer and surveyor, bowling alley attendant, cabin boy, and whaleman in the Pacific on the Acushnet. His involvement in the mutinous Pacific voyage, combined with accounts of a notorious whale called Mocha Dick that wrought havoc in the 1840’s and 1850’s, certainly influenced the creation of Moby Dick.
The tangled themes of this mighty novel express the artistic genius of a mind that, according to Hawthorne, “could neither believe nor be comfortable in unbelief.” Many of those themes are characteristic of American Romanticism: the “isolated self” and the pain of self-discovery, the insufficiency of conventional practical knowledge in the face of the “power of blackness,” the demoniac center to the world, the confrontation of evil and innocence, the fundamental imperfection of humans, Faustian heroism, the search for the ultimate truth, the inadequacy of human perception. Moby Dick is, moreover, a unique literary form, combining elements of the psychological and picaresque novel, sea story and allegory, the epic of “literal and metaphorical quest,” the satire of social and religious events, the emotional intensity of the lyric genre (in diction and in metaphor), Cervantian romance, Dantesque mysticism, Rabelaisian humor, Shakespearean drama (both tragedy and comedy), journalistic travel book, and scientific treatise on cetology. Melville was inspired by Hawthorne’s example to give his story the unifying quality of a moral parable, although his own particular genius refused to allow that parable an unequivocal, single rendering.
In style and theme, Melville also was influenced by Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Dante, Miguel de Cervantes, Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Browne, and vastly miscellaneous reading in the New York Public Library (as witnessed by the two “Etymologies” and the marvelous “Extracts” that precede the text itself, items from the writer’s notes and files that he could not bear to discard). It was because they did not know how to respond to its complexities of form and style that the book was “broiled in hell fire” by contemporary readers and critics. Even today, the rich mixture of its verbal texture—an almost euphuistic flamboyance balanced by dry, analytical expository prose—requires a correspondingly unique sensitivity on the part of the reader. The most remarkable thing about the plot is that Moby Dick does not appear physically until after five hundred pages and is not even mentioned by name until nearly two hundred pages into the novel.
Whether it be the knowledge of reality, an embodiment of the primitive forces of nature, the deep subconscious energies of humanity, fate or destiny inevitably victorious over illusory free will, or simply the unknown in experience, it is what Moby Dick stands for that occupies the narrator’s emphasis and the reader’s attention through the greater part of the novel. In many ways, the great white whale may be compared to Spenser’s “blatant beast” who, in The Faerie Queene (1590-1596), also represents the indeterminable elusive quarry and also escapes at the end to continue haunting the world.
Moby Dick is often considered to be the American epic. The novel is replete with the elements characteristic of that genre: the piling up of classical, biblical, historical allusions to provide innumerable parallels and tangents that have the effect of universalizing the scope of action; the narrator’s strong sense of the fatefulness of the events he recounts and his corresponding awareness of his own singular importance as the narrator of momentous—otherwise unrecorded—events; Queequeg as Ishmael’s “heroic companion,” the folk flavor provided by countless proverbial statements; the leisurely pace of the narrative with its frequent digressions and parentheses; the epic confrontation of life and death on a suitably grand stage (the sea) with its consequences for the human city (the Pequod); the employment of microcosms to explicate the whole (for example, the painting in the Spouter Inn, the Nantucket pulpit, the crow’s nest); epithetical characterization; a cyclic notion of time and events; an epic race of heroes (the Nantucket whalers with their biblical and exotic names); the mystical power of objects (Ahab’s chair, the gold coin, or the Pequod itself); the alienated, sulking hero (Ahab); and the use of lists to enhance the impression of an all-inclusive compass. Finally, Moby Dick shares the usually didactic purpose of a folk epic; on one level, its purpose is to teach the reader about whales; on another level, it is to inspire the reader to become an epic hero.
All this richness of purpose and presentation is somehow made enticing by Melville’s masterly invention of his narrator. Ishmael immediately establishes a comfortable rapport with the reader in the unforgettable opening lines of the novel. He is both the objective observer and a participant in the events observed and recounted, both spectator and narrator. Yet he is much more than the conventional wanderer/witness. As a schoolmaster and sometime voyager, he combines his intellectual knowledge with firsthand experience to make him an informed observer and a convincing, moving reporter. Simply by surviving, he transcends the Byronic heroism of Ahab, as the wholesome overcoming the sinister.