Essays and Criticism
The Symbol of the Whale
As many commentators have pointed out, Moby Dick is first and foremost a naturalistic story of whale-hunting. There are careful technical descriptions about whaling and precise details are enumerated on everything from the whales themselves to the men that pursue them. But beyond the surface account, Melville has created a story with another level of meaning. This is not to suggest that the book should be read as purely symbolic. As Denham Sutcliffe explains, “It is not that things ‘stand for’ something else; they are inexorably themselves, but they begin to accrete meanings and associations. We begin to notice recurrent motifs, and an emphatic insistence upon certain objects and ideas, and suspicion finally becomes certainty that this story of the pursuit of the whale is a huge metaphor of which one face is to be taken literally and the other symbolically.” (FN1) This essay will focus on the whale in Moby Dick and the extent to which this creature encourages other meanings to be associated with it.
The whale is central to the story of Moby Dick. Whenever a whale is encountered in the story, the scene is usually one of horror. This horror is intensified by Melville’s contrasts between the calm, clarity of the weather and the seeming fury and irrationality of the whale. In these instances the contrast on a symbolic level may be seen as one between the power of nature and the smallness of man. The day may be calm and serene, man may be lulled into a sense of trust and contentment. But what man expects and desires cannot always be had from nature. Just as Jonah, in the Biblical story “Jonah and the Whale,” experiences the power and wrath of God via nature, so the sailors in this story experience the power of nature. In this story, however, often the experience of nature prevails before a sense of spirituality or God is realized (if it is realized at all).
The scholar Howard Vincent sees in Moby Dick the epitome of natural power. In The Trying-Out of Moby Dick he says that “though Moby Dick is a monument to the greatest whale that ever swam the seven seas, it is not, however, the biography of that fish, since it reconstructs but one episode from Moby Dick’s career. But even though the climax of Moby Dick is fiction, it sprang from a vortex of tradition traceable through an odd assortment of records.” (FN2) Vincent lays great importance on the factual bases of the...
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Moby-Dick: An Overview
Since the revival of interest in Herman Melville in the early 1920s, Moby-Dick, the author’s sixth novel, has come to be considered his masterpiece. Part romantic sea tale, part philosophical drama, the story of Ishmael, Ahab, and the white whale combines Melville’s experiences aboard the whaler Acushnet with his later immersion in such classic authors as William Shakespeare, John Milton, François Rabelais, and Laurence Sterne. After several years as a sailor, both in the whale fleet and in the United States navy, Melville returned to his native New York in 1844 and soon began writing about his experiences. His earliest works, such as Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), were loosely based upon his time in the Marquesas Islands and Tahiti. Melville’s third novel, Mardi (1849), though a failure, showed evidence of a greater ambition to write enduring works of literature. Just two years later, that ambition would find its fullest expression in the pages of Moby-Dick, a symbolic tale that dramatizes the struggle to find meaning in a complex and hostile world.
Moby-Dick is narrated—or, more accurately,...
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The Narrator of Moby-Dick
Throughout Moby-Dick, the theme of human isolation is prevalent. Each character exists as an island. While they influence each others’ lives, they can never fully understand each other or experience a merger of souls. This is one reason Ishmael admits to a “strange sort of insanity” when he tells how he felt when squeezing the sperm in Chapter 94. He wanted then to say to his companions: “Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves … universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.” His was, indeed, a “strange sort of insanity”, as he looks back on it, for Ishmael has come to realize the truth of man’s unalterable isolation. This is a central theme not only in Moby-Dick but also in Melville’s other work, both his fiction and poetry. He saw man living utterly alone in a world where overwhelming questions have no positive answers. [In Studies in Classic American Literature (1964)] D. H. Lawrence saw to the heart of Melville’s concern with human isolation when he wrote that Melville “pined for … a perfect relationship; perfect mating; perfect mutual understanding. A perfect friend,” but knew in his heart that such communion cannot be because “each soul is alone, and the aloneness of each soul is a double barrier to perfect relationship between two beings.”
The theme of loneliness is dominant in the...
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Moby-Dick … is ultimately a study of evil. But what sort of evil? What is Melville’s notion of evil? Evil’s first apparent manifestation (or so it is interpreted by Ahab) is the White Whale’s mutilation of his leg. But the Pequod meets an English whaler whose captain has had his arm torn off by the same whale; this man is not maddened, nor does he regard the event as more than a perfectly natural, though fearful, accident incurred in the routine business of whaling. His sensible conclusion is that, as far as he and his men are concerned, this particular whale is best let alone. Now, Ahab, a deeper man by far, is obsessed not only with what seems the injustice of the excruciating treatment accorded him (he was delirious for days after the accident, and convalescent for months); he is obsessed too, as we have seen, with the notion of hidden forces in the universe. More than this, he is a sinisterly marked man, with a long, livid, probably congenital scar (an emblem, surely, of original sin); with a record of blasphemy and certain peculiar, darkly violent deeds; with a series of evil prophecies hanging over him; and with the given name of an idolatrous and savage king.
All this is fittingly suggestive preparation for the complete deliverance of Ahab’s soul to evil through obsession and revenge. But his motive for revenge is not simple, not merely wicked. His quest for Moby Dick is in part a metaphysical one, for he is in...
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