How can Moby Dick be considered as a work that bears similarities to legends and myths?Herman Melville's Moby Dick

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

With its masterful drama of life on the seas, Herman Melville's Moby Dick has certainly emerged as one of the great poetic epics of world literature. The voyage of the Pequod on which the crew and its captain seem destined for a disastrous fate, truly seems epic, much like an odyssey of its own. Moby Dick possesses the following elements of the epic:

  1. long narrative
  2. formal style - As Ahab sees the dying whale turn sunward he comments, "He too worships fire; most faithful, broad, baronial vassal of the sun!  Oh that these too-favoring eyes should see these too-favoring sights."
  3. serious subject - Ahab seeks the great white whale as a cosmic force.  He states in Chapter 36 that all "visible objects...are but as pasteboard masks" behind which lie metaphysical answers.  There is an entire chapter devoted to "whiteness" and its significance in representing the unnatural and evil.
  4. central figure is quasi-divine - While Ahab may be the antithesis of divine, there is a preternatural quality to him that makes him more than a mere mortal.  His physical appearance, his charisma as he elicits the support of the crew to hunt the whale indicate his powers above the ordinary. actions of the central figure determine the fate of all.

In addition, Moby Dick contains the qualities of a literary epic:

  1. main character/hero is of cosmic importance - On the world of the sea, the captain is god; Ahab certainly lords over all, even the harpooners.  He sets the course for the lives of the others.
  2. setting is huge, and may involve a great deal of travel - Ahab maps out the route of the great whale, and the crew travels all the way to the Japanese seas.
  3. action involves battle and superhuman deeds - The attempt to capture and kill Moby Dick is epic in proportion.  The harpooners do, indeed, perform deeds above the ordinary.  While caught in the ropes, Ahab yet continues to try to kill the giant whale.
  4. supernatural being takes an interest and even a part in the action - At different points in the hunt, Melville describes the whale as though it intends to kill the crew and do evil.  It is "a malicious being."
  5. the action is written in a style apart from the ordinary - There is a dramatic form used in the description of the scene in which the candles erupt from the main masts during the typhoon.  The sermons of Father Mapple and Ishmael's lectures on the high calling of whaling are elevated forms.  Throughout the novel, Melville imparts a special intensity to many of his words.  For instance, he uses words of tone:  wildness, moodiness, mystical, malicious.  Melville also creates "verbal nouns" as in the words of Ahab who says that the whale "tasks me, he heaps me."