What are the religious views of Herman Melville in Moby Dick?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Long a motif in American literature, innocence with the term "American Adam" emerged from the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville,and even Poe. Stepping onto the shores of America, Puritans perceived the new land as a metaphoric Eden from which they could be freed from the corruptions of the old European societies to regain the innocence of Adam. In his Letters from an American Farmer, immigrant Michel Guillanume Jean de Crevècoeur writes of the industrious and ingenuous new American who shares his freedom with all others. In another publication, Crevecoeur interestingly notes the prosperity of those who live in the small community of Nantucket, which, he contended, in Europe would have been impoverished because of taxes and the corruption of government officials. Instead, 

As fellow Christians ... they love and mutually assist each other in all their wants...the islanders prospered because everyone expected morality, temperance, and labor and all could keep the full rewards of their industry.

Perhaps, then, it is not just that Nantucket is a whaling village that Herman Melville has his characters of Starbuck and Ahab be residents of this island that itself seems a metaphoric Eden. But, having rejected Emerson's and the others' beliefs that America is a new Eden, Melville, instead, perceives no heavenly city or defensible ideal, no "perfectibility of man."

Critic Karen Tanguma calls both Ishmael and Ahab "Old World Adams"; they are solitary men who seek the truth on the spiritual depth of the sea, which is the world and teacher to Melville who has spent most of his life upon it. There, Ahab abandons any concept of an Eden and obedience to God, as foreshadowed in Chapter 36 in the ceremony with the three mates on the deck in which they cross their lapoons and drink from the tops as though drinking from chalices in a mockery of the Christian eucharistic ceremony. Critic Karen Tanguma writes,

Ishmael suffered into knowledge and spiritual rebirth and returned to the human race. Melville enhanced Ahab's unfortunate fall, through the novel's dark elements of evil, fear, and dark history.... Ahab (tragic Adam) became consumed with rage after his encounter with the whale and emerged as a dead man. 

Rather than seek spiritual growth, Ahab challenges evil in the form of the preternatural white whale. In Chapter 41, Ishmael describes Ahab as an "ungodly old man chasing with curses a Job's whale" who is "intent on an audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge." Earlier in Chapter 34, Ishmael states that Ahab, though "included in the census of Christendom,...was still an alien to it"; later in Chapter 135, Ishmael remarks,

...Ahab never thinks, he only feels, feels, feels; that tingling enough for mortal man! To think's audacity. God only has that right and privilege.

Further, the religious and God-fearing mate, Starbuck, observes of himself, "I misdoubt me that I disobey my God in obeying him," an observation that clearly alludes to and underscores the words of Father Mapple's sermon in which he states that man must disobey himself in order to obey God.

Thus, the "tragic Adam" suffers the "unfortunate fall" as he denies God and dies, wrapped in "the shroud of the sea," having been consumed by his intent of avenging himself upon the symbol of a spiritual power, while Ishmael, the "Old World Adam," suffers into spiritual knowledge and grows in wisdom, and like Job of the Old Testament, is "escaped alone to tell thee" [Job 1:16] his tale.

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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We can presume that what Herman Melville has his characters say and do in terms of religion in Moby Dick is a reflection of his own religious philosophy, and the most obvious religious symbol in the novel is the whale. The whale is unable to be exactly defined, explained, or understood; like God, Moby Dick is unknowable. The whale is elusive and powerful, "not only ubiquitous, but immortal," and he is symbolic of God. We know that Ahab chases the whale in an attempt to defy God and, later, he even allies himself with the devil, figuratively, when he works with Fedallah (whom Stubb believes is the devil). What this suggests about Melville's religious beliefs is open to some interpretation; however, it is clear that things will not end well for those who attempt to defy God.

The most significant man of God in the story is Father Mapple, and in chapter 9 he preaches a sermon about the biblical story of Jonah, who was swallowed by a big fish because he was disobedient to God. The preacher reminds us that the things God wants us to do

"are hard for us to do--remember that--and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists."

This idea that following God requires the sacrifice of self is consistent in the novel, though we see it most often in the reverse: the adherence to one's own wishes demonstrates the failure to follow God, which leads to trouble. We are prepared, then, to find that at least one person in the novel is going to get himself in trouble by obeying his own desires and wishes rather than God's.

One of the most loquacious (talkative) characters about religion in the novel is Ishmael. His name is recognizably biblical (Abraham's oldest son), and he is a Presbyterian (like Melville). Early in the novel (chapter 7), Ishmael makes his position clear: he is not afraid to go on a whaling ship because, even if something happens to his physical body while on the ship, his soul will continue to live.  

A practicing Presbyterian does not believe in worshiping idols, yet Ishmael does just that with his friend Queequeg. He convinces himself that worship is simply doing the will of God, and the will of God is

to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me--that is the will of God.

This is convoluted and compromising reasoning, but it allows Ishmael to participate in idol worship with Queequeg.

In chapter 17, Ishmael says he "cherishes" (respects) every religious belief, no matter how ridiculous--including ants who worship toadstools. He further claims that "good Presbyterian Christians" should never consider themselves superior to "pagans and what not" because of their "half-crazy" beliefs; calling anyone a pagan denies his own claim of unquestioning acceptance. He adds that any faith is fine as long as it does not "torment him" or become "really frantic."

It is Ishmael's acceptance of the rather pagan Queequeg which most indicates Ishmael's (and therefore Melville's) view of religion. Ishmael accepts his pagan friend and even calls him a "deacon," indicating his view that religion is more than meeting together in church every Sunday. 

To Ishmael, God and democracy can co-exist:

The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!

The final statement from Melville about God's supremacy is Ahab's death and Ishmael's survival. 

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