What is the main theme in Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Herman Melville dedicated his novel, Moby Dick, to Nathaniel Hawthorne and wrote him, "I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb."  While there are several major themes in Melville's great work, perhaps the central theme is that of the individual in conflict with nature which brings into play Religion and God's role in the natural world.

Melville marked repeatedly verses from the book of Job, such as the verse in the fourteenth chapter when Job asks his despairing question about a future life, "But man dieth and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, but where is he?"  Certainly, the implications here of the white whale as a metaphor for the forces of nature and fate are apparent. 

In the beginning of the novel, Father Mapple gives a sermon that reflects the contemporary religious attitudes of the early nineteenth century Protestantism.  On the voyage, Starbuck reflects these attitudes as well and conflicts with Ahab who vows to fight the "inscrutable malice" of the whale and break through the "pasteboard mask" of all visible objects.  That is, Ahab defies conventional attitudes and fights against the Calvinistic sense of fate and "Innate Depravity."  Ahab refuses to resign himself to the predestination of divine providence. Melville, like his contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, felt very much the "Puritanical gloom" of his times, and as a Anti-Romantic, he also felt the dark forces of nature, forces that lie at the bottom of the sea while the good, perhaps, is on the shore and in the sky. 

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