Life on the Sea as Literary Inspiration Analysis

Romanticism and Identity

The rise of Romanticism and its concern with individual identity brought with it the world’s greatest sea novelist. Herman Melville was, like Cooper and Dana, a sailor, and he made his career writing about the sea. Melville’s early works, Typee (1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), for example, are fact-based accounts of his experiences as a sailor. His masterpiece, Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851), however, has, in addition to its factual and realistic descriptions of life on the sea, a highly symbolic structure. The sea for the character Ishmael represents the possibilities for self-definition. The book can be interpreted as a search for God; it is also certainly a quest for individual identity in an age of national uncertainty. The sailors on board the Pequod come from all races and form an alternative society; this pluralistic society serves as an implicit comment on American social identity. Melville’s short fiction also uses shipboard society to question the national identity: “Benito Cereno,” for example, tells the story of a revolt on a slave ship and is a scathing indictment of American identity. Melville’s short, posthumous sea novel, Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924), also serves as a critique of American society. Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” discusses the brotherhood the immense sea fosters. As does Melville, Crane imagines individual identity as related to a community. For these writers, the sea serves not as an escape from American society but as a means of apprehending what lies at the bottom of social identity: the physical and emotional need of one person for another.

The Twentieth Century

Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf (1904), on the other hand, portrays society as interfering with the development of individual identity. The sea in this novel is a place where an integral self can be forged. Ernest Hemingway develops these ideas in the sea novels To Have and Have Not (1937), Islands in the Stream (1970), and The Old Man and the Sea (1952). In the first two works, Hemingway uses the sea to mirror the conflict between individual and social identities. For Santiago, in The Old Man and the Sea, the sea offers self-definition apart from society and affords a livelihood and an identity as a fisherman. The Old Man and the Sea marks a turning point in American literature about the sea. In earlier works, life on the sea has implications for the life of the nation. The Old Man and the Sea, on the other hand, detaches itself from a concern with national or social identities in favor of individual identity apart from society.

The sea also figures prominently in the works of playwright Eugene O’Neill, who spent time as a seaman. For O’Neill, the sea often represents beauty, mystery, and escape from society. There are satiric descriptions of late-twentieth century naval life in Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963).


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Baker, Carlos. Hemingway: The Writer as Artist. 4th ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Bender, Bert. Sea-Brothers: The Tradition of American Sea Fiction from “Moby-Dick” to the Present. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.

Lewis, Charles Lee. Books of the Sea: An Introduction to Nautical Literature. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1943.

Martin, Robert K. Hero, Captain, and Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique, and Literary Form in the Sea Novels of Herman Melville. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Philbrick, Thomas. James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961.