(Novels for Students)

Individual vs. Nature
The voyage of the Pequod is no straightforward, commercially inspired whaling voyage. The reader knows this as soon as Ishmael registers as a member of the crew and receives, at secondhand, warnings of the captain’s state of mind. Ahab, intent on seeking revenge on the whale who has maimed him, is presented as a daring and creative individual, pitted against the full forces of nature. In developing the theme of the individual (Ahab) versus Nature (symbolized by Moby-Dick), Melville explores the attributes of natural forces. Are they ruled by chance, neutral occurrences that affect human characters arbitrarily? Or do they possess some form of elementary will that makes them capable of using whatever power is at their disposal?

God and Religion
The conflict between the individual and nature brings into play the theme of religion and God’s role in the natural world. The critic Harold Bloom has named Ahab “one of the fictive founders of what should be called the American Religion,” and although Melville wrote his novel while living in the civilized Berkshires, near the eastern U.S. seaboard, and set it on the open seas, the reader must not forget that America at that time had moved westward. To Ahab it does not matter if the white whale is “agent” or “principle.” He will fight against fate, rather than resign himself to a divine providence. Father Mapple, who gives a sermon near the beginning of the novel, and, to a lesser extent, Starbuck both symbolize the conventional and contemporary religious attitudes of nineteenth-century Protestantism. Ahab’s defiance of these is neither romantic nor atheistic but founded on a tragic sense of heroic and unavoidable duty.

Good and Evil, Female and Masculine
Ahab picks his fight with evil on its own terms, striking back aggressively. The good things in the book—the loyalty of members of the crew, such as young Pip; Ahab’s domestic memories of his wife and child—remain peripheral and ineffective, a part of life that is never permitted to take center stage. Other dualities abound. The sky and air, home for the birds, is described as feminine, while the sea is masculine, a deep dungeon for murderous brutes. Also contrasted with the sea is the land, seen as green and mild, a tranquil haven. In Chapter 58 Melville writes: “As the appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, for thou canst never return!” Although Melville’s exact point of view is debatable, and the symbolism in the book is too rich to allow for neat comparisons, it can be said that qualities of goodness tend to be equated with...

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