Ralph Waldo Emerson’s optimistic ideal of the “self-reliant man” in nature resonated in the literature of many of his contemporaries. Although many agreed with Emerson’s principles, however, two major writers, Herman Melville and John Keats, chose not to emulate him in their major works. Rather, they critiqued him. In the following essay, I will show, first, how Melville’s Moby Dick is a critique of the ideals of man illustrated by Emerson in his essays “Self-Reliance” and “Nature.” Through Captain Ahab’s failure and Ishmael’s survival, Melville shows how Emersonian ideals can be perverted and destructive in the search for truth. Second, the Romantic poet Keats also shows a potential for the darker side of self-reliance in his poem “La belle Dame sans Mercy,” in which the knight, in attempting to capture elusive truth, ultimately fails.For sake of chronological order, I will begin my analysis with Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Mercy.” The belle of this poem can be viewed as the mysterious, non-human other, and paralleled to Moby Dick in the sense that the attempt to encapsulate and capture this elusive truth destroys the truth-seeker. As truth-seekers, Ahab and the knight both project their distorted version of truth onto the objects they pursue. The knight in “La Belle” creates a scenario of love, wherein this mystical lady and he are blissfully joined. As critic Theresa Kelley writes, “Neither the reader nor the knight is privy to her inner thoughts,” for she is “a figure known exclusively by her attributes” (Kelley 342). To the knight, the belle’s passive manners are easily interpreted into a semblance of love: “She found me roots of relish sweet, /And honey wild, and manna dew, /And sure in language strange she said– /I love thee true” (Keats 25-28). Each of her actions is ambiguous; her overall intentions are completely molded to the fancies of the knight. Her “language strange” is obviously reinterpreted by the knight to be words of love, in order to perpetuate his favored scenario. Kelley comments, “This ‘language strange’…indicates how figurative meaning tends to ‘err,’ half-mistaking itself as it wanders from its referent” (Kelley 342). Like the belle’s ambiguity in language and actions, the ambiguity of Moby Dick’s significance allows Ahab and the other crewman to muse and fixate on a specific meaning relative to each man’s personal preoccupation. It is also important to acknowledge that the torment which the knight experiences as he is “alone and palely loitering” (Keats 46) is, for the most part, self-inflicted. There is no agent to inflict this alienation, only his own sculpted, narrow reality. The eternal Promethean torment which Ahab experiences is also of his own creation: “God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates” (Melville 1008). Ahab pivots his existence on Moby Dick. If the whale is truly unconquerable, then Ahab has created a scenario in which he cannot exist.Ahab thus projects a gargantuan significance onto the whale, although the whale is possibly no more than a “dumb brute,” according to Starbuck. This significance is due to the whale’s symbolism of all the evil in the world: “All that most maddens and torments…all truth with malice in it…all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down…” (Melville 989). The narcissism in this enables Ahab to fuse all of his miscellaneous anger at the universe into one object. Thus, his monomania spawns a narrow-mindedness which Ahab believes to be crucial to his ability to finish this quest: “The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung” (Melville 989). Ahab’s inability to let alone what is inscrutable culminates in an interaction with Starbuck, in which Starbuck is angered by Ahab’s determination to have “vengeance on a dumb brute!” Starbuck does not believe the whale to have agency or a guiding principle of its own, only an animal instinct which caused him to take Ahab’s leg. To this, Ahab replies: “He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him” (Melville 967). This indicates that the physical existence and overall intention of the whale is irrelevant to Ahab. Ahab is concerned with the elusive truth, the “inscrutable malice,” which the whale symbolizes to him. However, the only way he is able to capture this truth would be to physically slay the whale, therefore possessing the “inscrutable” which before had eluded him. As critic Michael Hoffman comments, “Three generations of critics have busied themselves with worrying about what the whale symbolizes. They should have been concerned with the creator of meanings, Captain Ahab, for it is he, not Melville, who has created the ‘meaning’ of the white whale. He fashions the myth of Moby Dick to give substance, form, and value to his own unhappy life, and he is aided in his efforts by other mariners who in turn project their own meanings onto the animal” (Hoffman 91).Jean Paul Sartre also chides readers of Moby Dick who incessantly search for the ultimate symbolism of the whale: “We should stop seeing a symbolic universe in the tales [Melville] tells and in the things he describes. Symbols are attached retrospectively to ideas we begin with…” (Sartre 95). Ahab embodies the dangers of fusing one’s will into a “supreme purpose,” and entrusting oneself to a meaning which will always be infected by a narrow selfhood. However, it still seems possible for the reader to fall into the same trap which ensnared Ahab—the trap of assigning a lump sum meaning to an object in the light of an inevitably infected, narcissistic, personal agenda.In the first chapter, “Loomings,” Ishmael ponders the magnetism of the sea. He makes a parallel to Narcissus, and indicates this myth to be the “key to it all.” This parallel seems to foreshadow Ahab’s presence in the story. In the vast literary criticism on Moby Dick, Ahab has often been referred to as “narcissistic,” an adjective used mainly to describe his egotism. But in examining the story of Narcissus, one sees a greater parallel between doomed Ahab and the obsessed young boy. Both are consumed by something they see in the water, and both plunge to their death in an attempt to merge with and therefore grasp the meaning of (and merge with) that reflection. In his famous essay, “Nature,” Emerson asserts the reflective qualities of nature to man by claiming that “nature always wears the colors of the spirit” (Emerson 25). In Moby Dick, nature also seems to create reflections of the spirit, these reflections manifested in the white whale. Ahab acknowledges this distorted mirror in “The Dubloon,” where after gazing at the gold dubloon, and seeing only himself in the coin, he deducts that the entire earth is but a reflection of man: “…this round globe is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self” (Melville 1254). This confirms what is already suspected in Ahab; his solipsistic outlook on the universe reduces reality to a “mirror-like opacity,” in which Ahab only sees himself, reflected by an introspectively sculpted reality (Zoellner 115). Ahab carries this outlook of the universal reflection to an extreme during the actual chase, when he feels Moby Dick to be in his grip. On the second day of the chase, Starbuck once again pleads with Ahab to abandon this doomed pursuit under the argument: “…never wilt thou capture him, old man…” To justify his actions to Starbuck, Ahab refers to himself as “Fates’ lieutenant,” who merely “act[s] under orders” (Melville 1394). This manipulation of fate into Ahab’s purposes shows the intensity and blindness of his monomania. Not only does the world mirror Ahab, but Fate itself is tailored to Ahab’s whims. Although Ahab imagines himself to be lacking will, he in fact has used it to will himself out of desiring anything but capturing Moby Dick: “…yielding up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose; that purpose, by its sheer inveteracy of will, forced itself against gods and devils into a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own (Melville 1007).” But this will is limited by fate, not steered by it. Ahab cannot comprehend a fate beyond one that will further him in his quest. He does little to justify himself to the world, except for a weak assertion that he is yielding to fate. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson asserts that “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world” (Emerson 149). Captain Ahab has indeed absolved himself–directly into a delusion that his pursuit of truth is so large, his agenda so great, that he will persist with the “suffrage of the world,” although the entire ship is against him. It is not at all difficult for a man to deceive himself when he possesses conviction. For Melville, conviction is a dangerous sentiment, especially in the case of Ahab, where his convictions become aligned with truth: “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines” (Melville 967). This conviction echoes Emerson’s conception of the man who realizes all of his possibilities in “Nature.” Emerson finds spatial and temporal constraints ineffective in the face of a personal truth or will: “We become immortal, for we learn that time and space are relations of matter; that with a perception of truth or a virtuous will they have no affinity” (Emerson 47). Ahab strives to maintain his self-inflicted insanity and purposeful alienation, and “assiduously cultivates this dehumanization, protecting it from any influence which might mitigate its terrible singularity” (Zoellner 100). He must be fully immersed because he knows that Pip could cure this madness, but does not want it so: “There is that in thee, poor lad, which I feel too curing to my malady. Like cures like; and for this hunt, my malady becomes my most desired health” (Melville 1363). Emerson has a similar sentiment, writing, upon being enraptured with nature, that “the name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance” (Emerson 24). Much like Emerson, fellow man to Ahab becomes irrelevant upon his immersion, merely an accessory to the grand pursuit. Indeed, “nature is thoroughly mediate. It is made to serve. It receives the dominion of man as meekly as the ass on which the Savior rode[…]” (Emerson 38). Considering the destruction which Moby Dick’s attempted “dominion” entailed, Melville would probably find this passage laughable. Emerson’s “doctrine of nature as a tool and the mind as a technician,” concisely worded by critic Frederick Garber, is a potentially dangerous presumption when existing alongside evil. Of course, one of Melville’s major qualms with Emerson was his ability to ignore the evil in the world, assuming it to be smoothed over by a greater good (Garber 196).For Melville, this anthropocentric view expressed by Emerson yields tragic results if man cannot accept his insignificance in an inscrutable and immense universe, wherein his conceptions of truth are irrelevant and no more overarching than that of any other man. To believe “all the facts in natural history taken by themselves, have no value, but are barren, like a single sex. But marry it to human history, and it is full of life” is to ignore the incredible autonomy of Moby Dick, the cruelty of the sea, and the futility of man’s attempts to reign in nature (Emerson 32). It seems that an epic drama of man is played out upon the sea, yet once man is destroyed in a brief, anti-climactic flurry, the sea rolls on “as it rolled five thousand years ago.” This anti-climax and eradicating futility demonstrates the farcical quality of Ahab’s impossible quest. The only survivor of this wreck is Ishmael, who all along had seemed keenly self-aware of his insignificance in the grand scheme, as well as of the inscrutability of truth. Retrospectively, he states, “I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment” (Melville 799). Ishmael does not see the whale as his defining truth; he is not fixated on his own identity in relation to it. Rather, he is the objective viewer, and attempts to understand the whale from all perspectives, including the scientific, the philosophical, and the literary. Unlike his captain, he does not view the whale through the lens of revenge or ultimate truth. Ishmael does not believe he can master truth by the mere physical conquest of the white whale.In the beginning of chapter 49, for example, Ishmael bitterly expresses his anger with the universe becoming a “vast practical joke…and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own” (Melville 1035). This is quite a change from the first chapter, where we are introduced to an Ishmael who feels somewhat cheated by his relatively insignificant place in the “grand programme of Providence,” but comically accepts it as his own, due to the fact that it “was drawn up a long time ago” (Melville 799). Although Ishmael’s attitude towards fate has changed, what has not changed is the very belief in fate. Ishmael still humbly accepts his destiny. Unlike Ahab, he does not launch on an immense, autonomous quest to conquer an inescapable fate and an inscrutable truth. Even in this bitterness Ishmael has developed towards destiny, he never loses sight of the joy which can be found in camaraderie. In “A Squeeze of the Hand,” for example, Ishmael is assigned the pleasant task of squeezing the lumps out of the gallons of oily spermaceti extracted from the sperm whale. As times passes, Ishmael becomes enthralled with this task, connecting with nature through the spermaceti, and, thus, connects with his fellow man through nature. As he exclaims, “Oh! My dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all around; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness” (Melville 1239). The Ishmael of “A Squeeze of the Hand” is a stark contrast with Ahab, who rejects all possible connections with humanity including the camaraderie of Pip, who could have cured his “malady” by loosening Ahab’s grip on his whale-constructed, self-reflective reality. In the end, Ishmael’s life is saved by a relic of a friendship, Queequeg’s coffin, carved to resemble Queequeg’s tattoos. Throughout this epic novel, Ishmael defines himself by the relationships around him. He is not at all the “self-reliant” man. He is the observer, the spectator, the objective force in this text which somehow enables him to survive. On the question of Emerson’s sidestepping the issue of evil, Melville once quipped, “His gross and astonishing errors & illusions spring from a self- conceit…Another species of Mr. Emerson’s errors, or rather blindness, proceeds from a defect in the region of the heart” (qtd. in Braswell 331). Through the narrative of Moby Dick, Melville sculpts a subtle critique of Emerson’s “great man” by creating a character which possesses all of the qualities of the Emersonian genius. This genius is self-reliant and views the universe as a reflection of the self. The knight of Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci” used his malformed self-reliance to misinterpret the belle’s actions into a scenario of love, a reflection of his desires. More extreme than the knight, Ahab views the entire universe as a reflection of his desires. Through Moby Dick, Melville then places an ironic twist on this idea of a narcissistic genius by acknowledging the possibility of a perverting power of evil on this “self-reliance,” which Emerson chooses to ignore.
Moby Dick is widely considered one of the greatest literary creations in history. The denseness of meaning, infinite possibility of interpretation, and ambiguity of implications give the text many layers. Therefore, knowing that the trustworthiness of a work of fiction is always somewhat unreliable, the audience must seek to determine whether Ishmael, Melville’s all-knowing, omnipresent narrator, is supposed to be a trusted and reliable witness to all events that take place while aboard the Pequod, or a first-person, omniscient narrator who spontaneously inherits mysterious knowledge about all things surrounding the voyage, even when he is not present. Placing Ishmael within the context of the story is where the first problem arises. Is Ishmael a regular, hard-working sailor looking to breathe the fresh sea air? Or is Ishmael the first-person embodiment of a third-person, omniscient narrator? The latter would be a rarity when considering the normal modes of narration in English literature. However, the possibility is there, and therefore one must look to the text for evidence as to whether Ishmael knows information that would befall the normal first-person participant. After establishing our hypothesis, we can then look to the reliability and trustworthiness of Ishmael, what effect this literary device has on the tone of the text, and what the immediate and long-term effects of that narrative style are. The tone of Moby Dick shifts frequently throughout the text. In the beginning, Ishmael claims to be a novice sailor who uses the sea as a means of getting away from the hustle and bustle of city life: Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos (“slang for neurosis,” as the gloss tells us) get such an upper hand of me […] I account it is high time to get to sea as soon as I can (18).Clearly, Melville intends for his narrator to be a regular guy aching for some sort of adventure or release. However, this forces us into wondering about the existence of other narrative techniques within the text, i.e., Ishmael’s continual display of scientific knowledge. For instance, if one wanted to analyze the paradoxical nature of Ishmael’s narrative transformations in relation to the tone of the novel, the “Etymology” and the “Cetology” would be good places to start. The etymology that precedes the text consists of a lengthy list of references to whales or the word “whale” through the history of literature, ranging from the Bible to Shakespeare. It seems that Melville is attempting to substantiate the symbolism and importance behind the ideology of the white whale by proving its existence as a symbol over time. Hennig Cohen, of the University of Pennsylvania, gives an interesting perspective on the reasoning behind Melville’s conflicting stylistic tones: [A]n Etymology of the word whale, which, for all of its scholarly appearance, turns out to be incomplete, contains conflicting information, and is mildly erroneous. This is followed by an array of Extracts or citations about whales and whaling from the accumulation of the ages, though these quotations are preceded by the warning that they should not be mistaken for veritable gospel cetology. What is being said here is that leviathan is real, so much greasy blubber for the rendering, and at the same time sublime, and for this reason he cannot be hooked. No definitions can define him, no system of knowledge can categorize him. The structure of his story is a hunt for this rogue whale, a symbol of the pursuit of absolute knowledge that will escape the finding, and indeed, this is the knowledge that will be found.”From this helpful excerpt we can now begin to trace the disparities in tone that make the ideologies behind Moby Dick seem so paradoxical. Melville appears to want badly to display concrete proof of the whale as a symbol through Ishmael’s discourse, yet simultaneously to create an ungraspable entity that would mystify all readers brave enough to attempt to break down its meaning. Later on, in Chapter 32, entitled “Cetology,” the reader is again exposed to a shift in narration when Ishmael veers off course into a scientific discussion. This chapter describes the different classes of whales that inhabit the ocean and their characteristics. The existence of this chapter is consistent with the establishment from the etymology that the whale is a very real creature that exists within the boundaries and rules of our world; yet it is an ungraspable, undefinable creature that is Moby Dick. The “Cetology” offered to us by Ishmael is similar to the etymology in that the tone of its existence and its purpose within the novel is paradoxical. The purely scientific chapter appears solely for Ishmael to clarify the physicality of the sperm whale. Interestingly, the effect is ambiguous, making the reader even more unable to comprehend exactly what Moby Dick is or symbolizes, as well as what Melville’s stylistic intentions were: It was stated at the outset, that this system would not be here, and at one, perfected. You cannot but plainly see that I have kept my word. But I now leave my cetological System thus unfinished […] This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught” (125).At the conclusion of the scientific discourse on the leviathan, Ishmael admits to the imperfection in the system he has created. However, even before this final statement of admitted failure to classify the whale, Ishmael gives numerous opinions of “the best and latest authorities” on cetology. Examples of the quotations from these sources include “confusion,” unfathomable,” “incomplete” and “Impenetrable.” This is how Melville intends to twist the mind of the reader around the idea of the mystery of Moby Dick while also trivializing a chapter like “Cetology.” Although the chapter appears to be a humorous way for Melville to add authority to his narrator and create confusion regarding the truth beyond Ishmael’s expertise, one can argue that the information given in the system is somewhat reliable. David Sisk explains, Despite Herman Melville’s jests at the expense of such serious cetologists as Scoresby, Beale and Cuvier, the material he presents so humorously is no joke. Today’s reader can still draw from this chapter a substantial amount of accurate information concerning identifying marks and behavior patterns of earth’s major species of cetaceans … Melville’s prose, however playfully unscientific, remains sufficiently accurate that none of his fourteen descriptions pose a problem in identification.Sisk’s comments bring together the idea that appears to sum up Melville’s dual style in composing Moby Dick: total knowledge is something that will always elude man. Assuming that Melville knew what he was doing when he created the character of Ishmael, the tone of the novel appears to be designed to bring about opposing feelings in its readers. Many points in the text are paradoxical in this sense. Some of Ishmael’s narration attempts to be scientific and mechanical, such as his description of “ambergris”, the valuable substance found in the bowels of the sperm whale. Simultaneously, the narration will shift from these robotic discourses to deep, rich, figurative language that seems entirely to derail Melville’s previous attempts at substantiating his and Ishmael’s knowledge and expertise. In Chapter 96, Ishmael, after narrating on one of these literal topics (tri-works), quickly dazes into a metaphoric and highly combative discourse in comparison to his previous attempts at substantiation. Chapter 103, “Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton,” is yet another paradoxical attempt by Ishmael to make the whale a graspable entity. This time, Ishmael’s attempts to quantify the size of the whale, stating that it would probably have weighed tons and that it probably “would considerably outweigh the combined population of a whole village of one thousand one hundred inhabitants” (347). Strangely, this quantification of the size of the whale is not likely to be correct, even by Ishmael’s “careful calculation.” Furthermore, Ishmael then goes on to state that these bones only give a partial picture of the whale, of which it is impossible to find an accurate representation. This paradoxical, almost comical attempt at substantiating Ishmael as a trustworthy narrator establishes a depth and ambiguous tone. As an audience we must now ask ourselves the question that arises from our analysis of Ishmael’s flip-flopping narrative style: what are the implications behind Melville’s purposeful contradiction involving his narrator and tone of text? Perhaps Melville wanted to compose an altogether paradoxical text: throughout the entirety of the novel, there is evidence that Melville put large amounts of time and work into finding ways for his narrator to display his knowledge, whether about blubber, whales, or ambergris. This assertion of authority is then juxtaposed with very unclear, ambiguous ideas that surround the whaling world. Therefore, Melville must be implying in an extremely roundabout way that no amount of knowledge could ever fully grasp the ungraspable phantom that is Moby Dick. Ishmael’s constant ability to transform from a novice whaler looking for some fresh air to a professor of philosophy and whale anatomy is something the reader must keep in mind when putting his trust in Ishmael. Works Cited1. Cohen, Hennig. University of Pennsylvania. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 3. “Antebellum writers in New York and the South.” A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Joel Myerson. University of South Carolina. The Gale Group, 1979. 221.245.http://galenet.galegroup.com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/servlet/LitRC?vrsn=3&locID=rutgers&ste=1&n=102. Sisk, David W. A Note on Moby Dick’s CETOLOGY Chapter. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. ANQ, 0895769X, Apr94, Vol. 7, Issue 2. Academic Search Premier. http://web33.epnet.com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu
In studying the development of the early American novel, one might find it helpful to compare Ishmael’s relationship with Queequeg in “Moby Dick” to Huck’s relationship with Jim in “Huckleberry Finn”. In each case, the “savage” actually humanizes and civilizes the supposedly “civilized” character. However, it is the similarities and differences in the process each author uses that the reader will find most interesting.One similarity between the two is in the way both Melville and Twain use the relationships in question to reveal hypocrisy in society. In Huck Finn, physical appearance is the only criteria considered in determining which persons are afforded rights. No matter how immoral a white man might be, society gives him power over a highly moral black character like Jim. Furthermore, society looks unfavorably upon Pap but still gives him custody of Huck. Huck’s well-being as a child is clearly not considered to be as important to society as the preservation of Pap’s rights as a sperm donor (for he really has not earned the title “father”). Twain very effectively satirizes the complete lack of logic in decisions made by the society from the justice system to the rather blindly-followed distortions of Christianity. None of the decisions made seem to really make sense. Instead, everyone appears to follow without question the sets of arbitrary laws and rules that govern societal institutions. On the raft, Huck and Jim are able to rise above the illogical rules of society and form what would clearly be a forbidden relationship in which Jim is not only Huck’s equal but his father figure as well. Huck’s depth of compassion for Jim is what ultimately drives him to the choice to help Jim regardless of the legal and moral/religious consequences he believes that he will face. It is only after Huck is affected by Jim’s humanity that this can really occur.The most obvious example from Moby-Dick that comes to mind to address the issue of hypocrisy in society is the treatment of wages by the ship owners, which is an echo of the hypocrisy in Father Mapple’s sermon about the sin of disobedience. Captain Bildad, who preaches that men should not store up treasure on earth, is the most in danger of hellfire because of his avarice. However, Queequeg does not seem to have a concept of this kind of greed and gives freely of what is his to Ishmael. Ishmael seems almost annoyed with Queequeg’s generosity because he has been programmed by society to think differently. In this way, Queequeg’s actions are “civil” and those taught to Ismael (society’s values) are more savage.Another similarity is in how both authors allow the characters to leave society and create their own world on the water. Within this world, the influence of societal “values” is suppressed in favor of a logical or more practical system of values. In other words, the values of the “uncivilized” character are adopted in favor of the values of the “civilized” character in the pair. Specifically, instead of valuing a person according to something as arbitrary as outer physical appearance, practicalities such as survival skills and companionship surface as being the important factors to consider in judging a person’s worth. For example, Queequeg is described initially as strange to Ismael. His appearance, his rituals, and his manners all seem very foreign to the narrator.In short, he would be considered “savage” by society’s standards. However, on board the Pequod, he is an essential figure with equal standing in the whaling society. When he is given trouble from the other sailors, it is the influence of the values of the society on land that causes disruption. When Queequeg jumps overboard and saves the sailor who he could have killed before the ship set sail, each man realizes the value of his presence and the need for his type of selflessness in their world.Likewise, Jim is merely a slave in the eyes of society in Huck Finn, but he is Huck’s lifeline. Huck’s survival depends upon Jim as much as Jim’s depends upon Huck in many cases. They are not of equal worth by society’s standards, but when they are on the raft, they are equals. Huck’s difficulty in accepting this truth is always tied back to society’s influence. His beliefs in some of the things he was taught about Christianity conflict with his feelings about what he experiences when he is away from that society, which is part of what makes his decision to help Jim such a powerful one. Huck’s willingness to go to hell is interesting both in the way he views hell and in the way his lack of maturity causes him to show defiance rather than question what he was taught.The major similarities in the two relationships in these novels can be linked to the way both authors are trying to address the problems of a dehumanized society. It is this society, which professes to be civilized, that destroys that which is civil and humane in people in favor of that which brings income or otherwise assists in leading to that ultimate end. The difference in characters such as Queequeg and Jim as opposed to the society of white, civilized America is found by looking into the soul. Humanity has not yet been torn from the “savages” the way it has been taught out of Huck and Ishmael when they begin their journeys, and so their “savage” counterparts must bring out the innate humanity in the two protagonists.
Captain Ahab, the fifty-eight year old commander of the Pequod, is one of the most fascinating mortals in literary history. The reader witnesses him teetering between sanity and madness, with the latter winning each slight battle and eventually conquering his entire mind, body, and spirit. This, however, does not simply happen to Ahab, for he plays an absolutely active role in his own demise. The choices that he consciously makes, knowing the outcomes that will follow, are of his own accord. This journey of self-destruction is goaded along by four significant turning points in the development of Ahab’s mad suicide mission. The captain’s preliminary altercation with Moby Dick, the night he convinces the Pequod’s crew to undertake his quest, Fedallah’s prophecy, and Ahab’s decisive, fatal, irrevocable clash with the White Whale are the most significant, character-altering events on the ill-fated captain’s suicidal pilgrimage.The first significant event in the development of Ahab’s monomania is his initial encounter with his obsession, Moby Dick. Though this event has already happened when the reader first comes upon Captain Ahab, it is discussed and alluded to throughout the text and is the indispensable trigger of Ahab’s obsession. When a young Ahab, overconfident enough to cover a lifetime of emotional and physical trauma, encounters an oceangoing beast such as Moby Dick, he is threatened by the loss of his precious leg to the voracious, malicious jaws of the whale. Having a fanatical mother and an arduous existence, Ahab is no stranger to the inequities of life. He has seen much evil, and is separated from his wife and child, some of the only people he is capable of showing compassion for, by his demanding, lonely life aboard the whaling ship. Ahab blames God for the injustice among men that his life exemplifies, and therefore he feels that because God created such injustice, God is not perfect. This leads Ahab to the conclusion that he is superior even to The Creator. Because he robs Ahab of his independence and contributes to the inequality of Ahab’s life by taking his leg, Moby Dick is the scapegoat Ahab needs for all of this evil and hatred. In other words, Moby Dick, to Ahab, is God-incarnate and conquerable. Because Ahab has godlike opinions of himself, he feels that he is capable of destroying this evil and remaining unscathed. Without this jumping off point, which provides Ahab the insane motivation to destroy the White Whale, destroy all of the evil in his world, and conquer an unjust God, the entire doomed quest for the hide of Moby Dick would not be undertaken.The next decisive event in Ahab’s journey of self-destruction is the night aboard the Pequod when he convinces his crew to become co-conspirators in his plot to annihilate the White Whale. During his first formal appearance before his crowd of sailors, he excites their curiosities by asking straightforward questions that grow increasingly fervent to draw them into his sick plans for the voyage. Ahab is magnificently, chillingly zealous as his impassioned cries hypnotize and enthrall his wild-eyed crew. Cheering and shouting in harmony, Ahab’s men cannot help but become wrapped up in his scheme as he feeds them alcohol, baptizes the harpooners’ weapons, and bonds the crew together with his intoxicating, manipulatively charismatic personality. This event is significant because Ahab now has now convinced a large group of men to support his insane pursuit. Because he has gained the backing of these men, he is able to reassure himself that he is undertaking a rational quest. Now that he has convinced his crew to accept his goal, there is no turning back. After the events on the quarter-deck, Ahab spends even more time below deck, fanatically perusing charts of the world’s great ocean and becoming increasingly obsessed with his ultimate goal. He is dogged in his mission to destroy the White Whale.Ahab becomes all the more certain of his own invincibility when Fedallah, his own personal harpooner, prophecies the improbable conditions Ahab’s death will require. Fedallah declares that Ahab will only die if he sees two hearses on the ocean, one not made by man and one made from American-grown wood, only if Fedallah dies first, and only by hemp. Despite many recent omens that Ahab should give up Moby Dick and return to Nantucket, this prophecy seems so implausible that any fears Ahab may have are calmed. He is convinced that death on this mission impossible because that is what he wants to believe. Reassured that he is untouchable and that his quest is destined to be a success, Ahab is primed to take extreme risks.The final noteworthy event in Ahab’s nearly lifelong battle with Moby Dick is the last whale chase of the mad captain’s despondent life. Nearly convinced by Starbuck to relinquish his dammed dreams of destroying the White Whale, Ahab presses on and is temporarily appeased when he sees his obsession from the mast-head. Overcome with pathetic giddiness, he cries out, “There she blows! There she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It’s Moby Dick!” Rejecting all reasonable thought once and for all, Ahab lowers the boats and engages in the fateful three-day chase of the leviathan. Ahab knows that he is doomed, offering Starbuck the opportunity to remain on the ship so that at least the first-mate may live to see his wife and children again2E Without misgivings, Ahab lowers for his prey three times, despite numerous clues and warnings that he should take advantage of his last opportunity to abandon the mission that promises certain death. Ahab knows he will fail, and may only wait in anxious conviction for the end. Each day, the White Whale taunts Ahab and his sailors, bringing them dangerously close to death. Ahab, however, continues to come rowing back for more, acknowledging his own audacity. The first day of the chase, when Moby Dick smashes Ahab’s boat amid a hurricane of harpoons, the annoyed whale gives the proud men one last chance to get away. Even the death of Fedallah and near-fulfillment of his prophecy cannot stop Ahab, who does not understand his own motivations. Just before his death, standing in his lone whaleboat, Ahab finally comes to the realization that he is in no place to seek revenge or justice. One may argue that Ahab’s character is most mature in the final seconds of his existence, because he has finally realized that all his life, he has been driven by emotion rather than reason. This insight comes too late, however, and catharsis is achieved as he is denied even the honor of going down with the ship he commanded.Captain Ahab destroys himself through a tragic sequence of events that litter the pages of Mellville’s masterpiece. From his original encounter with Moby Dick, to the night he captivates the crew of the Pequod with his passionate quest, to Fedallah’s prophecy, to his final battle with the White Whale, Ahab’s life epitomizes a journey of self-destruction. We pity rather than hate this wretched old man who is only trying to make sense out of his unjust life and an unreasonable God.
With his novel Moby-Dick, Herman Melville uses the voyages of a New England whaler as a metaphor for the expansionist society in which he was living. Completed in 1851, the novel condemns America’s values during the middle of the 19th century. During this time, the United States’ expanding population encouraged the idea of manifest destiny, or that the nation was destined to span to the Pacific Ocean. This goal provoked many incidents between America and its bordering civilizations, such as Mexico, and the many Native Americans tribes that were either displaced or destroyed by the western settlers. The United States saw these civilizations as primitive; thus, exterminating them for their land was not seen as a criminal act, especially given the value of the natural resources that could be exploited for profit. Melville opposed this expansionist policy and the methods that were used to achieve it, and the novel shows this opposition as well as his admiration of native values.One of the first indications that we have of the author’s support for the native cultures that were being destroyed is his first interaction with Queequeg. Upon learning that he must share a room with the cannibal, he argues at first, then agrees, as long as the native obeys a few rules, stating, “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” (31) This sentence shows us that Melville does not hold the typical 19th century Christian values that view pagans as sub-humans. It was this superior attitude that enabled the American expansionist rationale.Ishmael furthers his view in equality a few chapters later as he and Queequeg’s friendship develop more. He admits that it is unlike his society to befriend a savage, but declares, “I’ll try a pagan friend since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.” (53) This statement is probably one of the primary reasons that many Christians criticized the book at the time, for they felt that it condemns their beliefs. Here he is criticizing the same kind of strict Christianity that his friend Hawthorne condemns. Melville’s criticism of Christian practices is surprising, though, given the amount of scripture that he uses in novel, meaning that he must have been a fairly educated Christian at some time in order to be that knowledgeable of the Bible. Because of this, readers should infer that Melville is not critical of the Christian religion, but rather the way that he has seen it practiced. Being a friend of Hawthorne, he probably had more than enough knowledge of the Puritanical judgments used by the county’s founders. In addition, he saw the way that Christianity’s superior self-perception enabled them to infringe upon pagan civilizations.It is this infringement and exploitation of other societies that the book condemns as one of its major themes. Though the Pequod travels eastward, both it and the United States were attempting to exploit resources all the way to the Pacific. In this way, Melville may be trying to express that the United States is attempting to exploit every “uncivilized” area of the world, by taking all of the land to the west and conquering the seas all the way around the globe.The sperm whales are symbolic of the western land, which will be exploited for only what is most profitable; meanwhile wasting anything that is not seen to be worth the effort. Examples of the wastefulness of the whalers permeate Ishmael’s account. Though he never condemns the actions, the inclusion of the details allows readers to make their own inferences. One of the first indications that we receive follows the capture of the first whale. Here, Melville vividly describes the process that the men go through to process the dead animal. From the whale, they take only the blubber and the gallons of spermaceti that are found within the dead whale’s head. Most of the rest of the carcass is dropped back into the ocean for the sharks to feed upon. This is reminiscent of the treatment of the buffalo upon the Midwestern plains at the middle of the 19th century, where the animals were shot and had the best parts removed while the rest was left for the vultures. Ahab’s monomaniacal mission to conquer the whale is further compared to United States expansionism as the crew approaches Moby Dick’s position. In chapter 109, Starbuck informs the captain of the leak in the casks of spermaceti in the hold. Upon hearing the news, we see that the captain is unconcerned, for we learn that he cares not for the resources that he has already plundered, but only about killing the White Whale. This is like the United States driving westward, even though little had been done to cultivate the land that was already possessed by the settlers, for they refused to rest until their Manifest Destiny was complete. After reaching their goal, they could focus on “trivial” things, such as using what they had not yet destroyed during their conquest.One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the colors that are symbolically used. Though Melville makes readers critical of the values that the crew has, he does not have us sympathizing with the White Whale, either. In fact, he depicts Moby Dick as an evil being, making everything in the novel that is white evil. Melville does not see white as purity like modern society typically does. Rather, he sees it as an evil shade, and one that can not be trusted. In making the pro-native argument, this could be used to condemn white society, which can be viewed as evil for murdering so many natives. Similarly, of the characters that we meet in the novel, the dark-skinned ones seem to represent the best that the book’s characters can offer. While none of them would be seen by society as examples to follow, they do seem more civil than their white shipmates. This compares them to the natives of the United States, for their actions were usually polite towards their white shipmates. This is similar to the help that the colonists received from the Native Americans during the Revolutionary War. In the end, though, the loyalty of the harpooners is abused, as they are thrown to their deaths to support the single-serving actions of their leader, much as the United States used the Indians to win the war and then stripped them of the freedoms that they had helped the Americans gain.Other indicators of Melville’s discontent with his country’s policies are found in the book as well, though they do not fall within the plot of the novel, but rather the factual information that the author gives to help readers better understand the whaling industry. One such example is when Melville states that “Nantucketers were the first among mankind to harpoon with civilized steel the great Sperm Whale; and for half a century they were the only people on the globe who so harpooned them.” (369) This passage is relevant since it emphasizes American greed. At the time of Melville’s writings, whale populations around the world were in decline because of the high number of whales that were annually harvested. Because whales have reproductive cycles similar to humans in that they have almost identical gestation periods and only have one offspring at a time, there was not enough time for populations to restore themselves. From this passage, we learn that in little more than 100 years, Americans have been only one of a few nations harvesting these animals, yet they have still managed to reduce the populations at a remarkable rate. Likewise, during the same era, Americans were also expanding beyond what they had already settled in order to exploit the limited gold resources in California and Alaska, virtually annihilating the buffalo population in the Midwest, and making other species, such as the Eastern Elk extinct.Moby-Dick, because of its length, gives the author a great deal of ability to include many different themes besides a simple story about whaling. Given this ability, Melville condemns his 19th century society for its selfish values. We see Ishmael become critical of the beliefs that Christianity has instilled in its followers. Even though he is aware of the history behind it, he condemns the way that its values are misused to support ideals that are contrary to the teachings of the Bible. For this reason, he befriends Queequeg, as he has not been misguided by civilization entirely. One of the ways that Queequeg has been corrupted, though, is his willingness to help the whalers exploit nature. While many native tribes use their natural resources, they are more for sustenance rather than profit. It could be for this reason that all of the natives perish in the end, for they are just as guilty as the white men for trying to take too much. By assimilating into western society, these men partially abandon their native societies and therefore must be punished for assisting the misled 19th century Americans in their villainous behavior regarding nature and the people who still live in harmony with it.
In Fay Weldon’s opinion, a good writer does not always need to conclude his story with a joyous flourish in order to satisfy his reader. “The writers, I do believe, who get the best and most lasting response from readers are the writers who offer a happy ending through moral development. By a happy ending, I do not mean mere fortunate events – a marriage or a last-minute rescue from death – but some kind of spiritual reassessment or moral reconciliation, even with the self, even at death.” Both Moby Dick and The Joy Luck Club leave a lasting impression on the reader because, although the resolution to each novel is not necessarily a happy one, a spiritual reassessment or moral reconciliation is reached in the end. In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab faces death as his moral penance, and in the Joy Luck Club, Jing-Mei Woo finds a spiritual resolution by fulfilling her mother’s destiny.Captain Ahab, the leader of the Pequod’s whaling expedition, is appropriately named after an Israelite king who worshipped idols and drew upon himself the wrath of God. There is no small connection between Ahab and his namesake – Ahab, in a similar way to the ancient king, makes an idol out of the whale, Moby Dick. His desire for vengeance upon the creature that endowed him with a leg of ivory grows into a powerful, mind-consuming obsession. The first time he addresses his crew, he informs them that their quest is not a commercial one – they are setting out to kill the White Whale. “Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!” (165) From this point on, Ahab, like “madness maddened,” (166) pursues the whale relentlessly – “he seemed ready to sacrifice all mortal interests to that one passion.” (210) He does not heed the warnings of others and he is filled with arrogance, or, as Ishmael calls it, “fatal pride.”Not only is Ahab filled with great hubris as he makes himself a tyrant over his ship – “There is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod,” he says (471) – but he does not heed any of the divine signals to desist from his mad quest. He receives many signs from heaven to give up, yet he ignores each of them, and rebukes the man who entreats him to take note of them. “God is against thee, old man!” (501) says one of his men. “All good angels [are] mobbing thee with warnings: what more wouldst thou have?” (552) But Ahab will not be cautioned. He is hell-bent on capturing Moby Dick, whom he sees as a representation of evil. And, indeed, the whale is depicted as a malignant, inscrutable, seemingly omnipotent force – but this is no excuse for the arrogance and cruelty exercised by Ahab. At one point, the captain from a passing ship entreats him to help in the search for his lost son, but Ahab coldly refuses. “I will not do it,” he says, “Even now I lose time.” (523) Ahab truly seems to be a madman.Ahab’s story, at times, seems to run quite parallel to the story of Jonah, recounted earlier in the novel in a sermon by Father Mapple. Jonah does not heed the words of God, and he flees from him, in a way similar to how Ahab flees to the sea in pursuit of Moby Dick, heedless of all warnings. Unlike Jonah, however, Ahab does not repent. He, too, is conquered by the whale, but God does not deliver him as he does Jonah. If Ahab had shown humility, or heeded the warnings given to him, he may yet have survived his encounter with Moby Dick. But he is not one bit humble – “I never yet saw him kneel,” says Stubb of Ahab. (229) Because of Ahab’s hubris, and his mad, consuming passion to hunt Moby Dick that causes him to lose all sense of identity and even humanity, he is faced with divine retribution. He meets his demise by means of the one thing he sought to destroy, the great whale.Although this is not a happy ending to the story, it is still a resolution of conflict, and it leaves the reader feeling satisfied. Captain Ahab earns what he deserves in the end – his arrogance and recklessness lead him to the proper punishment. His death, and the victory of the whale, both serve as a sort of moral and spiritual reconciliation to the story. The fact that his death takes place after a three-day journey is also significant – it may be likened to the three days during which Jesus journeyed from his crucifixion to his resurrection, or found his spiritual retribution. Ahab’s retribution, at the end of the three days, is not resurrection, but death.The Joy Luck Club is quite a different tale from Moby Dick, but it likewise ends with a spiritual reconciliation.Throughout the novel, the main conflict is the lack of understanding between the Chinese mothers who have been born and raised in China and have experienced great sorrows, and their American-raised daughters who have never tasted real suffering. This theme is summarized in the beginning of the first book, “Feathers from a Thousand Li Away,” which opens with a short narrative about a Chinese mother coming to America. She buys a swan and sails across the ocean, dreaming about the better life she is going to provide for her daughter. “Nobody will look down on her… And over there she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow!” (3) The woman means to give her daughter the swan as a symbol of her hopes – but the swan is taken away, and she is left with only a feather. The mother wishes to give her daughter the feather, but she fears that her daughter will not understand its significance – she has grown up “swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow.” (3) This story underlines the theme than runs throughout the entire novel – the gap in understanding between the mothers and daughters, and the daughters’ inability to comprehend their mothers’ pasts.In all of the stories told by the mothers, Suyuan Woo, An-Mei Hsu, Lindo Jong, and Ying-ying St. Clair, emphasis is placed on the honor and respect that they each had for their own mothers. An-Mei describes a scene she witnessed when she was young, when her exiled mother returned home to the death-bed of An-Mei’s grandmother. An-Mei’s mother cut a piece of flesh from her own arm to place in her grandmother’s soup, in attempt to cure her mother with an ancient Chinese tradition. “This is how a daughter honors her mother,” says An-Mei. (41) “Here is how I came to love my mother. How I saw in her my own true nature. What was beneath my skin. Inside my bones.” (40)This is the type of love, honor, and respect that the Chinese mothers came to expect in their relationships with their own daughters. But because their daughters were born and raised in America, a gap grew between them. Not only did they speak different languages, they lived completely different lives and had completely different understandings. The women in the novel must struggle to comprehend one another. “We are lost, she and I, unseen and not seeing, unheard and not hearing, unknown by others,” Ying-Ying says of her relationship with her daughter, Lena. (64) The inability of the daughters to understand their mothers’ pasts is made clear when Waverly makes the mistake of telling her mother she is from Taiwan. “I’m not from Taiwan!… I was born in China, in Taiyuan,” says Waverly’s mother. (203) This literal misunderstanding is symbolic of a much greater rift between the mothers and daughters – how can the daughters, who grew up speaking perfect American English and swallowing Coca-Cola, possibly know the sorrow of having to murder your own child? Of being forced to leave your family and marry into another? Of having your mother sacrifice her life so that you may live a better one?The story of Jing-Mei Woo and the relationship she has with her mother is probably the most important of all. Her mother, Suyuan, was forced to give up her two baby girls during a war in China. She spends her life trying to locate her lost children, but it is not until after her death that they are found. It is Jing-Mei who must go to China to meet the girls, and reconcile herself to her mother’s past. Up until the point where Jing-Mei must do this, she has never really understood her mother. When she was first informed of her duty to go meet her sisters, she was unsure of what she would say about her mother: “What will I say? What can I tell them about my mother? I don’t know anything. She was my mother.” (31) The other mothers are appalled. “They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America.” (31)But by going to China and meeting her two sisters, Jing-Mei reunites them with their mother’s spirit. She creates a resolution to the life of her mother, a spiritual reconciliation to her mother’s past. As she embraces her sisters, she says, “Together we look like our mother. Her same eyes, her same mouth, open in surprise to see, at last, her long-cherished wish.” (332) In this act of fulfilling her mother’s destiny, Jing-Mei symbolically unites all of the mothers and daughters in the story, finally bridging the rift in understanding, the gap between the past and present.Though the stories of Moby Dick and the Joy Luck Club are quite different, they both involve a long journey and a thematic conflict which, at the end, is resolved by either a spiritual reassessment or a moral reconciliation. Captain Ahab earns the fate that his arrogance and recklessness deserve, which is death. Jing-Mei Woo bridges the gap between past and present to unite the understandings of the mothers and daughters. Each is, in itself, a satisfying ending.
Many deities are invoked and discussed throughout Moby-Dick. Yet, despite some vivid allusions to Gnostic theology, the overall impact of these allusions generally go unnoticed. However, understanding how Gnostic theology is explored in the novel reveals and allows for a clearer reading of Ahab’s role as a tragic anti-hero, Ishmael’s skeptical philosophy, and the overrunning theme of how to live amidst the problem of evil. First, it is necessary to make clear the Gnostic themes which are present in the novel, and define Gnostic terms and ideas to make sense of Melville’s allusions.
First, one must view Moby-Dick as a god and a messenger of divine judgment to understand how Moby-Dick is a representative of the Gnostic Demiurge. According to Gnostic tradition, the Demiurge is the son of Sophia, daughter of the true and benign God who rules over the cosmos. In the Gnostic mythos, the deceptive Demiurge is known by the name Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. As Thomas Vargish succinctly explains, the Demiurge is a “reaction to and dissatisfaction with the Christian attempt to explain the origin of evil” (273). This Gnostic deity’s goal is to despise the spiritual and lead all humans away from the one true spiritual (nameless) god through the material and nature. One can see why Melville would sympathize and find Gnosticism attractive. Raised religious, Melville probably had an easier time believing the God he grew up believing in was not completely good, instead of simply declaring himself an atheist.
Chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale” is a crucial chapter for understanding how Ishmael views Moby-Dick as a god. In the course of the chapter, comparisons are made between the whiteness of the whale and “Jove … made incarnate in a snowwhite bull” and also a white horse, who possessed divineness “that in it which, though commanding worship, at the same time enforced a certain nameless terror” (159-161). Here we are given examples of a god incarnate as an animal, and an animal made god. The latter of which, the white horse which enforces nameless terror, echoes Job’s encounter with God, in which God gives no answer, but rather demonstrates his power to affright Job into reverent awe.
However, after comparing the whiteness of Christ to the whiteness of the whale (Moby-Dick), Melville writes, “with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue [white], which strikes more of a panic to the soul than that redness that affrights in blood” (160). Here Ishmael demonstrates his Gnostic theological leanings, wherein he acknowledges the existence of the spiritual yet defies it through Descartian skepticism. While for Melville’s mainly protestant audience the color white represents the purity of Christ, for Ishmael is suggests the deception of god, later illustrated at the end of the chapter when he writes, “all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified nature paints like the harlot…” (165). Ishmael even writes that whiteness is the “veil of the Christian’s Deity” punning on both how it is literally the veil of God in Revelation, as well as a veil whose whiteness hides the “Christian’s Deity” from humanity and therefore hides the cosmic evil of the deity, deceiving us into believing the “Christian’s God” is benevolent. Ishmael’s argument is that humans instinctively are skeptical of whiteness as it is the material god’s mode of deceiving, and glimpses of uncomfortable whiteness point us towards the truth of god’s true nature. Ishmael ends the chapter by saying, “all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?” Based on this chapter, we can gather that Moby-Dick is a god, but a god of deception. The deceptive god Ishmael alludes to echoes elements of the Gnostic conception of the Demiurge, a lesser god who rules over Earth.
However, some would wonder whether or not Melville had knowledge of Gnostic doctrine or if he simply by chance echoes Gnostic ideas. However, Melville certainly had awareness and artistic appreciation for Gnostic thought. As Thomas Vargish shows in his article, “Gnostic Mythos in Moby-Dick,” the main source for Melville was Andrews Norton’s The Evidence’s of the Genuineness of the Gospels, which when published in 1844 became a popular theology read. Gnostics are directly referenced in the novel White Teeth, and are also explicitly mentioned in the title of the poem “Fragment of a Lost Gnostic Poem of the 12th Century” published in Melville’s poetry collection Timoleon (Vargish 272-273). There is no doubt of Melville’s familiarity of Gnostic theology and mythos, which is further explored in the mythos of Moby-Dick, which is an American Gnostic tragedy.
Ahab’s relationship with Yahweh is similar to Job’s. He is seeking justice on his own terms by defying God yet simultaneously knowing his power cannot match God’s. Ahab attempts to defy the Demiurge in his hunt for Moby-Dick. The most illuminating chapter to explore his outright defiance of god is found in the chapter titled “The Candles.” Here, Ahab calls out multiple gods, all of whom are ultimately assumed to be the Demiurge in disguise. First he calls on the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda, “Oh! Thou clear spirit of clear fire whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, til in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that too this hour I bear the scar I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance” (382). Ahab, far from being the simpleton pirate-like sailor he is often portrayed as, is a learned and cultured man, who once traveling in Persia, presumably with Fedallah, worshipped as a Zoroastrian. However, he has learned since then that true worship of this world’s creator is, as he says in his own words, defiance. He calls upon Sophia, the Gnostic mother of the Demiurge and cosmic being which Gnostic sects such as the ophite followed (Varnish 272) though vaguely: “yet while I earthly live, the queenly personality lives in me, and feels her royal rights” (382). Later in the speech he subtly refers to his, at the very least appreciation, of Christ: “Come in thy lowest form of love, and I will kneel and kiss thee; but at thy highest, come as mere supernal power; and though thou launchest navies of full freighted worlds, there’s that in here that still remains indifferent.” I turn to Philip Young’s interpretation of the text for guidance, he writes, “In the lowest (most human) form of love, he [the god Ahab addresses] would be Jesus. But the main point is Ahab’s utmost refusal to concede this power in its “highest” absolute dominion over him, or even to admit his own inferiority” (Young 332). Ahab possessed a clearly Gnostic conception of the Christian religion, since Gnostics viewed Jesus and his message as one based in love and devotion to the spiritual. Early Gnostics point to passages such as First Corinthians 13, where Gnosis is seen as a gift from Monad the one true God, “If I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all secrets and all gnosis…” (Nock 261-262). Gnostics viewed Jesus as a Gnostic prophet whose goal was to lead humanity away from the material, and point them to the spiritual, true God known usually as Monad. Jesus, to the Gnostics, defied Yahweh (the Demiurge), and here Ahab attempts to emulate the Gnostic conception of Christ.
Understanding Ahab’s character, one of a Gnostic prophet, is crucial to understanding his role in the novel. Ahab is intended by Melville to be a sympathetic tragic hero, akin to Macbeth and King Lear. The key to defining these anti-heroes is that they evoke sympathy in their audiences through their common humanity, but also evoke pity because we can see their tragic mistakes that lead them to death. If one takes a surface interpretation of Moby-Dick, that Ahab is simply on a quest to kill a whale to get revenge, one views Ahab as a madman, and the antagonist of Moby Dick, leading many sailors to their deaths. However, if one views Ahab as a Gnostic tragic hero, he is both justified in his defiance of God, and sympathetic in his earnest desire for truth. The pity arises from Ahab’s tragic flaw: his hubris or pride, and conviction that he can defeat the Demiurge through the material.
Early in the novel we get a sense of Ahab’s tragic flaw. In chapter 36, The Quarter-Deck, after discussing his desire to break through the “pasteboard mask” by killing Moby-Dick, Ahab says to Starbuck, “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me” (140). Ahab is dedicated to his cosmic antagonism, perhaps too much so, for it results in rage instead of Ishmael’s heavily contrasted desire to seek truth through knowledge. Unlike Jesus’s paradigmatic example, Ahab attempts to defy the Demiurge through the physically destroying him. In the Gnostic conception of Jesus, Jesus defies the demiurge through knowledge, or Gnosis, of the reality of the demiurge’s deceitful nature. Ishmael’s Gnostic theology is summed up in this sentence from Chapter 85, “Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye” (293). Ishmael’s solution lies in skepticism without complete denial of the spiritual. He doubts “all things earthly” but holds that intuitions point to the spiritual. Through this Gnostic worldview he neither adheres to organized religion nor complete atheism, but finds a balance that approaches god with the supposition that god may be malevolent or indifferent.
In light of Ishmael’s gloomy theology, that the world is a deception set up by a malevolent god, how then should we live? Melville, through Ishmael answers that question. The answer is in one sense Moby-Dick, the book. The book is an example of defiance through art, and its encyclopedic nature acts almost as a guide to defiance. For example, in reading Moby-Dick, one learns about the physiology of the heads of right whales and sperms whales, yet we understand them through Ishmael’s claim that the right whale is a stoic and the sperm whale is a Platonist (267). Even what can be proved or discussed with scientific accuracy, such as the heads of whales, is tinted with highly subjective philosophical or theological claims. So, then, the response to the empty and deceptive nature of the world is not rational atheism, but a vague spirituality rooted in love for knowledge; this theme mirroring the Gnostic quest of gnosis (greek for knowledge). Throughout the novel, Ishmael stresses the limits of science. He writes, “however baby man may brag of his science and skill … yet forever and forever … the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make” (224). The sea, representing the vast cruelty of the cosmos and the circulatory nature of history (a concurrent theme throughout the novel, see the final paragraph of Brit  and the final sentence of The Chase-Third Day ), cannot be mastered through knowledge. Rather, for Melville, knowledge enlightens us, and allows us to live authentically, knowing the reality of god’s cruelty, but enjoying ourselves in spite of him. This enjoyment of one’s life despite knowing the cruelty and malevolence of God is the only source of true happiness.
The most poignant and unashamed instance of this near epicurean philosophy is in the chapter “A Squeeze of the Hand.” Here Ishmael describes a highly sensual encounter found by squeezing a sperm whale’s oil (though Ishmael refers to it as sperm either erroneously or on purpose to heighten the sexual language). He writes,
Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze! All the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; … I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, in taking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affection, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as long as to say, -Oh! My dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay let us squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness. (323)
Where Ahab’s spiritual defiance towards the Demiurge are his monologues in “The Candles,” Ishmael’s climax of defiance is in the above referenced passage. The best way to live, for Ishmael, is to simply enjoy life through simple avocations. An important factor in this passage is that Ishmael is not alone, he squeezes with others. The homoerotic overtones of the passage are crucial. Melville sees this homosexuality as defiant to the cultural norms of the time and thus, in the context of Gnostic thought, freeing from the Demiurge’s restrictive laws placed on humanity. Like Ishmael’s “marriage” to Queequeg (the only happy marriage in the novel), the all-male squeeze-session is one of the few instances of pure joy.
Ishmael challenges the Demiurge through non-physical defiance. He does this through Moby-Dick, a novel of defiance towards many elements of society and religion. Moby-Dick is both a novel in its story, dialogue, and poetic writing, yet it is also an encyclopedia of sorts on the nature of whales and the American whaling industry.
Yet this knowledge of whales does not come from conventional learning and standard education. The knowledge that Ishmael employs is solipsistic and comes from experience. This too, is defiance against the Demiurge and society. Two times Ishmael mocks Yale and Harvard as being inauthentic, evidently inspired by Melville’s own decision not to attend college (Melville 101). Instead of college, Melville (and Ishmael) become learned in the classics both Western and Eastern, and come to know the world through whaling and sailing. Ishmael, sets up a thesis for Moby-Dick in the opening chapter, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth […] I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can” (18) and later “I love to sail forbidden seas […] Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it” (22). The thesis of the novel itself is that all humans intuitively desire to escape the norms of society, set up by religion, and rebel, though few act upon it. Interpreting Ishmael’s thesis in Moby-Dick knowing Melville’s exploration of Gnostic thought helps explain the radical and almost otherworldly quality to the novel: the novel is in constant dialogue with the question of evil and experience in the context of Gnostic thought. It attempts to give a philosophy of life in face of the incomprehensible problem of evil.
The Gnostic philosophy espoused by Ishmael is a fulfillment of Descartian skepticism. The Descartian concept of the cosmic jester is discussed in the chapter “The Hyena” in which the god of this earth and the universe itself are viewed as “a vast practical joke … at nobody’s expense but his own” and later, “death itself, seem to him only sly, good natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker (188). This is Ishmael’s humorous reference to Descartes’ attempt at an explanation of the problem of evil and the question of whether or not we can doubt our own existence. However, whereas Descartes decides that the Christian God could never be so cruel as to deceive us of our own existence, Melville concludes that the God of this earth is not benevolent and is actively trying to deceive us, as seen most clearly in “The Whiteness of The Whale” and “The Candles.” Because Melville demonstrates that the Demiurge is playing a cosmic joke, Moby-Dick is a fulfillment of Descartian skepticism taken to the furthest extreme through Gnostic thought. Earlier in the novel, in the chapter “The Mast-Head,” Ishmael describes a sailor asleep at a masthead dreaming. In the passage, life is described as “borrowed from the sea” and from “the inscrutable tides of God” (136). Here Melville references Descartes’ question of whether or not our existence is merely a dream. Again, challenging Descartes’ timidity, Ishmael, instead of saying God’s goodness makes the suggestion of life being a dream void, argues that God keeps us asleep by his inscrutable tides. And later writes that when we awake, which in the context of the Gnostic thought of the novel means coming to the revelation that the universe is a deception formed by a deceiving deity, that “your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. … And [you ] drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever” (136). Unlike Descartes, for Melville there is no hope. We are doomed to be deceived and live a vain life. However, the tone of both “The Mast-Head” and “The Hyena” are jocular.
Like the chapter “A Squeeze of the Hand,” Melville’s solution and key to living life amidst the depressing realization that god is a deceiving, malevolent being, is to defy him through knowledge, countercultural pleasure, and laughing at, or alongside, god. As Ishmael says in “The Hyena,” “There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy” (188). Notice the terms he uses to describe his philosophy. First, unlike Descartes, he does not dismiss the philosophy of seeing life as a practical joke, rather he “breeds this free and easy philosophy” through whaling, embracing this philosophy instead of running away. It is “genial,” meaning cheerful; the mode of defiance to laugh along with the hyena-like Demiurge. Ishmael makes a similar statement near the beginning of the novel when he writes about cosmic evil, “I am quick to perceive a horror; and could still be social with it … since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the names of the place one lodges in” (22). Here, as in “The Hyena” it is through knowledge of cosmic evil, embodied in Moby-Dick, that Ishmael achieves his defiance. He also describes the philosophy as “desperado,” meaning openly and purposefully defiant. For Melville, as we see in both “A Squeeze of the Hand,” and the opening thesis of “Loomings,” going to sea is a jocular and desperado defiant act against the Demiurge, and the fulfillment of Descartian skepticism is the key to enjoying life. Ishmael’s Descartian continuance is also important because Descartes qualified many of his ideas by constantly referring to God’s supreme goodness so as not to upset the academy of Paris. Melville, however, with nobody to keep happy, having never attended college, throws no censorship on his philosophy and presents it in brutal, though humorous, honesty.
By evaluating the novel while keeping close attention to the Gnostic mythos Melville employs throughout the novel, many new understandings of passages are revealed. Ahab’s role as a tragic anti-hero, Ishmael’s neo-Descartian skepticism, and the form of Moby Dick itself are given new understanding that allows for a fuller reading of the symbolic hunt for the whale.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Ed. Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.
Nock, Athur Darby. “Gnosticism.” The Harvard Theological Review 57.4 (1964): 255-79. JSTOR. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.
Vargish, Thomas. “Gnostic Mythos in Moby-Dick.” PMLA, vol. 81, no. 3, 1966, pp. 272–277., JSTOR. Web. 10 Apr. 2017
Young, Philip. “‘These Be Thy Gods, O Ahab!”.” Studies in the American Renaissance, 1990, pp. 329–340., JSTOR. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.
Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It Into the New Testament. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
There are two sides to everything, whether it be a situation, decision, or even a person, perspective is important when evaluating the positives and negatives of anything. For instance, on an extremely hot day the sun is viewed as a negative thing, as it causes extreme hand, yet when the sun comes out during a cold day it is viewed as a saving grace. This same situation occurs in Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, when analyzing the water imagery and its effects on the characters within the novel. The ocean is depicted as a transcendental body of water, carrying a sacred aura at all times throughout the journey. Melville uses water imagery within Moby Dick to convey water as possessing both redemptive and damning characteristics.
First off, Melville paints water imagery with redemptive qualities throughout Moby Dick. Ishmael starts by explaining how the mind is connected to water, claiming that “meditation and water are wedded forever” (Melville 18). According to Ishmael, water provides a chance for a search for self, in this case Ishmael is going out to sea to find his true identity. He relates it to the story of Narcissus, who drowned after staring at his reflection in the water. The reason Narcissus was staring into his reflection, according to Ishmael, is that he was searching for the image all people search for in water, “the ungraspable phantom of life” (Melville 19). Ishmael is searching for something he can never obtain; the water leads him to a life of meaning, yet he can never reach the life he desires. In addition to both Ishmael and Narcissus being drawn to water, Bulkington, a southern sailor, is also considered a water gazer. Although he died a violent death, his death carried a transcendental sensation. Ishmael says that, “up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing—straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!” (Melville 122). The deification of Bulkington is evidence of a redeeming imagery of water, as an ascension resulting from a death in the ocean depicts water as a path of redemption and glory. In addition to this, Ishmael claims that, “in landlines alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God,” implying that the redeeming nature of water contains a sacred, holy image (Melville 122).
Later in the novel, Ishmael goes on watch for whales, but he is overcome with water gazing, losing himself in the image of water beneath him. From the crow’s nest, he “takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature” (Melville 174). Not only does this pertain to the redemptive qualities of the water imagery, but it also refers to the collective unconscious. Narcissus, Ishmael, and Bulkington all share the unconscious desire to not only be near water, but also stare into it and search the water for themselves. All people share a common fascination for the deep, blue ocean that seems like its own soul at times. The complexity of the water imagery is present when the Pequod tries to pursue a whale for days, but never reach it. The spout they spot kept evading them, Ishmael describes it as, “this solitary jet seemed forever alluring us on” (Melville 250). This spout represents the phantom of life that Ishmael is searching for, yet can never obtain. Both the spout and phantom of life are celestial and dreadful, as they appear glorious and holy, yet they cause much pain and dread in pursuit. Overall, the complex water imagery contains a redemptive quality that is evident in the search for self that is fueled by water.
Secondly, the water imagery within Moby Dick also has damning qualities that contradict the redemptive qualities. Although the ocean is often depicted as redemptive, there are many cases were a paradox of qualities occurs and the ocean is the most terrifying thing one can experience. This is the case for Pip, a young member of the crew who fell victim to the damning qualities of the vast ocean. The solitude of the open ocean is incredible horrifying, as Melville writes “the awful loneliness is intolerable. The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God!” (Melville 431). Whereas the ocean provides a positive search for self, it can also force someone to experience the kind of solitude that ruins lives, as it did Pip’s. The loneliness of the ocean is shared deep within the minds of all people, evidence of the collective unconscious. From a safe perspective, the ocean can be viewed as a place to find comfort, but when tossed into the ferocious waves with a “ringed horizon… expand[ing] around him miserably,” Pip found himself losing his individuality and soul as a result of the daunting vastness of the ocean (Melville 431). While floating in the infinite waters, Pip is “carried down alive to wondrous depths… he saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it” (Melville 432). The weaver image of God appears and portrays God as weaving the universe together, sealing the fates of all people on Earth. This seems like a redeeming quality of the water imagery, but the text proves otherwise.
Pip’s foresight into the presence of God took his soul and left his finite body empty, as if his soul had glimpsed into the afterlife and remained there, yet his body remained on Earth. The sea is mocking him, by keeping his body on Earth and sending his soul away, the damning nature of the water imagery is revealed. The image of the weaver God reappears when Tranquo shows Ishmael a whale skeleton, covered by vines and wood. Ishmael relates the whale bones to the image of God the weaver, claiming that “life folded death; death trellised life” (Melville 466). The damning quality of water imagery is seen in the image of a weaver God that is death disguised as life. By claiming that life folded death, Ishmael is concluding that the weaver God acts as death, but disguises himself as life to appear redemptive. The water imagery acts in the same way, as it contains a damning quality that disguises itself as a redemptive quality. The search for self that water sparks is a cover up for the loneliness that can be discovered in the open ocean. Pip serves as an example that as the search for oneself progresses, they will soon find themselves surrounded by an infinite horizon of water, with an overwhelming feeling of solitude rushing in. This is similar Bulkington’s death, but he found peace and glory in the nature of his death at sea. The complexity of water imagery in Moby Dick is evident in the paradox of redemptive and damning qualities.
Within Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, water imagery is used to convey both redemptive and damning qualities of water. But the paradox of qualities is not the only thing Melville uses water imagery for. He hints at the collective unconscious when using water imagery, and uses the imagery to suggest the presence of a collective unconscious. There is an innate level of consciousness that all people share, in this case a connection to water. There exists an unbreakable bond between water and the mind, and this connection is apparent in the journey of Ishmael and the whole crew among the Pequod.
Throughout history, America has often been depicted as a land of many freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of petition, thanks to the First Amendment. Slowly but surely, these notions of constitutional rights trickled down into the American literary movement, transforming it into a new arena for social commentary and discourse through presenting fresh new perspectives on pertinent issues. Keeping a few specific literary works born into the American Renaissance—such as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Emily Dickinson’s poetry—in mind, understanding the liberal ideal of American society thus bursts forth in a vibrant array of opinions and perspectives. Even so, this phenomenon is not one without flaws of its own. Above all else, these authors are writing, either as themselves or their characters, through inarguably limited perspectives that are incapable of encapsulating all possible discrepancies and conflicts. Because of this, there is the ever-present risk of oversimplifying certain issues and creating confusion. Regardless, the many variations in literary form and style have opened doors to more potent modes of expression, leading to more impactful texts of better persuasive quality.
In Walden, Thoreau recounts his experiences of having spent approximately two years living by Walden Pond, seeking a self-sufficient, self-reliant life. All of such is presented as a first-person narrative, to which Thoreau responds in “Economy,” “I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives” (Thoreau 1986, 46). In this case, his limited scope stems from a pursuit of heartfelt, individualized truth, one that avoids the unfamiliar territory of “other men’s lives” and any attempt to render such authentically. It’s interesting to consider how Thoreau “require[s]” such an account from every writer, particularly through the lens of his later query, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” (Thoreau 1986, 53). Perhaps, in Thoreau’s opinion, a writer’s responsibility lies within depicting their own perspective as genuinely as possible, thus allowing for others to comprehend their specific frame of mind. However, this creates a domain in which each writer’s viewpoints exist in literary spheres independent of one another, as well as running the risk of leaving many voices unheard.
Yet, in “The Ponds,” Thoreau seemingly contradicts his initial statement of focusing purely on his personal views and experiences, as he briefly transitions from a general narrative scope to a second-person perspective. To illustrate the beauty of Walden Pond, Thoreau describes a method of observation as though the reader were physically present, “As you look over the pond westward you are obliged to employ both your hands to defend your eyes against the reflected as well as the true sun, for they are equally bright; and if, between the two, you survey its surface critically, it is literally as smooth as glass” (Thoreau 1986, 234). This passage seems to operate on two different notions: one, in which Thoreau is allowing the reader to step into his shoes and immerse themselves by seeing through his eyes, thus aligning with his earlier statement about only being able to portray his experiences best; and the other—in which the converse is occurring—where Thoreau is actually striving to incorporate a different viewpoint of Walden Pond by projecting his vision onto a separate party, inadvertently creating an inconsistency in the narration. Though greatly effective in stimulating the reader’s senses and submerging them in the depicted scene, the duality of this moment is quite confusing.
Moving on to “The Ponds in Winter,” Thoreau acknowledges a difference in perspective quite differently, as it is now woven into the overarching narrative of Walden. He first tells of the frozen surface of the pond, how the reflective clarity that was previously present has now been obscured. Seasonal changes as such then call forth fishermen, who adhere to the laws of nature, rather than those of civilization; “wild men, who instinctively follow other fashions and trust other authorities than their townsmen, and by their goings and comings stitch towns together in parts where else they would be ripped. … [They are] as wise in natural lore as the citizen is in artificial” (Thoreau 1986, 331). The use of the adjective “wild” seems, at first, to convey negative connotations and judgement, as it distinctively draws a line between that and being civilized. But, as the passage continues, Thoreau subverts this belief by praising the fishermen for the good they bring to the towns they visit, how they offer reparations to places that would have otherwise fallen apart. Similarly, he describes them as “wise” and concludes that their intelligence parallels that of the townspeople. By doing so, Thoreau smoothly introduces his perspective without undermining those that may differ, thus minimizing the overbearing tone of his narrative voice. Quite an admirable move, in my opinion.
Melville, on the other hand, very much sought to toy with the literary form throughout Moby Dick, adding a new layer to his methods of presenting differing perspectives. On Chapter 40, “Midnight, Forecastle,” for example, the entire chapter is arranged like a play, complete with dialogue, stage directions, and a closing soliloquy. On the night of a brewing storm, the many sailors aboard the Pequod decide that young Pip must entertain them by dancing and playing his tambourine. Upon seeing this motley crew of men bullying the little African-American boy into performing for them, the old manx sailor makes the following observation: “I wonder whether those jolly lads bethink them of what they are dancing over. I’ll dance over your grave, I will … Dance on, lads, you’re young; I was once” (Melville 2008, 154). This final statement took on a remorseful tone for me, as it not only highlighted the dramatic difference in perspective—especially when thinking about the ocean as a mass “grave”—between the young men seeking instant gratification and the older man who had since borne the consequences of his actions, but also in the idea that youth warrants ignorance and recklessness. The crew didn’t know any better because they had never been taught otherwise and, thus, could not have done anything else; in the most theatrically ironic way possible, poor Pip was but collateral damage.
Chapters 41, “Moby Dick,” and 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” must be discussed in conjunction in order to compare Ahab’s and Ishmael’s perceptions of the whale. In “Moby Dick,” Ishmael does not shy away from illustrating the full extent of Ahab’s hatred towards the eponymous mammal, after an encounter that cost Ahab his leg: “All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick” (Melville 2008, 165). Whereas Ahab’s detestation towards the whale came as a product of his pursuit of vengeance, Ishmael felt there was something inherently unnerving about its whiteness: “yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood” (Melville 2008, 169). Further explanations of this viewpoint are detailed through use of footnotes, which, to me, is reminiscent of an academic report or scientific journal, bringing in something quite objectively psychological and clinical in contrast to Ahab’s subjective perspective.
Progressing to Chapter 78, “Cistern and Buckets,” the chapter is narrated using the third-person perspective, as though the reader were directly witnessing everything on the ship. When Tashtego suddenly tumbles into the sperm whale’s head, the narration is briefly interrupted as Ishmael exclaims in shock, “on a sudden, as the eightieth or ninetieth bucket came suckingly up—my God! poor Tashtego—like the twin reciprocating bucket in a veritable well, dropped head-foremost down into this great Tun of Heidelburgh, and with a horrible oily gurgling, went clean out of sight!” (Melville 2008, 306). This ascribes a human quality to the narrative voice, capable of responding to events with emotion, rather than remaining detached and unfeeling. In addition to this, Ishmael later commends Queequeg for having successfully rescued Tashtego: “And thus, through the courage and great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg, the deliverance, or rather, delivery of Tashtego, was successfully accomplished” (Melville 2008, 308). Ishmael’s comparison of the typically feminine realm of domesticity with the typically masculine realm of physicality was admittedly compelling. But, the perspective of the rescue as a birth—or rebirth—for Tashtego both fascinates and horrifies me, as it seems to romanticize the events of this traumatic incident and overly-idealize its effects.
Journeying to an earlier chapter of the book, Chapter 74, “The Sperm Whale’s Head – Contrasted View,” the narrative style is evocative of a formal presentation or, perhaps, a sermon. There is a philosophical quality to Ishmael’s observation that “it is quite impossible for [man], attentively, and completely, to examine any two things—however large or however small—at one and the same instant of time” (Melville 2008, 297). With this, Ishmael invites his audience to wonder if a creature with an eye on either side of its head possesses the mental capacity to process “two distinct prospects” (Melville 2008, 297), two separate visions of the world. To allow the reader to comprehend the physically imposing nature of the whale, Ishmael then says, “Let us now with whatever levers and steam-engines we have at hand, cant over the sperm whale’s head … then, ascending by a ladder to the summit, have a peep down the mouth; and … with a lantern we might descend into the great Kentucky Mammoth Cave of his stomach” (Melville 2008, 298). Like the panning of a video camera in film, Ishmael outlines the systematic process of exploring the full breadth and depth of the whale’s corpse, fully steeping the reader in his question of whether such a gargantuan creature could be truly intelligent.
Contrary to the aforementioned male authors, Dickinson’s poetry was focused on the notions of irony and duality. Stylistically, her use of dashes and capitalization overturns the “standard” poetic structure and allows her to relish in a poetic form that is uniquely her own. In Poem 905, the speaker presents the reader with an invitation, “Split the Lark – and you’ll find the Music” (Dickinson 1999, 391), in a direct conveyance of the brutal act of mutilation. There is an ambiguity to the stanza’s tone, perhaps intended to be a challenge or satirical remark. The lark—a poetic motif—is contrasted against the modern scientific movement, whose achievements often mask the atrocities of its pursuits, “Gush after Gush [of blood], reserved for you – … Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?” (Dickinson 1999, 391). Ultimately, this perverse search for truth all but eviscerates the source and subject of that curiosity, leading only to loss and regret. The conclusion of this poem serves as a harsh critique of science as a practice, forever devoted towards demanding an explanation for everything; some successes are hence made bittersweet, when one insists on destroying a thing of art and natural beauty for the sake of understanding it. It’s difficult for me to fully agree with Dickinson’s perspective, as it appears quite ignorant of the wealth of benefits modern science has given us, over-simplifying the debate at hand.
The narrator of Poem 706, on the other hand, seems to realize that her current predicament was of her own doing. For instance, the established “You” and “I” are consistently separated by dashes and line breaks in every stanza but the first and tenth, allowing the form of the poem to mirror the message being conveyed. I was struck by the ninth stanza, in particular, which goes as follows (Dickinson 1999, 315):
“Because You saturated sight -And I had no more eyesFor sordid excellenceAs Paradise.”
Firstly, only three words are capitalized in this stanza: “You,” “I,” and “Paradise,” which I interpreted as an indication of the ideal outcome the speaker so desperately yearned for. Though she could not directly address it, she could at least make reference of it. Moreover, the phrase “no more eyes” seemed to me like a moment of self-inflicted blame, in which the speaker felt she’d possessed a blindness that transcended the physical ability of sight, a perceived weakness that reflected her decision to deny herself of this happiness. The tragic quality of this poem originates from the lovers’ dual conflict of being unable to remain together and being unable to remain apart, showcasing two perspectives on the same volatile emotion.
Finally, in Poem 764, the speaker makes use of their first-person narration to become a personified loaded gun. Unlike the two prior poems, this one cements itself in the perspective of a traditionally masculine object, a weapon of mass desecration. The speaker revels in their ability to kill and inability to die, relishing in the pleasure of being the master of two dichotomous planes of existence. Even so, in the last stanza, the speaker dictates that (Dickinson 1999, 342):
“Though I than He – may longer liveHe longer must – than I -For I have but the power to kill,Without – the power to die -”
The capitalization of the word “He” elevates the status of the gun’s master to a God-like figure and emphasizing his role of influence. The confusing sentence structure and arrangement of this stanza correspond to the complex nature of the characters’ relationship, in which the master must strive to live as long as possible in order for the gun to continue fulfilling its purpose. To some degree, this is a highly co-dependent relationship. At the same time, it is not one without power—both to kill and to die—invoking the perspective that death is not a form of surrender but a capability, an act that carries strength. It frightens me to consider the implications of this poem after recent events in this country, but the relevance of its subject matter astounds me.
Indeed, the facet of American Renaissance literature that aims to achieve the liberal ideal of society by offering up differing perspectives acts as a double-edged sword, albeit one that is still fairly effective. With literary works like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, to Emily Dickinson’s poetry, the notions of beauty, self-reliance, and individuality still thoroughly permeate the world of American literary nationalism. Through various stylistic and thematic variations, the fragmentation of perspectives is thus made simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. Whether attempting to temporarily depart from civilized society, or vengefully pursuing a giant white whale, or reframing elements of one’s life in more poetic terms, the American Renaissance marked an era in which the world of literature became an open forum for social discussion and debate. Consequently, this shift motivated people to pursue an authentic representation of human perspective, generating spheres of dialogue that still persist to this day.
Friends are often expected to be brutally honest and tell others that what they are doing is wrong, from shoplifting to dating an abusive person. These are the duties of a friend in modern society, but the same conception of friendship as defensive and saving holds true in nineteenth-century literature. In Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Captain Ahab makes many bad decisions as he prioritizes his own selfish revenge over the lives of his crew, yet he carries such a dominating presence that it seems impossible for anyone to confront him. Luckily, however, the two people closest to him, the first mate Starbuck and sailor Pip, are able to reveal to him that what he doing is not right, and are almost successful in stopping his revenge. Starbuck, in his dispute over oil casks and emotional conversation about family with Ahab, and Pip, in his insanity, both come the closest of any characters to redeeming Ahab’s bitter soul and making him turn back on his evil quest.
Starbuck’s dispute over the leaky oil casks nearly redeems Ahab from his vengeful quest. When pumping the water out of the boat, the men discover that some oil is leaking out of the casks they are stored in. Starbuck, the first mate, goes to Ahab’s cabin to ask him to stop the ship temporarily so that they can save the precious oil, but Ahab vehemently refuses, saying, “[l]et it leak! Thou art always prating me, Starbuck, about those miserly owners, as if the owners were my conscience…[M]y conscience is in this ship’s keel” (Melville 490). Ahab does not care at all about the financial status of the Pequod because his primary concern in the voyage is to catch Moby Dick, not make money from oil. He is so angry that Starbuck would even attempt to tell him what to do that he points a loaded musket at Starbuck’s face and says, “[t]here is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod” (Melville 491). By comparing himself to God, Ahab shows his egocentrism and the near complete control he has over the ship. However, despite how powerful Ahab gets, Starbuck’s moral compass always encourages him to stand up to him, so Starbuck responds, “I ask thee not to beware of Starbuck; though wouldst but laugh; but let Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man” (Melville 491). Starbuck’s introspective and brave words have the intended effect on Ahab, who has a “flash of honesty; or mere prudential policy which, under the circumstance, imperiously forbade the slightest symptom of open disaffection, however transient, in the important chief officer of his ship” (Melville 491). Ahab does not want to lose the respect of his first mate, so he listens to Starbuck and stops the ship to check for leaks. Starbuck carries unique integrity and courage that allow him to stand up to Ahab when no one else will dare, and his ability to extract honesty and respect from inside Ahab gives hope that he may be able to redeem Ahab from his consuming monomania and instead turn him into a considerate captain who wants the best for his ship. Starbuck is successful in convincing Ahab to see his way once, giving him hope that he may be able to do it again and convince him to stop the voyage as a whole.
Starbuck continues to attempt to redeem Ahab, and he nearly convinces him to abandon the vengeful quest as they have an emotional conversation about their families. One night, Ahab is leaning over the deck rail and thinking about his life thus far, and Starbuck approaches him. Ahab instantly begins to pour his heart out to Starbuck and reveals the regret he has in abandoning his wife and child, saying, “I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foaming chased his prey—more a demon than a man!—aye aye! what a forty years fool!” (Melville 556). By confiding in the trustworthy Starbuck, Ahab is able to let himself truly succumb to his long built-up emotions, and it seems as if he does not even want to chase Moby Dick anymore, saying that “old Ahab” was the one obsessed with revenge. Starbuck quickly agrees that chasing the White Whale is foolish and that he and Ahab should both return home to their families, saying, “[o]h my Captain! my Captain! noble soul! Grand old heart, after all! why should any one give chase to that hated fish! Away with me! let us fly these deadly waters! let us home!” (Melville 556). Ahab is deeply moved by Starbuck’s emotion and truly wishes he could bring himself to abandon the pursuit. Between Starbuck’s reverential compliments and emphasis on the importance of family over revenge, Ahab is able to admit that he regrets the voyage and comes the closest he has ever come to redemption—abandoning the revenge quest and returning home instead.
Pip’s insanity also brings Ahab close to redemption. When Ahab first hears Pip speak after the drowning, he is instantly shocked at how empty Pip’s soul seems, saying, “who art thou, boy? I see not my reflection in the vacant pupils of thy eyes” (Melville 535). Ahab feels a natural draw towards Pip, the only other sailor on the boat who is as insane, if not more insane as him. Ahab instantly takes Pip under his wing, saying, “[t]hou touchest my innermost centre, boy; thou art tied to me by cords woven of my heart-strings” (Melville 536). Ahab instantly feels close ties to Pip because he can relate to him in their mutual insanity, yet he can also be a fatherly figure to the meek Pip. Pip is “daft with weakness” while Ahab is “daft with strength”, so taking care of Pip in their shared cabin extracts Ahab’s compassion and fatherly gentleness that he was never able to impart on his own child (Melville 536). However, Pip also comforts Ahab as an equal. Ahab sees the poor remnants of a soul Pip has left and feels compassion and empathy for him, as his soul is in the same broken state. Thus, Pip is nearly able to redeem Ahab by summoning forth all of the good Ahab has left in his soul. Pip even comes so close to convincing Ahab to abandon his vengeance that Ahab has to physically distance himself from Pip so that his compassion does not overpower his malice, saying, “[l]ike cures like, and for this hunt, my malady becomes my most desired health” (Melville 546). The presence of Pip’s insanity is nearly enough to end Ahab’s, showing that Pip came exceedingly close to redeeming Ahab from his malicious nature and motivating him to end the vengeful quest.
Starbuck’s disputes and deep conversations with Ahab along with Pip’s insanity nearly redeem Ahab and stop him from pursuing his evil voyage. Unfortunately, although these two characters come exceedingly close to changing Ahab’s mind, they ultimately fail because Fate has a stronger hold over Ahab than his own emotions. Ahab believes he no longer has control over his actions, asking, “what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it…that commands me…making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare?” (Melville 557). There is a greater power driving Ahab’s actions and leading his soul into the dark depths of evil, beyond what he would have ever reached on his own. This force, presumably Fate, is stronger than Starbuck and Pip will ever be, making their most earnest attempts futile.