Representation Of Coffin in Moby Dick
In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), the coffin which symbolizes death, alternately is associated with life and death. Melville employs the coffin as image representing the inevitability of death and intersperses the word ‘coffin’ throughout the novel. Indeed, the only certain reality of the whalers is their ultimate lot, death. A few allusions are made to characters who have the last name “Coffin”, near Ishmael’s neighborhood is a coffin warehouse, and a carpenter constructs a coffin aboard the whaling vessel. These ominous references to coffin foreshadow approaching death. The coffin imagery reminds the whalers that they do not fight against whales – they are crusading against death.
In Moby Dick, the characters’ attitudes toward death can be traced by their reactions to the coffin. First of all, the book begins with Ishmael in a depressive mood gazing at coffin warehouses. At the sight of the coffin warehouses he decides that he has nothing to lose and initiates plans to start a marine career, whaling. Ishmael contemplates, “I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses” (Melville 7). Beholding the somber portent of death, Ishmael does not flout death by choosing a dangerous occupation; rather, he accepts it as a fact, deciding to move on with his life. The mass production of coffins augurs the future demise of the sailors on their deathly expeditions to capture whales. At the end, only Ishmael survives the voyage, clinging on to a coffin. “Ishmael now understands and accepts mortality (Queequeg’s coffin) as the absence of presence and the center of being” (Spanos). In both instances, the coffin imagery surfaces at the beginning and at the end as a presentiment of death and its inherence in life.
Melville foreshadows imminent death for Ahab employing the coffin imagery. Melville portrays the one-legged Ahab tottering on the verge between the lines of life and death. “His one live leg made lively echoes around the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin tap. On life and death this old man walked.” (Melville 221). This vivid coffin imagery of his false, ‘dead’, leg indicates that he too will die on his mission to avenge himself on Moby Dick which badly mangled and amputated his leg in a perilous encounter. Fedallah prophecies to Ahab that “neither coffin nor hearse can be thine”(Melville 465). This second premonition of not being enclosed in a coffin yet dying proves to be Ahab’s fate and Fedallah’s ironically. Ahab shows his contempt for death by daring to face Moby Dick and to vindictively slaughter him; however, Ahab wounds up dying in Moby Dick’s jaws as harpoon entangles him and thrusts him from the deck into the ocean.
The coffin symbol emerges yet again Queequeg, another of the whalers, denoting Queequeg’s looming death and his resilient spirit to live. Queequeg grows morbidly sick aboard the whaling vessel until resigning the hope of ever recovering he asks the carpenter to make him a coffin. He desires a “coffin-canoe …without a keel; though that involved uncertain steering and much leeway adown the dim ages” (Melville 448). This special coffin canoe floating without sails or direction on the seas is Queequeg’s pregnant statement of his philosophy of an uncertain afterlife. The physical coffin aboard the ship is a very telling sign of the impending deaths of everyone except Ishmaels. Moby Dick destroys the ship and in a series of unfortunate accidents seaman after seaman is carried down into their oceanic graves.
The coffin imagery also outlines another belief of Queequeg’s where man, barring all malicious acts, can either choose between life or death. Ishmael observes that “now that his coffin was proved a good fit, Queequeg suddenly rallied, soon there seemed no need for the carpenter’s box” (Melville 450). When asked the reason for his miraculous recuperation Queequeg replies that he remembers that he has something to do back on land. His salient point is that when one has a strong will to live, it has the potential to overcome the pangs of death. Like a true warrior, he fights death and then utilizes the same instrument of death, the coffin, as a chest to pack his paraphernalia. This action further marks his resolution to soldier on and live, and in essence, chooses his fate. “In Moby Dick fate is a common theme that threads throughout the novel. When considering what type of novel this is, fate plays a part as well (Gallo). The coffin symbol continues to represent resilience against death for seeing tough times ahead and no float, Queequeg himself comes up with the idea to fit the coffin-chest with a life buoy. This life-confirming decision saves Ishmael’s life. Surprised at the coffin’s transformation Ahab exclaims that “the very dreaded symbol of grim death but by a mere hap, made the expressive sign of the help and the hope of most endangered life. A life-buoy of a coffin!…Can it be that in some spiritual sense the coffin is after all an immortality preserver! I’ll think of that” (Melville 491). With these words Ahab simultaneously predicts its future usage as a means to preserve from death. On his close shave with death by the lifesaving coffin, Ishmael reveals that “owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated on my side. Buoyed up by that coffin for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main (Melville 533). The coffin defies gravity and defies death but bobbing along the sea with Ishmael as the lone survivor. The sea has two forces – the pull of gravity and the force of aquatic buoyancy. Ishmael’s fellow crewmen are sucked by gravity’s pull into their watery graves as the ship sinks. On the other hand he is buoyed up by the coffin, which ironically metamorphoses into a signal of hope.
Scattered in the novel are people who have last name Coffin. Ishmael tells us that there existed a family of Nantucket named Coffin. These Coffins were famous whalers and seamen who pioneered whaling. Peter Coffin, Miriam Coffin, Simeon Coffin, Macey Coffin, Charley Coffin, and Captain Coffin all have a place in the novel as harbingers of death (Melville 342). Captain Coffin who supervised operations on the Syren, discovered a rich whaling field in Japan. In history the USS Syren (1803) which predates Moby Dick, is a US Navy vessel which was captured by the British Royal Navy in 1814 (USS Syren). Simeon, Macey, and Charley Coffin have an unprecedented in-depth knowledge of whales that awes Ishmael. Their last names can also be a mechanism used to point their deaths on the waters. Peter Coffin is the landlord and owner of the Spouter Inn introduces Ishmael to Queequeg. Indeed, the poetic irony is that both men become united by a coffin for Queequeg’s coffin means life for Ishmael.
In sum the coffin imagery of Moby Dick help clarify the characters’ stances on life and death issues and designate the grim outcome of Ishmael’s whaling expedition. The coffin traditionally represents death as at funerals however, with sailors who die in a tumultuous sea, coffins become superfluous. Ishmael, Ahab, Queequeg face decisions with respect to the coffin which influence both their lives and their deaths.
Portrayal Of Ahab in Moby Dick Novel
The troubled Captain’s obsessive quest for the White Whale serves as the central focus of Melville’s Moby Dick. Ahab is presented as single-minded in his pursuit of the whale while, using a mixture of charisma and terror to persuade his crew to join him. As a captain, Ahab can be dictatorial to a point of brushing off the concerns of his crew and first mate Starbuck. However, Ishmael recollects moments where Ahab is humble and compassionate to his men. An assumption made by Ahab’s distinctive characteristics in addition to what Ishmael recalls, readers judge Ahab through what is presented. Yet with the given material, the reader is unable to form a connection with Ahab.
When Ishmael is first boarding the Pequod, Ahab is merely mentioned. For a majority of the beginning, the reader is unaware of Ahab being on the Pequod. Like Moby Dick the captain’s existence comes into question. When finally introduced, Ahab is shown as a powerful enough force to gather everyone on ship to go along his vengeance, especially with a gold piece as a prize for whomever spots the whale. In this scene, Ahab manipulates his position of authority for his own gain, especially considering how he informs the crew of his MO after setting sail and having been at sea for some time. As a result, no one can turn away nor question Ahab’s tactics. In the chapter depicting the scene, Starbuck is the only one speaking up about coming aboard to “hunt whales, not [Ahab’s] vengeance” especially considering how Ahab’s motives won’t translate into pay for the crew (Melville 139). Eventually, Ahab announces the crew will hunt other whales. The choice is logical, although the decision has selfish objectives—Ahab’s job would be in jeopardy if he returned without oil and the Pequod’s failure to find Moby Dick could result in a mutiny. Nonetheless, it isn’t the only surprise Ahab brings to light.
The surprise reveal of Ahab’s own crew aboard casts more shade on an already brooding and mysterious character. This new knowledge is suspicious enough until the reader learns how Ahab went through the trouble of hiding them for months only for them to be revealed during a whale hunt. This proves Ahab to be a resourceful and clever man not just for hiding his personal crew, but revealing them at a time of mass chaos when the others wouldn’t be able to question his motives. The rest of the crew don’t form much of a bond with Ahab’s personal crew and refer to one of the members, Fedallah, as a devil and menacing figure when near the captain. His own crew guarantees Ahab a place in killing the whale that damaged him, though at the expense of the trust of his crew and Starbuck and position as a captain. Though Ahab is a damaged and greatly flawed character, Ishmael includes moments where the captain has moments of tenderness and humility. Most noble would be him finding a confidant in African-American bellboy Pip.
His inclusion in Melville’s novel serves the purpose of creating more depth and personality to the mad Ahab. He takes in the social outcast similarly acting as a Good Samaritan of sorts. The crazed Ahab is pushed aside for a more friendly and tender version. Despite Pip being a marginal character, he and Ahab complement each other: Ahab is white, Pip isn’t; Ahab is the center of the plot, Pip is irrelevant; Ahab is the top of the Pequod hierarchy, while Pip is at the bottom; Ahab is old and experienced, while Pip is young and knows little. Despite their differences, both view the world through a slightly tilted lens. Both have had near-death experiences and feel alienated from the men on board as a result of the experiences. Pip believes the two have a bond held by “weak souls.” (Melville 392) Ahab takes Pip in almost as a son allowing him to sleep in the captain’s quarters. The time lost from his own family possibly causes Ahab to project this onto Pip. Most importantly, Ahab seems to possess a sliver of sanity when around Pip going as far as to state Pip healing him. Without Ishmael mentioning Pip, Ahab’s character would only be a crazed man playing a vengeful God. There is more dimension and facets to the captain. Unfortunately, Ahab’s insistence of sending Pip back to the cabin makes Pip feel as if he has been abandoned once again and left to his own scattered mind (Melville 400). Ishmael doesn’t mention if Ahab was concerned about the matter. As a result, the reader is left questioning if Ahab truly cared about Pip.
One thing certain about Captain Ahab is Melville presenting him as the archetype of the tragic hero. As a tragic hero, Ahab possesses a flaw resulting in his downfall—a tremendous overconfidence leading him to defy common sense and believe that he can enact his whims while remaining immune to the forces of nature; one such force being his mortality. However, Ahab grows increasingly aware of his fate. As the voyage nears its end, Ahab makes attempts to mend his bond with Starbuck and laments with him over his personal identity, the family he has left in Nantucket, and the forces compelling him to continue with the journey despite knowing the encounter with Moby Dick is fated to be disastrous and fatal (Melville 405, 6). At first glance, the reader assumes Ahab desires revenge the whale for taking his leg. It is Ishmael revealing that Ahab’s monomaniacal quest to find and kill Moby Dick is the result of psychological and physical damage inflicted by a harsh world. Ahab is a broken man repaired by his hatred for the animal making him less of a man.
Further confirming Ahab not being entirely whole is his rage over the lack of one of his legs. As a result of the disability, the captain doesn’t fully walk, but the reader assumes he walks with a limp. Ishmael does reveal that when Ahab meets with other ships, he uses a boat specifically made for him and requires the assistance of his own crew to get him on and off of his boat. A pivotal moment of Ahab rendered helpless is when his ivory leg cracks and is unable to get off the floor. Like a young child, he needs the assistance of able men to bring him back. While the Pequod’s carpenter makes Ahab a new leg, he is confined to his cabin and can only reach the carpenter by leaning on a rail and hopping on his good leg. Ishmael, instead, gives his former captain a sense of nobility and dignity by stating Ahab is “advancing” to the carpenter (Melville 356, 359). The reader can interpret this as an act of kindness in not speaking ill of Ahab considering his fate or as a man needlessly glorifying another man as Ishmael doesn’t speak ill of Ahab even when he having bouts of insanity, stubbornness, and fits of violence. Ahab is a victim and an aggressor, but he isn’t an evil man. Ahab’s perception of Moby Dick as the embodiment of evil demonstrates his biased projection about what he wants to see when interpreting symbols and omens as the voyage continues.
Ishmael recollects sparse moments of Ahab questioning his revenge and quest to kill Moby Dick. One of the first moments takes place in the chapter The Sphinx. Ahab makes his way to the head of a sperm whale his crew has killed as asks the head to: “speak…tell us the secret thing that is in thee…. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hope and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy familiar home…. where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down.” (Melville 249)
Ahab’s soliloquy comes from a disturbed man’s mind. Begging for the answers to a slain whale Ahab believes has seen things that might shake the faith of Abraham—of the Bible—shows desperation in finding truth and solace about life and death in a mysterious and complicated world. In summary, Ahab is questioning himself; something happening again as the Pequod nears its final destination. The chapter before the final confrontation with the titular whale, Ahab turns to Starbuck and laments about his conceivably wasted life:
“Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! …. forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! …. I have not spent three ashore. When I think of the life I have led…the weariness… of solitary command… oceans away I wedded a girl… rather a widow with her husband alive!” (Melville 405)
Making Ahab’s monologue particularly heart breaking is how self-aware he appears to be about his megalomaniac pursuit of Moby Dick. Ahab recognizes his “madness, frenzy, the boiling blood” have incited him to foolishly chase the whale at the expense of leaving behind a young wife and child. Additionally, Ahab speaks of an unknown force rendering him a “cruel” and “remorseless” causing him to ignore pleas for help and offers to have a drink from other ships. He states how he wants to stay in his fury-induced state to catch the creature that made him they way the reader and Ishmael see him. Unfortunately, these motives bring him to his failed confrontation with Moby Dick and ultimately, with Death.
In conclusion, the reader is left without much of a choice; they must agree with Ishmael on his portrayal of Ahab; Ishmael is the de facto captain of Moby Dick. Agreeing with Ishmael’s memories of Ahab doesn’t provide much insight to the captain as a whole as we realize Ishmael has left out some memories and moments of him, though the theory cannot truly be proven. However, they don’t have to take the novel as the gospel truth. The reader grasps that Ishmael is telling what he considers to be the more important parts of his story and about the world he was a part of. It is as close to the perfect novel Ishmael and Melville will be able to produce and it cannot be altered to the reader’s nor Ishmael’s liking. Ishmael’s time on the Pequod and under the orders of Captain Ahab are his version of a documentary truth and as perfect of a story as he is able to feature nine years after the doomed voyage.
The Major Role of the Theme of Free Will Versus Fate in Moby Dick, a Novel by Herman Melville
The theme of free will versus fate plays a large role in Moby Dick. One’s fate can be described as the path of events in their life that unfolds and cannot be altered. However, in Moby Dick, the end result of the characters can be best described as being decided by the choices that they made while exercising their free will. The characters are in control of themselves and the events that unfold are simply results of their decisions as well as the decisions of those around them. As illustrated in Moby Dick, the events that unfold in one’s life are a result of themselves and those around them exercising free will and the decisions that are made while doing so.
Captain Ahab in Moby Dick
In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is portrayed as having one goal in mind – killing Moby Dick and while exercising his free will, he decides that he must track down the white whale. He uses being the captain of a whaling ship looking to turn a profit as a front for himself to track down the whale that took his leg from him. He is mostly unconcerned with his duties as captain of a whaling ship and hunting whales to turn a profit as he is really only concerned with tracking down Moby Dick. This goal of finding Moby Dick directly affects everyone on board the Pequod as they were unsure of what they were getting themselves into when they decided to go aboard. The first time that Ahab officially addresses the crew, he says “it was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump that I stand on now. [..] it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day! […] I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the horn […] before I give him up” (Melville, Moby Dick, 144). Ahab takes his injury to Moby Dick personally and believes it to be a sign that it’s his fate to find and kill the whale. Though he believes that it is his fate, he exercises his free will and decides that he will do anything in his power to kill the white whale, regardless of what it cost him or those around him.
In contrast to Ahab, the Captain of the Samuel Enderby states “Didn’t want to try to; ain’t one limb enough? What should I do without this other arm? And I’m thinking Moby Dick doesn’t bite so much as he swallows” (Melville 394). Like Ahab, the other ship captain also lost a limb to Moby Dick. Even though he also lost a limb, the other captain is doing his best to avoid the white whale as he doesn’t want to go through a similar experience again. By saying that the whale doesn’t bite but rather swallows, he is alluding to the idea that the whale attack was not personal and was rather just part of the nature of the whale. He doesn’t believe in tracking down the whale and certainly doesn’t believe that killing the whale is part of his fate. On the other hand, Ahab is fully committed to killing Moby Dick even at the expense of his own life and the lives of the crew. He demonstrates this when he exclaims “Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!” (Melville 148). Ahab exercises his free will to make the decision to hunt Moby Dick regardless of the costs. This decision sets up the chain of events that eventually leads to everyone on the Pequod passing away besides Ishmael.
Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby Dick
Similar to Ahab, Ishmael and Queequeg both exercise their free will and make decisions throughout the story that directly impact the events that unfold in their lives. The decision to sign on to the Pequod was made by both of them through free will. Ishmael and Queequeg are approached by a stranger who asks them if that’s their ship. Ishmael responds with “’Yes,’ […] ‘we have just signed the articles’” (Melville 82). The stranger then goes on to state “’Anything down there about your souls?’” (Melville 82). This stranger is alluding to the idea that by signing onto the Pequod, they are doing more than they initially thought. By mentioning that they are signing down their souls, he is alluding to the idea that their lives will now be intertwined with Ahab and the Pequod. Had Ishmael and Queequeg not made the decision to not go onto a whaling vessel, or had they made the decision to join a different vessel, the events that would unfold and eventually lead to Queequeg’s death would not have happened.
Ishmael and Queequeg jointly make decisions that have major impacts on the both of them. Starting in the very beginning of the story, Ishmael and Queequeg share a very tight bond. This bond is best illustrated when Ishmael states “I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint-stock company of two: that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death” (Melville 287). Ishmael is referring to how he is tied to Queequeg as Queequeg is on the whales floating body trying to attach a hook. Since he is tied to Queequeg, he would also be taken down into the water were Queequeg to fall in. This makes a mistake on either end dangerous for both of them. Though it seems as though fate would take over at this point since they are both at the mercy of each other as well as external forces such as the water and potential sharks, they have both made the decision to be in this position together. Since they have made the decision to work together through their own free will and they know exactly the situation that they are in, the events that unfold are not left up to chance, so it cannot be considered fate.
Starbuck in Moby Dick
Similar to how both Ishmael and Queequeg make decisions that impact the events that unfold, Starbuck exercises his free will to make decisions that have a potential to completely alter the course of his life. Starbuck is able to understand the situation that he is in better than the other characters. He knows what the outcome of being on Ahab’s ship may be as he states “My soul is more than matched; she’s overmanned; and by a madman! Insufferable sting, that sanity should ground arms on such a field! But he drilled deep down and blasted all my reason out of me! I think I see his impious end; but feel that I must help him to it” (Melville 150). Starbuck knows that Ahab is a madman and that his soul belongs to him as long as he is on the ship. He believes that the end of this journey will not turn out well for anyone, yet he doesn’t feel the need to act at this point. Starbuck feels as though Ahab has taken the reasoning that he had out of him as he knows what the outcome of this journey may very well be. He feels as though he should help Ahab in his journey to find Moby Dick even though he knows that Ahab is a madman. He exercises his free will be deciding to accompany Ahab on the journey.
Starbuck eventually reaches a point where he has to make a decision regarding killing Ahab or not. As the story progresses, Starbuck continues to be uneasy about Ahab and the journey that he is leading the crew on. This uneasiness reaches its peak when Starbuck is close to killing Ahab. Towards the end of story, Starbuck is holding a musket near Ahab while he sleeps and says “But shall this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship’s company down to doom with him? […] And would I be a murderer, then if’ – and slowly, stealthily, and half sideways looking, he placed the loaded musket’s end against the door […] Starbuck seemed wrestling with an angel; but turning from the door, he placed the death-tube in its rack, and left the place” (Melville 455-456). Starbuck knows that Ahab and his madness will end up dragging the ship down with him, so by killing him, he would avoid that outcome. Had Starbuck went ahead and killed Ahab, the Pequod would have not chased after Moby Dick and would most likely not have sunk, therefore saving the lives of the crew. As illustrated when Melville writes that it seemed as if Starbuck was wrestling with an angel, Starbuck struggled to make the decision. In the end, he exercised his free will and decided to not kill Ahab. This decision is what sets the course for the end of the story. The decision to let Ahab live is Starbuck deciding to go along with Ahab even though he knows the outcome will most likely lead to his death.
It could be argued that the events that unfold in Moby Dick and more specifically when the Pequod sinks is a direct result of fate. It may seem as though the ship was fated to be doomed from the very beginning and there wasn’t anything that anyone could do about it. This idea is best illustrated in the very beginning of the novel when Ishmael states “Though I cannot tell you why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of the whaling voyage […] various disguise, induced me to set about performing the part that I did […] chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself” (Melville 5). Ishmael states that it was the fates that put him on the fateful voyage to search for Moby Dick yet he also states that it was his desire to learn more about the whale that put him in the role that he played. He was not forced into being a crew member on the Pequod, but rather he exercised his free will and chose to do that. Like Ishmael, both Queequeg and Starbuck, as well as the rest of the crew members, chose to join the Pequod’s crew. Though it was Ahab’s decisions that ended up bringing about the fateful end to the Pequod, the crew members, especially Starbuck, could have overthrown or even killed Ahab. This would have brought about an end to the Moby Dick chase.
The culmination of the Pequod’s journey and the end results for the members of the crew is a result of decisions that they made through exercising their free will rather than a result of fate. It would be incorrect to state the culmination of the Pequod and Pequod’s crew’s journey was a result of a chain of events that couldn’t be altered. The crew members were aware of Ahab’s madness and the situation he was getting them all into, yet they never did anything about it even though they had numerous opportunities to. Instead of trying to alter the path that they were on, the crew members chose to be complacent and follow Ahab’s orders. This is what led to the sinking of the Pequod and the deaths of all the crew members, besides Ishmael.
The Metaphor and Symbolism Behind the White Whale
The white whale at the center of Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick is often considered to be one of the most symbolic characters in American literature. In part, this is because not only can the white whale mean many different things to each reader, but because it also is explicitly delineated as having different meanings to the tale’s various characters. Although Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale is the centerpiece of the story, the other characters also reflect upon the whale’s significance and it becomes a directly symbolic agent even within the direct narrative.
For Captain Ahab, Moby-Dick represents the personification of everything that has, is or will be evil in the world. That is, at least, the opinion that Ishmael holds of what Ahab thinks of Moby-Dick, as he says, “All evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick” (154). Ahab’s malice stems from the whale’s theft of his leg, a 19th-century Puritanical substitute for the body part that Melville was forbidden to write about: Ahab’s penis. The loss of his leg is a symbolic stand-in for the loss of Captain Ahab’s manhood, which is really what was destroyed by Moby-Dick. Few events could be more evil than that to a hard-edged, embittered 19th-century sailor.
Ahab aches to transform Moby-Dick into a symbol of every conception of evil that has existed in the world, from the serpent slithering through the Garden of Eden onward, but ultimately Moby-Dick is reduced to being nothing more than a symbol for all the small offenses that men desire to construct into universal evils. At one point Ahab actually refers to the personal what he attempts to universalize when he says, “it was Moby-Dick that dismasted me; Moby-Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now…it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor begging lubber of me for ever and a day!” (138). Descriptive words such as “dismast” and “dead stump” carry deep rooted connotations of impotence—both in the sexual sense as well as the larger sense of being incapable of carrying out one’s duties or desires. Moby-Dick took away Ahab’s ability to stand on his own two feet, literally, but also took away his indepenence.
Ahab describes Moby-Dick as inscrutable, but that is merely Ahab wanting to imbue Moby-Dick with an element of almost supernatural abilities, as something that is beyond comprehension. For Ahab, Moby-Dick is evil the way that everything mysterious always has been and always will be evil: because people do not want to make the effort to understand the object of their dread. Ahab refuses even to try to understand what Starbuck might describe as pure beastly instinct, because the ignorance makes it easier to categorize Moby-Dick as pure malevolence. He says, “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” (139). Ahab’s choosing to wreak his hate upon Moby-Dick is an attempt to turn the white whale into something sentient: not just a carrier of evil, but a creator of evil.
Ahab reaches the point where his need to infuse the whale with these attributes becomes obsessive. It takes imagination to become obsessive, however, and in that regard Ahab stands in direct contrast to Starbuack who refuses to instill any symbolism in the whale at all. Starbuck views Ahab as wanting merely to exact “vengeance on a dumb brute…that simply smote thee from blindest instinct!” (138). If what Starbuck says it true, then there is nothing standing between Ahab and pure madness. The only way that Ahab can escape this description is if Ishmael truly means it when he writes that “the White Whale’s infernal aforethought of ferocity, that every dismembering or death that he caused, was not wholly regarded as having been inflicted by an unintelligent agent” (154). If these words are the truth, if there actually is an element of consciousness that can be attributed to Moby-Dick’s actions, then it remains possible for Ahab to escape accusations of madness and monomania.
Of course, the idea that consciousness of that level does exist would be madness itself, at least based on what is known of whales and other animals so far. No evidence suggests that other animals possess the capability of malice aforethought. More likely the whale’s symbolic reality is expressed in another observation by Ishmael. Ishmael captures the essence of how the whale is representative of each individual’s consciousness when he observes that “by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe” (164). Ahab has let the darker part of his nature take over his personality and sees that in the whale, while Starbuck’s lack of imagination will only let him see the whale as dumb, brute beast. The whale is white, an unprismed conglomerate of the promise of all colors. Those colors are revealed only through the prism of each man’s unique consciousness, much like Moby-Dick’s meaning.
The Symbolic Layer of The Grand Armada Chapter
Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, is filled with symbolism and messages that relate to human behavior and the effects of that on the world. This is shown in Chapter 87 ‘The Grand Armada,’ which takes place while the Pequod is traveling through straits. Here, they encounter a large herd of whales, contrary to how whales usually travel, which in the sperm whale case, is solitarily. There was also a pirate ship that was in pursuit of the The Pequod. The Pequod speeds away from the Pirate ship and towards the whales, and they end up killing a whale. Within the chapter, Melville explores philosophical thoughts and ideas, such as isolation. However, the philosophical thoughts of Ishmael are not the only important parts of the chapter. The actual behavior of the whales and the crew of the Pequod are important since they reflect on the effect of humans on nature. ‘The Grand Armada’ is a chapter that expresses the innate actions of animals and the negative effect of humans on the world. It also relates to human nature, which is shown in Gilbert’s essay, since the occurrences in this chapter relate to Gilbert’s views on human behavior, as well as some of my own.
‘The Grand Armada’ is an important chapter in the novel since it showcases a motif of the book, man versus nature. This is shown through the behavior of the whales. In this chapter, Ishmael and the Pequod encounter a large pod of whales traveling together for safety. However, before humans started hunting whales, sperm whales were usually solitary or in small pods. This change in behavior of the whales show the negative effect of human activity on nature. Another important part of this chapter is how the crew members react to the pirate ship and the whales. They speed away from the pirate ship, which in a way, was hunting the Pequod, but towards the whales, to hunt them. This is ironic since the Pequod was running away from a ship that they did not believe had the right to harm them, but went to murder whales instead. This is possible since most of the crew view the whales as inferior creatures that are meant to be killed for human benefit. However, Melville calls this into question when Ishmael’s boat is trapped in the center of the herd, where things are mostly calm. Here, they observe the whales and their human- like characteristics. For example, Melville includes a passage about mother whales and their calves. This shows the crew members in the boat that whales are not inferior creatures that do not mean anything since the actual families are shown to them. ‘The Grand Armada’ is a chapter that shows the importance of nature and counters the idea of human superiority and anthropocentrism.
‘The Grand Armada’ is also important due to the relationship it has with the real world and people’s lives. Although people do not usually see herds of whales on a daily basis, the symbolism and philosophical thoughts of Ishmael are relatable and relevant to everyone. In this chapter, Ishmael ponders about isolation as well as calm when his boat was trapped in the center of the ring, there was chaos around them due to the instinct and distress of the whales. However, the boat was in a relatively calm place since there were whales circling them, resulting in a steady position where they could observe their surroundings. Ishmael called this the center of the storm and noted how he had that center of calm, even when there is chaos around him. Melville writes, “we were now in that enchanted calm which they say lurks at the heart of every commotion.” (Melville, 423). This relates to Gilbert since in his essay, he references the “moment of calm and metaphysical understanding… the near constant human attempt to bring those polarities together” (Gilbert, 3). This shows that although ‘The Grand Armada’ is set in a herd of whales, Ishmael’s thoughts of isolation and calm are relevant to everyone since they relate to more than just whaling.
Another way that this chapter is relevant to normal life is the idea of wanting more than necessary. This is shown in the actions of the whalers since they tried to mark and harm more whales than they could manage or even bring to the Pequod. The process of “drugging” is a cruel and barbaric practice, in my opinion, since there was no way the harpooners were going to be able to kill all of the whales they harmed. They merely attacked multiple whales for the convenience and possibility of killing one or two more, which is shown when Melville states “more whales are close round you than you can possibly chase at one time…you must wing them, so that they can be afterwards killed at your leisure.” (422). In the end, they only ended up actually killing one, so all of the other whales that were harpooned were wounded for no reason. This showcases the theme of greed since the whalers were harming an unnecessary amount of whales, especially since they were not going to be able to kill and take all of them anyways. This relates to human life since in society, there are those who take more than needed at the cost of others. This idea is firmly rooted in multiple systems such as capitalism, monarchies, and oligarchies, due to the uneven separation of money and power, as well as the usual effect of exploitation, ‘The Grand Armada’ exposes a part of human nature and society and brings the reader to question their own actions and community.
‘The Grand Armada’ is a crucial chapter in the story due to Melville’s inclusion of multiple themes and motifs. This chapter re-explores the idea of mankind and civilization versus nature through the changes in the behavior of the whales due to human interference. Also, the idea of anthropocentrism is questioned by showing the reactions to the harpoons as well as the families of the whale pod. This chapter also relates to the lives of the readers due to the philosophical thought of Ishmael concerning isolation and peacefulness. A more negative aspect of human nature, greed, is also brought to light in this chapter through the act of “drugging.” This shows that although the chapter is about hunting whales, it is a chapter that shows the negative aspects of human nature and society.
The Racial Discourse and Racial Perception in Melville’s Novel
When you meet someone new, perhaps the best thing to do is not to “judge a book by its cover,” but is not doing so that a possibility in the world we live in? Not only relevant to today, judgment based on physical attributes traces back to the 1850s, when enslavement of Africans was justified by whites having lighter skin color. The novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville explores the topic of race and how it correlates with status. Melville expresses the hierarchy of society with whites at the top, expressing their superiority over the non-whites, but simultaneously sheds a positive light on the non-whites, in some cases portraying them as more worthy of respect.
Moby Dick shows the ignorance of the whites through the stereotypes they make about non-whites, and their assumptions that any skin color deviant from the color white is considered “savage.” When Ishmael initially encounters Queequeg the native of Kokovoko, he solely relies on the makeup of Queequeg’s skin to determine if he was worthy or not of being a roommate. Ishmael observes and determines, “Such a face! It was of dark, purplish, yellow color… stuck over with large, blackish looking squares… he’s a terrible bedfellow; he’s been in a fight… falling among the cannibals” (Melville 23). These three assumptions Ismael immediately made were based upon a “story” he heard from another man, and he is simply applying the same negative associations with a stranger with certain marks on his body. Soon enough, however, although at first somewhat skeptical of Queequeg’s trustworthiness, Ishmael gains this “former cannibal” as his “other half,” and avoids clinging on to his first impressions. This proves that not only did whites have a solid opinion towards non-whites, but any man who overcame this barrier may have been capable of finding themselves wrong in stereotyping. It also shows that the bodily features of a man may not reflect his personality, but affect white men because they believe lightness makes them more superior, in effect affecting the way the non-whites are treated.
In the novel, the actions of the whites towards non-whites portray an unconditional superiority of the whites and submissiveness of the non-whites, and the whites as being reckless. The laborer hierarchy is determined by race; the Pequod is made up of men of many races, but the whites at times abused their powers. For example, Stubb’s cook was the negro Flask, and one night Stubb interrupted his sleep just to tell him that his shark dish was not cooked properly: “Stubb… cried… “Cook, you cook!– sail this way!” The old black… roused from his warm hammock…”don’t you think this steak is rather overdone?” (321). Stubb awoke his chef about a minuscule matter, and Flask could not do anything about it. This shows that non-whites think they have the right to do anything to favor themselves, even if it means a violation of the non-white or an inappropriate act. Stubb keeps his right to “power” by bossing Flask around simply for his own entertainment, and exerting his own importance before that of Flask’s. In the speech that Flask gives to the sharks, he implies that Stubb is also in some ways similar to the shark, and mis-aligns with Stubb’s thoughts of himself being exclusive in his abilities to do what he wants without being penalized. In addition, the same man, Stubb, received a black boy, Pip, who is frightened and periodically jumps off the ship, and Stubb warns him to not do so. He states, “Stick to the boat, Pip, or I won’t pick you up if you jump…We can’t afford to lose whales …. a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip” (452). Not only does Stubb express his rules in simplified language to Pip, he also devalues Pip in relation to a whale. This demonstrates the white man’s social dominance and ability to explicitly place the black man under an animal, which is the way the white man perceived them to be. However, although the white men rule over the black ones, their motives prove themselves inferior in terms of morality, and dehumanizing the blacks show that they are not able to interact with others who differ from them.
Through Ishmael, Moby Dick also elaborates on the meaning of whiteness, creating a contradiction between the whites and the actual meaning of the color. Ishmael states, “Whiteness refiningly enhances beauty… in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man mastership over every dusky tribe…. yet … lurks an elusive something… which strikes more panic to the soul” (204-205). The traditional meaning of white is shown by him to be of religious significance, showing clarity and a high status. However, he interprets the whites to be the opposite, as creating confusion. Just as colors seen are those reflected, as white is a combination of all colors, the white men do not show their “true colors” and are difficult to understand, as is the white whale. On the contrary, some people may argue that although the white men are shown with having more power, the colored men are not shown to be more deserving of high opinion. One example may be of Pip when he is told by Stubb to stop jumping– Pip does not jump once, but does so twice after given the rules, and this shows that he is not able to follow the rules. However, Pip jumps because he is scared as anyone would be on their first day of a novel job, black or white. Either way, Stubb has no right to call Pip less worthy of being saved than a whale. In addition, there is a scene where a white man goes on top of a black one: “The sight of little Flask mounted upon gigantic Daggoo… the bearer looked nobler than the rider” (241). Although the white man here is on top of the black one, he is smaller and he is literally dependent on the non-white man for everything, as is a large portion of the Pequod for physical labor.
Moby Dick shows the white men as higher in status given their power over the whites, but also expresses their lack of sentiment and regard for others, placing the non-whites higher than them in terms of reverence and merit. The inability of the whites to interact in equal terms with the non-whites hinders the development of the Pequod, creating unnecessary conflict. The friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg provides Americans with the thought that regardless of the past, the future can be full of harmony between people of different races, and that they can coexist peacefully.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville Essay
Moby Dick by Herman Melville causes unrest in minds of many readers. The narrative brings out most of the literal sense although it seems to be unfinished. The great thing about the fiction is the use of art which makes it great and strong.
Melville describes the African American characters: Pip and Fleece using various principal characteristics of literature. In this paper, we explore the elements of literature used to describe Pip and Fleece and their relationship with Ahab and Stubb respectively. In addition the dialect used depicts their speech and not superiority or inferiority of a given group of persons.
Melville uses figurative language to describe Pip as he calls him “black little Pip” in chapter 28. This means that Pip was a black and little man. “Black little Pip” is a hyperbole used to describe Pip. Melville also depicts Pip as a happy boy from Alabama. He vividly explains Pip’s happiness by the way he plays tambourine on front part of the castle.
In addition, he uses ideas and natural phenomenon like “bid in strike with angels and beat his tambourine in glory…” to define Pip’s joy or happiness. This description brings out his insanity which occurred after jumping from boat when they were chasing a whale with Stubb. As a result, he became mentally disturbed. His act of playing toumbrine joyfully depicts the state of his mind as it is shown in chapter 28.
According to Melville, Fleece is described as an old black man and the cook in the ship. In chapter 64, Melville refers to him as “old Fleece” to show his elderliness. The author uses invocation of abstract and humor to describe the stiffness in Fleece’s knees. In chapter 64, he refers to them as “…his knee pans, which did not keep well scoured like his other pan.” Symbolism and ambiguity are elements of literature used to describe the character of Fleece as an old cook.
Fleece is also described as a man who is ordered to address sharks as noted in here “mumbling voice began to addressing the sharks.” He also gives a vivid description of the interior design of the ship where Fleece supports himself while addressing sharks. Such a design can be compared to complex psychological state of Fleece due to his advanced age. The author uses idea of addressing sharks as equal to sermons given in Christian congregations. The advanced age of Fleece is shown in his limping.
The relationship between Captain Ahab and Pip brings out contrast in Pequod. According to Melville, Captain Ahab is a main and prominent character in Pequod.
Pip is direct opposite of Captain Ahab. Pip is not deeply analyzed in the novel compared to Ahab. Ahab is the most powerful and Pip is the least powerful in Pequod. In chapter 124, Pip’s speech is passionate but senseless and only way to understand him is through his bond with Ahab. Ahab begins to hunt Moby Dick and is determined to kill him as seen in his speech “wreck that hate upon him.”
In addition, he realizes Pip possessed a deeper understanding which could help him to achieve his goals. Ahab took note of Pip’s speech when Queequeg died and he said that they ought to make him a general. “General” is symbolic to show Queequeg was honorable and a good man. In chapter 125, Pip talked about his lost soul when he jumped out of boat.
At this point, Ahab realized that his sanity was controlled by his own insanity and Pip’s insanity controlled his sanity too. In chapter 129, Ahab is determined to kill Moby Dick. He begs Pip to stay with him so that he can attain his goal. The main foundations of their relationship are noted in Pip’s loyalty, the spiritual encounter under the water and lack of control over Ahab. Ahab takes advantage of these reasons to gain knowledge on how to kill Moby Dick. Mostly, Melville has used symbolism to bring out the ideas of participants.
In chapter 64, Melville brings out contrasting qualities of Stubb and Fleece. This chapter is characterized by racial stereotypes of antebellum. Here is a short description of antebellum. Antebellum in American history was characterized by conflict which divided the country.
The conflict was between agricultural South, free labor in industrializing North and slave labor. However the similarities between South and North were more pronounced than the differences. During antebellum period, the Africa-Americans were viewed in various ways by different groups of people. For example, in southern part black people were enslaved while in North Americans regarded slavery with hatred and disgust.
In chapter 64 on Stubb’s Supper, Stubb is depicted as a mischievous person with good sense of humor. He does not attach too much significance on something. Fleece is an old black cook and his character is not deeply explored. Their relationship is that of a servant master.
Ishmael uses symbolism to describe Fleece’s walking style after being awakened by Stubb to prepare his dinner. Fleece being old, he had been limping and Ishmael captures this character vividly using invocation of abstract and symbolism. The narrator defines fleece’s weakening legs as “knee-pans” to symbolize stiffening knees of the old cook. In addition, he uses kitchen items to compare his physical body with the work he does.
A deep description of the ship’s interior is given especially from hammock where Fleece was sleeping, to the deck where Stubb stayed. Stubb complains that the steak is overdone and not rough the way sharks want it. Stubb compares himself to a shark and he also realizes how the sharks are excited about the whale they are feeding on.
He sends Fleece to give them a sermon to remind them that they should eat quietly no matter how much they eat. Fleece obeys Stubb’s orders although they seem to be unrealistic because sharks do not understand spoken language. The relationship here is that of master-servant; where a servant accomplishes orders no matter how ridiculous they may be. In addition, issues of racism are depicted clearly by the author.
Stubb tells Fleece to coax sharks instead of giving them orders, which is symbolic as he fools Fleece. In addition, Stubb mocks his Christian belief of eternal life and tells to be born again to cook steak correctly. The author here uses irony because Fleece has been a cook for many years whether born again or not.
Fleece is disappointed by the treatment and mockery shown by Stubb as he goes back to bed. Moreover, Ishmael gets metaphorical when Fleece explains to sharks that they should govern themselves calmly and feast on whale equally because it does not belong to them but to someone else. The relationship here is characterized by mockery and absurd orders.
In conclusion, the author uses symbolism, hyperboles, ambiguity of meaning, universal ideas and description of interior to describe the qualities of Fleece and Pip. In addition, Melville describes their relationships with Stubb and Ahab and the natural environment.
The Greatest Emptiness Concept in Moby Dick Essay
The central contradiction which people have been trying to comprehend for ages is between the good and the evil and life and death. An American novelist Herman Melville analyzes this discrepancy in his novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, which was written in the XIX century. The story is considered to be unique because of its elaborate scientific descriptions of whaling, behavioral patterns of a whale as a specimen, and even its classification. However, the topic of whaling goes beyond biological borders and serves as a symbol of eternal powers that confuse human minds and hearts. This paper analyzes Moby Dick, a mysterious symbol of an embodied terror and the inevitable tragedy of humanity, discusses the main characters of the novel, and summarizes the plot of the story.
Summary of the Novel
The narrator of the story, Ishmael, who used to be a sailor, is planning to do whaling on a particular vessel. The man travels to Massachusetts and stays in a whalers’ inn, which turns out to be full, and, therefore, he has to live with an eccentric but charismatic savage, Queequeg. Although being repulsed by his roommate at first, Ishmael soon discovers his generosity and kindness, and the two men decide on searching for the work on the whaling vessel. Inspired by their mutual idea, the men head for Nantucket, where they find an unusual gorgeous ship named Pequod, embellished with sperm whale teeth and bones. Afterward, Ishmael and Queequeg meet with the captain of the ship, Ahab, and their adventurous journey begins.
When Ahab appears on the deck for the first time, he declares his intentions to pursue and kill the dreadful white whale, Moby Dick, a source of evil, because of whom the captain lost his leg. As their hunting proceeds, Ahab succeeds in catching a few whales, meets captains from other whaling vessels, and questions them about Moby Dick. One day the captain meets a mad prophet, Gabriel, from the ship Jeroboam who predicts inevitable dreadful consequences for those who threaten Moby Dick.
Ahab’s desire for vengeance intensifies, and finally, when the boat reaches the equator, the captain notices the legendary whale and prepares for the attack. With only one strike, Moby Dick destroys Ahab’s harpoon boat. The next day, the captain repeats his attack and manages to harpoon the whale, but despite this, Moby Dick attacks again. At the end of the story, Ahab follows the destiny of his close companion, Fedallah, and dies, like the rest of Pequod’s crew and the crews of other boats. Ishmael, on the contrary, manages to escape the whirlpool and survives. At the end of the novel, another ship rescues Ishmael and continues to look for the lost crewmen.
The Main Theme
The central theme of the novel is the inevitability of human destiny illustrated by the unambiguous symbol of fatal catastrophe, the white whale named Moby Dick. The author draws readers’ attention towards the incredibly white color of the enormous creature, demonstrating its beauty, terror, and majesty. The white color in the novel indicates not only death or eternal cold, but it also reflects the absence of color, the emptiness. It is widely believed that whiteness stands for lack of color, the daunting nothing, where neither “good” nor “evil” exists. Melville describes an incredibly relentless picture of universal indifference and emptiness without supernatural powers to control human life or death. By doing this, the novelist concedes that humanity is not only vulnerable when facing the most considerable void but also defenseless against fate.
However, despite the enormous power of fate, some individuals challenge the future, regardless of their strengths and abilities. The most quintessential example of this is Captain Ahab, overwhelmed by his vengeance. The captain claims that “there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of man” (Melville, 2019, p. 310). Moreover, Ahab refuses to perceive Moby Dick as a symbol of emptiness, contending that this white whale represents the Evil and must be destroyed.
The Main Characters
A mature experienced sailor Ahab, who dedicated his life to sea and whaling, leaving behind his family on the shore, is a typical example of a high-principled man. The captain presents himself as a dour and commanding man, whose obsession with Moby Dick frightens the rest of the crew. Full of determination and loyal to his ambition, the captain perceives his contradiction with Moby Dick as an epic battle of the good and the evil (Burnham, 2017). The captain’s primary opponent, Starbuck, endeavors to persuade Ahab in the delusion of his intention and prove to him that his idea of chasing Moby Dick is a result of his impulsivity. Even able to defeat the obsessed captain at the right moment, Starbuck preserves his loyalty towards Ahab.
Ishmael, the narrator of the story, is a sailor whose affection and desire for the ocean led him to set out on the journey on Pequod. During the journey, the man continually observes diverse conflicts around him, related to ethnicity, race, or culture. Even though Ishmael seems to be a simple observer, his role is much more significant: the man “is the key figure regulating the global diversity on board of Pequod, working in effect as an agent of Ahab’s tyrannical rule” (Rowe, 2016, p. 321). Combining savagery and civilization in his character, harpooner Queequeg is presented as a noble and courteous man, despite his wild manners. The author depicts an incredibly intimate relationship between the harpooner and Ishmael to convey an idea of universal brotherhood, regardless of different ethnicities (Phillips, 2018).
Hence, the novel succeeds in covering most of the actual essential topics for the nineteenth century; all the problems remain similar, despite historical changes. In my opinion, Melville encourages readers to search for solutions to primary social issues such as tolerance and racism. Having demonstrated the consequences of a few situations described in the novel, the author has persuaded humanity in its imperfection and instability due to personal sins. I believe that the author’s idea of fighting one’s own demons like obsession or ignorance of the loyal ones can help an individual to survive the brutality of destiny.
The concept of the novel is illustrated by a universal symbol, Moby Dick, and its meaning, which remains strictly personal for every individual, depending on their perceptions and sentiments. Sophisticated relationships between the main characters, the concepts of eternal, uncontrollable powers, and the indication of human helplessness before merciless destiny convert the novel into an endless analysis of the fundamental organization of life. Although the book is an attempt to discover an answer to the questions of life’s meaning raised by the author, the discussion of them remains open even for modern communities.
Burnham, R. A. (2017). Reflections on the psychological aspects of Moby-Dick. Psychological Perspectives, 60(4), 465-473.
Melville, H. (2019). Moby-Dick; or, the whale. New York, NY: Harper Press.
Phillips, C. N. (2018). Sacred uncertainty: Religious difference and the shape of Melville’s career by Brian Yothers. Leviathan, 20(2), 112-115.
Rowe J.C., (2016). Moby-Dick and Globalization. In M. Graham & W. Raussert (Eds.) Mobile and Entangled America (s) (pp. 321-336). Abington, UK: Routledge.
“Moby Dick” by Herman Melville Essay (Book Review)
Moby Dick: Beginning
It is hard for me to ignore Herman Melville’s characterization of Ishmael, Queequeg, and Captain Ahab. Melville created a ragtag team of misfits in order to bring down a sea monster. It is a radical departure from the conventional storyline that usually requires the presence of a noble hero. In Moby Dick, the word losers and misfits come to mind. Consider for instance the inclusion of Peleg and Bildad. In the context of the story, Peleg and Bildad are outcasts in a religious community that was established on a certain religious framework.
It is easy to reject Peleg and Bildad, because the religion that they practiced attracted only a small portion of the American population. At the same time, they were misfits in a whaling community, because their religion disavowed the use of violence.
However, they presented themselves as entrepreneurs ready to support a business that requires a merciless destruction of majestic sea creatures. I believe that Herman Melville tried to advocate the idea that underdogs can win in a battle of attrition. In other words, people who are written off as losers will fight til the end.
I want to make another observation, it is based on the belief that misfits are unable to win if they are unwilling to work as a team. Thus, it is imperative to forge a relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg, before they can take on the great white whale. It is also interesting to point out our tendency to reject people that are different from us.
We are afraid to mingle with those who do not share our belief systems. However, the story of Ishmael and Queequeg forces us to acknowledge the fact that a person with a different culture and economic background brings with him capabilities and insights that we do not possess. Moby Dick is a tale of adventure. However, it is also a fantastic story that talks about the beauty of cross-cultural teams, a popular subject in the present time.
Moby Dick: Middle Part
I made my point clear with regards to the unique attributes of cross-cultural teams. When the Pequod was ready to go to battle, the racially mixed crew of the whaling ship enabled it to create a team of proficient workers synergized to perform high level work. As a result the racially mixed crew empowered the owner of the ship and its captain, to embark on a harrowing journey into the sea. However, there is the question of leadership. I believe that the most important thing that ensures victory for the group is not the composition of the team.
The most critical component needed to ensure the success of the team is the quality of the leaders. Without a doubt, Melville contemplated this question. The United States of America are comparable to the Pequod, in the sense that this country is a melting pot of cultures. Melville had to figure out the appropriate sociological framework needed to unify the different people groups in his country.
In response to this dilemma, the author wrote, “It is the same with the American whale fisher, and the engineering forces employed in the construction of the American canals and railroads. The same way, I say, because in all these cases the native American provides the brains, and the rest of the world supplies the muscles” (Melville 116). At this point, no one can dispute Melville’s genius.
Therefore, no one can argue that he made a mistake. He meant what he said. I can just imagine how social media will crucify Melville if he is given the chance to post his musings on Facebook. He made a politically incorrect statement. However, it was also his attempt to understand the social forces that were shaping his country.
On the other hand, it can be argued that Melville was simply stating the truth. He did not sugarcoat the reality that he saw with regards to the ability of Caucasian Americans to lead culturally diverse teams of workers. I also like to point out Melville’s intense patriotic fervor. He made the implication that the real Native Americans were the white people who came from Europe. They were his ancestors who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in order to settle into the New World.
In the present time, this is considered an erroneous statement, because when historians of the 21st century talk about Native Americans, they are referring to the original inhabitants of the American continent. They write about a race of people that populated these lands, before Europeans came to colonize the New World.
Moby Dick: Ending
It is difficult for me to grasp or appreciate the story’s ending. It is hard for me to believe that Melville will murder his beloved characters. It is hard to appreciate the fact that Captain Ahab died, and that only Ishmael lived to tell the tale. I think that a steady supply of Hollywood films conditioned my mind to expect a happy ending for a bunch of misfits desperate to discover life’s deeper meaning as they ventured into the sea. It is hard to blame readers who shared my expectations.
At first glance, it seemed to me that Melville utilized the same formula that Hollywood filmmakers used when they created an inspirational movie. A typical storyline in an inspirational movie focuses the spotlight on a group of underdogs. The climax of that movie follows a predictable pattern, as the ill-equipped group overcomes multiple obstacles thrown its way. Thus, it is normal for the reader to expect Captain Ahab’s impending victory.
It can be argued that Melville inadvertently set the stage leading to the inevitable conquest of the whale. Unfortunately, the sea monster won the final round. I need to look at the big picture to make sense of the story’s ending. I said to myself that this is an American author who created a story that was set in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Americans love this type of storyline.
They adore the story of the underdogs. On the contrary, they hate sport teams whose rosters are filled with multi-millionaire athletes unwilling to give their all. In the present time, it is almost unacceptable to write a story wherein a group of upstarts are unable to beat the odds.
I was hoping that the team comprised of Ishmael, Queequeg, Starbuck, Stubb, and Captain Ahab will win the epic battle against the great white whale. However, Melville was not thinking about 20th century pop culture.
He was probably thinking about Greek tragedy. I need to find an alternative explanation. I believe that Melville’s core message was not the importance of fighting it out to the end. I believe that the author wanted his readers to realize the futility of going against fate. On the other hand, one can also argue that Melville wanted his readers to celebrate the heroic actions of Captain Ahab and his team.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick, Boston, MA: C.H. Simmonds and Co., 1892. Print.
Moby Dick:Obsession, Evil and the Passion of Ignorance.
- 1 Abstract:
- 1.1 The Story:
- 1.2 An Uncanny Tale
- 1.3 The Orphan
- 1.4 The Obsession,
- 1.5 Evil and the Passion of Ignorance
- 1.6 ” We Cannibals must help these poor Christians.”
- 2 Clinical material:
- 3 Conclusion
- 4 Bibliography
This paper ‘Moby Dick: Obsession, Evil and the Passion of Ignorance’, argues that monomania is a passion of ignorance. It contends that this passion of ignorance is situated precisely between the ideal ego and the ego ideal. The ideal ego is the fantasy an individual has of themselves, a narcissistic illusion of completeness.
It is a representation based on an image of the self fixed at the infantile period. The ego ideal is the goal of a process, a movement towards an idealized self based on internalised significant early role models, people admired and preferred in favour of the self. In monomania, the ideal ego seeks to eradicate the other, the ego ideal. This is an act of envy, an attempt to kill and steal the other’s good because it represents what one should be or could have been. Such an act is never conscious. It is a passion of ignorance. The saga of Captain Ahab and his obsessive desire to obliterate the Great White Whale is illustrative of this dynamic.
The yearning for absolutes is a hall-mark of monomania. Monomania is a passion of ignorance and is to be found in the boundary between love and hate. It is inherently evil because it excludes and destroys reality. In monomania, ignorance functions as a parochial and universalised concept of reality, marked by a certainty and rectitude which enables the harming of others with humanitarian conviction and moral purpose. The passion of ignorance is situated precisely between the subject and the fantasy of himself. The ideal ego wishes to eradicate the other, the ego ideal,
What is at the heart all psychopathological behaviour is an incapacity to communicate with aspects of the self that have, as part of the self protective mechanism of the psyche, been obscured because they are too painful to be addressed. At the time of obfuscation, the only perceived path for survival has been the isolation and dissociation of something intrinsic. Analytical psychology recognizes that there are dark recesses people carry deep within in which lurk forbidden secrets which are treated as unapproachable. These dark places and forbidden secrets are not passive, they pulsate with the presence of malignant, carnivorous forces that reek of fear and anarchy. –
It is no accident that the developmental arm of analytical psychology is preoccupied to the determining effects of family history, for it is in the family setting that people experience the strongest and most primitive feelings, where relationships take on their most stark and forceful forms. A person’s experience within the context of family has its genesis at a time before coping mechanisms are developed, before and independent sense of security and stability has had time to consolidate. Analytical psychology understands that the individual is deeply affected by the net of past experiences. They impact on the way in which present experiences are assimilated or repressed. They determine what may be allowed to come to consciousness and what must be assigned to the unconscious.
The unconscious is occasioned by a number of factors, by repression, instinctual inheritance, social conditioning and repressed trauma. It can be personal or collective. In all it’s aspects, the unconscious represents that part of an individual’s psychic existence that is, by multiple strategies, consigned to function without conscious control. Thus analytical psychology attempts inexorably to draw one deeper and deeper into a journey of confrontation with one’s self. It calls on the individual to overcome his defences, to transcend the bounds of secure systems he has established to keep full and immediate experience at bay.
In the tale of Moby Dick, Ahab misuses his power, disregards the safety of his crew and the profitability of the voyage, even forfeits his own life in order to avenge himself on the whale who robbed him of his leg. He does this, all to avoid a confrontation with himself and his own vulnerabilities.
The tale of Moby Dick begins with the enigmatic words of the narrator,
Having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntary pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet, and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping onto the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off â€“ then, I account it high time to get to see as soon as I can.” (Melville 1992 p. 1)
With these words Ishmael the story teller announces his intention to go to sea. He makes the journey to New Bedford, Massachusetts where he takes accommodation at a whaler’s inn, but as the inn is very full he finds himself sharing a bed with a stranger, Queequeg, a harpooner from the South Pacific. Queequeg is a cannibal from a South Sea Island. His strange physical form appears bizarre to Ishmael. He is covered in strange tattoos and apart from his alien appearance has strange habits and customs. Ishmael is terrified by the encounter but as time passes he is able to move beyond the outward exterior of Queequeg to understand that they are both men, and this strange creature from the South Seas, far from being a terrifying beast is human, and one with a particularly kind heart and generous spirit. The two men join forces and set out to seek work together as whalers. They secure work on the Pequod, a whaling vessel decked out with the bones and teeth of its victims, Peleg and Bildad, the Pequod’s Quaker owners, tell them of their Captain, Ahab, who on his last voyage found that sperm whales are not defenceless victims, but creatures with teeth; Ahab has had his leg ripped from him by an enormous white whale. The hunted became the hunter and had struck back.
The Pequod leaves the safety of the harbour in Nantucket on a bitterly cold Christmas Day, its crew a diverse mixture of nationalities and cultures. Days later, as the ship makes into warmer waters, Ahab finally appears on deck, balancing unsteadily on his prostheses carved from the jaw bone of a sperm whale. Ahab’s intention: to pursue and kill Moby Dick, the great white whale who took his leg. To Ahab, this whale is the embodiment of evil. He must be killed and killed by Ahab. To this end he nails a gold doubloon to the mast and announces to all that the man who first sights Moby Dick will have the coin.
Aboard one of these ships is a crazed prophet called Gabriel who predicts doom to all who pursue Moby Dick and the superstitious crew of the Pequod share their sea-stories of how those who hunted the whale met with ill fortune. It is not long before misfortune is seen and known by the crew. While butchering their catch, the harpooner Tashtego falls into the mouth of a dead whale which tears free of the Pequod and sinks. Queequeg dives after the drowning man, slashes into the slowly sinking head with his knife and frees the seaman.
During another whale hunt, the black cabin boy Pip, jumps from a whaleboat and is left stranded at sea. He is rescued but the trauma renders him mentally disturbed. He is left mindless and uncanny, a prophetic jester onboard the ship. Still the hunt continues. One day, the Pequod encounters the whaler, the Samuel Enderby. Captain Boomer the skipper has lost an arm in a chance meeting with Moby Dick. As the two captains discuss the whale the contrast becomes evident. Boomer is happy simply to have survived his encounter, and he cannot understand Ahab’s lust for vengeance. Queequeg becomes ill and asks the carpenter on board the Pequod to make him a coffin in preparation of his death but he does recover, and the coffin becomes the Pequod’s replacement life buoy.
In expectation of finding Moby Dick, Ahab orders a harpoon to be forged and baptizes this harpoon with the blood of the Pequod harpooners, and his own. Although the Pequod is still hunting whales, it is the hunt for Moby Dick that always hangs over the life of the ship. Then, one day, Fedallah makes a prophesy regarding the death of Ahab. Ahab will see two hearses, the second made from American wood and he will be killed by hemp rope. To Ahab, this means he will not die at sea, for at sea there are no hangings and no hearses.
A tropical storm encompasses the Pequod, illuminating it with electrical fire. To Ahab this is a sign of imminent confrontation and success. To Starbuck, the ship’s first mate, it is a bad omen and he contemplates murdering Ahab to end the obsession. The tempest ends, but then one of the sailors plummets from the ship’s masthead and drownsâ€”a grave forewarning of what lies ahead. As Ahab’s obsessive desire to find and destroy Moby Dick intensifies, the mad Pip becomes his constant companion.
It is near the equator that Ahab expects to find Moby Dick, and it is here that the Pequod meets two whalers, the Rachel and the Delight; both have had recent fatal encounters with the Great Whale. The Captain of the Rachel pleads with Ahab to help him find his son, lost in the battle with Moby Dick, but Ahab has only one goal, to find and kill the whale. Days pass, and then, finally, Ahab sights Moby Dick. The harpoon boats are launched. Moby Dick rams Ahab’s harpoon boat, destroying it but Ahab is saved by his crew.
The next day, Moby Dick is sighted once more. The whale is harpooned but again, Moby dick strikes back and once again rams Ahab’s boat. Fedallah is trapped in the harpoon line, is dragged overboard to his death. Starbuck saves his Captain by manoeuvring the Pequod between Ahab and the enraged beast.
On the third day, the boats are launched once again and are sent after Moby Dick. The whale turns and attacks the boats, and they see that Fedallah’s corpse is still lashed to the whale by the harpoon line. In the ensuing battle, Moby Dick rams the Pequod and she begins to sinks. Ahab, caught in a harpoon line, is hurled out of his whale boat to his death. The remaining whaleboats and crew are caught in the vortex of the sinking Pequod and dragged to their deaths. Ishmael, thrown from his boat at the beginning of the hunt, is the only man to survive. He floats, alone on Queequeg’s coffin, the only remaining flotsam from the wreckage, an isolated figure in a watery world.
“On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan. (Melville 1992 p. 583)
An Uncanny Tale
In telling the story of Moby Dick, Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, engages in a process of repetition that brings the dead back to life. His narrator offers what appears to be a sober account of his real experience but in the recounting it is immediately evident that this experience is anything but commonplace. Melville’s combination of reality and the fantastic, the credible and the incredible, compel the reader to accept the narrative on its own terms. The tale confronts the reader with narratorial anxiety in both the telling of the tale and in the horror of its content. Melville’s narrative method exemplifies the de-familiarisation of the familiar, the domestication of terror that characterises the uncanny.
Freud characterises the uncanny as that which arouses dread and horror; (Freud 1919 p. 339) it is that class of things which lead us back to what is known of the old and familiar. (Freud 1919 p.340) It is precarious, this combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, where the opposites of the homely, customary and congenial also denote the secret that is concealed and kept from sight. (Freud 1919 p. 347)
“We believe we are at home in the immediate circle of beings. That which is, is familiar, reliable, ordinary. Nevertheless, the clearing is pervaded by a constant concealment in the double form of refusal and dissembling. At the bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extra-ordinary, uncanny.” (Heidegger 1971 p. 53)
Freud argues that one of the most anxiety-producing devices of the uncanny is the double. Freud considers the uncanniness of the double to be the effect of the ego’s projection of the object â€˜outwardly as something foreign to itself’. What is inside is experienced as coming from outside, (Freud 1919 p.358) split off and isolated through a process of repression and dissociation. The subject may identify with another to the extent that he is not sure which identity he is or he may substitute the extraneous self for his own. In the tale of Moby Dick it is this lack of difference which dominates Ahab’s relationship to the whale. While Ahab may try to establish himself as a saviour, he too, deep down, is dangerous and destructive. It is this sameness that is problematic. When it becomes too obvious that the other is contained in the self, the other becomes an object for irrational hostility. In this dynamic, both the object (the whale) and the subject (Ahab) become doubles of each other in the psyche of the person who is enmeshed in the projection. The notion of the double always inspires the subject with dread and can be summed up as a dividing and interchanging of the ego. There is an inevitable cyclic repetition of the initial trauma. It is an inescapable loop until the doubling is concluded.
Aboard ship, Ahab imposes an irresistible dictatorship in order to pursue his obsession. Moby Dick had injured him and that fact contravened Ahab’s entire view of how the world should be ordered. The self-righteous, imposing Captain of the Pequod smoulders with the fires of hell. His all consuming pride and rage against the white whale blaze in the great speech before his crew where he proclaims,
“That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or the white whale principal, I will wreak my hate upon him… Talk to me not of blasphemy, man, I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” (Melville 1992 p. 167)
Ahab cannot see Moby Dick for what the great while whale is, because the reality of the animal is subsumed under the passion of Ahab’s projection. But because this â€˜relationship’ is skewed, the rest of Ahab’s world suffers. Ahab has no connection to any other person or thing beyond the white whale. It is inevitable that the whale proves to be his nemesis; it is the whale that inflicts retribution and vengeance, not Ahab.
With the first sentence of Moby Dick we are confronted with the complex figure of Ishmael. The narrative begins with the words “Call me Ishmael.” The name has come to symbolize orphans and social outcasts but it has another aspect to it. The word literally means â€˜God hears’. Ishmael, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, was the first son of Abraham, born to a slave woman, Hagar because Abraham believed his wife Sarah to be infertile. But when God granted Sarah a son of her own, Ishmael and his mother were turned out of Abraham’s household. Isaac inherited the birthright from Abraham. Ishmael was left to die under a bush in the wilderness by his distraught and starving mother. But in her distress she cried out and God heard her cry and the cry of the child.
“15When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16… And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. 20God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.” (Genesis 21: 15 â€“ 20 The Bible NRSV 1988)
From a Judeo-Christian perspective Ishmael was an outcast, the result of his father’s failure to believe and obey YHWH’s promise to give him a son through his wife Sarah. As a consequence, Ishmael was the one repressed and rejected. But Ishmael was heard and taken care of by God.
Throughout his life, Melville was preoccupied with the imagery of orphans and in particular with the character Ishmael. In Mardi he writes,
“But as sailors are mostly foundlings and castaways, and carry all their kith and kin in their arms and legs, there hardly ever appears any heir-at-law to claim their estate.” (Melville 2004 p. 139)
In Redburn, Melville writes, at last I have found myself a sort of Ishmael on the ship, without a single friend or companion. (Melville 1957 p. 60) In Pierre Melville writes, “so that once more he might not feel himself driven out, an Ishmael into the desert, with no maternal Hagar to accompany him and comfort him. (Melville 1962 p. 125) Edward Edinger argues that Melville had an” Ishmael complex which had two sources; personal life experience and identification with an archetypal image.” (Edinger 1995 p. 23) The personal cause would be the insanity and death of his father and the ensuing hardships this caused. Melville was twelve and a half when his father died, close to the age of the biblical Ishmael who was thirteen. In addition, he was rejected by his mother, who favoured her first son. According to Arvin Newton, Melville, as an elderly man, once remarked to his niece that his mother had hated him. (Arvin 1950 p.30) The pain of his rejection is poignantly evident in the tale of Moby Dick ” “Most of the action is seen through the eyes of Ishmael. He will thus represent the author’s ego…” (Edinger 1995 p. 24)
Ishmael, the lone survivor of this misadventure is the story teller. At the outset of the story, Ishmael presents as one who is in pain and internal distress. He is impoverished, hostile, depressed and potentially suicidal. He heads for the sea, to Nantucket to find work on a whaler. In the past he has found sea voyages as a way of containing his internal conflict and pain. But before he can find a ship, his poverty forces him to find accommodation in a squalid inn, sharing a bed with a harpooner. When the harpooner enters the room in which Ishmael is sleeping he awakes in horror at the apparition before him, a man who appears to have just returned from the ministrations of a surgeon, his face covered with sticking plaster. But that is not the reality. The harpooner is a “cannibal” from the pacific, tattooed in his native islander tradition. He carries a tomahawk, a seal skin purse with the hair still attached and a shrunken head. The overall impression is alien, bizarre and terrifying to Ishmael. He watches from beneath the counterpane as the stranger uses the tomahawk as a pipe, then quietly turns into the bed with Ishmael. He is unaware of Ishmaels presence and reacts with instinctive aggression. In the fracas that follows Ishmael calls out in terror to the landlord for help. â€˜Landlord! Watch! Coffin! Angels! Save me!’ (Melville 1992 p. 25) Peter Coffin, the landlord, soothes the moment. He introduces the men to each other and Ishmael is suddenly aware that this frightening apparition is a person, with a name. Queequeg is no longer a nameless savage, a cannibal with a shrunken head and a death dealing tomahawk. The tomahawk is also a peace pipe, and he shares the smoke from this unique instrument with Ishmael. The tomahawk-pipe has now become a symbol for both life and death, a symbol of reconciliation and peace. In this initial encounter with Queequeg a transformation is begun in Ishmael. In symbolic terms, he has embraced, in the symbolic form of Queequeg, both death and life as indivisible partners, and when he wakes the following morning he begins to see the world from a different perspective. Ishmael understands the mixture of life and death that Queequeg’s tomahawk-come-pipe represents, and realizes, at least in that moment, that such experience can lead to renewal.
Ahab demonstrates the dangers of an all consuming focus; the object of his obsession is the solitary great white whale, nicknamed Moby-Dick by the whalers. On his previous voyage, Ahab had his leg ripped off by Moby-Dick, and at the Ishmaels’ story begins, he has sworn to take his vengeance by hunting down and killing the great whale. It never occurs to Ahab that he lost his leg while trying to take the whale’s life and while in the process of killing countless other whales for monetary gain. Ahab’s obsession has more to do with what Moby Dick represents than with the great whale himself. He saw Moby Dick as the prey and could not cope with the idea that he was not omnipotent in this relationship, that he was outdone by another creature. As Ahab reasons in a fiery speech to the crew of the Pequod, “all visible objects” are like “pasteboard masks” that hide “some unknown but still reasoning thing”. Ahab hates “that inscrutable thing” that hides behind the mask of appearance. The only way to fight against it, he proclaims is to “strike through the mask!” Moby Dick, as a mysterious force of nature, represents the most outrageous, malevolent aspect of nature’s mask. To kill it, in the mind of Ahab, is to reach for and seize the unknowable truth that is hidden from all people. He cannot conceive of the concept that there is a simpler reality; he is not the master of all other species. He sees his failure to be able to take life at will as a reversal of his role as the predator and therefore can only conceive of himself now as the one preyed upon. This he cannot accept and so is driven to destroy that which in his mind denies his appropriated reality.
Ahab’s insane obsession and hunt for Moby Dick describes the consequences of viewing the world as a mask that hides unknowable truth. It is Ahab’s frustration with the limits of human knowledge and power that lead him to reject both science and logic and instead embrace violence and the dark magic of Fedallah his demonic advisor. Like Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, he has made a pact with the devil. Thinking he is immortal, Ahab attacks Moby Dick, striking at the mask of appearance that supposedly hides ultimate truth. His devotion to the idea that truth exists behind or beyond the physical world forces him to destroy himself in the attempt to reach it. Ahab can only relinquish his illusion by dying, or killing the object upon which his illusion has rested.
Ahab’s ideal ego, that is the fantasy he has of himself as one who is in control and omnipotent, is in the process of destroying his ego ideal, that is, his potential as man, captain and hunter. He believes he must eradicate the evil of the whale, but in reality, because he is caught in this doubling with the whale, he is intent on murdering himself. His passion of ignorance has overwhelmed his reason, blinded him to his own creative potential. All that is left is the passion and it knows no reason
People thus reduced inflict the traumatic pain of their void on others. The evil they engender is not just about destruction but emerges from the chaotic principle of pure drive which has loss at its centre and therefore must occasion more loss. The important point is not that the symbolism of what Ahab lost, but the symbolism of the loss itself. Revenge is only sought when there has been a great loss, a loss that is seen to embody an injustice, and an injustice imposed by an enemy over whom victory should have been assured. Ahab lost his leg to a beast, an inferior creature. His quest for revenge could just as easily have been instituted by the loss of an arm, a child, or a father. The loss implies inferiority to a foe that is deemed to be unworthy of such a victory. Revenge becomes obsession because only with revenge can the world become again that which supports the adopted perception of order. For Ahab, revenge can only be perceived as the re-imposition of superiority and ascendancy. It is the adoption of this delusional sense of what order is, that gives rise to the monomania that attends a thirst for revenge. Ahab’s loss of limb is immediate and it is personal but despite losing a leg he can still walk, he can still captain, he can still go on a whaleboat and harpoon. It is the greater loss which is the mechanism standing behind the driving revenge and his monomaniacal pursuit of it.
“…As if to be human is forever to be prey to turning your corner of the human race, hence perhaps all of it, into some new species of the genus of humanity, for the better or for the worse.” (Cavell 1998 p.154)
For this reason Ahab must inflate the object of his revenge and recreate it as something larger in context. To accomplish this, Ahab must imbue Moby Dick massive power, power beyond comprehension.
By placing the capacity of evil upon the whale, Ahab can fool himself into thinking that Moby Dick is a greater being than he really is and therefore his own loss appears greater than it really is. For Ahab, the delusion attendant to the psychosis of revenge suppresses the reality that he is merely a man bent on attempting to restore his lost sense of superiority. This reality is replaced with a grandiose vision of one who is a redeemer for humanity. But it is not humanity Ahab is attempting to redeem; it is his own inflated ego whose ascendancy has been usurped.
By imputing to Moby-Dick a demonic power he does not really possess Ahab, blinds himself to any reality of what Moby Dick actually is, to any real strength and intelligence that the whale possesses. This blindness springs not from mere ignorance, but from a consciously willed ignorance, from the desire not to know, from the ambition not to understand. In order to sustain his delusional conception of himself, he must appoint concomitant distortion to the world which surrounds him, and particularly to the object of his obsession. Ahab desperately wants Moby Dick to be inscrutable. He wants him to be a thing that is incapable of being understood, because that enables him to categorize his nemesis as sheer evil. Therefore he is compelled to refuse any effort at understanding and it is this iron-willed ambition to remain ignorant, to label this thing as ultimate evil that generates the ironic twist whereby Ahab himself becomes the ultimate danger, the evil which he imagines he is seeking to eradicate. It is Ahab who causes the complete destruction of all that surrounds him.
Evil and the Passion of Ignorance
Ahab desires to attach to Moby Dick all the evil that exists in the world. Moby Dick is a creation of his infantile envious omnipotent sadistic phantasies. Ahab himself identifies the ultimately personal source of what he sees as a universal evil when he says,
“…It was Moby-Dick that dismasted me; Moby-Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now… it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!” (Melville 1992 p.166).
Moby Dick took away Ahab’s ability to literally stand on his own two feet. The loss of his leg can also be seen as a symbolic emasculation and that symbolism is made all the more apparent by the fact that Ahab’s quest is for a sperm whale. Moby-Dick contains sperm; Ahab does not. In his quest for revenge, all of Ahab’s creative potential is voided because he cannot accept that there is a reality that is greater and stronger than himself. It is in the attempt to deny the reality and existence of that which surpasses him that he divorces himself from his own creative life potential. Captain Ahab is both the psychotic parent in command of the infant and the infant overwhelmed with his own omnipotent phantasy.
In the tale of Moby Dick, Herman Melville created a character whose motives of vengeance typify the behaviour of a psychotic person. Captain Ahab, in his delusion, could not allow Moby Dick to share the same space in his paranoid and infantile world. Ahab experienced the loss of his leg as a lethal wound that was potentially reparable only by a copy-cat act of vengeance taken upon the alleged guilty Moby Dick.
“That intangible malignity which has been there from the beginning… Ahab did not fall down and worship it…, but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it… He piled upon the whale’s hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon.” (Melville 1991 p. 187)
” We Cannibals must help these poor Christians.”
The relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg is the antithesis of the relationship between Ahab and Moby Dick. Ishmael and Queequeg develop a relationship that is based on the recognition of their dissimilarity and separateness. Ahab and Moby Dick are joined together by Ahab’s projection and obsession. With Queequeg and Ishmael, the difference is something to be explored. The relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael has a germ of creativity; that between Ahab and Moby Dick is founded on destruction and butchery.
The initial encounter between Queequeg and Ishmael provokes both terror and aggression. The landlord intervenes, calming the situation and bringing them both to an awareness of the necessity of living alongside of each other. This generates a realisation in both Ishmael and Queequeg that they are both men despite the visual and cultural dissimilarities. As time passes and conversation is enjoined, they begin to comprehend both their differences and their commonly shared objectives. According to the customs of Queequeg’s home, Ishmael and Queequeg are “married” after a social smoke out of the tomahawk pipe. Queequeg gives Ishmael half of his belongings, and the two men continue to share a bed.
The tattooed body of Queequeg is much like the patchwork quilt that covers them both as they sleep. These tattoos are a written narrative of the universe but no one, save the prophet who inscribed them can decipher their meaning, not even Queequeg.
- “And this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last.”(Melville 1992 p. 491)
For Ishmael, Queequeg represents the dangerous and the forbidden for which Ishmael secretly yearns. Queequeg also symbolizes the explorative and adventurous aspect of Ishmael’s personality. Once Ishmael recognizes this, his fears lessen and he embraces the “savage” into his life.
Ishmael’s initial hostility to Queequeg is a projection of the suppression of a part of his own personality. Exotic and unique, Queequeg represents the unknown. Ishmael is able to recognise this, to admit it, and to realise that his fear is due to ignorance. With this awareness comes the further realisation that he, Ishmael, must travel to the sea in order to gain life experience by exploring and embracing the unknown. The friendship between the two men, although troubled by prejudice and slow to develop into a full understanding of one another’s character, is solidified with their â€˜marriage contract’. They effectively become one person, illustrating the full integration of Queequeg’s otherness into Ishmael’s personality.
At the end of the book, Ishmael survives because of Queequeg’s coffin. In accordance with their marriage contract, Queequeg offers Ishmael protection from the sea-hawks, sharks and sea in the form of his coffin. In turn, Ishmael carries on Queequeg’s spirit, carved into the wood of the coffin. Queequeg represents that part of Ishmael which has been hidden and suppressed, and in knowing and admitting this, Ishmael is able to fully embrace that which he has lost. Ishmael is saved from the destruction of Ahab’s obsession because he is the only crew member to realize that “meditation and water are wedded forever,” just as he and Queequeg are wedded forever. (Melville 1992 p.2)
Symbolically water is a representation of both life and primordial chaos. But more than this, the vastness of the ocean represents the vulnerability of humanity. In contemplating the primordial nature of the ocean, the great representation of the human unconscious in all its vastness, terror and power, we begin to comprehend the reality of our own unconscious with all its fear, its power, its life potential. Like the power of the ocean the unconscious remains an awesome power to be reckoned with. It may be possible to harness the wind and the waves, but even so there is always the awareness that they have the power to crush and destroy.
Ahab was convinced that the injury inflicted by the great whale was an iniquitous act by a malignant and evil predator that lurked in the ocean depths. Moby Dick had become the hunter and humankind the prey. For Ahab, Moby Dick is no longer a creature of the ocean defending its life, its very existence; it has become to him a demon from the depths of hell, the personification of evil itself whilst he has become the righteous avenging angel, expunging the evil that is entirely out there, personified in another.
In the story of Moby Dick and Ahab, the heart of the evil lies not in who Moby Dick or Ahab are, but rather in the response of Ahab to his injury, his projection of all own pain and rage onto Moby Dick.. Ahab experiences not only pure jealousy towards Moby Dick but the envy of his existence. This is not ordinary jealousy, but the belief derived from very early infantile forms that the other enjoys a good that he will never attain. There is often confusion around the notions of envy and jealousy. Jealousy is the â€˜affect’ in a triangular situation when a person fears that something that they believe belongs to them has been or is about to be taken away. Envy however is an inherent hatred of that which possesses what is desired and which is seen to be a rightful privileged possession. Appearing devoid, of constructive value, envy becomes an evil to be restrained or renounced rather than a potential to be understood or developed. Essentially the difference between envy and jealousy is that envy is between two objects, a dualism; in jealousy there is a third party present. From this perspective envy emerges as a desperate attempt to preserve one’s unique sense of self against the terror of non-being. At this point, the place where passions of tyranny and hate germinate, there is no communal love, but a point of ignorance and a need to destroy. Ahab knows intuitively that in â€˜destroying Moby Dick’ he must also be destroyed. In the repetition of an earlier trauma, Ahab has set a course towards his own destruction. Repetition is fundamental to the uncanny because it produces the effect of something being fateful, inescapable; it links the uncanny with the death drive.
Ishmael, the lone survivor and narrator of this uncanny tale, believes that men aboard a whaling ship are lost to the world. We can make the interpretation that his desire to live aboard a whaling boat is his version of committing suicide.
- “With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword. I quietly take to the ship.” (Melville 1992 p. 1) –
And yet Ishmael, on board the ill fated Pequod with its obsessive captain, builds life and relationship with his bunkmate and companion, the seemingly primitive cannibal Queequeg. Ishmael survives by floating on Queequeg’s coffin, which had been transformed into the Pequod’s life boat. The coffin symbolizes not only resurrection but also the persistence and power of narratives. Queequeg has ensured the survival of his family history by carving the tattoos of his body onto the coffin. The archetypal tale of Moby Dick will also continue to live on through Ishmael’s narration.
Mathew is a truck driver, who is married with three children. According to Mathew he had developed an aloof relationship towards his wife and children because he feared rejection. Mathew presented as anxious and depressed after being involved in a road accident. He was charged with dangerous driving, pleaded guilty and was given a non-custodial sentence. After this incident Mathew attempted suicide and was admitted into hospital for two weeks. Through consultation with his local doctor he was referred for therapy.
Mathew was an only child. His mother was extremely critical and unforgiving. The way that Mathew remembered it was that he could not do anything right and if he reacted in anger his mother could either become violent or retire to her bed with a severe headache. She would often make up stories of supposed misdemeanours or embellish them when his father came home from work. This had the effect of incurring a severe punishment from his father. His father often drank heavily in the evenings and, as a consequence made himself unavailable to Mathew. When Matthew was seven years old, his father left. It was at this time that Mathew began to obsessively masturbate. As an adolescent this obsession caused him overwhelming guilt but he found himself powerless against the force of the obsession. As an adult he would obsessively masturbate in secret and as a consequence made himself unavailable for intimate relations with his wife.
In the course of therapy Mathew became deeply depressed. He was extremely harsh and punishing to himself and castigated himself on his lack of ability to even succeed in his attempt at self destruction. In our analytical work we discovered that he did not want to risk vulnerability through intimacy because he felt it would only lead to being disappointed, rejected and hurt again. He felt his mother had stolen something from him and he was terrified that any relationship of any consequence with anyone would take all that he had left. This emerged through transference as a refusal to share any anything but negative stories with me. I interpreted that he attempted to control me with a schedule of what he had to talk about in the session, thus keeping us in a restrictive but familiar relationship of power imbalance. It was a selective way of sustaining an illusionary state of control, safe from rejection or judgement. If he were to share his whole self with me he would feel vulnerable and uncertain of my reaction. Matthew informed me, â€˜Thinking about just talking to you about everything makes me anxious, like it’s too intimate or weird. I want to keep you where I can see you.’ This felt to me like an uncanny repetition of his early relationship with his mother. I interpreted this as indicating that by attempting to control me with what he shared, he felt that he could safely predict how I would see him. But to bring his whole self to the therapeutic environment would be too risky for him and he was unsure of how I would react to what I saw and heard. In Matthew’s own words, â€˜You might turn on me and take all that I have left. You might tell me to shut up or even worse you might get ill and die’.
In his phantasy Matthew imagined that if he brought his whole self into the room he might make me ill or might attack and kill me. This was a terrifying thought to him. Mathew did not want to risk vulnerability and dependence with anyone, especially me, his therapist/mother. Matthew held a profound uncertainty, mistrust and fear of any stability from a â€˜mother figure’, the object of his focus, and believed the object’s love to be fragile and easily lost. He used distance as a defence and then, feeling distant and alone, tried to please the object and keep it afloat. But in doing this, he felt cheated, burdened, enraged and murderous. The only way he had of keeping these feelings at bay was to obsessively masturbate. It was this obsession that had become his life buoy, a substitute for a relationship with a flesh and blood human being. The obsession had become the means by which Mathew sustained omnipotent feelings of power and control. In his phantasies he did not need anyone else. He was the one in creative control.
Despite the illusion, Mathew was not in control and like Ahab it was his obsession that was controlling him. Like Ahab, he was in excruciating pain. In comprehending the power and genesis of this pain and obsession, I found Sandor Ferenczi’s paper, â€˜Confusion of Tongues Between Adults and the Child’, (Ferenczi 1955 pp.156-167) a useful resource, In this work Ferenczi was concerned with the psychopathology produced in children who have experienced sexual and physical abuse by an adult. He argues that the power differential between adult and child in instances of sexual and physical abuse causes a paralyzing anxiety in the child. Children subjected to this abuse feel physically and morally helpless. Their personalities are not sufficiently consolidated to achieve any resistance or make any effective protest, even in thought. The overpowering force and authority of the adult abusers immobilizes and robs them of their senses and speech. (Ferenczi 1955 p. 162)
Where this occurs argues Ferenczi, it compels children
- “To subordinate themselves like automata to the will of the aggressor, to divine each one of his desires and to gratify these; completely oblivious to themselves, they identify themselves with the aggressor. Through the identification, or … introjection of the aggressor, he disappears as part of the external reality, and becomes intra instead of extra-psychic…. (Ferenczi 1955 p. 162)
Ferenczi’s concept of â€˜identification with the aggressor’ is not to be confused with Anna Freud’s use of the term. (Freud 1946 pp. 117-131) For her, identification with the aggressor is a defence mechanism commonly observed in the normal development of the super-ego. It occurs when an individual, faced with an external threat of physical aggression or verbal criticisms, performs a role reversal and internalises the aggressor so that the aggressed individual becomes the aggressor and is able to redirect physical or verbal aggression towards an external other or others. However, Ferenczi’s use of the term is quite different, both in character and outcome. There is no role reversal implied and the nature of identification is not as an aggressor in response, but as one who is assumes a compliance with the dictated role in a desperate attempt to be valued, affirmed and accepted. The sexually and physically aggressed child, whose personality is underdeveloped and who relies on the adult for affection and physical nurture, has a need to gratify the adult’s desires. Ferenczi’s notion is that the child’s identification with the aggressor means that the child assumes or incorporates, intra-psychically, an imago, identity or representation of him or herself created by the adult. The inherent need for approval and love from the parent figure generates acquiescence to the image that the parent figure projects, in a desperate attempt to be accepted and validated.
I am not arguing here that the trauma Mathew suffered from his parents was sexual or physical abuse, but rather that Ferenczi’s insights are nonetheless extremely useful in understanding pathological behaviours in certain children who have been aggressed psychologically, even if there is no evidence of sexual or physical abuse, maltreatment or neglect. I am following Ferenczi’s argument, that being subjected to constant criticism and emotional isolation during childhood constitutes a trauma. It is my perception that Ferenczi’s theories describe accurately what Matthew suffered, that without any existing effective relations, he endured acute psychological suffering and pain in what can only be described as a lonely childhood, exclusively exposed to an overly critical and emotionally abusive mother.
The story of Ahab and Ishmael reveals that there are choices in how we deal with pain of great magnitude. In the uncanny tale of â€˜Moby Dick’, both Ahab and Ishmael are in agonising pain and yet while Ahab is murdered by his own obsession, Ishmael is saved by Queequeg’s coffin.
- “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and hearses to one common pool! And since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear! (Melville 1992 p. 581)
- … Ahab went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her and helmeted herself with it.” (Melville 1992 p. 582)
In Moby Dick, Herman Melville creates a tale in which the focus is upon two men on that vast ocean: one is trying to repress and destroy a great white whale, the symbol of his pain, for its threat to his imagined supremacy; the other is exploring that great oceanic vastness for all its mystery, strangeness and life, symbolised in his ‘marriage’ to Queequeg.
- “Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” (Melville 1992 p. 582)
Using the imagery of Moby Dick, this paper has argued that monomania is spawned from a passion of ignorance. This passion of ignorance is situated at the boundary of reality, on the edge between the alternatives of love and hate. This boundary is actually the boundary between the ideal ego and the ego ideal, that is, between the fantasy that an individual has of themselves and the potential that is inherent in all that they have acquired in the journey of life. To choose the former is to necessitate the extinction of the latter, but it is a choice that carries with it meaningless pain, a pain without purpose.
My clinical material presented a patient, Mathew, who was also in agonizing pain and in the grip of obsession. The agonizing pain of deprivation and non-existence offers a choice: to begin a heroic journey, like Ishmael, towards growth and individuation, taking faltering steps towards building a relationship with this greatest of fears; or to continue on the destructive and obsessional path towards death and non-being.
At this uncanny tale’s dramatic termination, imagined and experiential realities are so tightly knotted they cannot be undone. The most tragic thing that can happen in life is not that we experience suffering and pain but that this suffering remains meaningless.
- “The drama’s done. Why then does anyone step forth? â€“ Because one did survive the wreck”. (Melville 1992 p. 583)
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