Hero’s Journey In Moby Dick

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

Moby Dick is a novel written by Herman Melville in 1851. The book is narrated through a minor character called Ishmael who is the only surviving member of the Pequod and the story is about the obsessive Captain Ahab’s quest for revenge on Moby Dick, the white whale who bit off his leg at the knee on the ships previous journey. Moby Dick begins, befittingly with the obsessive quest to catch and kill the whale. Melville writes and provides clues on the first few pages that “God and the whale” is a great mystery that the characters must pursue in a truly heroic way. Twelve pages into the novel we are introduced to the narrator, Ishmael. Typically the number 12 is significant as Joseph Campbell writes “as soon as you hear the number twelve you know that it is a mythological situation” (2013, p.145)

There are several stages of the application of the hero’s journey in Melville’s novel as Moby Dick is a prime example of the concept of the hero’s journey that was popularized by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Joseph Campbell, 1949). During the novels opening chapter, Ishmael decides to sign up to work on the Pequod which can be viewed as the first stage in the hero’s journey; the call to adventure. As the novel progresses, the Pequod enters the open sea. This can be viewed as the second stage in the hero’s journey when the hero (who is Ishmael but arguably Ahab can be seen as the tragic hero) crosses the threshold. There are three more stages that are worth highlighting, especially the road of trials or according to Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey (1998, p.9) tests, allies, and enemies. Ishmael faces many challenges at sea including the ever-growing madness of Captain Ahab, to the death and sicknesses of his fellow crew members. After a while, the crew confronts Moby Dick which is a true ordeal for Ishmael. He has a confrontation with his greatest fears as he watches all of his crew members die and barely escaping death himself. In this climactic moment, Ishmael experiences atonement. He must confront and accept the ultimate challenge that he has just faced to move on with his life. The novel ends when Ishmael is suddenly rescued by a ship and that can be recognized as the rescue from without stage. Luckily, Ishmael came across rescuers to help him recover from the adventure and settle him back into his everyday life. As an overall journey, it is worth mentioning that the symbolic meaning of this quest is to search for God through the white whale. As readers, we can vicariously live through the hero either Ishmael or Ahab as they leave the safeness of land to uncover the mystery of the great white whale and fight to the death to conquer and have power over it. Ishmael is the main hero and Cowan provides further evidence for this claim “In Arthurian fashion, he, has proven without being aware of it that he possesses a heroic courage, not a courage of action but of bearing the weight of fears, uncertainties, and awe – in fact, the,e sublime itself” (1992, p.225). Ahab on the other hand is a classic case of the tragic hero, a man who was a victim of his own fate. He risked his life to kill the evil whale yet he became isolated from his normal life and he met his destined end. Unlike Ishmael, we pity Ahab for his stubbornness and defiance. Ishmael is known for his intelligence and this is apparent in the application of the first stage of the hero’s journey, the call to adventure. He tells us quite literally that he will die by the “pistol and ball” if he does not “take to the ship”. Knowing what he must do, Ishmael welcomes the challenge of a whaling voyage. But every hero needs a guide or mentor along the way to assist the hero in their path. It is quite often that the mentor appears at the beginning of the journey. In Moby Dick, Queequeg is Ishmael’s mentor and he provides a clear outlook on how to live and die while at sea. In chapter 4, the two even sleep together in the same bed and this displays a perverse romance between the two and it is obvious during chapter 11 that Ishmael longs for domestic life. However, this conveys Queequeg’s unconventional behavior and this stage or element comes before Ishmael crosses the threshold and it is known as stage 4 (Meeting the Mentor) according to Christopher Vogler.

It is important to mention that Moby Dick is not autobiographical, Ishmael’s story serves as a guide. The stages from the hero’s journey reflect that as he survived an encounter with the unknown, divine power. His story serves as a platform for any man or woman should also have such an experience in their lifetimes if they strive for it. In my opinion, the hero’s journey in this novel represents a journey towards the divine and this journey can be carefully analyzed through the characters of Ishmael and Ahab. The whale is regarded by Ishmael as the divine nature that lives outside of him. For Ahab, it is a totally different mindset, the whale symbolizes the wounds he has sustained on the previous voyage, and the whale is the source of the wounds so to speak. A wound on the leg is a common motif for a hero’s journey and arguably Ahab goes on the hero’s journey in this novel as well as Ishmael.      

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