Moby Dick as a Social Allegory

July 2, 2019 by Essay Writer

With his novel Moby-Dick, Herman Melville uses the voyages of a New England whaler as a metaphor for the expansionist society in which he was living. Completed in 1851, the novel condemns America’s values during the middle of the 19th century. During this time, the United States’ expanding population encouraged the idea of manifest destiny, or that the nation was destined to span to the Pacific Ocean. This goal provoked many incidents between America and its bordering civilizations, such as Mexico, and the many Native Americans tribes that were either displaced or destroyed by the western settlers. The United States saw these civilizations as primitive; thus, exterminating them for their land was not seen as a criminal act, especially given the value of the natural resources that could be exploited for profit. Melville opposed this expansionist policy and the methods that were used to achieve it, and the novel shows this opposition as well as his admiration of native values.One of the first indications that we have of the author’s support for the native cultures that were being destroyed is his first interaction with Queequeg. Upon learning that he must share a room with the cannibal, he argues at first, then agrees, as long as the native obeys a few rules, stating, “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” (31) This sentence shows us that Melville does not hold the typical 19th century Christian values that view pagans as sub-humans. It was this superior attitude that enabled the American expansionist rationale.Ishmael furthers his view in equality a few chapters later as he and Queequeg’s friendship develop more. He admits that it is unlike his society to befriend a savage, but declares, “I’ll try a pagan friend since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.” (53) This statement is probably one of the primary reasons that many Christians criticized the book at the time, for they felt that it condemns their beliefs. Here he is criticizing the same kind of strict Christianity that his friend Hawthorne condemns. Melville’s criticism of Christian practices is surprising, though, given the amount of scripture that he uses in novel, meaning that he must have been a fairly educated Christian at some time in order to be that knowledgeable of the Bible. Because of this, readers should infer that Melville is not critical of the Christian religion, but rather the way that he has seen it practiced. Being a friend of Hawthorne, he probably had more than enough knowledge of the Puritanical judgments used by the county’s founders. In addition, he saw the way that Christianity’s superior self-perception enabled them to infringe upon pagan civilizations.It is this infringement and exploitation of other societies that the book condemns as one of its major themes. Though the Pequod travels eastward, both it and the United States were attempting to exploit resources all the way to the Pacific. In this way, Melville may be trying to express that the United States is attempting to exploit every “uncivilized” area of the world, by taking all of the land to the west and conquering the seas all the way around the globe.The sperm whales are symbolic of the western land, which will be exploited for only what is most profitable; meanwhile wasting anything that is not seen to be worth the effort. Examples of the wastefulness of the whalers permeate Ishmael’s account. Though he never condemns the actions, the inclusion of the details allows readers to make their own inferences. One of the first indications that we receive follows the capture of the first whale. Here, Melville vividly describes the process that the men go through to process the dead animal. From the whale, they take only the blubber and the gallons of spermaceti that are found within the dead whale’s head. Most of the rest of the carcass is dropped back into the ocean for the sharks to feed upon. This is reminiscent of the treatment of the buffalo upon the Midwestern plains at the middle of the 19th century, where the animals were shot and had the best parts removed while the rest was left for the vultures. Ahab’s monomaniacal mission to conquer the whale is further compared to United States expansionism as the crew approaches Moby Dick’s position. In chapter 109, Starbuck informs the captain of the leak in the casks of spermaceti in the hold. Upon hearing the news, we see that the captain is unconcerned, for we learn that he cares not for the resources that he has already plundered, but only about killing the White Whale. This is like the United States driving westward, even though little had been done to cultivate the land that was already possessed by the settlers, for they refused to rest until their Manifest Destiny was complete. After reaching their goal, they could focus on “trivial” things, such as using what they had not yet destroyed during their conquest.One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the colors that are symbolically used. Though Melville makes readers critical of the values that the crew has, he does not have us sympathizing with the White Whale, either. In fact, he depicts Moby Dick as an evil being, making everything in the novel that is white evil. Melville does not see white as purity like modern society typically does. Rather, he sees it as an evil shade, and one that can not be trusted. In making the pro-native argument, this could be used to condemn white society, which can be viewed as evil for murdering so many natives. Similarly, of the characters that we meet in the novel, the dark-skinned ones seem to represent the best that the book’s characters can offer. While none of them would be seen by society as examples to follow, they do seem more civil than their white shipmates. This compares them to the natives of the United States, for their actions were usually polite towards their white shipmates. This is similar to the help that the colonists received from the Native Americans during the Revolutionary War. In the end, though, the loyalty of the harpooners is abused, as they are thrown to their deaths to support the single-serving actions of their leader, much as the United States used the Indians to win the war and then stripped them of the freedoms that they had helped the Americans gain.Other indicators of Melville’s discontent with his country’s policies are found in the book as well, though they do not fall within the plot of the novel, but rather the factual information that the author gives to help readers better understand the whaling industry. One such example is when Melville states that “Nantucketers were the first among mankind to harpoon with civilized steel the great Sperm Whale; and for half a century they were the only people on the globe who so harpooned them.” (369) This passage is relevant since it emphasizes American greed. At the time of Melville’s writings, whale populations around the world were in decline because of the high number of whales that were annually harvested. Because whales have reproductive cycles similar to humans in that they have almost identical gestation periods and only have one offspring at a time, there was not enough time for populations to restore themselves. From this passage, we learn that in little more than 100 years, Americans have been only one of a few nations harvesting these animals, yet they have still managed to reduce the populations at a remarkable rate. Likewise, during the same era, Americans were also expanding beyond what they had already settled in order to exploit the limited gold resources in California and Alaska, virtually annihilating the buffalo population in the Midwest, and making other species, such as the Eastern Elk extinct.Moby-Dick, because of its length, gives the author a great deal of ability to include many different themes besides a simple story about whaling. Given this ability, Melville condemns his 19th century society for its selfish values. We see Ishmael become critical of the beliefs that Christianity has instilled in its followers. Even though he is aware of the history behind it, he condemns the way that its values are misused to support ideals that are contrary to the teachings of the Bible. For this reason, he befriends Queequeg, as he has not been misguided by civilization entirely. One of the ways that Queequeg has been corrupted, though, is his willingness to help the whalers exploit nature. While many native tribes use their natural resources, they are more for sustenance rather than profit. It could be for this reason that all of the natives perish in the end, for they are just as guilty as the white men for trying to take too much. By assimilating into western society, these men partially abandon their native societies and therefore must be punished for assisting the misled 19th century Americans in their villainous behavior regarding nature and the people who still live in harmony with it.

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