For Further Study
Now admired as a masterpiece of American literature and considered one of the greatest novels of all time, Moby-Dick was published to unfavorable reviews, and its author, Herman Melville, was subsequently unable to make a living as a writer. He wrote just three more novels after Moby-Dick and then retired from literary life, working as a customs officer, writing poems, a novella, and a few short stories. Not until the 1920s were the multi-layered qualities of his epic novel fully appreciated.
Ostensibly the story of a whaling voyage as seen through the eyes of Ishmael, the book's narrator, and the account of the pursuit of a white whale, the novel is concerned with many of the issues which dominated nineteenth-century thought in America. The relationship between the land and the sea echoes the conflict between adventure and domesticity, between frontiersman and city-dweller. Captain Ahab's tragic monomania, as expressed in his obsessive pursuit of the whale, is an indirect commentary on the feelings of disillusionment in mid-nineteenth-century America and on the idea that the single-minded pursuit of an ideal is both vain and self-destructive.
Highly symbolic, tightly packed with philosophical musings, and interspersed with goading questions, the novel put off many of its early readers with what was seen as a rejection of basic storytelling principles. Each time some form of narrative tension is established, the author appears to launch off into obscure ramblings. They are only arcane, of course, when the reader does not per-ceive the hidden meanings within these passages; modern audiences have the advantage of being more receptive to disjointed narrative techniques. As for the novel's subtexts, only a few of these require sophisticated knowledge of nineteenth-century thought; the majority concern the big and immutable questions of life.
Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819. He was the third of eight children born to Allan and Maria Melville. His father, an importer, died in 1832, having struggled in vain to establish a sense of financial security for his family. Although only thirteen years old, Herman immediately went to work as a bank clerk to help support his family. His older brother, Gansevoort, was always considered the most promising son, and for several years the family depended upon his business endeavors. But by 1837 Gansevoort was bankrupt and the Melvilles had to rely on wealthy relatives for financial assistance.
After a brief spell as a schoolteacher, Melville signed up to serve as a cabin boy on the St. Lawrence. Afterwards, he returned to teaching, but this early adventure had whetted his appetite for the sea. On January 3, 1841, he set sail aboard the Acushnet, a whaling vessel, sailing out of Buzzard Bay. At the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific, he left his ship to live with a native tribe reputed to be cannibals. Melville later said that when he discovered their taste for human flesh (it was never proved they were cannibals), he escaped the island, finding passage on the Lucy Ann, a whaling ship from Australia. Melville then enlisted in the navy, spending a year on the frigate United States. He did not return to American soil until October of 1844, and then he almost immediately began writing about his adventures.
Melville's first novel, Typee, published in 1846, described his adventure and captivity in the South Seas. Melville began courting Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of a Bostonian judge, and he wrote a second novel, Omoo, again based on his South Seas adventures. It was published in 1847 and, on the strength of its sales, Herman and Elizabeth decided to marry.
The writing of Moby-Dick coincided with Melville's move to the Berkshires in Massachusetts, and the establishment of his friendship with fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne. During the period of Moby-Dick's composition, Melville held Hawthorne in very high regard, both personally and professionally, and in his correspondence he spoke of their role together as being the forefront of American letters.
Moby-Dick was written by Melville with an eye to establishing himself as a leading literary figure, which made its failure all the more difficult for him to bear. His next book, Pierre (1852), was written in a mood of depression. Israel Potter, a strange biographical novel published in 1854, did nothing to reestablish Melville's name, and an attack of sciatica heralded an insidious decline in his physical and mental health. The Confidence Man (1857) is now considered to be one of Melville's best books, a funny and sardonic look at human nature. Commercially, however, it was another flop, and Melville was forced to consider alternative employment. He sold his home, Arrowhead, to his brother Allan and moved to New York City, where, in 1866, he took up duties as an Inspector of Customs.
Melville's literary output from then on consisted mainly of poetry. Several of his Civil War poems are among the best poems of their period. His huge epic poem, Clarel, about religious doubt, which preoccupied him for nearly a decade, had to be published using private funds. Toward the end of his life he wrote a prose novel, Billy Budd, completed in the year of his death, 1891.
Call Me Ishmael
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale chronicles the strange journey of an ordinary seaman named Ishmael who signs on for a whaling voyage in 1840s Massachusetts. A thoughtful but gloomy young man, Ishmael begins his odyssey in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a prosperous whaling town and crossing point to the island of Nantucket. Arriving on a dark Saturday night in December, he finds cheap lodgings in a waterfront dive called The Spouter Inn. There he is forced to share a bed with a South Sea islander and "cannibal" named Queequeg, a fierce-looking harpooner covered with tattoos and carrying a tomahawk and a shrunken head. After some initial uncertainty, the two become close friends and decide to seek a berth together on a whaling ship. Before leaving for Nantucket, however, Ishmael decides to visit the local whaleman's chapel, where he sees memorial plaques to lost sailors and hears a disturbing sermon about the prophet Jonah and the terrors of the whale.
On Nantucket, the two sailors set out to find the best ship for their voyage. After consulting Queequeg's "black little god," a tiny totem named Yojo, they settle on the Pequod, a whaling vessel run by the notorious Captain Ahab. They sign the ship's papers, but on their way back to the inn to get their belongings, they meet Elijah, a shabbily dressed old man who haunts the docks. Elijah hints at the dangers to come and warns the two not to get involved with the vengeful captain.
The Pequod leaves Nantucket on Christmas day headed for the whaling grounds in the Pacific. Captain Ahab remains in his cabin for several days, while the crew accustoms itself to life at sea. When Ahab does emerge, his appearance startles Ishmael. A long, white scar runs down Ahab's face, and he walks on an artificial leg made of whale bone. Soon he calls the entire crew together and informs them that their voyage will be no ordinary whaling cruise. Ahab has returned to sea with the sole purpose of finding and killing the whale that took his leg on the previous voyage. He offers a sixteen-dollar gold piece to the first man who spots the white whale, Moby-Dick, and then conducts a demonic ceremony in which the three "pagan" harpooners cross their lances and drink to the death of the whale.
When not under the influence of Ahab's obsessive search, Ishmael gathers information and meditates upon the business of whaling and the strange attractive power of the white whale. Among other possible explanations, he suggests that Ahab both fears and hates the whiteness of Moby-Dick because this blankness recalls the "colorless, all-color of atheism," a nothingness that lies behind all nature. He also describes the ship's first whale hunt and the subsequent butchering of the sperm whale. He discusses the whale as it is depicted in paintings and compares the images to his own experiences; and he observes the whale itself, pondering the meaning of its huge and mysterious body, its equally peaceful and violent behavior, and its often contradictory significance to the men who hunt it.
Despite several successful hunts, including one encounter with a herd of sperm whales near the coast of Java, they continue to search for Moby-Dick. Having revealed the presence of his "infidel" boat crew led by Fedallah, the Parsee (a member of the Zoroastrian religious sect from India), Ahab can no longer hide the true extent of his obsession. He orders the blacksmith to forge a special harpoon from the nail stubs of racing horses. He then tempers the barb in the blood of the three harpooners, baptizing the weapon "in nomine diaboli!" (in the name of the devil). Soon after, he throws his navigational quadrant overboard and, in a moment of defiance of nature and God, cries out at the corposants, a strange blue fire of static electricity (sometimes called "Saint Elmo's Fire") that covers the ship's masts. Not even Starbuck, the respected first mate, can convince the captain of his madness.
At this stage in the story, Ishmael becomes less prominent as a character. He reappears occasionally to offer his thoughts on the mythological history of whaling and the symbolic meanings of the story of Jonah from the Bible. While Ahab rages at the world, Ishmael describes the sensual pleasures of squeezing lumps of whale oil or spermaceti. He tells how he once measured a whale's skeleton on the (fictional) island of Tranque in the Arsacides and describes the illness of Queequeg, who is so near death at one point that he orders a coffin from the carpenter. Queequeg survives, however, and turns the coffin into a bed, carving its ex-terior with the same "hieroglyphic marks" that are tattooed on his body. When the ship later loses its standard life-buoy, the carpenter nails the lid on the coffin, caulks it, and hangs it from the back of the ship as a replacement.
Torn between the good and evil influences of Starbuck and Fedallah, Ahab instinctively guides the ship back to the "very latitude and longitude" of his first encounter with Moby-Dick. Starbuck makes a final appeal to his captain to "fly these deadly waters!" and return to his wife and child, but Ahab rejects his pleas and turns to Fedallah. In his role as demonic advisor, Fedallah has prophesied that Ahab will know "neither hearse nor coffin" and that before he can die on this voyage he must first see two hearses on the sea, one "not made by mortal hands" and the other made of American wood. He also declares that only hemp or rope can kill the captain, which Ahab understands as a reference to hanging. Since he is unlikely to be hung on his own ship and even less likely to see two hearses in the middle of the Pacific, Ahab declares himself "immortal on land and sea!"
With any chance of relinquishing his obsession now lost, Ahab finally spots the white whale and the chase begins. For three days the crew of the Pequod fights Moby-Dick but fails to kill him. On the third day, with Ahab's harpoon in his hump, the white whale turns toward the ship itself and, with a powerful blow of his forehead, sinks the Pequod with all the crew still on board. Combined with the death of Fedallah, seen wrapped in the ropes that now encircle Moby-Dick, the ship's sinking fulfills the first prophecy. Soon after, the third prediction also comes true when Ahab, trying to clear a kink in the rope attached to Moby-Dick, gets caught in a loop and disappears, dragged under by the whale. Caught in the whirlpool created by the sinking ship, all remaining members of the crew except Ishmael go down with the ship.
Pitched overboard by the violent struggles of Moby-Dick, Ishmael floats on the edge of the action, witnessing the final moments of Ahab and his crew. As the ship sinks, the whirlpool draws him closer to the site of the wreck, but because of his distance from the ship, he is not pulled under. Instead, out of the center of the whirlpool, Queequeg's coffin rises to save him. Aided by the strange "life preserver," Ishmael floats for "almost one whole day and night" before the Rachel, a whaling ship searching for part of its crew, picks him up.
Introduced by Captain Peleg as "a grand, ungodly, godlike man," the reader learns two things about Ahab, captain of the Pequod in Moby-Dick: Ahab was orphaned when he was twelve months old, and one of his legs was lost as a result of his most recent whaling voyage. The wound is so fresh that the stump is still bleeding. However, it is some time before Ishmael is able to verify this. Ahab does not make a proper appearance in the book until Chapter 28. The reader finds him standing upon his quarter-deck, looking "like a man cut away from the stake," with his white bone leg (carved from a sperm whale's jaw) jammed into a specially drilled hole on deck. The reader is told that Ahab has gray hair and has a white scar or disfigurement down the side of his face. There are some aboard the ship who suspect the mark travels the entire length of Ahab's body, from head to toe. But Melville is more anxious to communicate an atmosphere, in sentences such as, "There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance." The long delay in Ahab's involvement in the action of the novel helps to build him up as a grand figure, the major tragic character Melville wants his readers to see.
Although Ahab is awe-inspiring, Melville is at pains to establish the captain's dignity. In Chapter 34, "The Cabin Table," he is presented as a sultan dining with his emirs. "Over its ivory-laid table, Ahab presided like a mute, maned sea-lion on the white coral beach, surrounded by his warlike but still deferential cubs."
Goaded by Starbuck for wanting his revenge upon the dumb beast which struck out at him from "blindest instinct," Ahab sets out in Chapter 36 his belief that, on the contrary, the whale acted out of inscrutable malice and that every action has a motive or reason. "I'd strike the sun if it insulted me," he states. The following chapter, a short soliloquy, makes explicit Ahab's Shakespearian intensity. "I am madness maddened!" he cries out to himself, alone in his cabin.
Having had the desire for revenge quickened within him, Ahab's obsession is presented as a ravenous monster, rapidly assuming an existence independent of the mind on which it feeds. Chapter 44 ends: "God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vul-ture feeds upon that heart forever; that vulture the very creature he creates."
Ahab's artificial leg is damaged as the result of an encounter with an English vessel, the Samuel Enderby. Having pulled alongside and gone aboard to discover that he has something in common with the English Captain Bloomer—an amputated limb and an ivory substitute—Ahab takes offence at a comment made by the English ship's doctor. Jumping down into the Pequod's landing-boat, his ivory leg receives a fracturing blow. Although the leg is not completely broken, he orders the ship's carpenter to make him a new one, a fact that symbolizes the new light in which the reader has come to view the captain—he is no longer the magisterial commander of the start of the voyage, but a possessed man at the mercy of his obsession.
In Chapter 119, "The Candles," Ahab prays aloud and defiantly to the white flame of St. Elmo's fire. Shortly before this, he hurled the quadrant to the deck and trampled on it, an act in which he symbolically parts company with reason. Becoming an isolated madman—and some critics have compared Ahab with Shakespeare's King Lear—Ahab battles his evil forces alone and is destroyed as a result.
Captain Bildad is a retired whaling captain, a staunch Quaker, and a hard taskmaster. With Peleg, he is co-proprietor of the Pequod, and a licensed pilot. Melville, wondering how such a captain squared up his belief in pacifism with the violence of his lifelong trade, once commented: "Probably he had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man's religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another."
A one-armed English whaling captain, Boomer is master of the Samuel Enderby. He lost his arm in an encounter with Moby-Dick, and has good reason to hate the whale, but he doesn't. His character helps emphasize how extreme Ahab's behavior is.
A mariner who is made the subject of the short, transitionary Chapter 23, "The Lee Shore," in Moby-Dick.
Dr. Bunger is the ship's doctor aboard the Samuel Enderby. He is responsible for amputating Captain Boomer's arm.
The third harpooner on the Pequod, Daggoo works from Flask's boat. He is described as "a gigantic, coal-black negro-savage."
Elijah is the name of the self-styled prophet in Moby-Dick who accosts Ishmael and Queequeg on the quayside before they set sail. He warns them about Ahab.
First seen on deck in Chapter 48, Fedallah dresses all in black, apart from a white turban. He is a member of the Zoroastrian Parsees, a sect that emphasizes the free choice of good or evil and the consequences for the afterlife. He is seen by Stubb as the devil incarnate. Fedallah is present with Ahab at key moments, such as the smashing of the quadrant and the burning of St. Elmo's fire.
The third mate of the Pequod in Moby-Dick, Flask is a native of Martha's Vineyard. Pugnacious and fearless by virtue of a mediocre intellect, he is nicknamed King Post because his short, stocky appearance resembles a squared-off section of timber called by that name.
The Pequod's cook, Fleece is an old black man who is often teased by Stubb.
Gabriel is a freckle-faced young man with ginger hair who visits the Pequod after the Jeroboam, a sister vessel out of Nantucket, draws alongside. A crazed exile from the Neskyeuna Shakers, Gabriel, or the archangel Gabriel as he chooses to call himself, has turned the majority of Captain Mayhew's crew into his disciples, holding a fanatic's sway over them. Melville is quite clear about his disapproval of this character.
Captain Gardiner is the commander of the Rachel, one of the ships the Pequod meets at sea. Moby-Dick, it turns out, is responsible for the death of Gardiner's son. However, Gardiner, unlike Ahab, recognizes that this loss was the act of a wild animal rather than an evil creature.
Mrs. Hussey is the proprietor of the Try Pots, the hotel and restaurant in which Ishmael and Queequeg stay in Nantucket.
- The first film of Moby-Dick was a silent movie, released under the title The Sea Beast in 1926, and starring John Barrymore as Ahab, and distributed by Warner.
- Warner produced a sound version of the novel in 1930; it was directed by Lloyd Bacon and again starred John Barrymore as Ahab.
- The best-known movie version is the John Huston-directed 1956 color production with Gregory Peck as Ahab. This is a powerful and faithful rendering of the novel, though opinions have been divided concerning the central casting. Other actors in the cast were Orson Welles, Richard Basehart, Leo Genn, and Harry Andrews. The screenplay was written by Huston and Ray Bradbury.
- An educational film, Moby Dick: The Great American Novel, was shot by CBS news in 1969.
- An animated version, entitled Moby Dick and produced by API Television Productions in 1977, is available on video.
- A reading by George Kennedy released by "Listen for Pleasure Books on Cassette" dates from 1981.
- A radio dramatization presented on NBC Theater is available on one fifty-minute cassette in the Audio Library Classics series, distributed by Metacom, 1991.
- A sound recording of the novel, read by Norman Dietz on thirteen audiocassettes, was produced by Blackstone Audio Books in 1992.
- A musical titled Moby Dick: A Whale of a Tale was staged in 1993 by Cameron Mackenzie in London's West End; it was an unsuccessful adaptation and only ran for a few weeks.
Ishmael is the name assumed by the otherwise anonymous narrator of Melville's Moby-Dick. A rootless individual, brought up as a good Christian in "the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church," his way of "driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation" is to periodically sign aboard a sailing vessel. At the beginning of the book, Ishmael is in Manhattan, packing an old carpetbag and setting off for New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he arrives on a Saturday night, having just missed the ferry to Nantucket. This circumstance forces him to spend the weekend at the Spouter Inn, reluctantly sharing a room and a bed with a freakish-looking, harpoon-carrying savage named Queequeg.
After visiting the Whaleman's Chapel and hearing Father Mapple's sermon, the two sail out to Nantucket together and, boarding with Mrs. Hussey at the Try Pots, they both sign up to sail aboard the Pequod.
Having set sail, the nature of the narrative shifts and Ishmael's perspective is lost, not to surface again until Chapter 41. In this long, crucial chapter, Ishmael, in contrast to Starbuck's rugged rationality, empathizes with Ahab and fully understands the development of the Captain's monomania. In addition to understanding Ahab, we discover that Ishmael has himself, to some degree, become infected by all the rumors and gossip surrounding the white whale and, in the subsequent chapter, "The Whiteness of the Whale," has been willing to consider the albino whale as a visible symbol for all that remains horribly unseen. "Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love," he says, "the invisible spheres were formed in fright."
Ishmael's friendship with Queequeg is given a fulsome, erotic gloss that has given some critics grounds for exploring homoerotic themes in the novel. Certainly the fraternity which Ishmael appears to enjoy with the rest of the crew is in stark contrast to the lonely isolation of Ahab. It is this contrast—involved camaraderie against aloof de-tachment—which is being set up in such scenes as the sperm-squeezing incident in which Ishmael, grabbing his co-laborers' hands among the globules of whale sperm, is overcome with "an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling."
At the end of the novel, when Ahab and his crew are all killed by Moby-Dick, Ishmael is the only one to survive. Finding a coffin that had been built for Queequeg when he had become gravely ill, Ishmael manages to survive the sea until he is rescued by another ship.
Father Mapple is the preacher at the Whaleman's Chapel in New Bedford. The sermon he delivers in Chapter 9 is a set piece, used by many critics as a gloss on what subsequently befalls the Pequod and its crew. Certainly the sermon covers important issues, such as the passive submission to the will of God. But this conventional Christian doctrine is counterpoised by the fierce crescendo of Mapple's sermon when he defines the true Christian hero as one who "gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges." This is the role of a proud Puritan hero.
Peleg is one of the owners of the Pequod, and serves as a device to introduce the reader to Captain Ahab by describing him to Ishmael.
The Pequod's blacksmith, Perth is nicknamed Prometheus. In Chapter 113 he forges the harpoon with which Ahab hopes to triumph over Moby-Dick. When completed the spear is "baptized" with the heathen blood of Tashtego, Queequeg, and Daggoo.
One of the few named sailors on the Pequod, Pip is just a boy, a bright and cheerful African-American child. The duties of Pip do not normally require him to go in the boats. In Chapter 93, however, Pip stands in for Stubb's after-oarsman, who has sprained his hand. After the whale has been harpooned, Pip panics, jumps overboard, and becomes tangled in the line. The capture has to be sacrificed to save the young lad's life. Tashtego, the harpooner, and other members of the crew are furious. Stubb, perceived as acting fairly, warns Pip in a businesslike way never to jump overboard again. When this advice is ignored, Stubb's boat declines to rescue Pip a second time. The boy is eventually picked up by the Pequod, but he has been in the water so long that he has lost his mind.
Queequeg is a highborn native of an uncharted south-seas island. His father was a High Chief, and his uncle a High Priest. Queequeg is covered in tattoos and worships pagan gods, including a small black idol, Yojo. In the first hundred pages of the novel, Queequeg is a major character. While he and Ishmael board together at the Spouter Inn, and then at Mrs. Hussy's in Nantucket, he is the source of a considerable level of amusement. But the real point about Queequeg is his friendliness. He and Ishmael strike up an instant comradeship.
Starbuck is the chief mate of the Pequod and a native of Nantucket. He is a Christian of an earnest Quaker disposition, a "staid, steadfast man." Although only about thirty, his appearance is pinched and wizened. He selects Queequeg as his harpooner. Melville depicts Starbuck as a man who becomes possessed and demonized by Ahab. In the soliloquy, "Dusk," Chapter 38, Starbuck explains to himself that Ahab has "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." Essentially, he trusts to God to put in the "wedge" that will divert Ahab from his objective. But there are some key moments when he stands up to his captain. Starbuck confronts Ahab in Chapter 109 upon discovering that sperm oil is leaking from the hold. This means, he insists, that they must "up Burtons" (that is, hoist up the casks and see what barrels need repairing). Ahab furiously refuses, at one point ordering his first mate at gunpoint to go on deck and proceed as usual. But Star-buck's calm self-righteousness impresses the captain. "Thou art but too good a fellow, Starbuck," says Ahab, as he proceeds to order "up Burtons." Later, in Chapter 123, "The Musket," Starbuck is tempted to murder Ahab in his sleep, using the very weapon that was used to threaten him in the earlier chapter. He holds the musket and takes aim but, after wrestling with his angel, turns away and puts the gun back in its rack.
Stubb is the Pequod's second mate. He is the brother-in-law of Charity and a native of Cape Cod. A jovial, easygoing, pipe-smoking character, he serves as a contrast to the upright Starbuck. Stubb catches and kills a whale with cool efficiency in Chapter 61. His colorful exchanges with the ship's crew provide, in the middle section of the book, some of the humor and entertainment that Queequeg provides at the start. He is more sensitive than Flask, but not inclined to speculation. His philosophy, such as it is, is to laugh at life, as he explains in the brief soliloquy found in Chapter 39, "First Night-Watch."
Individual vs. Nature
The voyage of the Pequod is no straightforward, commercially inspired whaling voyage. The reader knows this as soon as Ishmael registers as a member of the crew and receives, at secondhand, warnings of the captain's state of mind. Ahab, intent on seeking revenge on the whale who has maimed him, is presented as a daring and creative individual, pitted against the full forces of nature. In developing the theme of the individual (Ahab) versus Nature (symbolized by Moby-Dick), Melville explores the attributes of natural forces. Are they ruled by chance, neutral occurrences that affect human characters arbitrarily? Or do they possess some form of elementary will that makes them capable of using whatever power is at their disposal?
God and Religion
The conflict between the individual and nature brings into play the theme of religion and God's role in the natural world. The critic Harold Bloom has named Ahab "one of the fictive founders of what should be called the American Religion," and although Melville wrote his novel while living in the civilized Berkshires, near the eastern U.S. seaboard, and set it on the open seas, the reader must not forget that America at that time had moved westward. To Ahab it does not matter if the white whale is "agent" or "principle." He will fight against fate, rather than resign himself to a divine providence. Father Mapple, who gives a sermon near the beginning of the novel, and, to a lesser extent, Starbuck both symbolize the conventional and contemporary religious attitudes of nineteenth-century Protestantism. Ahab's defiance of these is neither romantic nor atheistic but founded on a tragic sense of heroic and unavoidable duty.
Good and Evil, Female and Masculine
Ahab picks his fight with evil on its own terms, striking back aggressively. The good things in the book—the loyalty of members of the crew, such as young Pip; Ahab's domestic memories of his wife and child—remain peripheral and ineffective, a part of life that is never permitted to take center stage. Other dualities abound. The sky and air, home for the birds, is described as feminine, while the sea is masculine, a deep dungeon for murderous brutes. Also contrasted with the sea is the land, seen as green and mild, a tranquil haven. In Chapter 58 Melville writes: "As the appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, for thou canst never return!" Although Melville's exact point of view is debatable, and the symbolism in the book is too rich to allow for neat comparisons, it can be said that qualities of goodness tend to be equated with the land, the feminine, and with mildness of temper. Viewing the Pequod's voyage as a metaphor for life, the book seems to be saying that in following ambition or any far-off goal, an individual risks missing out on many of the good things in life, including home and domestic happiness.
The fact that there are no female participants in the novel has encouraged some critics to consider that this is a commentary on the masculine character—thrusting, combative, and vengeful. But it is because the other characters are all male, and they are not all like Ahab, that interpretations cannot be so straightforward. The very masculinity of Ahab is complicated somewhat by the possibility that he has been castrated, not by the initial encounter with the whale, but by the subsequent accidental piercing of his groin by his ivory leg. Critics as diverse as W. H. Auden and Camille Paglia have written about the sexual symbolism in the novel. It is a matter which invites debate, although any discussion on the subject needs to take into account that in the nineteenth century, it was an accepted convention to give certain characteristics a gender bias. Melville, like his contemporaries, was sophisticated enough to know that men and women could embrace a combination of traits deemed to be masculine and feminine.
Choices and Consequences
Ahab is both a hero and a villain. In making a choice and sticking by it, he can be seen as valiantly exercising free will. But the consequences of his decision transform him into a villain, responsible for the death of such innocents as Pip and good men like Starbuck. His monomania or obsession chains him to a fate worse than that which might have prevailed had he not so stubbornly pursued his goal. Contrasting readings of the novel are possible, and most turn upon the interpretation of the character of Ahab and the choices he makes—or, rather, towards the end of the book, the choices he refuses to make. "Not too late is it, even now," Star-buck cries out to him on the third day of the climactic chase. The question is, in depicting a number of situations in which Ahab is given the possibility of drawing back, is Melville establishing a flaw in the individual character, or is he emphasizing the predestined and inescapable quality of the novel's conclusion?
Topics for Further Study
- By investigating various movie adaptations and juvenile editions of Moby-Dick (including comic books), attempt to analyze the qualities of Melville's novel which do not transfer to other mediums.
- Basing your work on Chapter 32 of the novel, "Cetology," check Melville's facts about whales with what is known about them today. How much, if any, of this chapter would need revising?
- Explore the issues of physical disability and revenge from the perspective of modern psychology; apply what you learn to the character of Ahab to try to understand his motivations.
- Imagine a reader of Moby-Dick who is given a copy in which Chapter 9 (Father Mapple's sermon) has been torn out. The reader claims it made no difference to his or her appreciation of the book. Present an argument in favor of the chapter.
- Compare and contrast practices of the whaling industry in the 1850s with current practices followed by whaling ships from Japan and Norway; what were the different tools used to hunt and process whales compared to those used now, and how are the different parts of the whale used in commercial products today?
For much of the final encounter, the white whale behaves as any ordinary whale caught up in the chase, but in its last rush at the boat, "Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect…." These are exactly the qualities which Ahab himself has exhibited during the voyage. Ahab is finally seen as both defined and consumed by fate. When, at the end of the novel, Ishmael, the lone survivor, is finally picked up and rescued by the Rachel, we are reminded that he had become a member of the crew as the result of an act of free will rather than necessity, as a means of escaping thoughts of death.
Appearance and Reality
Underscoring all of these themes is an ongoing consideration of the meaning of appearances. A key chapter in this regard is "The Whiteness of the Whale," a meditation in Ishmael's voice on the mask-like ambiguities which affect our interpretation of the visible world. There are ambiguities in the chapter itself, for in one of two footnotes Melville gives a firsthand account of his first sighting of an albatross. "Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God." Is the reader supposed to think this is Ishmael or Melville speaking? (Ambiguity becomes a major theme in Melville's next novel, Pierre.) In this particular chapter, Ishmael meditates on the strange phenomenon of whiteness, which sometimes speaks of godly purity and at other times repels or terrorizes with its ghostly pallor. The meditation leaves color references behind to become a general meditation on the nature of fear and the existence of unseen evil: "Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright."
Point of View
Melville's earlier novels are mainly first-person accounts of romanticized sailing voyages presented as actual experience. When, after the introductory Etymology and Extracts, he opens Moby-Dick with the words "Call me Ishmael," it is as if he is giving notice that the narrative voice in this novel is to be more obviously fictional. There are periods, particularly in the first quarter of the book, when Ishmael is an active character, telling the story as an involved first-person narrator. But often during the middle section of the voyage Ish-mael's voice recedes and the reader is presented with a traditional, omniscient narrator's view of events, with the consequence that the author, Melville, and the character Ishmael become identified as one and the same in many readers' minds. Shakespearean soliloquies and learned discourses on whaling history and anatomy are used to break up the narrative thread.
At no point is Ishmael given the perspective of one who is relating the story from a flashback point of view in which the outcome of the voyage is known, but since he could not be relating the story if he had gone down with the ship, the reader knows this must be a survivor's tale. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Ishmael's attitudes and beliefs as they are reflected at the novel's beginning still hold by its conclusion, for Ishmael's experiences clearly have an effect on him.
The passages providing reference information on whales and whaling, which sometimes seem clumsily inserted into the narrative, are a means of making it clear to the reader that the story is about much more than a simple hunting expedition. It is not always apparent who is supposed to be presenting the information—Ishmael? Melville?—but it is certainly not Ahab, who has lost whatever interest he had in whaling as a purely practical and commercial enterprise. Nevertheless, some of the factual, general material provides relevant commentary on the thematic implications of Ahab's quest for one individual whale, so that there is a multi-layered symbolism at work in the book. The crudest and most straightforward symbolism is that which occurs when clusters of chapters make direct analogies with allegorical qualities.
In Chapter 73, for example, the hoisting of a captured whale's head to the side of the boat makes it lean until it is counterbalanced by the head of a second kill. This, the reader is told, is like first being influenced by one philosopher and then being brought to some degree of even keel by a dose of another. "Throw all these thunderheads overboard, and then you will float light and right" is the final exhortation. But a later chapter takes the analogy into an entirely different realm, one that touches upon the much broader symbolism of the novel. Chapter 76, "The Battering-Ram," in which it is explained that the mouth of a sperm whale is positioned entirely underneath the head, and its eyes and ears are situated on the sides, describes the whale's frontal appearance as a "dead, blind wall," a featureless barrier of flesh and bone against which Ahab has pitted himself. The whale's head thus symbolizes the unsympathetic and irresistible forces of nature.
After the initial, episodic beginning to Moby-Dick, Melville takes liberties with the structure of the novel. He introduces very short chapters, some barely a page in length, and puts words into the mouths of his characters as if they are performing on the Elizabethan stage, rather than in a nineteenth-century novel. Comparing Moby-Dick with other stalwart nineteenth-century texts, such as those by Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope, it is easy to exaggerate Melville's eccentricities. In fact, Melville's contemporaries were perfectly happy with the traditionally accepted structures of the novel at the time. Reading reviews of Moby-Dick from both sides of the Atlantic helps one to realize that its critical reception was not at all bad. Discerning reviewers of the time, especially in the English press, actually did appreciate the novel in relation to Melville's preceding works and considered it to be his finest achievement to date.
Unfortunately, the general public was not so appreciative of the novel's subtleties and innovations. The book sold fewer than five thousand copies in Melville's lifetime. Its structure was undoubtedly a factor. For some readers it remains a difficult book to complete on first encounter. On the other hand, once it has been read from beginning to end, it is relatively easy to return to its decisive moments and examine afresh their relationship to the whole. This makes it a very accessible book for study, the brevity of its chapters helping students to find their way about the text.
Newton Arvin was one of the first critics to identify the characteristics of what he called Melville's "verbal palette." These include his fondness for verbal nouns such as "regardings," "allur-ings" and "intercedings," which give passages of the novel the magisterial tone of an ancient classic text. One of the source books for Moby-Dick was Os Lusiados (The Lusiads) by the sixteenth-century Portuguese poet Luis de Camoens. In this poem, Camoens did for the Portuguese language what Geoffrey Chaucer had done for English and Dante for Italian. Melville was increasingly conscious that no one had yet achieved this in American literature. He read and reviewed Nathaniel Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse in the course of working on Moby-Dick. In his review he commented on the need for heroic national literature of a truly independent kind.
Many of the epic references and posturings in Moby-Dick are humorous (mock-epic). The three-day battle with the whale at the end of the book is on a grand scale, and the association with Prometheus (the Greek Titan who gave fire to mankind and was later punished by Zeus for it) is self-consciously "heroic," but Melville mixes this with passages of ranting slang. As John McWilliams said in his essay "The Epic in the Nineteenth Century," "Moby-Dick represents a moment in literary history when generic terms retain old meanings that must be wilfully, even gleefully, broken down."
America in the Mid-Nineteenth Century
America was in a tumultuous period, establishing its national and international identity at the time Moby-Dick was being written. It is noteworthy that the classic American novel of the period is not ostensibly about westward expansion. Instead it is about pursuit and capture, about following a dream. The American Dream, as it was envisaged by the Founding Fathers, is now considered by some as a dangerous preoccupation, a consuming national obsession. In a real sense, Melville's book is not about its time, but about ours. A possible reading would have the Pequod as modern corporate America, intent on control and subjection, and Ahab as a power-crazed executive, quick to seek vengeance for any received aggression.
When the novel was being written, Transcendentalism was becoming the predominant philosophical and religious viewpoint. This view—propounded most cogently by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay Self-Reliance-held that God was present in the world, as well as in every individual soul. In this way, the soul's intuitions were divine and should be followed regardless of authority, tradition, or public opinion. "Trust thyself," was the basic tenet, and hence the term "Self-Reliance." This view (it never developed into a rigorous system of thought) was essentially a reaction against New England Puritanism. Like English Romanticism, it was heavily influenced by German philosophers, principally Immanuel Kant. As propounded by Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Al-cott, Margaret Fuller, Jones Very, George Ripley, and a host of other New England poets, essayists, divines, and public speakers, Transcendentalism was idealistic, skirting around such basic religious notions as sin and evil.
Although Melville fits the descriptions of the self-reliant individual in Emerson's essay—"to be great is to be misunderstood," "who so would be a man must be a nonconformist"—he, like Hawthorne, remained acutely aware that by taking self-reliance to extremes, as in the case of the mono-maniacal Ahab, virtue could quickly turn to vice. The Calvinist heritage could not so easily be shrugged off. (Calvinists followed John Calvin's theological system that included the doctrine of predestination and the belief that mankind was depraved by nature.) And in his essay "Hawthorne and His Mosses," Melville, approving Hawthorne's "power of blackness," explained that it "derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free." It is this recognition of and sense of sin which separates Melville from Transcendentalism, the predominant movement of his period.
The American Whaling Industry
The United States had been a whaling nation since the seventeenth century, when the early colonists launched expeditions from the island of Nantucket and from ports along the Massachusetts coast. The early whalers hunted whales in the seas fairly close to shore. In 1712 a chance storm blew a whale ship off course and into much deeper waters. This resulted in an encounter with a pod of sperm whales, one of which was captured. The superior quality of sperm oil was thus discovered and from that point on American whalers extended voyage distances and times in their hunt for the sperm whale. They traveled the whole world, often venturing into uncharted waters, and their journeys contributed to the development of maritime cartography. Moby-Dick was written at a time when the American whaling industry, propelled by home demand, was at its peak. The United States owned three-quarters of the world's whaling ships.
Compare & Contrast
- 1850s: Whaling is a largely unregulated business. American whalers are free to sail the open seas, and to hunt for whales in any waters.
Today: In 1986 member nations of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) vote to ban commercial whaling. Some nations, including Norway and Japan, continue to slaughter whales.
- 1850s: Americans continue to move west. The population of the northern states exceeds the population of the south by one million. Slave-holding states seek to expand their influence in the new territories, such as California and Utah. A compromise reached in 1850 holds the peace for a decade, but slavery becomes a major and confrontational domestic issue dividing North and South.
Today: Differences between northern and southern states remain, but not at constitutional levels. Slavery has long been abolished but many blacks suffer from racism. Foreign policy issues lead the political agenda as America seeks to maintain and extend its international influence.
- 1850s: As a rejection of Calvinistic sobriety, many middle-class people dabble in hydropathy, hypnotism, and phrenology, but these are still seen as alternatives to mainstream religious be lief and medical therapies.
Today: Proponents of alternative medicines such as reflexology and aromatherapy present them as whole belief systems and substitutes for orthodox religion.
- 1850s: Body painting or tattooing is suggestive of paganism. Queequeg's tattoos convince Ishmael "that he must be some abominable savage or other shipped aboard of a whaler in the South Seas, and so landed in this Christian country."
Today: Tattoos and body piercing as a fashion have become widely accepted alongside traditional jewelry.
In the year of Moby-Dick's publication, a whaler was sunk by a sperm whale in circumstances which appeared to replicate the climax to Melville's novel. The Ann Alexander had two of its whaling boats destroyed by the whale they were pursuing. The whale then deliberately rammed the main ship, causing it to sink.
The first edition of Moby-Dick received a mixed reception. It was condemned for its unusual narrative style and for its irreverent tone. The proportion of positive to negative reviews was highest in England, where the book had been published in three volumes under the title The Whale. There were other differences between the American and English editions. The English publisher, Bentley, positioned the Extracts section at the end of the book and did not include the Epilogue at all. The main body of the text had also been abridged to cut out much of the overt blasphemy and sexual suggestiveness. One of the earliest and most expansive reviews appeared in the London Morning Advertiser, on October 24, 1851. In that review the rich, multi-faceted texture of the book was considered a strength. The novel was praised for its "High philosophy, liberal feeling, abstruse metaphysics popularly phrased, soaring speculation, a style as many-coloured as the theme."
On the other hand, in America the book was enjoyed only in regard to those aspects in which it resembled Melville's earlier sailing narrative, Typee. Readers liked its graphic accounts of whaling and ignored its soaring religious and philosophical ruminations. Where the speculation and abstruse metaphysics were taken note of, they were roundly deplored, especially in religious journals.
A critic for the Methodist Quarterly Review wrote in January, 1952: "We are bound to say … that the book contains a number of flings at religion, and even of vulgar immoralities that render it unfit for general circulation." The most scathing review appeared in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review in January, 1952. It attacked Melville's vanity and assumed hunger for fame. "From this morbid self-esteem, coupled with a most unbounded love of notoriety," commented the reviewer, "spring all Mr. Melville's efforts, all his rhetorical contortions, all his declamatory abuse of society, all his inflated sentiment, and all his insinuating licentiousness."
Harper and Brothers, Melville's publisher and a Methodist firm, were affected by this response, and when the critical reception was matched by disappointing sales, they offered Melville unsatisfactory terms in his next contract. He was never to recover from this setback and although his position as one of the major writers of his time is now unassailable, it was never so in his lifetime. When Van Wyck Brooks set about a reassessment of the nineteenth century in his essay "America's Coming of Age," published in 1915, Melville's name was not considered worthy of mention. In Vernon Parring-ton's influential three-volume Main Currents in American Thought, published in the late 1920s, Melville is portrayed as an irrelevant eccentric. However, this decade was also the point at which several key voices were heard in support of Melville's reputation. D. H. Lawrence wrote an essay in 1923 which praised Melville as a great poet of the sea.
But of more profound critical importance was the publication, two years earlier, of Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic by Raymond Weaver, one of the first books to treat seriously the religious and philosophical themes in Moby-Dick and Melville's other books. Weaver's influence on students who later became academics, particularly while he was at Columbia University in the 1940s, was immense. The 1950s saw an enormous increase in the volume of critical comment about Moby-Dick, good examples of which include a long introductory essay to the novel by Alfred Kazin, for whom it "conveys a sense of abundance, of high creative power, that exhilarates and enlarges the imagination," and an essay by Richard Chase, "Melville and Moby-Dick," which enthused, "The symbols are manifold and suggestive; the epic scope is opulent; the rhetoric is full and various; the incidental actions and metaphors are richly absorbing."
However, there was still a reluctance to shower Moby-Dick with the highest accolades. Chase, in his essay, tempered his praise with a carping reservation about the novel's narrowness of meaning and simplification of issues when compared with great works such as Shakespeare's King Lear or Dante's The Divine Comedy. Another critic of the period, R. P. Blackmur, criticized Melville for not making use of the conventional dramatic strategies of novelistic characterization and for allowing his allegorical agenda to take precedence over narrative technique.
The criticism of recent decades has been inclined to explore the idiosyncratic structure of Moby-Dick in terms of potential, rather than weaknesses and deficiencies, and to treat the whale as the novel's central character. A. Robert Lee inter-preted the book in anatomical terms, searching for layers of meaning under the skin, and Eric Mot-tram is one of several critics who have discussed the novel's erotic and sexual connotations in Freudian terms. Certainly there now seems to be some agreement that it is no use approaching the book as if it were written by Henry James.
As John McWilliams put it in his essay "The Epic in the Nineteenth Century," published in The Columbia History of American Poetry, "The armada of scholars and critics who have felt compelled to reach a judgment upon Ahab are by now revealed to have been collectively gazing into Melville's doubloon." Inevitably, not all of the latest criticism is helpful or perceptive, and readers approaching the novel for the first time are advised to consider it both as a work that realistically portrays life on a whaling vessel and as a literary investigation of the conflict between humanity and fate.
In the following essay, Davis, an associate professor of English at Northeast Louisiana University, describes how Moby-Dick reflects its author's philosophical, religious, and social ideals.
Since the revival of interest in Herman Melville in the early 1920s, Moby-Dick, the author's sixth novel, has come to be considered his masterpiece. Part romantic sea tale, part philosophical drama, the story of Ishmael, Ahab, and the white whale combines Melville's experiences aboard the whaler Acushnet with his later immersion in such classic authors as William Shakespeare, John Milton, François Rabelais, and Laurence Sterne. After several years as a sailor, both in the whale fleet and in the United States navy, Melville returned to his native New York in 1844 and soon began writing about his experiences. His earliest works, such as Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), were loosely based upon his time in the Marquesas Islands and Tahiti. Melville's third novel, Mardi (1849), though a failure, showed evidence of a greater ambition to write enduring works of literature. Just two years later, that ambition would find its fullest expression in the pages of Moby-Dick, a symbolic tale that dramatizes the struggle to find meaning in a complex and hostile world.
Moby-Dick is narrated—or, more accurately, "written"—by a sailor who calls himself Ishmael, after the biblical outcast and son of Abraham. As a young man not fully initiated into the mysteries of life, he undergoes a type of spiritual and philosophical education during the course of the novel. Initially hostile and potentially suicidal, he heads for the whaling fleet, hoping to exorcise some of his anger at the world. Before he can find a ship, however, his poverty forces him to share a bed in a seedy inn with a bizarre and frightening "cannibal" named Queequeg. Carrying a shrunken head and a tomahawk that doubles as a peace pipe, Queequeg suggests both death and life. Indeed, after sharing a bed with this harpooner, Ishmael is a changed man. He has experienced the first of a series of encounters with the mysterious "otherness" or strangeness of nature. In symbolic terms, he has embraced death in the form of Queequeg, and when he wakes the following morning he sees the world from a different perspective. Ishmael understands the mixture of life and death that Queequeg's tomahawk/pipe suggests and realizes, at least at that moment, that experience can lead to renewal.
The other major influence on Ishmael's growth is certainly the captain of the Pequod, Ahab. Named for an evil king in the Old Testament, Ahab demonstrates the dangers of an excessive focus on ideas. The object of his obsession is of course the white whale, nicknamed Moby-Dick by the sailors. On the voyage previous to the one described in the novel, Ahab lost one of his legs to Moby-Dick, and by the time Ishmael's story begins, he has sworn to take his vengeance by hunting down and killing the great whale. It soon becomes clear, however, that Ahab's fixation has more to do with what the white whale represents than with Moby-Dick himself. As Ahab explains in a notable speech to the crew, for him "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 explains, 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 Ahab's mind, is to reach for and seize the unknowable truth that is hidden from all people.
Ahab's attitude toward nature is often referred to as a "monomania," a tendency to see everything in terms of himself. This vision of the world con-trasts markedly with that of Ishmael after his first encounter with Queequeg. Under the influence of the more naturalistic "savage," Ishmael learns to understand what he sees from more than one perspective. He also begins to realize that objects in the world can have more than one meaning because meaning originates with the observer rather than the object. In chapter 99, for instance, Ishmael describes how Ahab and several members of the crew interpret a gold doubloon that Ahab has nailed to one of the masts as a reward for the first person to spot Moby-Dick. Though the marks on the coin never change, each man's description is different, revealing more about his own thoughts and ideas than about the coin. Ahab, in the grip of his monomania, declares that each symbol on the coin "means Ahab" and that the whole coin is a reflection of the world as he sees it. Ishmael, by contrast, refuses to insist upon a single meaning for the objects he encounters. He gathers as much information and as many opinions as he can, suggesting that all readings are both partially valid and yet always incomplete.
The central dramatic event of the novel, Ahab's hunt for the whale, thus describes the consequences of conceiving of the world as a mask that hides unknowable truth. Ahab's frustration with the limits of human knowledge leads him to reject both science and logic and embrace instead violence and the dark magic of Fedallah, his demonic advisor. Like Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, he has made a pact with the devil, selling his soul for the secrets of the universe, only to find himself caught in the snares of his prophet's deception. Thinking himself immortal, Ahab attacks Moby-Dick, striking at the mask of appearance that supposedly hides ultimate truth. What he fails to realize, however, is that such truth exists only beyond the limits of the physical world; only in death will Ahab be able to reach the "unknown but still reasoning thing" and learn what cannot be known in this world. Accordingly, his attempt to kill Moby-Dick brings about his own death. 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.
What Do I Read Next?
- Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852), the novel which followed Moby-Dick, is an interesting and bitter novel. Many of the character Pierre's own speculations, and Melville's narrative comments, illuminate the themes in the whaling book.
- Billy Budd, the novella completed at the end of Melville's life but not published until 1924, presents an interesting contrast in tone, compared with the earlier novel.
- The House of the Seven Gables (1851) by Nathaniel Hawthorne was published at a time when he and Melville were friends. It is the story of a curse on the Pyncheon family and how the curse is eventually broken.
- Two Years before the Mast, Richard Dana's 1840 account of life on the waves, was read by Melville while he was a young man.
- V by Thomas Pynchon, published in 1963, is a novel of pursuit, dealing in large themes, including romantic delusion.
- Elephant Goldby Eric Campbell, 1997, a young adult novel set in Africa, is about a monomaniacal elephant hunter clearly based on Ahab.
Ishmael, on the other hand, escapes destruction in large part because of his different attitude toward the physical world. While Ahab sees nature as deceptive, Ishmael learns to concentrate on the complexities and beauties of what he sees. Rather than imagine a truer world beyond that of the senses, Ishmael revels in the details of the world around him, compiling information and observations on the business of whaling, on the Pequod's crew, and on the inexhaustible wonders of the whale itself. Indeed, for Ishmael the whale becomes the overwhelming symbol of life itself and of the search for knowledge represented by the book that bears its name. The book's encyclopedic breadth is meant to suggest the vastness of his subject and the wealth of all sensual life. "Since I have undertaken to manhandle this Leviathan," Ishmael tells us, "it behooves me to approve myself omnisciently exhaustive in the enterprise; not overlooking the minutest seminal germs of his blood, and spinning him out to the uttermost coil of his bowels."
Because of its tremendous scope, Moby-Dick offers information and comment on a wide variety of topics related to nineteenth-century life. For instance, critics have often described the Pequod as a microcosm, or "little world," that represents social and political life in pre-Civil War America. Understood this way, Ahab and Ishmael stand for opposing political and social theories. Autocratic Ahab, with his Shakespearean speeches and dependence on magic, suggests an aristocratic ruler who maintains power through threat and superstition. Ishmael, on the other hand, appears to represent the radical democracy of America itself. His concern for others, his tolerance of different religions and cultures, and his resilience in the face of social collapse all mark him as a distinctly American character who opposes the old-world values of Ahab.
Other readers have commented on Melville's use of eastern religions and mythology, as well as his reliance on the relatively recent discoveries of Egyptian archaeology. In this vein, some have compared Ishmael's vision of the circularity of life and death to similar conceptions in Hinduism and Buddhism. His friendship with Queequeg in particular is often cited as evidence of his adoption of non-Western religious or philosophical views. Likewise, his descriptions of the whale often rely upon references to Egyptian architecture and writing to suggest both the whale's great antiquity and its mysterious power. On the whale's skin Ishmael sees "hieroglyphic" marks that, like Queequeg's tattoos, seem "a mystical treatise on the art of attaining the truth." Moby-Dick's "high, pyramidical white hump" suggests a mixture of geometrical purity and ancient knowledge. And the ocean itself, source of both life and death, becomes in Ishmael's mind a place of miracle, a "live ground" that "swallows up ships and crews."
Moby-Dick also provides an unprecedented view of the whaling industry in mid-nineteenth-century America. Ishmael's detailed descriptions of the hunting, capture, slaughter, and butchering of sperm whales both celebrates and questions the violent energy of American commerce. In one respect, the whaling industry demonstrated heroic action and astonishing efficiency. American ships, manned by sailors of all nations, circled the globe to gather the oil that fed the lamps of homes throughout the country. Hunting whales in small boats launched from ships demanded enormous courage, skill, and strength. And it seems proper that the democratic Ishmael should praise the traits of character that made such an industry possible. In other respects, however, the tremendous violence of whale hunting suggests a world deeply at odds with nature. Disturbing doubts arise as Ishmael discovers, for instance, that the Pequod is owned by pacifist Quakers and that the violence that is necessary to run the whaling industry may very well produce the madness that plagues Captain Ahab.
With the completion of Moby-Dick in 1851, Melville knew he had produced an extraordinary book. His friend and neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom the work is dedicated, sent him a letter praising the accomplishment. Commercially, however, the book was at first a failure. Melville's reading public still considered him the author of entertaining sea tales, and people were not prepared to accept his ambition to write a masterpiece. Melville's subsequent work fared even worse, and by 1857 he had given up writing short stories and novels and had turned instead to poetry. Despite this change of format, however, the central concerns of Moby-Dick never disappear from Melville's writings. Throughout his poetry and even as late as his last known prose narrative, Billy Budd, Melville continues to explore the conflict between acceptance and aggression best represented by Ishmael and Ahab.
Raymond Weaver, one of the critics to rediscover Melville in the early twentieth century, has called Moby-Dick "an amazing masterpiece" that reads "like a great opium dream." Despite its difficult passages, complex philosophical content, and unusual and sometimes awkward form, the book has sustained continuous and often extreme attention from readers for the last eighty years. Like the meaningful world it creates and describes, Moby-Dick seems inexhaustible, reflecting that "image of the ungraspable phantom of life" that, according to Ishmael, "is the key to it all."
Source: Clark Davis, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.
William B. Dillingham
Dillingham, in the following excerpt, sees the novel's narrator, Ishmael, as a character who represents Melville's theme of the isolation of individuals from the rest of humanity.
Throughout Moby-Dick, the theme of human isolation is prevalent. Each character exists as an island. While they influence each others' lives, they can never fully understand each other or experience a merger of souls. This is one reason Ishmael admits to a "strange sort of insanity" when he tells how he felt when squeezing the sperm in Chapter 94. He wanted then to say to his companions: "Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves … universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness." His was, indeed, a "strange sort of insanity", as he looks back on it, for Ishmael has come to realize the truth of man's unalterable isolation. This is a central theme not only in Moby-Dick but also in Melville's other work, both his fiction and poetry. He saw man living utterly alone in a world where overwhelming questions have no positive answers. [In Studies in Classic American Literature (1964)] D. H. Lawrence saw to the heart of Melville's concern with human isolation when he wrote that Melville "pined for … a perfect relationship; perfect mating; perfect mutual understanding. A perfect friend," but knew in his heart that such communion cannot be because "each soul is alone, and the aloneness of each soul is a double barrier to perfect relationship between two beings."
The theme of loneliness is dominant in the reasons for Ishmael's survival. A great deal has been written on why only Ishmael is allowed to escape death. [Writing in his The Trying-out of Moby-Dick (1949)] Howard Vincent believes that Ishmael undergoes a "spiritual rebirth", symbolically portrayed in his being saved. Only Ishmael is saved, argues Vincent, because only he has "obtained the inner harmony unrealized by Ahab". James Dean Young [writing in American Literature, January, 1954] feels that it is Ishmael's "humanity" that saves him. And C. Hugh Holman argues [in Studies in Classic American Literature (1964)] that Ishmael survives because he alone "of those on the Pequod has faced with the courage of humility the facts of his universe."
These interpretations, which see Ishmael's survival as his reward for a lesson well learned, are not entirely satisfying. It may be possible to make a list of the characters in Moby-Dick and then find some flaw in each—except Ishmael—but such an approach surely does violence to the novel. By almost any standard Queequeg is noble, courageous, and humane to the last. Starbuck is characterized as sensitive, tender, and mature. They are both at least as worthy of being saved as Ishmael.
But the point is that it is not at all clear that physical survival is Melville's symbol for spiritual salvation or even for moral superiority. Ishmael is not saved because he is a deeper thinker, or because he is more humane, or because he is stoical. The others of the crew do not die because they are being punished for following Ahab or for other assorted shortcomings. They are simply victims of Ahab's destructive design. Man has, as Ishmael puts it in the "Monkey-Rope" chapter, a "Siamese connection with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die." Ahab is their banker and their apothecary.
Melville chose to save Ishmael for at least three reasons, all of which are closely related to the meaning of the book. The first is that Melville wished to objectify the idea of man's loneliness through Ishmael. In spite of the "Siamese connection", which men have, they are, paradoxically, incapable of sharing each others' deepest and most meaningful thoughts and intuitions. Having Ishmael die with the rest of the characters would have, in a sense, made him a part of the group. But he is Melville's representative of man, alone in the universe, and saving him—only him—projects this image brilliantly. Perhaps the book's most unforgettable image is of Ishmael, after the sinking of the Pequod, alone in the eternal sea, in "the great shroud of the sea [which] rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago." Although "the Fates ordained" as Ishmael puts it, that he should be rescued, he feels merely like "another orphan".
Ishmael's feeling about the Fates pervades the book and offers a second explanation for his survival. From the early pages, one senses the inevitability of the events, what Ronald Mason calls [in The Spirit Above the Dust (1951)] "fatal compulsion". But precisely how to account for the strange workings of "the Fates"—this is the unanswerable question which haunted Melville throughout his life. He resented dogma of all sorts which claimed to solve the riddle of the universe. In Moby-Dick doctrines of many kinds abound. Father Mapple's sermon on Jonah has been offered by some as the key to the book, but this interpretation, I suggest, goes contrary to all Melville believed. While there may be partial truth in what Father Mapple says, it scarcely accounts for the existence of a man like Ahab or for what he has to do, drawn on by the necessity of his innermost being. The sermon which the cook Fleece preaches to the sharks is as relevant to Ahab as are Father Mapple's words. For Ahab is like the sharks; he can no more turn back from his search than they can become "civilized". From Father Mapple's Christianity to Queequeg's pagan idol worship, the doctrines so frequently mentioned in the book simply underscore the fact that life's deepest truths are unfathomable. By what appears to be sheer chance, Ish-mael is thrown from his whale boat at a crucial moment and is thus saved from the fatal encounter with Moby Dick. Ishmael survives to illustrate the inexplicability of life, another of the book's important themes. He is not, to restate an earlier point, allowed to live because he is morally better than anyone else aboard the Pequod.
The third reason for Ishmael's survival is in one sense the most obvious. He must live because he, after all, is the teller of the story. A great deal more is involved here than the obvious technical necessity of keeping the first-person narrator alive. And here we return to a consideration of the book's strange, wild tone. Melville kept Ishmael alive to show the later effect of the Pequod experience upon his mind. Why does Ishmael tell his story? Because he has to. Since shipping on the Pequod, he has wandered the earth, but it is what happened on that first whaling voyage that preoccupies him. Everywhere he goes, he feels the necessity to tell of Ahab and Moby Dick, just as the seemingly mad Elijah does in an early chapter of the novel. For example, in Chapter 54, Ishmael relates how he told part of the narrative—the "Town-Ho's Story"—in Lima, "one Saint's eve". In a good many ways, Ishmael is similar to the Ancient Mariner of Coleridge. In Chapter 42, "The Whiteness of the Whale", Ish-mael refers to Coleridge's poem and tells of the "clouds of spiritual wonderment and pale dread" suggested by the albatross.
The references in Moby-Dick to Coleridge's poem suggest an influence which is borne out by a comparison of the book with "the Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Although critics have referred in passing to certain similarities in Moby-Dick and Coleridge's poem, the subject has not received extensive treatment nor has one of the most important similarities—the states of mind of the two narrators—been clearly shown. W. Clark Russell made a provocative statement when he wrote in 1884 [a remark quoted in Jay Leyda's The Melville Log (1951)] that Moby-Dick "is of the 'Ancient Mariner' pattern, madly fantastic in places, full of extraordinary thoughts, yet gloriously coherent."
To give a brief synopsis, the poem is the narrative of a sailor, who begins upon a promising voyage only to fall under a curse because he wantonly kills an albatross. After days of thirst, the Mariner sees a strange ship, which comes alongside. On it are two spectres, Death and Life-in-Death. They gamble with dice for the Mariner and the crew, Life-in-Death winning the Mariner and Death the rest of the men. Soon all members of the crew perish, leaving only the Mariner. The loneliness overcomes him, and he suffers profoundly. Later he experiences a sense of love for the creatures he sees in the ocean and is partially redeemed for his earlier sin of killing the bird. But—and this is an extremely important point in the poem—he has seen and felt too much to remain completely sane. His ship is manned by spirits that use the bodies of the dead crew, and finally it arrives in the Mariner's home port, where it sinks, leaving the Mariner as the sole survivor. He is picked up from the sea by a pilot, the pilot's son, and an old hermit. They think him mad, and he does seem to be partially insane. This entire story he tells to a wedding guest, who is anxious to get to the ceremony but is retained in fascination by the wild eyes and manner of the narrator. The Mariner must tell his tale because it is the only way he can relieve himself of the terrible burden with which the experience has left him. Since he was picked up by the pilot, to whom he immediately related the incidents of the voyage, he has wandered the earth, frequently feeling the deep need to tell other human beings what he has been through.
This summary may suggest some ways in which the poem is different from Melville's novel, but many ways in which the two are fundamentally similar. The Mariner's sin is a wanton act of cruelty. Ishmael commits no such act. He does, to be sure, take a vow with the rest of the crew to join Ahab in his frantic search for revenge, but this vow is by no means the primary cause of a curse. Ahab, and not Ishmael, brings on the destruction of the Pequod. Other, but less essential differences are also apparent. But the similarities are, nevertheless, striking. While Ishmael's vow to follow Ahab is not of the magnitude of the Mariner's sin, he is sorry for it. He takes the oath in a frenzy born of Ahab, whose "quenchless feud" seemed his. Later when he sits with other members of the crew squeezing whale sperm in the tubs before them, he negates his earlier vow: 'I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it."
In just such a moment the Ancient Mariner feels the weight of guilt leave him as he contemplates the colorful water snakes before him:
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
Ishmael's survival is a result of the same kind of interplay of fate and chance represented in Coleridge's poem. But the most important similarity in the two works is the profound loneliness which both narrators feel, a loneliness which penetrates to their very souls and produces the wild-ness, the half-madness which is evident in their narratives. The effect of the Mariner's loneliness is apparent in the following passage, which comes after he explains how he was the sole survivor:
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on My soul in agony.
Then toward the end of the poem, he tells his listener:
O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely 'twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.
The ordeal of the Ancient Mariner, his facing of almost unendurable loneliness, is basically the ordeal of Ishmael. In both works, the experience leaves the character with a burden, which at times makes him all but unstable. That Ishmael has been left this way by his having witnessed the events he retells and by his experiencing the most intense loneliness is indicated in Chapter 93, "The Castaway." This chapter ostensibly deals with the cabin boy Pip, but it clearly is concerned with Ishmael's fate, too. Both are castaways. Pip was taken into one of the whale boats because of the illness of one of the sailors. But he could not contain himself during the dangerous whale chases. Consequently, he jumped overboard. Stubb, master of that particular boat, warned him that if he jumped again, he would be left behind. Ishmael fully realizes what it means to be abandoned in the sea:
Now, in calm weather, to swim in the open ocean is as easy to the practised swimmer as to ride in a spring-carriage ashore. But the awful lonesomeness is intolerable. The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it? Mark, how when sailors in a dead calm bathe in the open sea—mark how closely they hug their ship and only coast along her sides.
By "the merest chance", as Ishmael puts it, Pip is rescued, but he is maddened by the experience:
The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.
The words that end that chapter are highly significant, because they link Ishmael, who is also thrown into the sea and left behind, only to be rescued by merest chance, with the maddened Pip: "For the rest, blame not Stubb too hardly. The thing is common in that fishery; and in the sequel of the narrative, it will then be seen what like abandonment befell myself."
What I should like to suggest by this reading of Moby-Dick is that the narrator, a man highly sensitive by nature, has himself been "carried down alive to wondrous depths" of truth and that this collective experience, terminating with his isolation in the sea, a symbolic projection of man's frightening plight in life, has left him in the state of mind which characterizes the tone of the narrative. If there is a certain wildness about Moby-Dick, as the early reviewers felt, it is Ishmael's. Such a reading accounts for the so-called inconsistencies of point of view and gives Ishmael the stature and importance which a first-person narrator should have. But more importantly, to see the effect of the events on Ish-mael's mind is to feel the impact of the book's theme with profound and dramatic force.
Source: William B. Dillingham, "The Narrator of Moby-Dick," in English Studies, Vol. 49, No. 1, February, 1968, pp. 20-29.
In this excerpt, Parke discusses the novel as being Melville's examination of the nature of evil.
Moby-Dick … is ultimately a study of evil. But what sort of evil? What is Melville's notion of evil? Evil's first apparent manifestation (or so it is interpreted by Ahab) is the White Whale's mutilation of his leg. But the Pequod meets an English whaler whose captain has had his arm torn off by the same whale; this man is not maddened, nor does he regard the event as more than a perfectly natural, though fearful, accident incurred in the routine business of whaling. His sensible conclusion is that, as far as he and his men are concerned, this particular whale is best let alone. Now, Ahab, a deeper man by far, is obsessed not only with what seems the injustice of the excruciating treatment accorded him (he was delirious for days after the accident, and convalescent for months); he is ob-sessed too, as we have seen, with the notion of hidden forces in the universe. More than this, he is a sinisterly marked man, with a long, livid, probably congenital scar (an emblem, surely, of original sin); with a record of blasphemy and certain peculiar, darkly violent deeds; with a series of evil prophecies hanging over him; and with the given name of an idolatrous and savage king.
All this is fittingly suggestive preparation for the complete deliverance of Ahab's soul to evil through obsession and revenge. But his motive for revenge is not simple, not merely wicked. His quest for Moby Dick is in part a metaphysical one, for he is in revolt against the existence of evil itself. His vindictiveness, blind as it is, and motivated by personal hurt, is nevertheless against the eternal fact of evil. He thinks "the invisible spheres were formed in fright," feels his burden is that of all mankind ("… as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise"), thinks the White Whale either the "principal" or the agent of all evil. He, Ahab, is evil, Melville seems to say (through Starbuck and Ahab both), because he seeks to overthrow the established order of dualistic human creation; and yet he is admirable, for he has gone over to evil not merely, like Faustus, for purposes of self-gratification, but in angry and misguided protest against its existence and its ravages in him.
What inevitably happens is that, in casting himself as the race-hero opposing the existence of the principle of evil, he but projects his own evil outward ("deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale") and so becomes all the more its avatar and its prey. He would "strike through the mask" of the visible object (the agent of evil), hoping there to find the key to the riddle. His occasional suspicion ("Sometimes I think there's naught beyond") that this will not result in any discovery whatsoever, and so not in an effective revenge, deters him not at all, though it drives him ever in upon himself as his fatal hour approaches, till, near the end, he does see the working of evil in himself—and yet dies its avowed agent. For he is mad; he is "madness maddened," quite conscious of his own derangement, and obsessed with it. The final, terrifying chaos, then, is that which he discovers within himself as his vestigial sanity contemplates his madness and its futility, as he admits his incomprehension of the thing that has driven him to irreparable folly and has lost him his very identity ("Is Ahab, Ahab?"):
"What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it [the very language used earlier to describe evil]; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time?…"
Here is raised even the question of whether man, this proud and splendid aristocrat of the spirit, is indeed a free agent; Ahab, having at other times defied all the gods and called them cricket players, having assumed and never doubted that he could have made himself lord of creation, now turns (in "The Symphony") from Edmund's flouting, freewill cynicism to Gloucester's craven determinism: "By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike." He is not captain of his soul after all.
Ahab knows, then, everything about his predicament except its cause in himself—and so its solution. He feels the cause to be an immemorial curse visited upon all men. An exile from Christendom, he yet perceives and abhors the existence of evil. Worse still, he resists it; he will not come to terms with it. He wishes it could simply be swept away, or covered over: "Man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes." But the dark side (which cannot be concealed) cannot be explained or avoided, either. And the most maddening thing of all about it—this is a constant refrain throughout the book—is the deceptive way it lurks beneath a smiling and lovely exterior. ("These temporary apprehensions, so vague but so awful, derived a wondrous potency from the contrasting serenity of the weather…." "… Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea!" And on the very morning of the last terrible day of The Chase—
"What a lovely day again! were it a new-made world, and made for a summer-house to the angels, and this morning the first of its throwing open to them, a fairer day could not dawn upon that world.")
Ahab's tragedy (and, on this final level, the book's theme) is, then, his inability to locate and objectify evil in himself, or to accept it and deal with it prudently as part of the entire created world, and so to grow despite it and because of it; it is his own fated indenture to evil while he seeks to destroy it, and his more and more precise knowledge of what is happening to him. It is the magnificence and yet the futility of his attempt. "I know that of me, which thou knowest not of thyself, oh, thou omnipotent," he cries to the great impersonal spirit of fire which he acknowledges as his maker and which, as its individualized creation, he defies. He defies his paternal maker, light, because, discovering his own dual nature (he says he never knew his mother), he has revolted and leagued himself now with darkness (the unrecognized mother-symbol, standing here for a regressive identification, which is of course what supplies the destructive energy). Then, "I am darkness leaping out of light," and "cursed be all the things that cast man's eyes aloft to that heaven, whose live vividness but scorches him…." "So far gone am I in the dark side of earth, that its other side, the theoretic bright one, seems but uncertain twilight to me." And at his death, the magnificent line—as great and moving in its utter verbal simplicity, and yet as fraught with complex resignation as Edgar's "Ripeness is all": "I turn my body from the sun"—a line whose full and exact significance has been specifically constellated in advance by his own apostrophe to the dying whale in Chapter CXVI.
Ahab is no Faustus. He always has a choice. Many are the times he backslides; the tension between humanity and will is constantly active. Pip, the piteous embodiment of warmly instinctive human nature, of all that Ahab must tread on in himself, acts several times as the unwitting touchstone of that humanity. "Hands off from that holiness!" But, "There is that in thee, poor lad, which I feel too curing to my malady … and for this hunt, my malady becomes my most desired health." Starbuck too again and again is the foil and the polar opposite; and once Ahab even finds it good to feel dependence on human aid, for when the White Whale has crushed his ivory leg in the "Second Day," he exclaims while half hanging on the shoulder of his chief mate, "Aye aye, Starbuck, 'tis sweet to lean sometimes … and would old Ahab had leaned oftener than he has." And just once, in "The Symphony," "Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop."
He must remain, for the brooding Melville apparently and for us, a symbol of that independent spirit and will which, scorning all "lovely lee-wardings," pushes off from the haven of all creeds to confront an ultimate chaos in the human soul; admirable, perhaps, beyond all flawed heroes (Bulkington was too simple an embodiment—pure essence, he was fit only for deification) in his energy and his courage, but condemned to split at last on the rock of evil, the very thing he willed out of existence; fated—and magnificently, agonizingly willing—to become the pawn (no, the prince, the king) of evil in consequence of his misguided revolt, to lose his identity in the end because he sought to exalt it against the immutable principles of its creation.
Source: John Parke, "Seven Moby-Dicks," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3, September, 1955, pp. 319-38.
Richard Chase, "Melville and Moby-Dick," in Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Richard Chase, Prentice-Hall, 1962.
Alfred Kazin, "Introduction to Moby-Dick," in Melville, A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Richard Chase, Prentice-Hall, 1962.
A. Robert Lee, "Moby-Dick as Anatomy," in Herman Melville: Reassessments, edited by A. Robert Lee, Barnes & Noble, 1984.
John McWilliams, "The Epic in the Nineteenth Century," in The Columbia History of American Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1993.
Raymond Weaver, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, Oxford University Press, 1921.
Gay Wilson Allen, Melville and His World, Thames & Hudson, 1971.
An introduction to Melville's life and times.
Newton Arvin, Herman Melville, Methuen, 1950.
A psychological, Freudian study of Melville that makes much of his relationship with his mother.
James Barbour, "The Composition of Moby-Dick," in On Melville: The Best from American Literature, edited by Louis J. Budd and Edwin Cady, Duke University Press, 1988, pp. 203-20.
An up-to-date critical approach to Melville's technique as a novelist.
Harold Bloom, introduction to Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Chelsea House, 1986.
An overview of the novel and introduction to excerpts from important critical essays.
Harold Bloom, editor, Ahab, Chelsea House, 1991.
A collection of essays and critical extracts.
Paul Brodtkorb Jr., "Ishmael: The Nature and Forms of Deception," in Herman Melville, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1986, pp. 91-103.
Brodtkorb discusses the complexity of Ishmael's voice and position as narrator.
Albert Camus, "Melville: Un Createur de mythes," in Moby-Dick as Doubloon: Essays and Extracts (1851–1970), edited by Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford, Norton, 1970.
Melville has appealed more than any other nineteenth-century American novelist to French writers and critics, including Camus.
Critical Essays on Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, edited by Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker, G. K. Hall, 1992.
An updated collection of valuable critical essays from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.
Leslie A. Fiedler, "Moby-Dick: The Baptism of Fire and the Baptism of Sperm," in Love and Death in the American Novel, Meridian, 1962, pp. 520-52.
Fiedler reads the novel as a "love story" of "innocent homosexuality."
Andrew Fieldsend, "The Sweet Tongues of Cannibals: The Grotesque Pacific in Moby-Dick," in Deep South, Vol. 1, No. 3, Spring, 1995.
An article which explores the development of Ish-mael's character and the significance of the Pacific.
John Freeman, Herman Melville, Macmillan, 1926.
Freeman's book contributed to the reinstatement of Melville's reputation during the 1920s.
Robert L. Gale, A Herman Melville Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, 1995.
A comprehensive guide to characters, plots, and biographical and historical facts related to Melville and his works.
Michael T. Gilmore, editor, Moby-Dick: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1977.
A selection of classic essays and excerpts from important critics.
Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle, "Historical Note" to Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Vol. 6 of The Writings of Herman Melville, Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1988.
Valuable overview of Melville's life, the composition of the novel, and the critical reaction over the years.
Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker, editors, Herman Melville: The Contemporary Reviews, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Includes a reprinting of the October 24, 1851, London Morning Advertiser article, which is an expansive and complimentary review of the three-volume English edition of Melville's book.
John T. Irwin, "Melville: The Indeterminate Ground," in American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance, Yale University Press, 1980, pp. 285-349.
Irwin examines the "inherently undecipherable character of the hieroglyph" as it appears in the novel.
R. W. B. Lewis, "Melville: The Apotheosis of Adam," in The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century, University of Chicago Press, 1955, pp. 127-55.
Lewis considers Melville's role as "myth-maker" in the history of American ideas of innocence.
Kerry McSweeney, Moby-Dick—Ishmael's Mighty Book, Twayne, 1986.
McSweeney uses his focus on Ishmael to explore Melville's interest in psychology and metaphysics.
James Edwin Miller, "Moby-Dick: The Grand Hooded Phantom," in A Reader's Guide to Herman Melville, Farrar, Strauss, and Cudahy, 1962, pp. 75-117.
An introduction to and breakdown of the novel's major themes.
Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael, City Lights, 1947.
In a fascinatingly energetic and poetic study, Olson interprets Moby-Dick as "mythic odyssey."
Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford, editors, Moby-Dick as Doubloon: Essays and Extracts (1851–1970), Norton, 1970.
A broad collection of reviews and reactions to the novel from its publication to 1970.
Hershel Parker, Herman Melville: A Biography, Vol. 1: 1819–1851, John Hopkins University Press, 1996.
A detailed biographical study, this is the first volume of a planned two-volume set that provides exhaustive information on Melville's early life up to the publication of Moby-Dick.
Merton Sealts Jr., Pursuing Melville, Wisconsin University Press, 1982.
Contains illuminating correspondence between Sealts and Charles Olson in which they discuss Melville's philosophy.
Sedgwick sees parallels between Melville and Shakespeare's development.
Nathalia Wright, Melville's Use of the Bible, Duke University Press, 1949.
Wright traces Melville's fascination with truth and signification back to Biblical influences.