THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set on the high seas during the 1840s: published in 1851.
The captain of an American whaling ship seeks revenge against the whale that bit off his leg during an earlier voyage.
Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819. Because of his family’s financial instability, Melville was forced to go to work at an early age. After a variety of jobs, Melville signed onto a whaling ship at age twenty. Through this employment he learned firsthand about the rigors and rewards of the burgeoning whaling industry, gaining experience that he would later apply in the writing of his mid-nineteenth-century novel Moby Dick.
An expanding nation
The first half of the nineteenth century was an important time in the development of the United States. In the War of 1812, the country had succeeded in defending its borders against the British. This victory created a strong new sense of patriotism among Americans, and the country finally began to form a solid identity completely separate from its European roots. To maintain this new identity, it became necessary to keep the foreign powers at bay. American leaders realized that the best way to deter aggression was to expand and strengthen the nation from the inside. In 1816 trade barriers were erected to promote domestic industry and keep foreign products from American markets. Federal and state governments financed improvements in the infrastructure of the nation by granting loans to pay for the construction of new systems of transportation. The building of the Erie Canal in the 1820s and the expansion of railway lines in the 1830s are examples of these improvements. Besides discouraging aggression against the United States, this internal strengthening led to rapid economic growth. Factories sprang up to supply the widespread demand for products that could for the first time be carried to distant consumers via new avenues of transportation. The young nation soon found itself in the throes of a bustling period of economic growth.
The American whaling industry
The advent of whaling in the United States began in the early 1600s with some of the first colonists. Most of these early whalers launched their expeditions from the island of Nantucket, off the Massachusetts coast, and from the colonies at New York and Connecticut. The whalers stayed close to shore searching for humpback, right, and grey whales. A turning point for the American whaling industry came in 1712 when a whaleship was blown off course into deeper waters and right into a ‘pod’ or group of sperm whales. One of the whales was killed and hauled ashore. The whalers discovered that the oil from the sperm whale was of superior quality, burning brighter and steadier than the other whale oils. Eager to obtain more of the valuable sperm whale oil, Americans began to venture farther out to sea and to stay longer. Soon American whaling ships were sailing all over the world in search of sperm whales.
The height of American whaling came in 1846 when the United States was still in the early stage of expansion and industrialization. At this point three-quarters of the world’s whale ships were American-owned. America consumers propelled the industry with their demands for greater supplies of the sperm whale oil, which they used as a lubricant for machinery as well as for illumination.
When a whale was spotted from the whaling ship, smaller whaling boats were immediately launched to pursue the massive animals. Built from half-inch thick cedar planks, the boats were 26 to 30 feet in length and built for speed. Commonly they were manned by a crew of six: the headsman, an officer of the ship who steered the vessel; the harpooner; and four rowers. A harpoon was a long wooden shaft connected to a barbed point that would embed itself inextricably in the whale’s body. When the crew came within range, its harpooner would throw his harpoon into the whale. The harpoon was attached to one thousand feet of durable hemp rope that was coiled tightly in round tubs aboard the small whaling boat. When the whale was struck, it would immediately dive, pulling the rope from the tubs at an amazing speed, and also pulling the boat along briskly in what came to be known as “the Nantucket sleigh-ride.” The rapidly pulled rope was one of the most dangerous elements of the whale hunt and could easily tear off a man’s arm or whip him out of the boat if he were not careful. In 1803 Captain Gardner of the Venus was dragged overboard when his leg became entangled in the line. Gardner survived, but Captain Palmer, an American whaling master, was not so lucky. Palmer was pulled out of the boat and never seen again. In the novel, Melville writes of a final confrontation with Moby Dick as the line catches Captain Ahab around the neck and drags him down into the ocean’s depths— like Palmer, never to be seen again.
Whales and extinction
In Moby Dick, the character Ishmael ponders the fate of the whale. He discusses the large numbers of whaling expeditions and wonders if the whale population can endure this relentless hunting. Ishmael questions, “Whether Leviathan [the whale] can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff” (Melville, Moby Dick, pp. 470-71). Ishmael goes on to consider this possible extinction and compares it to the near vanquishment of other animals at the hands of overzealous hunters:
Comparing the humped herds of whales with the humped herds of buffalo, which, not forty years ago, overspread by tens of thousands the prairies of Illinois and Missouri, and shook their iron manes and scowled with their thunderclotted brows upon the sites of populous rivercapitals, where now the polite broker sells you land at a dollar an inch; in such a comparison an irresistible argument seems furnished, to show that the hunted whale cannot now escape speedy extinction.
(Moby Dick, p. 471)
WHALERS AND EXPLORERS
Whalers traveled all over the known world in pursuit of whales and sometimes into uncharted territory. In Moby Dick, Melville points out the debt that the world owes to whalers: “For many years past the whale-ship has been the pioneer in ferreting out the remotest and least known parts of the earth. She has explored seas and archipelagoes which had no chart.... If American and European men-ot-war now peacefully ride in once savage harbors, let them fire salutes to the honor… of the whale-ship, which originatly showed them the way, and first interpreted between them and the savages.”
(Moby Dick p. 111)
Despite this preamble, which seems to indicate a belief that whales will inevitably become extinct, Ishmael goes on to reason that because the waters of the ocean are so vast and the number of whales killed by each expedition are so few, whales will never face extinction. As the twentieth century was later to reveal, modern whaling techniques would prove Ishmael wrong as some species of whales neared extinction.
The novel opens in New York City, home to the restless narrator Ishmael. Growing more and more depressed because he is living on land, Ishmael decides to return to the sea, where he feels more at home. He makes his way to the island of Nantucket in order to sign aboard a whaling ship. Because he misses the ferry, Ishmael is forced to spend a night at the Spouter Inn. All the beds are taken at the inn, so Ishmael finally decides to share a bed with Queequeg, a Polynesian harpooneer whom he regards as a cannibal. Though Ishmael is at first terrified by his strange bedfellow, the two soon become close companions. Queequeg believes that they should remain together and leaves Ishmael the responsibility of choosing a ship for them to join. Ishmael finds them positions aboard the Pequod, which is about to leave on a four-year whaling expedition.
ATTRIBUTES OF A SPERM WHALE
The largest-toothed of all whales, the sperm whale can grow up to sixty feet in length. It is a predator, feeding off giant squid that live in the deepest regions of the ocean. The sperm whale was the most dangerous whale for the nineteenth-century whalers to hunt, which is illustrated by their old saying: “For every barrel of [whale] oil, at least a drop of human blood” (Whipple, p. 43). Despite this drawback, the sperm whale was still a profitable quarry, providing four sources of income: the blubber, which was turned into whale oil; spermaceti, a waxy liquid that was made into candles; ambergris, a lumpy, foulsmelling substance that was used in perfumes and cosmetics; and ivory from the jawbone of the whale, which was carved by sailors in an artistic medium known as scrimshaw.
The Pequod is under the supervision of Captain Ahab. Ishmael soon learns that Ahab had once gone slightly insane after his leg was bitten off by a legendary white whale the whalers call Moby Dick. Ishmael is assured that the madness was only temporary and that Ahab has returned to complete control of his faculties. But as soon as the Pequod sets sail, it becomes obvious that Ahab’s malady has not been completely cured. Ahab plans to use the Pequod and its crew to hunt down and kill Moby Dick no matter what the cost. Over the objections of the first mate, Starbuck, Ahab convinces the crew to aid him in his revenge. Though Starbuck sees the folly of his captain’s plans, he is too loyal to Ahab to stop him.
While searching for Moby Dick, the Pequod charts a course that takes it through the world’s prime whaling grounds. Some of the finest whaling waters are located in the Sea of Japan, and this is where Ahab believes he will have the best chance of finding Moby Dick.
Along the way, the Pequod encounters several other whaling ships, all returning home from long voyages at sea. Ahab asks the captain of every ship if he has seen the white whale. As it nears the Sea of Japan, the Pequod meets two ships that tried to capture Moby Dick. Both of the vessels lost crew members in their battles with the whale. One ship, the Rachel, is still looking for one boatload of men who disappeared during the encounter with the white whale.
Shortly after meeting the Rachel, the crew spots Moby Dick. For three consecutive days Ahab sends out small boats to capture the whale. On the first day, Moby Dick crushes Ahab’s boat between his jaws. The entire crew of the small boat escapes unharmed. On the second day, Moby Dick once again destroys Ahab’s boat, this time killing one of the sailors. On the third and final day, Moby Dick ignores the pursuing Ahab and rams the Pequod itself. The awesome power of the whale is too much for the ship and it sinks with a shattered hull. As the ship sinks, Captain Ahab finally harpoons Moby Dick. The harpoon line catches Ahab around the neck and he is pulled into the deep as the white whale dives beneath the surface, never to be seen again. Every member of the Pequod’s crew is killed, except for Ishmael, who was thrown clear of the wreck. The Rachel, still searching for its missing crew, discovers Ishmael and rescues him.
Race and prejudice in Melville’s America
Though some scholars argue that Moby Dick is a novel almost devoid of political messages and symbolism, others have suggested that a number of the novel’s episodes pertain strongly to the political and social issues affecting the United States during this period. With the Civil War less than a decade away, the national debate over slavery was reaching a crisis point. The issue of race became a topic of great importance. In the Southern states, proslavery factions tried to justify their enslavement of Africans with the argument that blacks were inferior to whites and actually thrived under slave conditions. In the late 1840s, the proslavery factions introduced the science of ethnology to validate their position on the slavery issue. According to Dr. Josiah C. Nott, the principle aims of ethnology were to “know what was the primitive organic structure of each race… and what position in the social scale Providence has assigned to each type of man” (Nott in
Karcher, p. 22). These “ethnologists” directed their study of race to proving the biological inferiority of blacks. Their study placed whites at the top of the order and blacks at the very bottom.
Some scholars believe that Melville attacks these notions of superiority and inferiority in Moby Dick, using Ishmael’s experiences with people of greatly varying racial and cultural backgrounds. The greatest example of this authorial stance appears during Ishmael’s first encounter with Queequeg. Though at first terrified by the appearance of the “cannibal,” Ishmael immediately realizes that Queequeg is neither a “savage” nor so different from himself. When Queequeg invites Ishmael to share his bed, Ishmael says, “He really did this in not only a civil but a really kind and charitable way” (Moby Dick, p. 25). Ishmael makes further realizations about racial equality when he says of his first apprehensions of Queequeg, “What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself— the man’s a human being just as I am” (Moby Dick, p. 25). These types of ideas were directly opposed to the proslavery ethnologists who postulated that there had been a separate creation for each race and that the races were not in the slightest way connected.
Phrenology was another so-called science of the time and is mentioned in Moby Dick. Phrenologists examined the formation of the head, claiming that each detail of cranial formation precisely defined the nature of the person. According to this theory, criminals, for example, could be detected simply by the shape of their heads. Ishmael’s observations in the novel further disparage the proslavery viewpoint by using the ideas of phrenology. Ishmael judges that Queequeg’s head was “phrenologically an excellent one” (Moby Dick, p. 51) and further states that Queequeg’s head “reminded me of George Washington’s” (Moby Dick, p. 51). This comparison of the head of the nonwhite Queequeg to that of George Washington, respected as a supreme figure of European-American achievement, uses one “science” of the era—phrenology—to dislodge a basic argument of another—ethnology— which justified the proslavery stance that blacks belonged in an inferior position.
Though scholars have found that Melville drew on a wide variety of material to write Moby Dick, three particular sources stand out. One is a book written by Owen Chase, the first mate on the whaling ship Essex. In November 1820, during a routine attempt to harpoon a sperm whale, the whale escaped from the small pursuing boats and headed straight for the 238ton Essex. The whale rammed the ship and smashed a great gouge into the hull. Then, even as the ship was taking on water, the whale struck again. Within minutes the ship began sinking. Out of almost forty crew men, only eight survived, one of whom was Owen Chase. While at sea, Melville met Chase’s son, who lent Melville a copy of a book by his father. In Moby Dick, Melville’s narrator describes the Essex disaster and confirms that it indeed happened: “I have seen Owen Chase, who was chief mate of the Essex at the time of the tragedy; I have read his plain and faithful narrative; I have conversed with his son; and all this within a few miles of the scene of the catastrophe” (Moby Dick, p. 211).
A STRANGE COINCIDENCE
In the same year that Moby Dick was published, the whaler Ann Alexander met up with a particularly vicious sperm whale. The whale destroyed two of the three pursuing whale boats and then rammed the Ann Alexander, causing her to sink. The survivors were rescued the next day. When the news of the incident made its way back to the United States, one of Melville’s friends wrote him about the remarkable coincidence between his book and the real-life event. Melville replied: “I make no doubt it is Moby Dick himself.... I wonder if my evil art has raised the monster?” (Whipple, p. 72).
The second and perhaps most significant source for the novel was Melville’s own experience aboard whaling ships. In 1841, Melville signed onto the whaler Acushnet and began his own voyage through the world’s whaling territory. He learned firsthand the difficulties of life aboard a whaling ship and came to understand the incredible amount of courage and skill necessary to hunt and kill sperm whales. It was most likely during Melville’s time at sea that he heard stories of Mocha Dick. Mocha Dick was the name given to a sperm whale that had repeatedly attacked whaling ships. The whale looked distinctive because though most sperm whales were black was said to be all white. The tally attributed to Mocha Dick was fourteen whaleboats destroyed and thirty men killed, although there is some doubt about whether the same whale was responsible for all these attacks since they occurred across the globe.
The final source for many elements in Moby Dick comes from the stories of the Bible. Many of the characters in the novel have the same names as characters in the Bible, and certain aspects of the novel resemble biblical tales. Melville used the Bible as a source knowing that many readers of his time were thoroughly versed in it and would easily make the connection between the characters in his novel and their biblical counterparts.
The Ahab of the Bible is mentioned in Kings I of the Old Testament and is said to have ruled Israel from 869 to 850 b.c. He was presented to nineteenth-century churchgoers as a wicked king because he permitted his wife Jezebel to stray from the worship of the one supreme God and join the cult of Baal of Tyre. In Melville’s naming of the narrator Ishmael, he may have been inspired by the Old Testament book of Genesis, which mentions an Ishmael, who is the son of Abraham and one of his wife’s slaves, Hagar. Ishmael and his mother are banished from the household after Abraham and his wife Sarah bear their own son, Isaac.
The biblical story of Jonah was perhaps also an important influence upon the plot of Moby Dick. Jonah is commanded by God to convince the people of Nineveh to abandon their wicked ways. In an attempt to escape this difficult task, Jonah boards a ship heading out to sea. On the voyage, he is thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish. Realizing his error in defying God, Jonah proceeds to rectify it. Spat onto the shore by the fish, Jonah goes to speak to the people of Nineveh as God commanded. Ashamed at their own wickedness, the people repent, proclaim a fast, and avert their own destruction. This conclusion is different than the one presented in Moby Dick. Melville’s Captain Ahab never repents his maniacal desire for revenge against Moby Dick, and so dooms himself and his crew to death.
A new American literature
One of the many technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution was the improvement of printing and publishing techniques. Whereas previously only the wealthy could afford to keep a library of books, the sudden low cost of printing in the 1830s meant that the majority of Americans could now buy books. This revolution in publishing coincided with and supported the expansion of American literature.
In the 1840s and ’50s a debate raged among American intellectuals regarding the development of American literature. Many simply wanted to expand on the literary traditions inherited from Europe. Others, Melville among them, argued for a completely new literature, wholly American and unconnected with European literary traditions.
In 1850, Melville took out time from writing Moby Dick to produce an essay on the subject of American literature. He wrote that to assume that no author might surpass Shakespeare was an unworthy belief, insisting instead that an American was bound to carry republican progressiveness into literature, as well as other parts of life. Moby Dick has since been held up as one of the finest contributions to the new American literature for which Melville argued.
Critics have argued that Moby Dick presents a uniquely American style because of the novel’s innovations that are unconnected to European literary traditions. In the novel, Melville experiments with a wide variety of narrative techniques. Some chapters simply use prose to describe the events aboard ship, but there are also elaborate descriptions of whales and the whaling industry, resembling an article in a scientific journal or factual book rather than a novel. Several chapters of Melville’s novel even portray events in the form of a drama, with each character coming forward to offer their own soliloquy about the pursuit of Moby Dick. This wide variety of methods showed readers of Melville’s day that American literature was far from constrained by more rigid European literary traditions.
Before Moby Dick was published in London (under the original title of The Whale) in 1851, Melville was a moderately successful writer with four published novels. His first book, Typee, had been a great success, but with the publication of each successive novel, Melville’s reputation declined. The release of Moby Dick did not seriously help or harm Melville’s career as a writer at the time. There were some good reviews of the novel, but many critics were simply confused and many were disappointed by Moby Dick. One disparaging critic, Henry F. Chorley, wrote: “[The Whale by Herman Melville] is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition” (Chorley in Harris, p. 329). Another critic, George Ripley, considered the novel a great success. He wrote: “[In] point of richness and variety of incident, originality of conception, and splendor of description, [Herman Melville’s Moby Dick] surpasses any of the former productions of this highly successful author” (Ripley in Harris, p. 329). Ripley continued his high praise of the novel in noting that “certain it is that the rapid, pointed hints which are often thrown out, with the keenness and velocity of a harpoon, penetrate deep into the heart of things, showing that the genius of the author for moral analysis is scarcely surpassed by his wizard power of description” (Ripley in Harris, p. 239).
Allen, Gay Wilson. Melville and His World. New York: Viking, 1971.
Burton, Robert. The Life and Death of Whales. London: Andre Deutsch, 1980.
Harris, Laurie Lanzen, ed. Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983.
Karcher, Carolyn L. Shadow over the Promised Land: Slavery, Race, and Violence in Melville’s America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Whipple, A. B. C. Yankee Whalers in the South Seas. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1954.