Archive for January, 2010

Jan 31 2010

Melville’s Depiction of Whaling

Published by under Whaling

The idea of whaling is one that is central to the plot of the novel, which is evident even in the book’s introductory chapters. What I found most interesting thus far, is the way in which the idea of whaling is depicted in the novel. Already on the first page we learn that whenever Ishmael feels “it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul” he goes to sea, and describes these actions as “my substitute for pistol and ball” (Melville 1). Later in the novel we see that whaling also serves the purpose of uniting men of different races.  At first when Captain Peleg meets Queequeg, after previously agreeing to allow him to sail with them, he says that “he had not suspected my friend was a cannibal, and furthermore announcing that he let no cannibals on board that craft.” (Melville 84).  However, after seeing Queequeg’s talent with a harpoon, the captains are quick to overlook his religious and racial background and accept him as part of their crew.  These circumstances seem to create an image of whaling as very powerful, and this idea is reiterated by the seeming reverence that is paid to the whale, the practice of whaling, and to those people who dare to practice it in the novel. An example of this would be in the introduction of Father Mapple, when Melville writes “No one having previously heard his story, could for the first time behold Father Mapple without the upmost interest” (Melville 36) because of the “adventurous maritime life” (Melville 36) that he led.

While in these cases whaling, while still for the most part shrouded in mystery, seems to have positive benefits, the depiction of the activity throughout the novel is much less positive.  It is interesting that despite the great respect people seem to have for whaling and all that surrounds it, it is continuously depicted as very dark, and sometimes seems to be associated with death. In fact even the Pequod itself seems to be a symbol of death. It is not only named after a tribe of Indians that are no longer in existence, but it is also covered in whale bones, teeth and dark paint (Melville 66).  It makes sense that the imagery surrounding such a violent and dangerous pursuit would be dark, and perhaps it is this danger that inspires such awe towards those who dare to attempt such a feat.

One response so far

Jan 31 2010

Melville’s Inclusion of Not Only Christianity

Published by under Religion and the Bible

From the beginning, Herman Melville makes it clear that his novel Moby Dick has a great deal to do with religion, and in many cases, Christianity in particular.   While he does dabble in including references to other religions, most of the references Melville makes, at least in this first portion of the novel, have to do directly with Christianity.  Perhaps this reflects Melville’s own Calvinist upbringing, while also portraying his willingness to question and explore “other-ness”.

The first sentence of the novel, in fact, states simply “Call me Ishmael” (Melville, 1).  This reference to a somewhat contentious character from the Bible is an interesting choice by Melville.  Melville shows that the Bible is so significant to him that the narrator of his epic work refers to himself as a Biblical character, yet it is interesting that this character is not straight forwardly a “good” or a “bad” person in the Bible.  Perhaps Melville is already adding dimension and character development by doing this, refusing to ever let the main character in his novel be simple.

Melville also references the Greek gods in Ishmael’s first tangential description of the power and draw of the sea, in which Ishmael questions, “Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove?” (3).  Ishmael is not only interested in his religion, but in the religions of the past, to the extant that his reference shows some knowledge of the Greek gods’ genealogy.  Perhaps this shows an added element of interest placed by Melville in other religions, and a willingness to take them seriously.

Ishmael later shows the sentiment that being Christian is not the end all and be all of being a good person when he says, “Better sleep with a sober Cannibal than a drunken Christian” (24).  This again shows Melville’s willingness to explore the validity of sentiments other than Christianity, to the extent that he will even consider people who are so uncivilized that they are referred to as cannibals as, in some situations, being better than Christians.

Melville makes it clear that religion is an important subject in this novel, and he does have quite a focus on Christianity and the importance of Christianity.  However, he also shows that he is willing to explore and take seriously the idea that Christianity is not the only valid religion, or that Christians are always the best people.

2 responses so far

Jan 31 2010

where have all the women gone?

Published by under Gender

It is quite clear from the beginning of this novel that Melville views whaling and seafaring as a man’s world; in the description of the boarders,

“[t]hey were nearly all whalemen; chief mates, and second mates, and third mates, and sea carpenters, and sea coopers, and blacksmiths, and harpooneers, and ship keepers…” (p. 29);

this list is only a brief suggestion of all the roles upheld by men in this profession. It becomes important, then, in analyzing gender roles in this novel to first acknowledge the absence of a female presence and then look to the examples we are given to formulate some idea of what women stand for in this novel, and how they stand in contrast to the heavily masculine (though potentially “homosocial” or homoerotic as someone has already stated) lifestyle and personality depicted in this book.

In this first section, we see women in two basic ways: as upholding the stereotype of the female as predominantly a wife and housekeeper, and secondly as someone who reprimands or is overly stubborn and frantic in disposition. The first is evidenced primarily by the role of Mrs. Hussy, who is the first real female character we encounter; she runs an inn and readies the meals and keeps weapons out of the rooms in a motherly fashion but does little else of importance. In addition to this there appear small details such as the women who sit, mourning the loss of their seamen in the chapel, and the difference between Queequeg’s honorable relatives:

“His father was a High Chief, a King; his uncle a High Priest; and on the maternal side he boasted aunts who were the wives of unconquerable warriors” (p. 53);

the women gain status only by the men they align themselves with.

The second aspect of the female I observed is also present in the character of Mrs. Hussy who is seen reprimanding both upon our first view of her and when Ishmael seeks her out to open his door. We see this particularly clearly during the panic that ensues when Ishmael becomes concerned about Queequeg behind the locked door and she is wholly concerned with the house and the door not being broken and in fact matches Ishmael’s emotional level in protecting it. The housemaid, as well, reveals a sense of women as irrational, overly emotional beings, who cannot keep their heads on during a state of panic in her reaction by screaming out “murder” and running about the house; this may contribute, though not directly stated, to the complete absence of women we see on the actual boats, which Ishmael makes quite clear is a demanding, honorable, and manly endeavor.

One response so far

Jan 31 2010

Melville’s Philosophy of Nature

Published by under Environment, Nature

“…but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is his absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the invisible images of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it.”

Herman Melville lived and wrote in the midst of the American transcendentalist movement. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau wrote and theorized about a pantheistic philosophy which mysticized the natural world. They believed that prolonged, isolated contemplation of nature could lead to an enlightened self-fulfillment. Transcendentalism permeates Moby Dick. Ishmael speaks constantly to the reverie of the sea, which overwhelms the senses and defeats the mast-head lookouts of the Pequod. As Thoreau sought out isolation in his cabin and the solace of nature to forget the cares of the world, so too does Ishmael remedy his misanthropic side with refuge in the profound isolation of the sea.

While nature can be a place of enlightenment, it also threatens those who would try to understand or to conquer it. Death threatens the mast-head philosophers if they gaze too deeply into nature’s secrets, as they can plunge to the deck below if they lose their grip in their reverie. Moby Dick himself, the most obvious personification of nature in the novel, destroys all those who would challenge him and his domain. The same majestic qualities of nature that invoke awe also strike terror into the whalers and reader alike. In this respect, it is difficult to separate Melville’s religious symbolism from his depictions of nature. One of the most powerful descriptions of nature comes from Father Mapple’s sermon on Jonah and the whale. God, the tempest, and the whale are all one and the same, predestined to act according to God’s plan. Ahab’s fatal flaw is, as in many a Greek tragedy, hubris. He makes the mistake of believing that he can strike back against the natural, divine forces which took away his leg. His arrogance leads to his inevitable, terrible downfall.

One response so far

Jan 31 2010

Self-Identity and Narcissus

At one point in Chapter One, Ishmael describes the mystical power water has always possessed to captivate the spirits of all humans. While “the Persians hold the sea holy”, the Greeks “give it a separate deity” and every “robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him” dreams of shipping off to sea (19).

The most interesting defense he provides for the deep bond between man and water comes in the form of a reconstrual of the tale of Narcissus originating from Greek mythology (Wikipedia: Narcissus).  Ishmael states,

And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged headfirst into it and was drowned. But that same image we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all (20).

Narcissus drowns because he is enthralled by his own beauty as reflected in the water. Although Narcissus’ tale exists in a number of forms, the moral lesson drawn from each of them is generally the same: do not put so much stock in yourself, i.e., do not be vain. Ishmael strays away from more common understanding of the story’s meaning and re-interprets the story as illustrating the problem of self-identity. The object whose image each of us must confront in the water, “the ungraspable phantom of life”, which follows us through every single moment of our lives and yet fails to be wholly (or even remotely) understood, is in fact ourselves (20). It is a sad but nevertheless beautiful thought. I cannot help but feel that this thought may come up again later on in the book.

(Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Norton, 2002.)

2 responses so far

Jan 31 2010

The Pasts of Starbuck and Ahab

Ahab and Starbuck seem polar opposites. Starbuck, pragmatic, sensible, realistic; Ahab, supernatural, transcendent, crazed. While on their beliefs they clash, I would contend that they share the profound link of past experience shaping their lives. It is well known that Ahab lost his leg to Moby Dick, and on his trip back home “then it was, that his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another; and, so interfusing, made him mad” (Signet, 177). That, however, is just explanation and clarification for the reader; Melville opens a can of worms when Ishmael imbeds a secret of Starbuck’s past in a discussion of his character:

“And that hundreds of men had been so killed Starbuck well knew. What doom was his own father’s? Where, in the bottomless deeps, could he find the torn limbs of his brother?” (109).

Ishmael, however, to my mind, does not stay on the topic long enough. Why is Starbuck a whaler? Wouldn’t a truly pragmatic person stay away from whaling? It is clear that Starbuck cannot be a coward, but Ishmael’s blindness to the concept that whaling may not be the greatest occupation precludes him from understanding the depth of the difficulty Starbuck must have had when he decided to whale. Could it be that Starbuck has undertaken whaling, and the pragmatic approach of killing whatever whale they can to avenge his brother and father, to get “even” with whales? Wouldn’t killing Moby Dick be the ultimate revenge?  

Perhaps he identifies with Ahab’s struggle beyond human compassion. In his soliloquy, he laments his situation:

“Oh! I plainly see my miserable office, – to obey, rebelling; and worse yet, to hate with a touch of pity! For in his eyes I read some lurid woe would shrivel me up, had I had it” (162).

Some lurid woe that would shrivel him up, had he had it? His father and brother were killed by whales! Surely Starbuck knows the pain of losing what is truly important. That he concedes the extent of pain suffered to Ahab, then, besides giving insight into how truly broken Ahab is by his incident with Moby Dick, could indicate a sympathy to Ahab’s cause from Starbuck.

I’m not sold myself. I made a lot of logic jumps. But for how complicated Ahab is, it is fitting that his foil rivals his complexity. And the search to unmask their complexities may both begin with understanding their past.

One response so far

Jan 31 2010

Father Mapple

Father Mapple is certainly  a compelling character, and a shining example of the depth and complexity Melville can convey in limited space.  A whaler in his youth and in his old age a preacher, for Ismael, Mapple seems to be occupying an existence somewhere between preacher, whaler, and prophet.  The image of Mapple’s chapel is a striking one: memorial plaques lamenting fallen sailors surround modest pews, but the pulpit, the bow of a whaling vessel complete with retractable rope ladder, is in stark contrast with the rest of the room.  A first look at the decor leads the reader to take Mapple as either a looney, or worse an attention hound–a conclusion that Ishmael himself makes, but seems determined to fight through.  Indeed, Ishmael spends a paragraph convincing himself (and in turn the reader) that Mapple has a legitimate reason for preaching from such an audacious pulpit.

Father Mapple enjoyed such a wide reputation for sincerity and sanctity that I could not suspect him of courting notoriety by any mere tricks of the stage.  No, thought I, there must be some sober reason for this thing; furthermore, it must symbolize something unseen.

Until Ishmael utters the above quote, the reader is unsure of the significance of either the chapel or the preacher.  Will this be another meaningless digression from the story?  Is the chapter going to focus on Queequeg and religion?  It is unclear until Ishmael brings the “unseen” into the fold.  From this point in the chapter on, the reader is waiting for the preacher to reveal whatever it is that is unseen; they are waiting for the sermon.  Mapple at once becomes much more that a man in the midst of “healthy old age,” more than a whaler, more than a preacher.  He becomes a messenger, a cog in the story essential to the reader’s understanding.  Once he finishes his sermon, he has become a prophet.

The beauty of Father Mapple is that he is such a fleeting physical presence–five pages of over five hundred–yet we learn so much about him with very little actually said about him.  We see his chapel, and draw some conclusions.  Those conclusions are in turn challenged and debunked with the help of some narratorial introspection.  Finally, we hear his sermon, and any remaining inkling of our previous doubts are cast deep into the depths as we see him elevated to prophetic status.  And then, as quickly as he came, he is gone, and we are left only with the lesson of his sermon: self indulgence and fear of god are mutually exclusive.

One response so far

Jan 31 2010

Nantucket and It’s reliance on the Sea

Published by under Environment, Nature

As I was reading the beginning parts of Moby Dick, one of the things that occurred to me was the utter reliance that these sailing towns seem to have on the sea. These ports and islands rely on the ocean for their economy, food, light and most everything else they need. This then slips into everything that they do. While in New Bedford we can see this through the decorations at the inn and even the sermon given at the church. Most of the people who visit this church are also effected by the sea. They are all sailors or family members of sailors. As much as we see this connection to the sea in New Bedford, I believe that the chapter that describes Nantucket is the best example of how Melville sets up a relationship between Whaling towns and their reliance on the environment that the ocean presents them with.

The first thing that we learn about Nantucket is that it is completely covered in sand. This poses a problem for people who live here in terms of making a living. If you live in a place where grass and trees are so scarce that people “plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time,” you can not expect to farm as a way of life. According to the Native American tale that Ishmeal tells us, the people who first lived on this island began by digging for clams and then soon started fishing. They worked their way up until they finally began hunting whales.

This kind of adaptation to your surroundings is something that gets talked about a lot in American history. The way that people from another country adapted to the new conditions around them is one way of studying regional differences within the United States. This can be seen especially in the ways that we study the West and the adaption of living in an arid climate. This adaptation and rugged determination to live in places that may not be easy to live has been pointed at as a source of the “American character” in the West. Some say that this kind of adaption however could be going too far in some cases. In the West we can see problems arising now in water supplies. As we now know in the case of whaling, people had created an industry that was eventually extremely distructive to the living environment in the ocean. By creating a way for the human population to live, there was an Environmental cost.

I am curious to see as the book goes on how Melville adresses this problem. You can clearly see that he is aware that this connection to the environment exists very strongly between sailing towns and the sea. However, I do not think that I have see a strong opinion emerge just yet.

One response so far

Jan 31 2010


Published by under Religion and the Bible

In only the first 15 chapters of Moby Dick, Melville makes multiple biblical references. The most lengthy is the story of Jonah. Ishmael stumbles into a church and sits through a very lengthy sermon, all about Jonah’s flee from God. Since this passage is so long, I questioned its significance immediately: obviously the story involved a whale but Jonah’s story is important for another reason. Jonah, before getting swallowed by a whale, is running from something. He runs from God because he refuses to carry out God’s will. To escape this responsibility, Jonah leaves land on a ship that will hopefully “carry him into countries where God does not reign” (Melville 37). Almost immediately I connected this attitude of escaping, or running away, with Ishmael’s own description of himself in the beginning of the book.

Just as Jonah is running to sea to escape his religious expectations, Ishmael runs to sea to escape the alienation he often feels on land. Ishmael calls this alienation “a damp, drizzly November in [his] soul” (1). When he falls into spells of boredom and “nothing particular interests [him] on shore” (1), Ishmael takes off. The tendency to run away also parallels the history of Ishmael’s name in the Bible.

Ishmael is the name of Abraham’s first born son, who was born of Hagar, a servant, rather than Sarah, Abraham’s wife. In jealousy, Sarah exiles Ishmael and Hagar. Even though Ishmael is banished, he is still destined to do great things. Granted, Ishmael, in this story, is not running from something. But he is leaving his familiar world and about to embark upon a very enlightening journey, just like Jonah and Ishmael (in Moby Dick).

After assessing the significance of Ishmael’s name and the story of Jonah, I have decided that going to sea replaces religion on Ishmael’s life. When feeling down and without a purpose, a common remedy is faith. When seeking enlightenment, religion is a common path. Ishmael goes to sea for these exact reasons. The reader can tell Ishmael isn’t very satisfied by his religious faith in the way he speaks of the church. He negatively portrays the worshipers as “islands of men and women” that are “purposely sitting apart from the other” and “steadfastly eyeing marble tablets” (30). All of these descriptions make the churchgoers seem empty and emotionless, furthermore separating them from our narrator.

Assuming sailing (and soon whaling) serve as Ishmael’s religious replacement, I expect that the voyage will provide him with very enlightening and adventurous events. In a way, the churchgoing event could serve as a method of foreshadowing, since the sermon is all about Jonah and his flee from land. It helps the reader predict that Ishmael will find something bigger than himself while at sea.

One response so far

Jan 31 2010

What’s in a name?

One occurrence of Melville’s literary allusions in Moby-Dick can be seen in his penchant for naming his characters after individuals from the Bible (Captain Ahab and the stranger Elijah).  These two examples reflect the embodiment of Melville’s individuals with the Scriptural significance of their stories.  Captain Ahab is named after the wicked, malicious king of Israel, who the Bible refers to as the “most evil of all kings that came before him” (1 Kings 16:30).  Named after such a reputation, this vindictive personality seems to loom over Captain Ahab, even before the reader is introduced to him.  Elijah, the curious stranger Queequeg and Ishmael encounter before leaving port, refers to the Biblical prophet of the same name (Melville even classifies him as such).  In Scripture, Elijah is first introduced through his warnings to King Ahab of the terrible misfortune that will come as a result of his evil doings. In Moby-Dick, Elijah serves a similar purpose by warning the two whale-men of the enigmatic sufferer who will be their captain, and the trying expedition ahead of them: “Shan’t see you again very soon, I guess; unless it’s before the Grand Jury.” (Melville, 95).  In this way, Elijah encapsulates the Biblical reference of his name.  He stirs in Ishmael a sense of apprehension and curiosity concerning his future captain and impending journey.

While these two characters are more clearly linked to the qualities their namesakes possessed, Ishmael presents a more interesting study.  The name Ishmael calls to mind the story in Genesis of Abraham’s slave-born son, Ishmael.  In Scripture, Ishmael is seen in opposition to the spirit of God.  The illegitimate son of slavery, there is no place reserved for him in the Family Covenant of God.  He is cast out from society, ostracized and shunned by mankind and God himself.   However, Ishmael, as the protagonist of Moby-Dick, chooses to purposefully separate and remove himself from the general body of society and the traditions of conventional Christianity by traveling to sea.  Ishmael writes, “I am tormented by an everlasting itch for things remote.  I love to sail forbidden seas and land on barbarous coasts.” (Melville, 6)  His questioning of the mainstream hypocrisy of Christianity can be seen through his friendship with Queequeg, a savage pagan, whom he develops a close relationship with and respect for his hybrid form of spirituality and religion.  Although he questions the morality of those who call themselves Christians (such as Captain Bildad), Ishmael does not abandon the religious virtues he was taught; those of compassion to others, ethics and a sense of righteousness.  Further reading of Moby-Dick will reveal the full extent and ways in which our narrator embodies the layered references of his name.  Perhaps by choosing this name, Melville hints at the unstable role Ishmael may hold in this small society on the ship.  As Ishmael questions the veracity of those proclaimed Christian, he may also question the authority of Captain Ahab and jeopardize his place in the journey.

(Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Signet Classic: NY, 1998.)

One response so far

Next »

Social Widgets powered by