Melville was born in a time of American history where inspiring works of American literature began to emerge. It was also a time when America had not completely separated its literary heritage from Europe, partly because there were successful literary genius’ flourishing there. Melville proved to be a genius of his own, with his many works such as Moby Dick, Billy Bud, and Bartleby.
Three distinct themes could be seen throughout most of his literature; whales and the whaling industry, commentary on the universe and human destiny, and ideas about God and nature. Moby Dick is an incredible work by Melville most often referred to as an epic, a tragedy, a novel, an exposition on the whaling, and a spiritual autobiography. It is often overlooked that a deeper, more symbolic, meaning may have been the driving force behind Moby Dick.
Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819, to Allan and Maria Melville. He was the third of eight children in the Melville family. He was generally described as silent and slow; his mother thought him to be a very dull child. In 1832 Melville suffered tragedy when his father died. Finishing school when he was fifteen, Melville took service as cabin boy aboard the St. Lawrence. After returning to his home in New York for some time after serving as cabin boy, Melville took berth as an ordinary seaman aboard a whaling ship called the Acushnet.
After approximately four and a half years as a seaman on various ships, he set down, again in New York, to write of his experiences. Within six years he had published five books. Shortly thereafter Melville was married and moved his family to a farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It was at this location where Moby Dick was written. Moby Dick was first published in 1851. Melville continued to write, both poetry and stories, until three months before his death in 1891.
Melville’s perspective on life was that God created the universe with an infinite number of meanings and man is always trying to determine one specific meaning (Robertson-Lorant 65). It is possible that Melville, through writing, was seeking out some of his many destinies bestowed upon him by God.
The basis of the name Moby Dick can be traced back to an article in the New York Knickerbocker Magazine in May of 1839 (Madden). An article entitled Mocha Dick: or the White Whale of the Pacific recounted the capture of a giant sperm whale that had become infamous among whalers for its violent attacks on ships and their crews. The reasoning behind this whales name was quite simple; the whale was often sighted near the island of Mocha, and the use of Dick was a generic name similar to the use of Jack or Tom.
It is not shown that Melville’s work resembles this article in particular way except the use of the name and basic idea. The reasoning for the transfer from Mocha to Moby is possibly the biggest mystery. Melville never explained where the name had come from. It is possible that the name was something he had invented and just liked the sound of. Many scholars, however, are not convinced of this and have taken time to look for another reason behind the change.
By July 1846 even the Knickerbocker Magazine had forgotten its earlier version [of Reynolds article], reminding its readers of ‘the sketch of “Mocha Dick, of the Pacific”, published in the Knickerbocker many years ago…’. That account may well have led Melville to look up the earlier issue, in very month he rediscovered his lost buddy of the Acushnet and fellow deserter on the Marquesas, Richard Tobias Greene, and began ‘The Story of Toby’. May not ‘Toby Dick’ then have elided with ‘Mocha Dick’ to form that one euphonious compound, ‘Moby Dick’?” (Madden)
As far as anyone has figured, the name Moby Dick does not represent any certain symbolism pertaining to Melville’s spiritual self or experiences at sea.
The central character in Moby Dick is Ishmael, a Christian, schoolteacher, and part-time sailor. Ishmael’s role in Moby Dick is to interpret the happenings about the Pequod and its crew. He discusses his reasons for going to sea and interprets and looks for understanding a number of reasons for any specific action where other characters only understand one reason. Ishmael befriends another Pequod crew member, Queequeg, who is a cannibal.
Even though Queequeg is physically very ugly and cannibalistic, Ishmael sees that Queequeg has an honest heart, great honor, and is courageous. This friendship had a positive influence on Ishmael’s behavior, it taught him not to judge others on outward appearances; although, to some effect, Ishmael had pre-judgments about Captain Ahab. Representation of the common man was portrayed through Ishmael. He was not wholly corrupt and faced with many struggles brought about by the sea.
Another symbolic relationship, which was very short, was between Ishmael and the Pequod’s Captain, Ahab. For the first few days aboard the Pequod Ishmael only saw Ahab in the shadows. When Ishmael finally saw Ahab in full light shivers ran through his body. Ishmael could sense Ahab’s attitude of determination, dedication and hatred towards Moby Dick. This relationship impacted Ishmael in a negative way, Ishmael feared Ahab and did not want to befriend such an evil person. Ishmael was good-natured and did not want to be corrupted by Ahab’s evil. To stay from being corrupted Ishmael keeps himself from being near Ahab. The following passage from Moby Dick shows Captain Ahab as similar to the devil, controlling the crew of the Pequod and forcing actions upon them to attain his one insane task.
As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like flame from the furnace; as to and from, in their front, the harpooners wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Peqoud, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul. (Melville)
Melville’s use of phrases and words such as “unholy,” “huge pronged forks,” “red hell,” “flames,” and “blackness” show the Perquod as the vehicle of a satanic captain. The “monomainiac commander”, Captain Ahab, is intent on using any and all means necessary to get revenge on the white whale. This can be compared to Satan’s eternal fight for revenge against God for casting him out of heaven.
A more gentle, uncorrupted, light is cast upon the sea. The sea is a vast, blue space in which the lives of the crew aboard the Pequod. Melville’s descriptions of nature have a romantic sense to them.
Yonder, by the ever-brimming goblet’s rim, the warm waves blush like wine. The gold brow plumbs the blue. The diver sun—long dived from noon,—goes down; my soul mounts up! she wearies with her endless hill. Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy. Yet is it bright with many a gem; I, the wearer, see not its far flashings; but darkly fell that I wear that, that dazzlingly confounds. ‘Tis iron—that I know—not gold. ‘Tis split, too—that I feel; the jagged edge galls me so, my brain seems to beat against the solid metal. (Melville)
Most objects, such as characters and settings, are representative of more symbolic meaning. Moby Dick is a symbol of all that is unattainable in the universe. The color of the whale being white could mean so many different and conflicting things that it can’t be narrowed down to one meaning. The coffin that was turned into a buoy and saved Ishmael’s life could suggest that the meaning of any object lays in the beholder of the object not the object itself. The place that is a representative of a larger idea is the sea. The sea represents a man’s life, it symbolizes the fears that a man must overcome in life in order to gain a fuller understanding of life. The sea is a constant presence throughout the novel, as it is the background of almost every scene.
The metaphors Melville is using indicate the condition of man and about man’s uncertainty in the universe we live in. His tone is that of man choosing his own destiny through his own actions. Melville’s attitude is that of Man’s absolute insignificance in the universe. There is nothing Man can do to improve the present state of the universe once he has acted on his decision. Another aspect of his philosophy is Man’s continual struggle with himself in this universe. The vastness of the universe and man’s place in it is difficult for the average man to comprehend. At best he can just figure out one meaning, but there could be more. This novel has influenced attitudes and beliefs on the destiny of man and has shown that there is more than one view of every object. It shows people that they need to be open minded and examine things from more than perspective before passing judgment.
One of Melville’s goals was of indicating the condition of man and man’s uncertainty in the universe. Melville also shows the reader about Man’s absolute insignificance in the universe. Melville represented objects with ideas and beliefs of deeper meaning. Throughout the book man’s insignificance in the universe is represented by the relationship of the crew to the ocean. It is also shown how a man’s decision, once executed, cannot be changed; an example of this is when Captain Ahab throws the spear into Moby Dick. The spear’s rope wraps around Ahab’s neck and when Moby dives, Ahab goes with him. There was nothing Ahab could have done to escape.
The topics in this novel are very true, however, an adventure loving reader will read this book and only focus on the action rather than what Melville was trying to portray. Moby Dick can be significant to a reader who is seeking to know more about man’s relation to the universe.