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Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Updated October 27, 2021
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Moby Dick by Herman Melville essay

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All authors have their own motives as to why they write books and what they write them about. Many have heard legends or use firsthand experiences as a source for their words. However, Herman Melville includes both these things throughout one of the great works of sea literature, Moby-Dick. In 1839, Melville went to sea and continued to travel for many years. The experiences he had at sea were what brought forth many of his writing topics. Melville knew the sea very well, for he had spent years whaling on various ships. He used his whaling knowledge in order to make this text real for the average audience. Along with his knowledge of whaling, the legends he had heard allowed him to tell a story. He had heard a legend of a ship, the Essex, a Nantucket ship that sank after an encounter with a whale.

The whale had been called “Mocha Dick” by the people on the island of Mocha, although it was a white whale. It is believed that this was his primary inspiration for Moby-Dick. Melville also used some of the oldest legends in his book from the Bible, for he knew this text the best and he felt this allowed him to get closer to the problem of “Being, God and Me.” Melville used his vast knowledge of whaling and various legends as a guide to create this piece of modern fiction. Melville set the stage for purposeful ambiguity, not only sustaining numerous interpretive approaches but lathering it with biblical symbolic meaning.

There are several themes in Melville’s work of literature, one being the conflict between man and nature, which brings into play Melville’s references to multiple religions and God’s role in the natural world. Moby-Dick is a book of blasphemy, that Melville created seeking to upset the basic prejudices about humans, God, and nature. Melville is expressing through the plot that these categories are not interchangeable, that they live in a hierarchy, and that these components all hold distinct characteristics. Blasphemy by definition is “an act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or scared things; profane talk.” He uses the idea of blasphemy in various ways while developing the characters, the plot, and to portray meaning through the story of the white whale. Blasphemy takes many forms in this novel, three major forms being the idea that Ahab believes himself to be equal with God, the commitment to vengeance, and the rejection of God entirely for an alliance with the devil.

The writing in the novel itself is very creative, using various techniques to create a more complexity, as well as to deeply engage the reader. The usage of religion reveals the complexity of the novel, through the names given to the characters and ships, which are shared with figures of Abrahamic religion. The first line of the book states, “Call me Ishmael” (21), identifying the narrator. This name symbolizing Ishmael, the son of Abraham, who was an outcast after Isaac was born. It is soon found out that the narrator, Ishmael, is an outcast looking to go to sea on a whaling vessel. Another character is Ahab, in which the Hebrew Bible states is an evil king who led Israelites into a life of idolatry. This is symbolic because Ahab, the captain of the Pequod, essentially leads his crew into a life of idolatry through his obsession with Moby Dick. Ahab’s blasphemous quest for Moby Dick is an act of defiance towards God.

The idea first arises during Father Mapple’s sermon when he states from the bible, “I do not place Jonah before you to be copied for his sin but I do place him before you as a model for repentance. Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah” (59). The Biblical prophet Jonah got swallowed by a whale for his sins and not doing God’s bidding. The sermon is used as an example of how man should choose his path according to adherence to God’s will and reign, instead of his own selfish pursuits. Melville uses this to foreshadow when Ahab compares himself to God later on. He states, “There is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod.—On deck!” (416). Ahab compares himself to God as the lord over the Pequod, thinking himself as equal to God. With Ahab considering himself parallel to God, he’s defying God in the sense that he thinks he is omnipotent. Ahab states, “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me” (159).

This absurd statement only furthers the idea of Ahab’s belief of his superiority. Ahab chooses to obey himself, rather than God in the hunt of the white whale, going against the word of Father Mapple, “if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God exists” (55). In Ahab’s blasphemous disobedience of God’s word as outlined in Father Mapple’s sermon, Ahab continues his pursuit of the white whale to satisfy his own selfish motives, never seeing any other perspective but his own. All of the men that enter this voyage have their own religion and religious beliefs and practices, but throughout this voyage, they increasingly worship the seizing of the whale, and start to take on Ahab’s beliefs. His obsession puts the crew in danger in a sense, not to be killed, but by surrendering their relationship with their religions and humanity. Ahab’s quest against the whale is a blasphemous activity.

Not only is does Ahab equate himself to God, but the white whale is also equated to God throughout the text. The whiteness of the whale is seen in many interpretations as a symbol of God or the divine. The connotation of the color white is innocence. Moby Dick is portrayed many ways in this novel such as, an innocent animal, a God, and even evil. Melville gives the reader ample reason for each interpretation. Moby Dick as a God, powerful enough to destroy crews and ships. Also, every attempt at killing the whale has failed, proposing that he is a force that should be left alone. Melville states, “the grand god revealed himself” (480), and “not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! (480), these both convey the portrayal of Moby Dick as a god. The idea of equating a whale to God is blasphemous in itself, but Melville used this to create more symbolism through his work. Moby Dick is also seen as evil, “I saw the opening maw of hell” (54). This is stated early in the novel during the sermon, which foreshadows the thoughts that Ahab has for Moby Dick. Ahab sees this animal as an evil entity, believing him to be full of rage, wanting to kill all men. The idea of blasphemy stands out through the various interpretation of the whale.

Melville’s use of vengeance furthers the theme of blasphemy throughout the novel. Ahab personifies this concept through his obsessive quest for revenge leading to his ultimate demise. Ahab is so consumed by vengeance that he believes his sole purpose in life is to kill the white whale. This is evidenced by a comment he makes to Starbuck, “Someone thrusts these cards into these old hands…(and) I must play them” (439), clearly indicating Ahab’s total immersion in his vengeance on the whale. Starbuck recognizes Ahab’s blasphemous intentions of these words when he says that he, “came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance” (158). Ahab does not recognize human need when Captain Gardiner of the Rachel implore Ahab’s help in finding his lost son. However, Ahab gets information from Captain Gardiner affirming that he has seen Moby Dick. He does not offer any help in return, for he states, “Captain Gardiner, I will not do it. Even now I lose time. Good bye, good bye. God bless ye, man, and may I forgive myself, but I must go” (465). Because of the all-consuming revenge that Ahab has been engulfed in, Ahab no longer feels anything but that vengeance toward the white whale. Ahab has become his vengeance. The complete disregard for any of God’s word furthers showcases the blasphemous tone of Melville’s work.

Another example of Melville’s use of blasphemy is shown in the character’s overall rejection of God for an alliance with evil. Initially, Ahab portrays a fish as his antagonist and sees the whale as the devil. He has expressed through his words and actions that Moby Dick is his enemy, ambition, and ultimately his end. Melville illustrates Ahab’s deteriorating into an evil when he says, “No, no—no water for that; I want it of the true death-temper. Ahoy, there! Tashtego, Queequeg, Daggoo! What say ye, pagans! Will ye give me as much blood as will cover this barb?… Ego non baptize te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diabolic!’ deliriously howled Ahab, as the malignant iron scorchingly devoured the baptismal blood” (428). Ahab’s insistence of this evil ritualistic baptism of the harpoon furthers the reader’s realization that Ahab has now surpassed the whale’s embodiment of evil. Melville’s character Fedallah is seen as Ahab’s “evil’s shadow.” He is said to be the devil himself by Stubb. Fedallah has a prophetic dream about Ahab, and in telling him about it, Ahab dismisses the prophecy and deduces that he is immortal. Ahab states, “I am immortal then, on land and on sea” (437). Disregarding Fedallah’s prophetic dream, Ahab descends into a hell-like state, devoid of God. Ironically, becoming more of an evil character than even Fedallah.

Another example of Ahab’s evil dissent is when he also disregards Gabriel’s warning to, ‘think, think of the blasphemer–dead, and down there! –beware of the blasphemer’s end’ (286). Ahab’s pride ultimately morphs him into evil, rendering him deaf to any warnings about his blindly obsessed behavior. In his monomaniacal state, he disregards the law of man and nature. He elevates himself to this superior, all knowing being, with little or no regard for God’s law or the laws of nature. Ahab has split from reality in evidenced in, “What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do! They think me mad—Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!” (162). With this statement, Ahab has embraced his demonic side and has completely lost touch with reality.

Melville’s overarching meaning in his work is the fragility of one’s belief systems. The human mind can embrace and incorporate a particular thought, closely held beliefs or philosophy, yet when put to the test, may be rendered unrecognizable. Melville uses Ahab to embody this idea, where Ahab is said to have higher beliefs and associated with some sort of religion, yet is consumed by this vengeance he has toward this whale. His belief system slowly morphs into a demonic state because of his obsession and quest for Moby Dick. Ahab’s aspirations to godliness unravel in this sense, where the rage and hatred for this animal suede him from his religious beliefs. This obsession for revenge decays at the fabric of relationships throughout this novel. The relationships with God and humanity are cracked during this voyage, up bending the character’s closely held beliefs when this obsession takes hold. Ahab portrays the whale as his enemy, throwing his rage and anger into this animal. To resent and seek vengeance on the whale is indirectly behaving so towards God, therefore showing that Ahab’s real target of rage and anger is God. Melville illustrates the idea that hope and humanity is buoyed by faith and in a bigger belief than ourselves.

Melville uses blasphemy throughout this novel to illustrate how the human mind can become corrupt when adversity is introduced, causing the erosion of one’s beliefs. Melville writes, “’Vengeance on a dumb brute!’ cried Starbuck, ‘that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous’” (159). By believing that Moby Dick was his enemy and single thought, he is turning his back on God. He not only puts himself in that position but he also leads his crew down that road as well. Starbuck’s statement is indicative of how Ahab’s madness and obsession has gotten the best of the ship. The attributes that had defined the men on the ship are slowly eroding and blasphemous ways take its place.

Melville’s, Moby-Dick, had been edited by the Americans and the British, therefore creating two editions of this novel. This had been done for multiple reasons, as the British and American cultures were very different especially in that era. These two editions were aimed at different audiences. Each edition consists of different meanings through the different wording and phrases used. Melville’s British editor made a significant amount of cuts throughout the novel because he knew the limits to of his Victorian. Audience. In this era, the Victorians had no tolerance for blasphemous, sexual, or profane talk in any means, hence the many deletions and variations from the American edition.

In the British edition for example, Melville writes, “like another cursed Jonah (by which name indeed they called him)” (31), which is cut by British editors for its vulgarity. In Chapter 11 Melville states, “seemed communicating with God and himself” (59), which the British edition revises to “his God” because it is looked as blasphemous. There were many examples of the British editors taking out words such as, “Christ” and “God” for its usage of the Lord’s name in vain. Melville writes, “O Christ!” and it is changed to “O Lord!” (168), “Blang—Whang! God…” (171), “Captain, by God, look at yourself” (229). These were clearly not acceptable in the eyes of the British editor, who was trying to please a large audience that had no tolerance for such a thing. Many sentences were revised or entire paragraphs were completely deleted for their blasphemous ways. Melville writes, “Why then, God, mad’st thou ring?” (171). This was deleted in the British edition because of the interpretation that came from it, suggesting God created man for him to kill his brothers.

This was seen as utterly blasphemous by the British, hence the deletion. Melville also writes, “feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God” (353), which is considered double blasphemy by British editors, interpreting that Melville is saying through his text that “God is indifferent and that man can achieve his level of divine awareness.” The British edition also cut, “But I doubt not, that leathen tally, meant for man, was taken off in Heaven, when the white fowl flew to join the wing-folding, the invoking, and adoring cherubim” (181). This was absolutely blasphemous to the British editors, not in the fact that the bird was sending message for man, but the portrayal of the bird as spiritual and being able to send letters between man and heaven was seen as blasphemous. The British cut many things that were considered to be offense to religion of the day.

Melville’s blasphemous writing creates a reaction in readers that was appropriate in American’s eyes, but not so much in the eyes of the British. The interpretation of the book changes when these words, phrases, or paragraphs are revised or deleted. Melville was breaking down barriers through these characters, allowing them to say these blasphemous things, but when taken out the meaning changes. The book would simply be a book about man vs. nature if blasphemy was not intertwined. It would lose any and all religious symbolism and connotations, which is what makes the book one of the greatest works of literature. The changing of the words changes the climactic passages as all, especially when Melville writes, “so that all defied Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within” (185). This statement was deleted in the British edition, but this was seen as a crucial chapter in Moby-Dick and it was not there for British readers. Through the cuts made in the British edition, it is clear that the reader wouldn’t experience the full story as well as the American edition, for Melville’s use of vulgarity and blasphemy is what made the book interesting and complex.

It is clear based on the evidence quoted throughout the text of this paper that Melville chose the theme of blasphemy in different forms for Moby-Dick. Whether this was done to provide a tangible sequence or path for the reader to follow or whether it was merely Melville using symbolism to espouse his own philosophy is an interesting question left for the reader. The techniques used by Melville add to the complexity of this novel as well as the symbolism used in his blasphemous words. Moby-Dick ends in a very quick manner in which Ahab’s quest for the whale ultimately ends his life. The harpoon line caught him and he is dragged to his death by the whale. Not only does Ahab die, but the crew gets killed as well.

Melville states, “Ahab went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she dragged a living part of heaven along with her” (499). Ahab is compared to Satan in this, saying he is dragging down this crew with him. Only one sailor is saved by the Rachel (biblically known as the mother of Joseph, known for protecting her children), symbolizing his return from banishment caused by his inclusion of Ahab’s idolatry. This shows a complex layer of additional meaning in the text. The ending to Moby-Dick allows only one sailor to survive, so that the tale of treachery, obsession, vengeance, and godliness might be told, and he asks us to call him Ishmael.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville essay

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