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Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

Herman Melville’s masterpiece, Moby Dick, is a profound, philosophical meditation on life centered on the symbolic hunt for the white whale. The divine connotations of the whale are evident. In Melville’s works, nature is transparent enough to allow a glimpse of the metaphysical reality beyond it. However, the struggle of the man who is left to drift alone in a world which surpasses his comprehension powers, with the nature around him is something that Melville specifically emphasizes. The whale is pursued by the mad Ahab in a desperate attempt to find its “talismanic truth”, its metaphysical secret.

Ishmael, in his turn, observes that the ocean is a symbol for everything there is, for life itself in its plenitude. The white whale inspires metaphysical awe, while the sea in its endlessness intimates infinity and predisposes men to melancholic dreaming. Moby Dick is thus a satiated allegory, in which man is seen as caught between awful metaphysical realities. Both Ahab and Ishmael symbolize the human condition: they stand alone in front of the overwhelming and saturated world, wondering about its mysteries.

Thus, significantly the whale functions almost as a variable symbol in the book, with a different meaning for each of the main characters. Interestingly enough, the main characters in the novel form two different pairs, according to the “high perception” of reality which animates them: Ishamael and Queequeg and Ahab and Starbuck. As Melville directly states in the novel, for Ishamael and Ahab the whale has very different meanings. At the same time, Queequeg and Starbuck respectively, are the more human counterparts of the extremely melancholic Ishmael and of the mad Ahab.

Ishmael is the Platonic philosopher for whom the whale and the ocean on which they float represent the metaphysical truth hidden beyond the immediately visible. He certainly has a high perception of the world, and his ever melancholic mood leads him to endless contemplation on the deep mysteries of the universe. Ishmael himself intimates the way in which his perception differs from that of Ahab. He thus confesses to a metaphysical dread of the whale’s whiteness, the pure blankness which translates the infinite and ungraspable hollowness that hides just beneath the colorful surface of things.

The white shade of the whale is therefore a symbol for the anxiety of the void that may hide beyond the material objects. Moreover, the deep ocean rolling under the Pequod is another source of ceaseless meditation for Ishmael: “With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I — being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude, — how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale-ships’ standing orders…” (Melville 155-156). Significantly, Ishmael is inefficient as a watcher for whales on the mast. His own deep thoughts steal on him, dragging him away from reality.

He cannot catch and kill the whale or take any active attitude in front of the inscrutable mysteries of the world, as he is too engulfed in his own contemplation: “Beware of such an one, I say; your whales must be seen before they can be killed; and this sunken-eyed young Platonist will tow you ten wakes round the world, and never make you one pint of sperm the richer…For nowadays, the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent- minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber…”(Melville 156)

The image of the swinging waves suggests the existence of a supreme soul underneath it all. Reality is pictured thus not as an empirical world, but as profound and mysterious manifestation of the metaphysical world. For Ishmael, the whale which breaches out of the waves is the symbol of the mystery that this reality contains. Therefore, nothing is as it seems. The visible carcass of the natural world is but a mask that hides the metaphysical truth from the eyes of man. Again significantly, Ishmael loses his fixed identity, uniting his soul with the rollicking waves:

“Lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this 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 visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him…seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it.

”(Melville 157) This semi-conscious state of almost pure and selfless contemplation is probably the best way to comprehend Ishmael’s high perception of reality. For Ishmael thus the whale is a question mark, something that offers infinite contemplation. On the other hand, the half savage pagan, Queequeg, with whom Ishmael can be easily paired as a character, is utterly detached from his surroundings, living in absolute content and serenity.

He can also be called a philosopher, but he is obviously much more human than the lofty Ishmael: “Yet he seemed entirely at his ease; preserving the utmost serenity; content with his own companionship; always equal to himself. Surely this was a touch of fine philosophy…”(Melville 51). Queequeg, although endowed with a profound mind himself, does not share in the absolute high perception that Ishmael is tortured by. The other set of characters, formed by Ahab and Starbuck, have a different perception of reality.

In a different way, but to the same degree as Ishmael, Ahab is the slave of a transcendental perception of the universe. Without contenting himself with the mere contemplation of the hidden reality, Ahab madly chases Moby Dick, seeking a monomaniac revenge on the dumb brute for having dismembered him. To him the mad quest is an imperative and not a question. Constantly and arduously, Ahab pursues his obsession, struggling with the transcendental and not merely recognizing its existence.

Through Ahab, Melville offers an almost tragic view of the human condition: the whale, which symbolizes the ultimate truth, can not be possessed. The captain goes mad in his search of the whale, and dies eventually. The whales are compared suggestively with the mute Sphynxes, the holders of truth but at the same time its hiders, since they cannot speak and express it. The metaphysical beyond the obvious reality refuses to give its secret. Moby Dick is the symbol of the diver, who can go a long way beneath the surface of things, to the core of reality.

There it can find out all the secrets of the ocean, as opposed to the drifting man, a mere sailor who is confined to the outer reality and can only hunt the truth when it emerges out of the waves for an instant: “’I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here (Melville 501). As Hamilton underlines, Melville’s view of nature is to a great extent transcendentalist, as for him the physical reality is only a symbol of what lies beyond it.

Nothing is just what it is considered to be in the economy of the human vocabulary: a whale is not just a wild animal but represents a deeper, metaphysical reality: “Ahab is a convinced believer in the transcendentalist view of nature: nature as symbol of what lies beyond, in self and in world. Whales are not really whales, but something deeper, ‘a little lower layer. ’” (Hamilton 419). Ahab restlessly challenges the invisible power symbolized by the whale.

Probably the most evocative metaphor that he uses to describe the monster is its similarity to a wall: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.

Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. ”(Melville 161-162) The comparison of the whale with a wall emphasizes Ahab’s maddening endeavor to break the ultimate resistance of truth and conquer it. Thus, he is not only fascinated, like Ishmael, by the metaphysical, he wants to own it and vanquish it: “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me” (Melville 162).

In Ahab’s struggle with the inscrutable, he never ceases to be a personality himself, refusing to be daunted by its overwhelming force. The ultimate desire to kill the whale shows Ahab’s obsession with obtaining an absolute victory over the unknown. The captain is obviously haunted by the same high perception of reality as Ishmael is, with the addition that his strife is extremely personal. events, but he at least believes in a correlation. For him also, the atoms of the physical world all have correspondences in the human spirit: “O Nature, and O soul of man!

how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives in matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind” (Melville 340). The bond between the metaphysical and the material environment is an unbreakable one. Mark Edelman Boren emphasizes that Ishmael is a “creature of interpretation” while Ahab is one that invests everything that crosses his path with meaning: “Ahab…voraciously consumes anything of significance that crosses his path. The very conflation of man and material, exhibited by the seam joined in a scar running from his head to his foot.

Ahab is not a creature of interpretation, but an invested being, a walking, ranting trophy carrying his significance with him–a rhetorical man-thing…”(Boren 12). Ahab places therefore meaning on the white whale and chases it in his struggle to conquer everything. The captain is possessed by his imperative. According Juana Celia Djelal, Ahab is controlled by his monomanic obsession with the whale. He “Ba’al figures in the destiny of King Ahab, who renounces Jehovah and worships Ba’al to please his Phoenician wife, Jezebel.

Here, then, is Melville’s etymological nexus: the hunted ballena or baleine becomes master and possessor of Captain Ahab, whose destiny is to follow his ba’al” (Djelal 47). Instead of worshiping the divine, Ahab becomes possessed by it. Starbuck on the other hand, is humane and animated by common sense rather than by a high perception of things. For him, Ahab’s mad quest is blasphemous and irrational: “’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.

‘”(Melville 162) Melville thus emphasizes the humaneness of Starbuck, who obstinately believes in life despite the horrors he witnesses on his travels with Ahab: “For again Starbuck’s downcast eyes lighted up with the stubbornness of life…”(Melville 163) He evidently struggles to escape the influence is his captain, and to maintain his normality and his capacity to enjoy life: “Methinks it pictures life. Foremost through the sparkling sea shoots on the gay, embattled, bantering bow, but only to drag dark Ahab after it… Oh, life! ’tis now that I do feel the latent horror in thee!

but ’tis not me! that horror’s out of me! and with the soft feeling of the human in me, yet will I try to fight ye, ye grim, phantom futures! ”(Melville 168). For Starbuck therefore, the whale is life itself, but in its harmonious and gentle aspects. Thus, the four main characters in Moby Dick are all philosophers more or less. Ishmael and Ahab however are definitely lost in their metaphysical quests, while Queequeg and Starbuck preserve their humaneness and their capacity to bear their existence as well as that of the world in a natural way.

Works Cited: Boren, Mark Edelman. “What’s Eating Ahab? The Logic of Ingestion and the Performance of Meaning in Moby-Dick. ” Style. 34. 1 (2000): 11-29. Djelal, Juana Celia. “The shape of the whale: flukes and other tales. ” Leviathan. 7. 2 (Oct. 2005): 47-56. Hamilton, William. “Melville and the Sea”. Soundings. Vol. 62. 4. (1979): 417-29. Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972. Wadlington, Warwick. “Ishmael’s Godly Gamesomeness: Selftaste and Rhetoric in Moby-Dick. ” ELH. 39. 2 (1972): 309-331.

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