Analysis of ‘Moby-Dick’

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Mocha Dick, the real-life whale that inspired Melville’s tale.

I) Introduction and Quotes

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, is a novel by Herman Melville, published in 1851. The story is about Captain Ahab‘s mad quest for a huge albino whale, which bit off his leg in a previous attempt to kill it by his crew of harpooners. The story is narrated by a young man, the orphan Ishmael, the sole survivor of Ahab’s second attempt to kill the white whale.

Though the novel got a mixed reception on its original publication, its critical reputation grew over the 20th century, and it’s now considered the preeminent American novel, and one of the greatest works of literature of all time. Moby-Dick deals with such profound philosophical issues as epistemology and the nature of ultimate reality, evil, nature, etc., as symbolized by the whale and the ocean.

Here are some famous quotes:

Loomings (1)

“Call me Ishmael.”

“Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”

“Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning…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.”

The Spouter-Inn (3)

“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

The Sermon (9)

“…all the things God would have us do are hard for us to do…if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.” –Father Mapple

The Mast-Head (35)

“…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; 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. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Cranmer‘s sprinkled pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.

“There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!”

The Quarter-Deck (36)

“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. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing 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. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” –Ahab

“Aye, aye! It was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!” Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: “Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.” –Ahab

Moby-Dick (41)

“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick.”

The Whiteness of the Whale (42)

“What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.”

“Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls…with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”

“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows — a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues — every stately or lovely emblazoning — the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge — pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”

The Fossil Whale (104)

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”

Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin (109)

“Let Ahab beware of Ahab.”

The Pacific (111)

“There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seems to speak of some hidden soul beneath.”

The Chase–Third Day (135)

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” –Ahab

Epilogue

“The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth? — Because one did survive the wreck.”

“On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”

II) Search for Truth

 

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Ishmael’s extracts, supplied by a sub-sub-librarian.

There is a preoccupation with acquiring knowledge of everything in Ishmael’s narrative, as we can see from his discussing all matters pertaining to the whale (a pun on whole; and Moby Dick can be seen as a symbol of the more terrifying aspects of ultimate reality). Recall ‘Etymology,’ which gives a list of whale in various languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon (WHOEL), Danish (HVALT), Dutch (WAL), Swedish (HWAL), etc. Note also “Cetology,” chapter 32, as well as Ishmael’s many digressions into philosophical matters.

I believe this search for truth is his reason, in a symbolic sense, for tiring of the land and wanting to return to the sea; for the waves of the ocean represent that fluid reality of rises and dips (i.e., in fortune) that we all experience everywhere in life. Reality isn’t in the things in the water, like the whales that are caught: it’s in the water itself. The preoccupation with catching those things is what causes our suffering…as it does Ahab.

III) Ishmael and Queequeg: From Foes to Friends

Queequeg

Ishmael has to share a room, at the Spouter-Inn, with Queequeg, a Polynesian pagan harpooner. Their meeting at night, with Ishmael sleeping in Queequeg’s bed, is hostile at first, since the latter isn’t expecting a roommate.

Soon, the two become good friends (Chapter 10, ‘A Bosom Friend’), the two even sharing in each other’s form of worship; for Ishmael bows with Queequeg before the latter’s idol (Chapter 10–“A Bosom Friend”, pages 67-68), and Queequeg attends Father Mapple‘s church service with Ishmael (Chapter 7–“The Chapel,” page 52; though Queequeg leaves some time before the benediction–Chapter 10–“A Bosom Friend,” page 64).

Christian Ishmael and pagan Queequeg are opposites who, though clashing at first, soon learn not only to accept each other’s differences, but even participate in the opposite’s ways. Their relationship thus demonstrates the dialectical relationship between opposites, something Ahab can never learn do with Moby Dick.

IV) Mapple’s Sermon

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The Chapel

During Father Mapple’s sermon, which the preacher gives on a pulpit designed like a ship (for his sermons are his way of edifying his “shipmates,” his steering of the boat on the ocean of life, so to speak), he discusses the events written of in the Book of Jonah.

“Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17), for he didn’t want to obey God and preach to the sinful people of Nineveh. We tend to think of the “great fish” as a whale, though of course a whale–being a mammal–is no fish. Melville’s narrative, while acknowledging Linnaeus‘ reference to, among other distinctions, the whale’s “feminam mammis lactantem,” still insists that a whale is a fish (Chapter 32–“Cetology,” pages 139-140), linking Jonah’s story thematically with Moby Dick; for Ishmael calls upon “holy Jonah” as his authority on the matter.

Jonah’s “three days and three nights” of terror “in the belly of the fish” transform him from a rebellious sinner into an obedient servant of God, a dialectical shift from the hell of the bitten tail of the ouroboros to the heaven of its biting head. Transformative moments like these, like a harrowing of hell, make saints out of sinners. Ahab will never make that change, for he forever hates the white whale, even in death.

V) Melville’s Critique of Emerson

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

When Father Mapple says that in obeying God, we must disobey ourselves, Melville is using the preacher as his mouthpiece to criticize the Transcendentalists, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in particular, with his essays “Self-Reliance” and “The Over-Soul.” In the former essay, Emerson wrote of the apparent divinity of the individual soul, which should be relied upon to the exclusion of accepting any advice from the all-too-conforming community.

The danger of such self-reliance is how it can lead to egotism, narcissism, and contempt for the rights and feelings of others. Ahab personifies self-reliance taken to such foolish extremes, for he ignores Starbuck’s warnings and criticisms, and gets his whole crew killed (save Ishmael) at the end.

Emerson’s “Over-Soul” gives a philosophical, quasi-mystical rationalization of this self-reliance, for this “self” is seen as divinely similar to Atman. Emerson had read translations of such Hindu texts as the Bhagavad-Gita; texts such as these include such doctrines as Atman being equal to Brahman, Emerson’s “Over-Soul,” the unifying soul in all life and in all things.

The problem with Emerson’s interpretation of these Hindu ideas is in how, addled by Western tradition’s preconceptions (i.e., Plato’s idealism, the good soul vs. the sinful flesh, etc.), he Christianizes the “self” (i.e., Atman, the individual soul), and imagines individuality to be all good. Such a sentimentalizing was never intended by the Hindus.

Because divinity in Eastern mysticism encompasses everything–or conversely, it’s described in terms of what it’s not (for to describe the divine in terms of what it is would qualify it, and thus limit it)–it mustn’t be thought of as merely ‘good.’ It has both alluring and terrifying aspects. Bion‘s mystical O, for example, is seen as having traumatic qualities. The divine is everything and nothing, both good and evil…and neither/nor.

But Emerson came from a Christian tradition that sees God as all-good; Western translations of Hindu texts often clumsily render Brahman, or the divine, as God, which is misleading; for God is a monotheistic concept, whereas concepts like Brahman are monistic. Not even ‘pantheism‘ really covers what something like Brahman is.

VI) Pantheism, the Ocean, and the Ouroboros

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The ocean as a dark, frightening place.

When one thinks of pantheism, one often thinks of the peacefulness of walking about in the woods, or dwelling dreamily in places like Wordsworth‘s ‘Tinturn Abbey‘, feeling “a sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused,/ Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns” (lines 95–97) and the immanence of “A motion and a spirit, that impels/ All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/ And rolls through all things” (lines 100–103).

Melville, on the other hand, uses the tempestuous ocean as his preferred image of nature to warn us of the danger of sentimentalizing pantheism (see ‘The Masthead’ quote above). I prefer the image of the ocean as a symbol of the dialectical monism that I subscribe to, for the rising and falling waves suggest our ongoing shifts between good and bad fortune.

When I wrote of how a “contemplation combining what I call the Three Unities (of SpaceTime, and Action) will, with repeated practice over a long period of time, bring us closer and closer to that nirvana of no more pain, a putting of all the pieces back together,” I never meant that to be some kind of feel-good, New Age sentimentality. “Closer and closer” are the key words there: “no more pain” shouldn’t be misinterpreted as an absolute state.

Indeed, the smug excess of sentimentality is the biting head of the ouroboros, where one is “too healthy,” as I’ve written about elsewhere; this emotional state is one of narcissistic overconfidence, a False Self delusion that can lead, if one isn’t careful, to the madness of fragmentation. This is the danger Captain Ahab is throwing himself into, a danger of slipping past the serpent’s biting head to its bitten tail.

You see, the symbolism of the ouroboros as a unifying of opposites (the serpent’s head biting its tail) shows how we should properly understand ultimate reality: a marriage of heaven and hell, a union of knowledge and ignorance, a fusion of good and evil.

VII) Character Pairings: Unified Opposites

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We see pairings of opposites throughout Moby-Dick. We’ve already seen the pairing of pagan Queequeg and Christian Ishmael; we’ve touched on the opposition of wise, cautious chief mate Starbuck vs. mad Captain Ahab; let’s now consider some others.

Other parings include retired Captains Peleg and Bildad, two Quakers who own the Pequod and sailed in it before giving the helm to Ahab. “Like Captain Peleg, Captain Bildad was a well-to-do, retired whaleman. But unlike Captain Peleg–who cared not a rush for what are called serious things, and indeed deemed those selfsame serious things the veriest of all trifles–Captain Bildad had not only been originally educated according to the strictest sect of Nantucket Quakerism, but all his subsequent ocean life, and the sight of many unclad, lovely island creatures, round the Horn–all that had not moved this native born Quaker one single jot, had not so much as altered one angle of his vest.” (Chapter 16–“The Ship,” page 87)

On the next page, “…old Bildad…seemed absorbed in reading from a ponderous volume.

“‘Bildad,’ cried Captain Peleg, ‘at it again, Bildad, eh? Ye have been studying those Scriptures, now, for the last thirty years, to my certain knowledge. How far ye got, Bildad?’

“As if long habituated to such profane talk from his old shipmate, Bildad, without noticing his present irreverence, quietly looked up, and seeing me, glanced again inquiringly towards Peleg. […]

“‘He’ll do,’ said Bildad, eyeing me [Ishmael], and then went on spelling away at his book in a mumbling tone quite audible.

“I thought him the queerest old Quaker I ever saw, especially as Peleg, his friend and old shipmate, seemed such a blusterer.” Yet, in spite of Bildad’s apparent Bible-perusing piety, as opposed to Peleg’s “irreverence” and “impenitent” nature, Bildad’s the “stingy” one, offering Ishmael an exceedingly small share of the ship’s profits (the 777th lay), as opposed to “generous” Peleg’s offer of the three hundredth lay (Ishmael has been hoping for the 275th lay). Here we see the mingling of opposites in Peleg and Bildad, the antitheses of pious parsimony and impious generosity. (pages 89-91)

Another pairing is of Stubb, the cheerful, laughing, happy-go-lucky second mate, as contrasted with Flask, the mean, grumpy, nasty third mate. For all of Stubb’s cheerfulness, though, he feels such a hostility to Fedallah, the Parsee who has an evil influence on Ahab, that Stubb imagines the Parsee “to be the devil in disguise,” with a tail he hides in his pocket; and he’d like to throw Fedallah overboard. (Chapter 73–“Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk Over Him”, pages 315-317) And for all of Flask’s surliness, and his own suspicion of the Parsee, he isn’t sure of Stubb’s equating of Fedallah with the devil.

In one way, grumpy Flask can be seen as the double of mad, scowling Ahab: “Flask…who somehow seemed to think that the great Leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honor with him, to destroy them whenever encountered” (Chapter 27–“Knights and Squires,” page 125); and Stubb–in his fear that “Fedallah wants to kidnap Captain Ahab”–can be Starbuck’s double. Yet in his wish to rip off Fedallah’s “tail,” Stubb’s rather like Ahab in his wish to get revenge on evil; for ripping off the Parsee’s “tail” is a symbolic castration, as is Ahab’s loss of his leg to Moby Dick. Again, characters with opposing personalities find their traits intermingling.

A pairing of particular importance is Ishmael vs. Ahab. Both men are seeking something, obsessively questing for the deepest knowledge. Ishmael demonstrates this in his near-encyclopaedic display of knowledge of all things cetacean. With Ahab, though, there’s only one whale he seeks.

VIII) Knowledge and Ignorance, Black and White

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The whiteness of the whale.

A major theme of Moby-Dick is epistemology, or the philosophy of knowledge and how it is attained. Whales symbolize this knowledge that is sought, for knowledge, like whales, is elusive to its hunter; when you come at it, knowledge can hurt, as when whales smash up whalers’ boats.

The white whale is that ultimate knowledge: its whiteness is like the divine light of perfect knowledge…but that white light can also be terrifying (Chapter 42–“The Whiteness of the Whale”). Ahab is mad to want to confront such dangerous knowledge. Ishmael, in contrast, can adapt and change in his search for knowledge; he can flow and shift with the waves of the ocean. Ahab’s monomania keeps him as rigid and hard as Moby Dick’s powerful body; the captain projects his own evil onto the white whale.

We normally think of darkness and blackness as evil; consider the bigoted Spanish Sailor who taunts Daggoo, the African harpooner (Chapter 40–“Midnight, Forecastle,” page 178). These two are another pairing of opposites who are also alike in crucial ways, for while the Spanish Sailor calls Daggoo “devilish dark,” provoking a fight, consider the swarthiness of the average Spaniard compared to whites of North European descent. And when a flash of light in the dark is said by the Spanish Sailor to be “Daggoo showing his teeth,” we see a mixture of black and white in him, another mixing of opposites.

So as we can see, both black and white can be evil…and good. Both knowledge and ignorance can be evil, too…and sometimes ignorance is better–and safer–than knowledge; since some knowledge simply cannot be found or mastered. Ishmael can accept this reality. Ahab can not.

IX) Marine Masculinity and Narcissism

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The sperm whale: a giant phallus in the ocean.

Yet another pairing is Moby Dick, or sperm whales in general, and the ocean. While Melville’s whales are overwhelmingly masculine (more on that below), la mer est la mère. Now, the feminine is conspicuously absent in this novel, or at the very least minimized, even for a story about men at sea. Even on land, all of the significant characters are male: apart from those already mentioned, there are Peter Coffin, owner of the Spouter-Inn, and Elijah, who prophesies the doom of the Pequod.

The sperm whales, whether male or female in reality, are all male by symbolic association. Though there’s no evidence earlier than the 1880s of dick being used as a slang word for penis, it had been used to mean man, fellow, for centuries. Moby Dick is a giant white phallus spouting water (symbolic ejaculation) swimming in Oceanus, a male god of the ocean. Consider also, as Camille Paglia did (Paglia, page 587), “that unaccountable cone,” “the grandissimus,” that is a sperm whale’s penis being lugged by three sailors (Chapter 95–“The Cassock”).

Moby Dick is the rigid thing Ahab wants for having bitten off his leg (a symbolic castration causing him narcissistic injury), whereas the ever-shifting, ever flowing ocean is a nirvana of no-thing-ness, of anatta (no self). Ahab’s peg leg is made of whale bone, his revenge on ‘castrating’ whales. Phallic harpoons stab into the phallic sperm whales, the piercing a kind of circumcising of them, and a rite of passage for novice Ishmael.

Lacan‘s phallus is a signifier, bringing us into the world of language, the Symbolic Order, uniting us with community through communication. Symbolically castrated Ahab is thus cut off from community, from an ability to communicate in a truly human way, in a way that connects with others and exchanges empathy, hence his solipsistic madness and his never heeding Starbuck’s warnings. Intact Ishmael, however, is so linguistically complete that he gives the words of whales in various languages (“Etymology,” page 9), and he quotes Linnaeus’ Latin in “Cetology,” page 139.

Ahab’s narcissism is apparent in his willingness to “strike the sun if it insulted” him. His egotism is the result of too much self-reliance, as Melville warns us all against. Recall “Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.” (Chapter 1–“Loomings,” page 23)

X) Zoroastrian Dualism, and the Deluge

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Fire: Fedallah’s Sacredness, Ahab’s Hell of Desire and Suffering, which can be extinguished only by nirvana, a giving-up of his self.

Next, we must consider Fedallah, the Parsee. His influence over Ahab has been seen as Satanic, if you’ll recall what Stubb has to say about him in chapter 73. In this connection, it’s interesting to note Melville’s allusion to the beginning of chapter six in Genesis (fittingly, in a dialectical sense, at the end of Chapter 50–“Ahab’s Boat and Crew. Fedallah”).

Melville calls the sons of God (or sons of the gods, depending on the translation of b’nei ha-elohim) angels, who “consorted with the daughters of men,” which in turn led to the wickedness that caused Yahveh to bring about the Great Flood, which in the ancient, pre-scientific cosmology meant a bringing together of the previously separated waters of the heavenly firmament and the oceans below, a return to the formless Chaos of the beginning of Creation.

Melville also mentions devils having “indulged in mundane amours,” suggesting such a close relationship between Fedallah (a prophetic, heathen ‘son of the gods’) and Ahab (a wicked ‘daughter of men’–i.e., he’s been symbolically castrated), which will result in a deluge-like drowning of everyone (save Noah-like Ishmael) at the end of the novel.

Fedallah, as a Parsee, adheres to the Zoroastrian religion, which has a dualistic understanding of good vs. evil. The religion has an optimistic eschatology, believing Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd), God and principle of light, goodness, wisdom, and order, will so thoroughly defeat the devil Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), the principle of darkness, evil, destruction, and chaos, that even sinners suffering in Hell will eventually be redeemed, liberated, and brought into heaven.

Such a consummate ‘happy ending’ to sacred history is the kind of thing Melville would have been suspicious of, as we’ve seen in his assessment of Emerson’s ‘self.’ Ahab, in his hopes of killing Moby Dick–the symbol of all that is evil in his world–is searching for that Zoroastrian happy ending, a thorough (Thoreau?) wiping out of all evil–and Fedallah is helping him do that.

So, is Fedallah an angel or a devil…the Hegelian thesis, or its negation? Or is Fedallah a fallen angel…the Hegelian synthesis? Again, we see the merging of opposites, as was the Great Flood a merging of water above and water below, a return to Chaos. And as a Zoroastrian, is Fedallah an agent of Ohrmazd, principle of order, or one of Ahriman, principle of chaos? Is he both principles at once?

Is the deluge-like killing of the crew an evil horror, or is it a purging of evil, like the temporary Hell of the Parsees? Is the infinite ocean of Brahman, the sea of primordial Chaos, a terrifying watery grave one may fall into because of one false step (as traumatized Pip experiences it to be when he jumps ship the second time; Chapter 93–“The Castaway,” pages 395-397; remember also “The Mast-Head” quote above), or is it the painful but necessary purging of the world, creating a purity like the sacred fire and water of the Zoroastrians (hence, Pip’s trauma is also his mystical experience)?

The Zoroastrians would dualistically separate good and evil; as Yahveh Elohim separated the waters above and below, as He separated the divine and human worlds later reunited by the union of the sons of God with the daughters of men. Emerson would keep good and evil so separate as to suggest evil doesn’t even exist in his holy Over-Soul and its immaculate Atman, the individual self. Melville was saying we cannot separate good and evil. The evil of the whales’ painful knowledge will always swim in divine Oceanus; the strongest of these evils–like Moby Dick–will never be defeated.

Noah-like (or rather, Deucalion-like) Ishmael, floating on the arc-like coffin built for Queequeg (comparable to the chest Deucalion and Pyrrha were in to protect themselves from Zeus’s deluge), understands the inseparability of good and evil, of life and death, of black and white, of ignorance and knowledge, or of any pair of opposites; and clinging to a wooden symbol of death, he is the only one of the crew who lives in the end.

XI) The End, But No Surcease of Suffering

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Death: Ahab’s Gift to His Crew

“AND I ONLY AM ESCAPED ALONE TO TELL THEE.”  (Epilogue)

This quote is from Job, chapter one, repeated in verses 15, 16, 17, and 19, spoken by messengers to Job, a good servant of God, all of them telling him misfortunes that have befallen him. The Book of Job‘s purpose is to reconcile how evil afflicting good people can exist in a world ruled by a good God. In other words, it’s a theodicy in allegory…as, in a way, Moby-Dick can be seen to be.

God, the receiver of blessings and praise, can be seen as the thesis, to which Satan (ha-satan, “the accuser,” or “the adversary”) can be seen as the antithesis, or negation, since Job’s Satan offers the counter-argument that Job would curse God if all his good fortunes were to be taken from him. Theodicy is an attempt at a synthesis, or sublation, of the opposing contradictions of good and evil.

As I’ve said above, only Ishmael survives because only he can figure out this sublation. He, after the death of his shipmates, is an orphan: alive, but floating on a coffin.

It is significant that Ahab dies being tied by his harpoon to Moby Dick, and being dragged out into the water with the whale. “Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” (Chapter 135–“The Chase–Third Day,” page 534) He dies because of his undying attachment to the white whale.

One could describe Ahab’s madness in Buddhistic terms, namely, the Three Poisons of delusion/ignorance, attachment/craving, and aversion/hate. The hard, firm, strong body of Moby Dick–as opposed to the rolling, shifting, changing waves of the ocean–represents Ahab’s delusion of permanently existing things, and thus his ignorance of impermanence, or no-thing-ness.

His monomaniacal craving for the whale, to find and catch it to the exclusion of all other considerations, is of course not out of desire for, but out of hatred of Moby Dick. His wish to kill, to annihilate the white whale leads to his self-destruction because of his delusion of the separateness of self and other, and of the seeming absoluteness of being and non-being; he fails to see the interconnectedness of all things, including self and other.

And in trying to kill Moby Dick, his own evil projected onto the whale, he kills himself. The egotism of the narcissist is actually a ‘pasteboard mask’ hiding his secret self-hate. Though Narcissus, having fallen in love with his reflection in the water, fell in and drowned (“Loomings,” page 23); Ahab, hating the image of the white whale in the water, failed to see its face as a pasteboard mask of himself–thus he fell in and drowned, too.

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Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Penguin Popular Classics, London, first published 1851

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