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American Literature 101: Moby-Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville


The main aim of the American Literature 101 series is to offer readers prominent authors and their impacts on their time. With their distinctive powers and values, American Literature brought a new impact to world literature. Consisting of different races and identities from all around the world, the United States of America both culturally and literarily has an important place in the world. Key elements are individuality and uniqueness, hence the reader can understand the hidden part of human nature. The huge divergent identical background of the United States of America shows the exceptional nation’s culture and literature. With the corresponding texts, the reader can understand the core of the American culture better. Writers of the United States of America have been gathering striking issues throughout centuries.

American Literature series consist of five main articles:

4. American Literature 101: Moby-Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville

5. American Literature 101: Moral Dilemma between Europe and America, Daisy Miller by Henry James

American Literature 101: Moby-Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville

Moby-Dick is appreciated as one of the best works of American Literature and art with themes that point to the American character and experience. Because of that, its importance has a great effect on American literary history. Herman Melville, an American novelist, poet, the short-story writer is counted as one of the most important Dark Romantic writers of the 19th century in American Literature. Hence, his novel Moby-Dick offers to readers a huge perspective on the relationship between humanity and their war against nature. As William V. Spanos underlines, ‘’The critics of the revival apotheosized Moby-Dick as an American masterpiece because it intuited and expressed an essential human ‘’spiritual’’ Real that, in its integral and universal comprehensiveness transcended the ideological partiality of American sociopolitical existence." (Spanos 17)

Portrait of Herman Melville, the portrait now hangs in the Edison and Newman Room in the Houghton Library at Harvard University

Moby-Dick or, The Whale occurs in the 19th century and describes the journey of the whaling ship, Pequod, which was captained by the revengeful Ahab. He is filled with anger and revenge against the White Whale because of the loss of his leg. The responsibility for this loss is the White Whale and Ahab is determined to take his vengeance. The novel’s narrator begins with its famous quote, "Call me Ishmael". (Melville 57) He enrolls as a sailor on a whaling voyage in order to heal his mental problems, he needs a place in order to escape from American society's pressures. On the other hand, Ahab aims to hunt and kill Moby Dick that is beastly, and famous for its whiteness and inability to be caught. He closes his ears against all oppositions and implies his intention no matter the cost. The Pequod crew sailing on during their voyage come across whales and kill them in order to gain whale oil and sell them in the marketplace. At times they see other whaling ships and Ahab asks them about any news of the White Whale. If the ships have no news about Moby Dick, Ahab moves on without further inquiries. If there is news, he listens to it with attention before leaving. Along the way, Queequeg becomes ill and, is likely going to die, that is why he made a coffin for himself. However, he regains his strength, and the coffin is converted into a lifesaver for Ishmael. Ultimately, near Japan, Ahab ensures that Moby Dick is close to them and the crew of the Pequod chase three days to kill Moby Dick, who destroys the whaleboats. Finally, at the end of the third day, the White Whale assaults the ship itself and destroys everything. The only survivor from the ship is Ishmael with the help of Queequeg’s coffin. He is rescued by another ship, Rachel and tells the story.

Moby Dick illustration by Paul & Gaëtan Brizzi

For Ahab, the White Whale is not an animal, he does not categorize the White Whale as a kind of ordinary whale. Losing his leg because of this whale turns him into a vengeful personality and Ahab perpetually tries to find the meaning of this loss. At this point, he refuses to accept it as a destiny that God wrote to him in order to handle it moderately. When he puts his mind to hunting this White Whale he has been already started to rebel against God's choice. The issue is not about hunting a whale and gaining money from it anymore, he gives sacred meaning to this hunting more than money. As he says, "I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer." (Melville 221) Ahab finally finds his aim for life, he rescues himself from the meaningless of the world and the White Whale became an aim which he always seeks. However, this searching for meaning goes in a direction that extents to a dangerous way. And by waging war on Leviathan that in Jewish mythology, a primordial sea serpent, he makes himself feel a more valuable person. To him, losing his leg has meaning beyond a bad disaster now. He has a strong grudge for everything not only the White Whale and he is ready to do anything to take this vengeance. As he says: ‘’I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other…Who’s over me?’’ (Melville 220) Then, when he convinces Starbuck about his own authority that he has a power just like God. ‘’Starbuck now is mine; cannot oppose me now, without rebellion.’’ (Melville 220)

The killing in the 1830s of Mocha Dick, a giant sperm whale said to attack whaling ships with premeditated ferocity. Mocha Dick was an inspiration for Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”

For Starbuck, there was no distinction between White Whale and other whales. Every whale is the same, he just has one aim which is to benefit from that animal and in this way gain money from them. That is why he opposes Ahab because he came to Pequod for hunting whales, not to undertake vengeance on behalf of Ahab. As he mentions to Ahab: "I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of business we follow; but I came here to hunt whales, not my commanders vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch the much in our Nantucket market."(Melville 218) He acts in a rational way about Ahab's desire, indeed his reaction derives from his fear of God and he could not see Ahab like a God. To him, hunting White Whale is ‘’vengeance on a dumb brute’’ (Melville 219) because of that mindset he resists Ahab because he knows that Ahab’s plan would destroy everything. Ultimately, Starbuck accepts captain Ahab's request. Although he does not want it, he can not dare to take risks against all the crew. As he mentions, ‘’I think I see his impious end; but feel that I must help him to it. Will I, nill I, the ineffable things has tied me to him; tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut.’’ (Melville 223)

Captain Ahab, by Brian Snaddon

For Ishmael, everything has deep meaning therefore he searches for a sense to distinguish between whale and the ‘’White Whale’’. Ishmael is a character that is filled with the desire for adventure and also is enthusiastic about digging up the meanings from the hidden parts. Thus, he accepts to attend this journey with Ahab. Unlike Ahab, he does not take the White Whale as a personal issue but yet, he could not help but accept it as his own cause. As he mentions, ‘’A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab's quenchless feud seemed mine. With greedy ears I learned the history of that murderous monster against whom I and all the others had taken our oaths of violence and revenge.’’(Melville 233) He tries to narrate a whale as symbolic meaning and evaluates it as a just like person and he pursuits meaning inside of whale not just for the White Whale. As Glauco Cambon mentions in the Ishmael and the Problem of Formal Discontinuities in Moby Dick, ‘’Ishmael is the self-ironizing writer seeking, and finally achieving, realization through self-effacement in the work of art.’’ (Cambon 523)

To sum up, romanticism finds nature’s the key to it all and in Moby Dick, it can be seen that imagination and individualism are connected to Ishmael’s observational qualities. Ungraspable phantom of life that is the way to it all getting replaced by the whale himself. Whale acquires this identity by becoming portentous and symbolizes power. Moby Dick is not just a whale. He is represented as ambiguity and evil power. And Moby Dick symbolizes the mysteries of universal injustice. Both for Ishmael and Ahab, it is an adventure of the human quest for meaning. Three of the characters have a different meaning when the issue comes to evaluating the existence of Moby Dick. The novel handles pushing the limits of romanticism and self-reliance. Melville criticizes biased culture. It is like the ship is the world and the crew embodies the countries' races. In Moby Dick, the reader clearly sees how humanity challenges nature itself.

Imaginary Leviathans Moby Dick by Sergey Shikin

Works Cited

Melville, Herman, Moby Dick, Wordsworth Editions Ltd; New Edition (December 5, 1999)

Spanos, William V. The Errant Art of Moby-Dick: The Canon, the Cold War, and the Struggle for American Studies (New Americanists), Duke University Press Books (June 30, 1995)

Cambon, Glauco, Ishmael and the Problem of Formal Discontinuities in Moby Dick, Modern Language Notes Vol. 76, No. 6 (Jun., 1961), pp. 516-523

''Herman Melville'' retrieved (29 November 2021)

Literary Landscapes, Herman Melville, University of Alabama College of Arts & Sciences retrieved (28 November 2021)

Dokuz Eylül University, AKE 2022 Romanticism in America, Lecture Notes


Author Photo

Aylin Usta

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