Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Moby Dick -the Outstanding Work of the American Renaissance


Ruwan M Jayatunge M.D.

Herman Melville (1819-1891), was one of the most prominent American writers who wrote one of the greatest novels Moby Dick which is an outstanding work of the American Renaissance and can be considered the greatest book of the sea ever written. Moby Dick is a great modern myth written in "mythopoetic” style.  D. H. Lawrence called it "one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world,”. The book was written at a time of great socio-economic and technical upheaval in America. The book also narrates the American whaling industry during its Golden Age.

Moby Dick is a deeply ambiguous text. It is the imaginative result of the tensions created by a dynamic, human mind interacting with a dynamic environment. The novel is an intensive exploration of man and his universe. In the novel theology, philosophy, and science confront directly the issue of ultimate reality and meaning. Herman Melville uses allegories to demonstrate life lessons. Herman Melville’s profound knowledge in Shakespeare, Milton, the Bible, Hinduism, and Buddhism had left significant imprints on Moby Dick. The moral message comes across through the biblical stories in the novel and is filled with references to the Bible and God. It combines themes of fate, religion, work ethic, and race throughout the entire novel. Melville often uses Shakespeare‘s dramatic technique and stylistic method. In this book, we find numerous directly-borrowed scenes from Shakespeare's plays.

Moby Dick can be read as a tragic drama at sea. Ahab the captain of the whaling ship Pequod, has an obsessive desire to kill the giant albino sperm whale Moby Dick which took his leg from the knee down and made him a cripple. Now he walks with a prosthetic leg that is made of whalebone. He is unable to acknowledge and mourn his own experience of shame, injury, and loss. Psychological distress following a traumatic injury influences his health, well-being, and quality of life. Captain Ahab has come for vengeance, not for profit.  His obsession contradicts the assignment of the Nantucket shipowners and puts his crew members at risk.

Ahab represents Melville's deepest exploration of the nature of insanity. Ahab's absorption with Moby Dick makes the culturally diverse crew uneasy and leads them to alienation, rebellion, doubt, and doom.  The crew suffers under a tyrannous master.

The ship’s first mate Starbuck who represents orthodox belief is a brave and kind man. He questions captain Ahab’s insane attempt and vengeance against an animal indicating that it is a pointless pursuit. However, Captain Ahab is adamant and wants to hunt down the white whale. Ahab and Starbuck were in grave dispute over the ship’s main mission. However, Starbuck is defeated and he gives up.  Starbuck is more likely “Prometheus” an emblem of resistance to unjust authority.

The crew makes several unsuccessful attempts to kill the white whale. At the final moment, the captain is convinced that Moby Dick is chasing him. Hence the hunter becomes the prey. In the end, the captain realizes that Moby-Dick is immortal.  It is a major epiphany in the novel. Finally, the Pequod is destroyed and drowned by Moby Dick killing the captain and all her crew. The captain’s manic defense against shame and loss caused a disaster.  Only the narrator Ishmael survives to tell the tale. He was saved by a ship named Rachel.  Ishmael's survival appears to suggest that salvation lies in liminality.

Captain Ahab is portrayed as a narcissist and his insane attempt ruins himself, the crew, and the Pequod. Ishmael is the novel's "central consciousness and narrative voice. Ishmael, by rejecting common society, announces himself to be an irregular person. Ishmael is a very complex character and he meets South-Sea islander Queequeg for the first time in the Spouter and becomes his best friend. The relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg is an explicit example of a cross-cultural interracial friendship. Queequeg is an experienced harpooner. He is a kindhearted man with deep religious beliefs. He offers worship to Yojo, the wooden pagan idol. Queequeg risks his life to save his fellow harpooners.

The novel apparently shows the conflict between good and evil and produces numerous interpretations. Moby Dick represents not evil, but purity-inviolable spiritual rectitude. Ahab perceives the evil of the entire world in Moby Dick. The chase of the great white whale is a metaphor for the obsessive pursuit of irrational goals.  The White Whale symbolizes nature. To Ahab, conquering the Whale is conquering nature. Moby Dick is an impersonal life force. Some critics regard the White Whale as a personification of God. Ahab is the embodiment of the fallen angel.  The hunt for the whale is a metaphor for "man's search for meaning in a world of deceptive appearances and fatal delusions. Some consider the hunt for the whale as a metaphor for an epistemological quest.

Carl Jung considered Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick to be America’s greatest novel. There are various types of symbolism and archetypes in Moby-Dick. Khalid M. Easa (Tobruk University) elucidates that Ishmael’s Sea journey, metaphorically a voyage of understanding, brings him away from worldly boundaries and closer to a spiritual realm. Moby-Dick. is a journey of growth and knowledge of the self.  Ahab's immoderate rage reflects the existential anger which is a common human condition.

Moby-Dick can be viewed from a Buddhist perspective. Melville was interested in Buddhism in the final decades of his life.  In Buddhist cosmology, Mara is associated with death, rebirth, and desire. The White Whale is representing Mara and the ocean is Saṃsāra which is defined as the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Killing the whale is achieving nirvana which is to make earthly feelings like suffering and desire disappear. Nirvana is characterized by the extinction of desire and suffering and individual consciousness.

According to Michael Rogin -American political scientist Moby Dick is a story about work, a multiracial proletariat, leadership, political order and rebellion, slavery, and social issues. Ahab is running against time and fighting against reality.

Moby Dick blends symbolically rich fiction and poetry. The book discusses the conflict of man's godlike aspirations with his all-too-human limitations with obsessive urge to peruse his insane goals. Melville's works are filled with characters suffering the emotional anguish of a tormented soul and searching for something they can never find.

Moby Dick is a tragic drama, a tragedy in which all protagonists suffer obsession, vengeance, madness, and enormous brutality. Henry Myers' described the book as a story of a man who was himself destroyed in his efforts to destroy evil". Ahab’s betrayal of the ship-owners and his betrayal of his mates and the crew is a story of the decline and death of an organization.




Bernstein, J. (1982).  Herman Melville's Concept of Ultimate Reality and Meaning in Moby-Dick. Maca/ester College, St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A 

Burkard Sievers (2013): Leadership and Monomania: Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.

Mehta, G.M. (2015). The. Fictional World of Herman Melville: A Critical Study of Some Selected Novels.”- University of Kota.

Melville, Herman; Moby-Dick. Edited by Harrison Hayford & Hershel Parker. New York: Norton.

Paul McCarthy (1987).  Forms of Insanity and Insane Characters in Moby-Dick

Peter Steadman (2011). An Evolutionary Analysis of Moby Dick: The Pequod's Search for Brotherhood, Status, and Mystery

Susan Elise Swanson (1991). Moby Dick, Ahab, and the name of the father. Lehigh University.

Zahra Gholami Nasrabadi (2016).   A Study of Allegories in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick with Religious Approach




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