Herman MelvilleHerman Melville, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, was a descendant of an old, wealthy family that fell abruptly into poverty upon the death of the father. Despite his patrician upbringing, proud family traditions, and hard work, Melville found himself in poverty with no college education. At 19 he went to sea. His interest in sailors' lives grew naturally out of his own experiences, and most of his early novels grew out of his voyages. In these we see the young Melville's wide, democratic experience and hatred of tyranny and injustice. His first book, Typee, was based on his time spent among the supposedly cannibalistic but hospitable tribe of the Taipis in the Marquesas Islands of the South Pacific. The book praises the islanders and their natural, harmonious life, and criticizes the Christian missionaries, who Melville found less genuinely civilized than the people they came to convert.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Melville's masterpiece, is the epic story of the whaling ship Pequod and its "ungodly, god-like man," Captain Ahab, whose obsessive quest for the white whale Moby-Dick leads the ship and its men to destruction. This work, a realistic adventure novel, contains a series of meditations on the human condition. Whaling, throughout the book, is a grand metaphor for the pursuit of knowledge. Realistic catalogues and descriptions of whales and the whaling industry punctuate the book, but these carry symbolic connotations. In chapter 15, "The Right Whale's Head," the narrator says that the Right Whale is a Stoic and the Sperm Whale is a Platonian, referring to two classical schools of philosophy.
Although Melville's novel is philosophical, it is also tragic. Despite his heroism, Ahab is doomed and perhaps damned in the end. Nature, however beautiful, remains alien and potentially deadly. In Moby-Dick, Melville challenges Emerson's optimistic idea that humans can understand nature. Moby-Dick, the great white whale, is an inscrutable, cosmic existence that dominates the novel, just as he obsesses Ahab. Facts about the whale and whaling cannot explain Moby-Dick; on the contrary, the facts themselves tend to become symbols, and every fact is obscurely related in a cosmic web to every other fact. This idea of correspondence (as Melville calls it in the "Sphinx" chapter) does not, however, mean that humans can "read" truth in nature, as it does in Emerson. Behind Melville's accumulation of facts is a mystic vision -- but whether this vision is evil or good, human or inhuman, is never explained.
The novel is modern in its tendency to be self-referential, or reflexive. In other words, the novel often is about itself. Melville frequently comments on mental processes such as writing, reading, and understanding. One chapter, for instance, is an exhaustive survey in which the narrator attempts a classification but finally gives up, saying that nothing great can ever be finished ("God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught -- nay, but the draught of a draught. O Time, Strength, Cash and Patience"). Melvinne's notion of the literary text as an imperfect version or an abandoned draft is quite contemporary.
Ahab insists on imaging a heroic, timeless world of absolutes in which he can stand above his men. Unwisely, he demands a finished text, an answer. But the novel shows that just as there are no finished texts, there are no final answers except, perhaps, death.
Certain literary references resonate throughout the novel. Ahab, named for an Old Testament king, desires a total, Faustian, god- like knowledge. Like Oedipus in Sophocles' play, who pays tragically for wrongful knowledge, Ahab is struck blind before he is wounded in the leg and finally killed. Moby-Dick ends with the word "orphan." Ishmael, the narrator, is an orphan-like wanderer. The name Ishmael emanates from the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament -- he was the son of Abraham and Hagar (servant to Abraham's wife, Sarah). Ishmael and Hagar were cast into the wilderness by Abraham.
Other examples exist. Rachel (one of the patriarch Jacob's wives) is the name of the boat that rescues Ishmael at book's end. Finally, the metaphysical whale reminds Jewish and Christian readers of the biblical story of Jonah, who was tossed overboard by fellow sailors who considered him an object of ill fortune. Swallowed by a "big fish," according to the biblical text, he lived for a time in its belly before being returned to dry land through God's intervention. Seeking to flee from punishment, he only brought more suffering upon himself.
Historical references also enrich the novel. The ship Pequod is named for an extinct New England Indian tribe; thus the name suggests that the boat is doomed to destruction. Whaling was in fact a major industry, especially in New England: It supplied oil as an energy source, especially for lamps. Thus the whale does literally "shed light" on the universe. Whaling was also inherently expansionist and linked with the idea of manifest destiny, since it required Americans to sail round the world in search of whales (in fact, the present state of Hawaii came under American domination because it was used as the major refueling base for American whaling ships). The Pequod's crew members represent all races and various religions, suggesting the idea of America as a universal state of mind as well as a melting pot. Finally, Ahab embodies the tragic version of democratic American individualism. He asserts his dignity as an individual and dares to oppose the inexorable external forces of the universe.
The novel's epilogue tempers the tragic destruction of the ship. Throughout, Melville stresses the importance of friendship and the multicultural human community. After the ship sinks, Ishmael is saved by the engraved coffin made by his close friend, the heroic tattooed harpooner and Polynesian prince Queequeg. The coffin's primitive, mythological designs incorporate the history of the cosmos. Ishmael is rescued from death by an object of death. From death life emerges, in the end.
Moby-Dick has been called a "natural epic" -- a magnificent dramatization of the human spirit set in primitive nature -- because of its hunter myth, its initiation theme, its Edenic island symbolism, its positive treatment of pre-technological peoples, and its quest for rebirth. In setting humanity alone in nature, it is eminently American. The French writer and politician Alexis de Tocqueville had predicted, in the 1835 work Democracy in America, that this theme would arise in America as a result of its democracy:
The destinies of mankind, man himself taken aloof from his country and his age and standing in the presence of Nature and God, with his passions, his doubts, his rare propensities and inconceivable wretchedness, will become the chief, if not the sole, theme of (American) poetry.
Tocqueville reasons that, in a democracy, literature would dwell on "the hidden depths of the immaterial nature of man" rather than on mere appearances or superficial distinctions such as class and status. Certainly both Moby-Dick and Typee, like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Walden, fit this description. They are celebrations of nature and pastoral subversions of class-oriented, urban civilization.