By Wayne Allensworth
To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things (Isiah 45:7)
Did he who made the Lamb make thee? (William Blake, The Tyger)
From Rockwell Kent’s illustrations for Moby Dick
Call me Ishmael…One of the most memorable opening lines in American, or any other, literature begins Herman Melville’s masterpiece, Moby Dick or The Whale. Ishmael is a young sailor perhaps patterned on Melville himself, who was before the mast on merchant ships before trying his hand at something more adventurous and more dangerous, whaling.
Ishmael is making his way back to the sea. He is drawn there, as perhaps all men are, to the vast waves of life-giving waters from which the earth itself arose. Those great depths that are also an ancient metaphor for roiling chaos, for the tumultuous depths of Being in which elemental forces in the form of sea monsters, great Leviathans (on dry earth, the Dragon) lurk, emerging at any time to wreak havoc on men.
Our narrator, sometimes clearly Ishmael and sometimes Melville himself, for Moby Dick is in fact a polyphonic novel layered with narrative, dialogue, soliloquy, and encyclopedic descriptive passages, frequently describes the depths as “profound,” detecting meanings and hints of meanings in that profundity, adventure in the uncertainty.
In the novel’s first chapter, appropriately called Loomings, Ishmael tells us that “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth” or when he shivers from a “damp, drizzly November in my soul,” he heads for the “watery part of the world,” one that magnet-like attracts men, roused by curiosity concerning the mysteries of the deep, the portentous, “wild and distant” seas and “nameless perils” therein, particularly the “great whale himself.”
Ishmael is everyman haunted by the mystery that lurks in and beneath life’s surface. In drawing closer to that mystery, he not only courts danger, but seeks understanding.
And who wrote the “first account” of Leviathan, asks Ishamel, but “mighty Job,” whose story provides Moby Dick with its valedictory passage. The land, says Ishamel, is “scorching” to the feet of the seeker-sailor, who scorns the safety and comfort of “port,” which he deems “pitiful” compared to the profundity and gales of the sea. Through Ishmael, Melville is alluding to the voyages, treks, and quests of mythical heroes who leave home, comfort, and safety, only to traverse the depths of the underworld. If they survive, they emerge enlightened, even transfigured.
Thus, the seeker-sailor climbs the mast for his watch and “takes the mystic ocean…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.” Yet Ishamel warns that on some unforeseen day, atop the mast, “with one half-throttled shriek” he may drop “through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise…” This is example, one of many, of portentous foreshadowing in the novel, for that is, indeed, the fate that befalls one of the story’s sailors on a most fateful voyage. Warnings, prophecies, and inscrutable riddles follow the characters in Melville’s novel in a mystical wake.
Ishmael finds his vehicle for revelation in the Pequod, a whaling ship named for a vanished American Indian tribe, a vessel commanded by Captain Ahab.
Ahab, who has a “wicked name,” the name of a Biblical king who persecuted prophets and suffered an ignoble death, his blood licked by dogs as foretold by Elijah, is the chief protagonist of Moby Dick. He is the captain who will lead his crew on a doomed voyage. Indeed, another prophet who calls himself “Elijah” warns Ishmael of the impending doom that awaits Ahab and the Pequod.
In lyrical Shakespearean language (some of the novel reads like a stage play, even with stage direction, and the narrator at times obliquely references the bard) wrapped up in the rhythmic poetry of Milton and the King James Bible, Melville casts Ahab as counterpart to Milton’s Satan. He is a Luciferian character who preaches defiance (“I’d strike the sun if it insulted me!”; “What I’ve dared I willed, what I willed, I’ll do”), a Promethean figure who stands down a typhoon, taming St. Elmo’s fire. He questions who or what lies behind the “pasteboard masks” that Being is framed in, God, gods, or some Absolute elemental force that underlies even them (the “great whale himself”). He rages at that inscrutable something as the source of man’s torment, and in his despairing existential anger has predestined his fate. The play between determinism and free will is one of Moby Dick’s themes.
Ahab has been torn asunder in body and soul, losing his leg to the twisted jaws of Moby Dick, a terrible sperm whale, a giant even among his kind. For that, he has promised to “dismember my dismemberer,” the White Whale, the embodiment or “agent” of what lies beneath, and thus become both prophet and fulfiller, outshining “ye great gods.” For Ahab is not only a rebel of Luciferian spirit, as he is not acting for defiance’s sake alone, but a would-be avenger of all mankind, of torn bodies, rent souls, and wrecked lives. And Melville reminds his readers repeatedly of the precarious nature of life (“If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die”).
Ahab seeks the White Whale, who is described as having its own agency and intent, a legendary, but all too real being filled with malice who destroys whaling vessels, maiming and killing seamen. “The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies that which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung…He pitted himself, all mutilated, against it.” Ahab declares that the White Whale “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…I will wreak that hate upon him.”
In one of the novel’s key passages, Ahab performs what amounts to a Black Mass, his hand clutching the crossed lances of his officers, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask, as the crewmen drink a measure of grog with him from a common flagon, which he describes as “hot as Satan’s hoof.” Thus, the crew, which is a microcosm of mankind, made up of sailors from every point of the compass, “mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals” pledge themselves to kill the White Whale.
In another passage, Ahab has the ship’s blacksmith craft a new barb for his harpoon, then, lifting it from the forge, he cools the barb in blood provided by his three pagan harpooneers, the South Seas cannibal Queequeg, Dagoo, an African tribesman, and Tashtego, a red man who has left the hunt for the earth-bound Leviathan, the buffalo, for bigger game. Ahab officiates over the “baptism” of the harpoon’s barb, declaring (in Latin) “I baptize thee not in the name of the Father, but in the name of the Devil!” The three pagan harpooneers, together with Fedallah, the turbaned Parsee (a follower of the ancient prophet Zoroaster) who man’s Ahab’s whaling boat, acting as Beelzebub to Ahab’s Lucifer, are the maimed captain’s staunchest allies in the hunt for the White Whale.
Ahab is a dark Jonah, who is referenced time and again in Moby Dick (most strikingly in Father Mapple’s sermon delivered from a Nantucket pulpit shaped like the bow of a whaling ship), a defiant hunter who forever rejects repentance. The Pequod is a negative counterpart to the ark of Noah, also frequently referenced in the book, with a crew doomed to face the “flood” that comes with folly.
Starbuck, a pious Quaker, repeatedly warns Ahab that his rage against Being itself is blasphemous, and he even contemplates killing his captain to save the Pequod and its crew. Pious, good man that he is, he cannot do it, though Starbuck foresees the inevitable fate of his ship, set on an unholy mission. In this way, Starbuck’s piety, his longing for the good in life, his home, wife, and son, acts as a spiritual counterpart to Ahab’s rage, with jolly Stubb occupying a middling, fatalistic ground. Flask, the workmanlike “mediocrity,” lacks the “deep” sense of his captain, the joy of Stubb, and the piety of Starbuck, and is incapable of grasping what the ultimate destination and fate of the Pequod’s voyage must be.
There are two approaches to living present in Moby Dick from the outset. To varying degrees Ishmael, Starbuck, Stubb, the “jolly” crew of a whaling ship called “The Bachelor,” and Captain Boomer, who has lost an arm to Moby Dick, but does not share, or even understand, Ahab’s sense of rage, represent counterparts to Ahab’s abiding hatred of the White Whale. Captain Boomer may have lost a hand, but he is not a lost soul.
Captain Gardiner of the forlorn ship The Rachel, whose twelve-year-old son, on board a boat that harpooned Moby Dick only to be carried away by the great beast, pleads with Ahab to help in the search for the lost boat, but Ahab refuses. The encounter with the Rachel comes at a critical moment in the Pequod’s pursuit of Moby Dick, and Ahab’s monomania is stronger than any pity he may have for his fellow mariner.
Yet Ahab is not incapable of sympathy. We learn early on that the “old man” (in his late fifties) has a young wife and a son, and that he has been good to both. His close relationship with the Pequod’s half-mad cabin boy, Pip, speaks to his capacity for human sympathy. Ahab can love, and has, and at one point sheds a tear and “all the Pacific” did not contain “such wealth as that one wee drop.” Was it a tear for Pip or for himself or for all men? For his estrangement from life and God (“Who’s to doom when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?”)?
Our narrator only tells us that on a “mild” day, with a “mild looking sky,” Ahab “felt that glad, happy air, that winsome sky” at last “stroke and caress him.” The “step-mother world, so long cruel—forbidding—now threw affectionate arms around his stubborn neck, and did seem to joyously sob over him,” suggesting that “she could yet find it in her heart to save and to bless” the tortured captain of the Pequod. And Ahab’s tear falls into the sea.
Ahab is well aware of his tragic flaw, that he is a recalcitrant Job who cannot abide the radiance of “the insufferable splendors of God’s throne.” He cannot feel happiness nor joy. “All loveliness,” he notes, “is anguish to me, since I can ne’er enjoy.” Ahab says that he has been “gifted with the high perception,” and lacks “the low, enjoying power.” Thus, he is “damned in the midst of Paradise.”
The light and the dark (implied in Fedallah’s Zoroastrianism as well as in other ways), the life giving, and the life destroying aspects of nature are constantly played off against one another in Moby Dick. The cycle of birth and life, of destruction and death is “young life’s old routine.”
That metaphysical dualism is ever present in Melville’s narrative. The sea is profound in its beauty and terrible in its wrathful tumult. Wonder is juxtaposed with terror. The wonderous, majestic, mystical whale is a mighty destroyer of men and the source of the oil that lights the lamps of the world.
Nature seems to turn upon itself. Cannibalism, creation consuming itself, is a constant theme in the novel, as sharks (and Qeequeg wonders who made the shark, as Blake asked who made the tiger) follow the whaling ships like vultures, men turn on other men, and shining, dazzling beauty becomes darkly tinged destruction. As beasts and men consume one another, our narrator asks, “Who is not a cannibal?” The “sea” becomes a metaphor for the world, for Being itself, and our narrator asks us to consider “the universal cannibalism of the sea,” where all creatures prey on one another, “carrying on eternal war since their world began.”
The dualist theme is made more evident in Melville’s conception of “the whiteness of the whale.” He devotes a chapter to a consideration of that subject, and all that is contained in that whiteness. The narrator asserts that a “nameless horror” of Moby Dick is prompted by the Leviathan’s whiteness: “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.” It is an inscrutable horror, as white has often been used in numerous cultures to express some enhancement of beauty, a special quality of purity, a hue often made “the emblem” of “many noble things.” “Whiteness,” our narrator notes, “typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge.” “Kings and queens are drawn by milk white steeds,” and “in the higher mysteries of the most august religions,” whiteness is “the symbol of divine spotlessness and power.” In the vision of St. John, “white robes are given to the redeemed.”
Yet whiteness, “when divorced from more kindly associations” and “coupled with any object terrible in itself” can “heighten that terror to the furthest bounds.” Our narrator cites the “white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics” as examples. “Their smooth, flaky whiteness,” he tell us, “makes them the transcendent horrors that they are.” That “ghastly whiteness” imparts a loathsome, abhorrent quality to “the dumb gloating” of the beasts. The pale albatross, a “white phantom” that “sails in all imaginations,” brings with it “clouds of spiritual wonderment and pale dread.” And who “first threw that spell?” “Not Coleridge,” but “God’s great, unflattering laureate, Nature.”
Whiteness is present in the “marble pallor of the dead,” in the color of the shroud. In the Apocalypse, our narrator reminds us that “the king of terrors, as personified by the evangelist, rides on his pallid horse.” “Of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”
And the hunt is relentless. Ahab has created a chart that tracks the migrations of the great whales, and of one great Leviathan in particular. The Pequod has tracked Moby Dick to his seasonal passage near the Sea of Japan. Ahab leaves the sorrowful Rachel and its forlorn captain to hunt down the White Whale. The chase lasts for three days, as Moby Dick, in all his malevolent fury, wrecks the whaling boats several times, with Ahab directing hasty repairs to return to the hunt.
In that final, remorseless hunt, another prophesy, made by the Parsee himself, is fulfilled when Fedallah is tangled in the ropes of the many lances and harpoons that dangle from Moby Dick’s great white hump, and is taken down to the depths with him, only to rise again as Moby Dick breeches the Pacific waters once more. Fedallah’s dead eyes gaze “full upon old Ahab.”
Ahab himself is destroyed by the White Whale, as is the Pequod and its crew, all save one, Ishmael. The last page of Moby Dick begins with a citation from Job: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” “The drama is done,” and Ishmael survives by staying afloat on a coffin Queeqeg had made for himself, a coffin made into a life buoy. The Rachel, in her search after her missing children, “only found another orphan.”
Melville did not live to enjoy the acclaim he deserved for his masterpiece, which was dedicated to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “In admiration for his genius.” The reading public of his day (the novel was published in 1851) had apparently anticipated another South Seas adventure like Typee (1846)or Omoo (1847). Melville could not earn a living as a writer, and served as a customs inspector at the port of New York. His work did not achieve canonical status until the “Melville revival” of the twentieth century. He died in 1891.
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Robert Lewis Stevenson, Requiem
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.