by Richard W. Amero

The posthumous appearance of Billy Budd in 1924 reawakened interest in the writings of Herman Melville. In the nineteenth century, such minor novelists as Harriet Beacher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, and Lew Wallace attracted more readers. While Melville's early fictions Typee, Omoo, Redburn, and White-Jacket pleased many, his more abstruse Mardi displeased the few who attempted to read it. Moby-Dick, Melville's most famous novel, amply fulfilled its author's desire to write "a daring failure" rather than "a safe success". Melville's brother-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, Jr., expressed the common opinion of the later works Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, and The Confidence Man when he referred to the last as one of "a class of nonsensical books" with "pages of crude theory and speculation to every line of narrative." Ironically, Billy Budd's popularity rose more from social than literary reasons for Melville foreshadowed the frustration of a "lost generation" floundering in the aftermath of an absurd war and in the results of a devastating depression.

Nineteenth-century America was provincial and illiterate. Its reading public had little time or patience for doubts and looked to England rather than to their own country for cultural leadership. Consequently, along with Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville suffered neglect from the masses who did not want their cherished illusions shattered or their sins and omissions exposed. Eager for liberation from the hypocrisies, platitudes and failures of the past, the readers of the twenties found in the iconoclastic Herman Melville a kindred spirit.

Herman Melville was born in New York City August 1, 1819, the second son in a family of four boys and four girls. He attended the New York High School and the Albany Academy where he excelled in ciphering, but showed no special aptitude for reading or writing. Forced by his father's death in 1832 to seek employments, he worked as a clerk in the New York State Bank for two years and sold furs and caps in his brother's retail store for two more. His irregular hours at the latter job enabled him to attend a few classes at the Albany Classical School where he became an avid writer of themes. For three months in 1837, he taught at a rural school near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The next year he followed his mother in a move from Albany to Lansingburgh, New York. Here, hoping to find work on the Erie Canal, he took courses in engineering and surveying. His future undecided, in the summer of 1839, he shipped as a cabin boy for Liverpool on the Saint Lawrence. After returning, he taught briefly in Greenbush, New York, and, looking for work, in the summer of 1840, he visited an uncle at Gallena, Illinois.

Distressed by the destitute state of his family's finances, on January 3, 1841, Melville embarked from Fairhaven, New Bedford, aboard the whaler Acushnet, bound for the south seas. While on this ship, he read for the first time the narrative of the sinking in 1819 of the ill-fated Essex by a spermaceti whale. At the Marquesa Islands, on July 9, 1842, he deserted ship and remained for two months among cannibalistic natives. Thereafter, he signed on the Australian whaler Lucy Ann. Upon the arrival of this vessel at Papeete, on September 20, he refused further duty and was placed under shore arrest for about two weeks. Following his release, he spent a month beach combing; then, on November 3, he signed as a harpooner on the Nantucket whaler Charles and Henry. His tour of duty on this ship ended May 2, 1843 in the Hawaiian Islands where he found work as a clerk and bookkeeper.

Hoping to gain passage home, on August 17, 1843, Melville enlisted as a seaman in the United States Navy on board the frigate United States. During his time on the ship, he saw one-hundred and sixty-three floggings, five burials at sea, and the fall of a sailor from a mizzen yard. He also met Jack Chase, handsome and well-read captain of the main top, for whom he cherished a deep and abiding affection. After more than a year of service, Melville was discharged October 14, 1844 in Boston.

Herman Melville had been away from home for almost four years and had seen vast stretches of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, had been around Cape Horn, and had visited the Marquesas, Tahiti, Hawaii, Valparaiso, Callao, Lima, and Rio de Janeiro. His best and most famous works came from this experience.

Three years after his return, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw (1847) by whom he had two sons, Malcolm (1849) and Stanwix (1851), and two daughters, Elizabeth (1853) and Frances (1855). Meanwhile the success of his early semi-autobiographical fictions Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Redburn (1849), and White-Jacket (1850) augured a rosy future.

Typee and Omoo glamorize Melville's adventures among the Marquesan and Tahitian natives and extol the simplicity of South Sea life as opposed to the constraints of nineteenth-century civilization. Redburn, covering events on the Saint Lawrence and White-Jacket, tracing experiences in the United States Navy, are realistic portrayals of sometimes sordid conditions. Marking a break from past performances, the allegorical Mardi (1849) sprang from Melville's omnivorous reading. The author's search for symbols and occult meanings led him into absurd and elusive byways. While living at "Arrowhead," a farm a short distance from Nathaniel Hawthorne's home in the Berkshires, Melville, in 1851, wrote his masterpiece Moby-Dick, a work which fused his romantic aspirations, his personal experiences and his literary interests.

The exploration of metaphysics and allegory first broached in Mardi is continued by Pierre (1852), Israel Potter (1855), The Piazza Tales (1856), and The Confidence Man (1857). After Moby-Dick, Melville's powers slackened and his will softened. The short stories and sketches Bartleby, Benito Cereno, and The Encantadas from The Piazza Tales deal with man's inhumanity to man and are played against savage and desolate landscapes. Unlike the novels, they are relatively free of affectations and verbosity. The descriptive brilliance and psychological sharpness of these stores are such than they achieve a vital impact. The Confidence Man, an episodic, sardonic narrative of despair, indicts Christian and transcendental values as these manifest themselves in a world of chicanery and fraud. Its picturesque style is new for Melville, but, for all it humor and satire, the story lacks focus and the meaning is blurred. Allusions to Christ and God as the supreme Confidence Man are ironic and the contempt for mankind is misanthropic.

Of more immediate concern, the poem Battle Pieces (1866) reviews the American Civil War, debunks romantic views of combat, and evinces a love for country untainted by sectionalism. Compelled by the failure of his books to attract an audience and by necessity, Melville took the post of Inspector of Customs in New York City in 1866, and became, like his fictional no-person Bartleby, superfluous. Clarel (1876), a poem dealing with the relationship between religion and knowledge, lacks the force and compassion of the Civil War poetry. Its monotonous meters and lifeless philosophizing seem as barren as the arid wastes of the Holy Land it depicts.

Worn out by age, atrophied by neglect, tamed by the ministrations of wife and relatives, and far away from the invigorating expanses of his beloved sea, the elder Melville gained a measure of calm self-acceptance, but only after his questioning and restless temperament had been extinguished. His death on September 28, 1891 produced perfunctory reference in the newspapers of his day.

Frequently belittled, Moby-Dick, as a novel is too long, the narrative is meager, the story is overlain with ambiguous symbols, the realism of the characters is doubtful, and the descriptions of the history, biology and mythology of the whale are seemingly nonessential.

To Lewis Mumford (1929) Moby-Dick was a symphony that interwove innumerable devices of thought, philosophy, natural history, broken myths, imagery and symbolism. Contrary to superficial critics, Melville's allegory cannot be measured by narrow rules. The surface conceals metaphysical and ethical depths. By embodying concepts of existence, friendship, nature and God in characters and in setting, Melville had constructed a universal synthesis.

Willard Thorp (1938) dissented from Mumford's lavish praises. He pointed out the imaginings of Captain Ahab contain most of the allegorical content. These should not be taken as the purpose of the novel.

However much he sympathized with Ahab's Promethean determination to stare down the inscrutableness of the universe, Melville hurled not himself, but Ahab, his creature, at the injurious gods.

The allegorical message in Moby-Dick recurs too often to ignore. By challenging the gods as he attempts to control his own fate, Ahab, the protagonist, sounds the main theme. Subsidiary characters react to this theme as individuals, not as spokespersons of the author's private philosophy; nevertheless, all the characters reflect their creator's conflicting and inchoate ideas as he struggled to formulate them.

The simpler aspects of Moby-Dick --- the straight narrative, precise description, sharp detail --- conformed to the reporting technique of the sea novels Redburn and White Jacket. Aside from Melville, Richard Henry Dana, in Two Years Before the Mast (1840) best exemplified this realistic tradition. By attempting to combine Dana's exactness with his own allusiveness, Melville wanted the facts he presented to yield covert significance.

Melville's fondness for the encyclopedic and symbolic stemmed in part from his reading of Sir Thomas Browne. As Browne sought to unravel the mystic significance of the quincunx in The Garden of Cyprus, so Melville was fascinated by the multiple implications of "the whiteness of the whale." Melville's fascination with hyperbole and his tendency to lose himself in quagmires of involuted prose also showed the influence of Thomas Carlyle's choleric and turgid writings. Indeed, biographer Leon Howard thought Carlyle had an even greater impact on Melville than Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Of all the novels he (Melville) read during the gestation of his own, Carlyle's Sartor Resartus was the one which seems to have made the greatest impression upon him and which was to be the most frequently reflected in his writing.

Three symbolic novels --- Mardi, Moby-Dick, and Pierre --- show Melville's exaggerated romantic style at its peak. Of the three, only Moby-Dick integrates thought, symbol, and expression in a tense and sustained form.

The chief catalysts for Moby-Dick were William Shakespeare, whose works Melville had begun to read in a collected edition in 1849, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose Mosses from an Old Manse Melville reviewed in 1850. Shakespeare opened up a world of suffering and nobility while Hawthorne showed how the clear outlines of allegory could merge with the subtle uncertainties of symbolism. The description of Ahab's inner conflicts and the use of allusions to classical myths and elemental forces to enlarge his character owed much to Shakespeare. The use of contrasts --- such as light-dark, delight-obedience, necessity-freewill --- stemmed from Hawthorne.

Ishmael's function as narrator and observer borrowed from the role of the chorus in Greek tragedies and from Carlyle's use of a skeptical editor to record the metaphysical visions of Herr Teufelsdrockh in Sartor Resartus.

Hawthorne's moderating influence became stronger as Melville grew older. The Piazza Tales, Clarel, and Billy Budd --- quieter more humane works than Moby-Dick -- - lack the boldness of the pursuit of the Great White Whale. In his great work, Melville was an original . . . a spokesperson of primeval, terrible, grand, and subconscious things.

This is much; yet Ahab's larger, darker, deeper part remains unhinted. But vain to popularize profundities, and all truth is profound. Winding far down within the very heart of this spiked Hotel de Cluny where we here stand --- however grand and noble, now quit it; --- and take your way, ye nobler, sadder souls, to those vast Roman halls of Thermes; where far beneath the fantastic towers of man's upper earth, his roots of grandeur, his whole awful essence sits in bearded state, an antique buried beneath antiquities, and throned on torsos! So with a broken throne, the great gods mock that captive king; so like a Caryatid he patient sits, upholding on his frozen brow the piled entablatures of ages. Wind ye down there, ye prouder, sadder souls! question that proud sad king! A family likeness! aye, he did beget yet, ye young exiled royalties; and from your grim sire only will the old State-secret come.

Thus, while in the original plan of Moby-Dick, Ahab may have been intended as little more than a successor to James Fenimore Cooper's tyrant sea captain in The Red Rover and the whale material designed merely as a background for a story at sea with Bulkington, Ishmael and Starbuck as the leading characters, Melville's habits of writing and rewriting and of intensifying and philosophizing transformed his store into a tragedy of many meanings.

The novel begins with a series of Biblical and literary quotations about whales. Then Ishmael appears. Lonely and disgruntled, he goes to New Bedford where he meets Queequeg, a multi-tattooed South Sea native. The rebellion of youth, the necessity of earning a living, and simple good will break down artificial barriers: the two embrace in the night in Whitmanesque brotherhood.

While in New Bedford, the two friends listen to a harrowing sermon by Father Mapple who, taking as his text the story of Jonah and the whale, expounds the theme that man must obey God and disobey himself. Man must delight in the truth of God regardless of the lowly place he occupies in the divine scheme. Though speaking in long periodic sentences, enriched with nautical and Biblical images, Father Mapple espouses commonplace advice: don't antagonize the Omnipotent.

To cement their friendship, Ishmael and Queequeg sign up for a trip on the whaler Pequod at Nantucket, but not before Peleg, part owner of the ship, tells Ishmael that Captain Ahab, under whom he will sail, is a "grand, ungodly, god-like man." Embittered because of the loss of a leg to a spermaceti whale during his last voyage, Ahab, nonetheless, "has his humanities." Later Elijah, a babbling and disordered prophet, undercuts Peleg's assurances by hinting to Ishmael that Ahab lost his leg as a punishment for his sins.

With youthful nonchalance, Ishmael dismisses Elijah as a humbug. When the ship is pointed out to sea, he praises the value of landlessness. Land dwellers are comfortable and complacent conformists. Seafarers know true safety is secured by overcoming fears and withstanding dangers.

Seeing Bulkington at the helm, Ishmael apotheosizes him as a thinker who represents "the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea." An archetype of the serene and uncommitted truth seeker, Bulkington listens to all sides, but subscribes to none.

Next the chief mates enter, the white Christian knights of the Pequod microcosm: lean Starbuck, sensitive and "valor-ruined"; pipe-smoking Stubb, jolly and unfearing; and tiny Flash, pugnacious and irreverent. As squires to the knights, their three pagan harpooners counterpoint their superiors as ironic shadows: Tashtego, the Indian; Dagoo, the Negro; and Queequeg, the Polynesian.

At last with the advent of a fair wind and a change in the weather, Ahab appears. Up to now he has secluded himself within his cabin. Branded across the face and neck by a livid white scar that seems to extend the full length of his body and propped up by a leg fashioned from the bone of a sperm whale's jaw, he stands on the quarterdeck, holding a shroud from the ship's rigging for support, his bone leg planted in an auger hole drilled into the plank. He gazes wordlessly out to sea with a look of determined willfulness. Though Ahab remains aloof, the officers are painfully aware of his troubling presence.

The "Cetology" chapter follows. Neither Edgar Allan Poe nor Nathaniel Hawthorne would have been guilty of such an ostentatious display of learning; but Melville has read much. He presents a labored fantasy of whales as folios, octavos and duodecimos as determined by their size and bulk. In disagreement with most authorities, he maintains the whale is a fish. Because of these attempts at pseudo-scholarship, Lewis Mumford declared that Melville represented a combination of Francis Bacon and William Shakespeare --- the ideal synthesis.

After the lucubrations of "Cetology," Melville kindly introduces an interlude. He shows the ship's officers eating in their cabin and makes fun of their adherence to protocol. Starbuck first; Stubb second; and Flask last, for all things in order of rank. The Captain serves, the meal is taken in silence. Flask waits for the others to get their servings; takes what is offered; and blushes before he would reach for a piece of bread. When they are ready to leave, Flask must finish first. He hasn't finished eating --- no matter; he looks half-starved --- no matter. Up he gets, Stubb second, and Starbuck last. Then the harpooners come into the cabin. What a contrast! Chaos reigns! They use their forks like harpoons, sharpen their knives on whetstones, and fill themselves like "Indian ships all day loading with spices." The Dutch boy trembles at the sound of teeth smacking food and looks at his own arm in consternation to see if the vultures have lit upon it.

On the quarter deck, Ahab offers a sixteen-dollar doubloon to the first man who spots the white whale. Starbuck recognizes this as an allusion to Moby-Dick, the very whale who had taken off Ahab's leg. This is the second time the white whale is mentioned; for, in the first chapter, Ishmael has had a vision of "endless processions of the whale, and mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air."

Ahab concludes with a peroration:

"All visible objects, men, 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 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 not beyond. But it is enough. He tasks me; 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 wreck that hate upon him."

Ahab, agnostic or atheist, espouses an inverse form of mysticism: what he cannot obtain through contemplation, he will achieve through force. Unlike orthodox Christians, Ahab wants to possess the certainties of verifiable truth rather than the certainties of an unquestioned faith. As Eve sinned by desiring to know the distinction between good and evil, so Ahab sins --- in the traditional sense --- by desiring to know the reason for suffering and cruelty in the world.

More open to alternative explanations than his captain, Ishmael enlarges upon the disparate significance of the color white. White is the color of beauty, nobility and goodness, of pearls, ermine, and the white robes worn by the redeemed in the vision of Saint John; but white is also the color of the shark, the polar bear, and the albatross, of treacherous and concealing water, and of deathly pallor. Along with Ahab, Ishmael senses the duplicity of appearances:

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 reasonings 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 emblazonment; all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in all 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 on and on until:

And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt.

White is whatever is basic in the universe. It is whatever is underneath and unseen: the pure idea of Plato, the invisible world of Saint Paul, the tabula rasa of John Locke, the thing-in-itself of Immanuel Kant, the naked man under the clothes in Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, and the transcendental Oversoul of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Though white is holy, it is also evil. Like Ahab, Ishmael admits:

Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.

In contrast to Christian and Transcendental trust in divine order, Ahab and Ishmael suspect there is nothing there at all. Nature is void. God does not exist. Nothing in the cosmos corresponds to or justifies man in thinking himself unique. God and the White Whale are alike indifferent to human concerns. The voice from out the whirlwind that mocked Job, also taunts and belittles Ahab, doer, and Ishmael, thinker:

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst though put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw with a thorn? Will he make supplications unto thee? Will he make a covenant with three? wilt thou take him for a servant forever?

Like Herr Teufelsdrockh, Ahab fears he is "devil's dung." Like Ahab, the hero of Sartor Resartus has heard the devil say:

"Behold thou art fatherless, outcast, and the universe is mine"

and has replied:

"I am not thine, but Free, and forever hate thee."

Long after midnight, Ahab, in his cabin, pores over his charts, planning the time and place for his next meeting with Moby-Dick. He is aflame with torment. His soul, as a subconscious and resisting element, tries to escape from his thinking mind. Without understanding why, Ahab bursts from his cabin, crying in agony. The disembodied soul which looks out through his eyes is as colorless as the mysterious whiteness that undergirds all things. Ishmael concludes his probing of Ahab's split psyche with the admonition:

God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee, and he whose thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart forever; that vulture the very creature he creates.

The "Chart" chapter undermines Leslie Fiedler's assertion that "without the Parsee, Ahab is merely crazy, Moby-Dick meaningless." Ahab's conflicts and hatreds spring from personal grievances and philosophical anxieties. They were not simulacra employed by the shadowy Parsee, Fedallah, to bring about Ahab's perdition. Fiedler is right in stressing Fedallah's role as a symbolic and sinister figure. He must have been more than an emanation from Ahab, if for no other reason than to balance the pair Ishmael and Queequeg, who represented wholesomeness and sanity; but he was not a literary success.

Fedallah appears on the decks of the Pequod upon the first lowering, a swart individual, turbaned with his long white hair, in company with four tiger-like figures of Philippine extraction. Ahab has smuggled this weird group on board to serve as his crew for he intends to participate in the killing of whales, including his enemy and nemesis Moby-Dick.

To Ishmael, Fedallah's origins were mysterious. He surmised that he was a throwback to man's mythological predecessors and left open the question whether he was a product of devilish or angelic consortings with "the daughters of men." Similarly, Ahab had a mysterious origin. He was invested with "terrors not entirely underived from the land of spirits and wails." However ludicrous these comparisons may appear, Melville was obviously striving to give his characters mythological and quasi-astrological dimensions.

Stubb and Flask suspect the diabolical Fedallah dominates Ahab. As a fire worshiper, he adores an element that Ahab abuses. This discrepancy suggests the alliance between the two is more apparent than real. In his only recorded conversation with Ahab, Fedallah said he would die before his captain and come back to serve him as a pilot. He concluded with the prediction that hemp alone will kill Captain Ahab. Lulled into false security, Ahab little suspected that Fedallah has told him the manner of his own death.

Whatever Fedallah's supernatural significance or however much Melville may have been fascinated by the relationship of the witches to Macbeth and of Mephistopheles to Faust, Ahab was more than a dupe of predestination or black magic. He believed the godhead principle in nature was not good or kind. Like Herr Teufelsdrockh, he came close to identifying life with evil.

Fiedler said Moby-Dick "may have been written by a man who did not believe in the devil." Fiedler missed a central point. If Melville believed in anything when he wrote Moby-Dick, it was in the existence of the devil. It was the existence of the devil's counterpart whom he doubted. As Queequeg remarked after a dead shark, by a reflex movement of his jaw, almost takes off his hand:

"Queequeg no care what god made him shark, wedee Fejee God or Nantucket God; but de god wat made shark must be one dam Ingin."

To Ahab and to his crew, while spellbound by their captain's rage, the white whale was "the gliding great demon of the seas of life." However deluded he may have been, Ahab dominated the novel and determined its actions.

In the middle sections of Moby-Dick, Melville lost sight of Ishmael's role as narrator and took over. Editorial comments like the following abound:

So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise of the fishery, they might scout at Moby-Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.

Melville hoped that the details he put in the novel would authenticate his assertions regarding the behavior of sperm whales. In this manner, the allegory, which is undeniably present, would become tolerable and acceptable. He wanted his readers to take the facts about whales and the symbolism surrounding them seriously so they could open up vistas as deep and as terrifying as those the members of the Pequod's crew were to discover.

Charles H. Cook, Jr. took Melville's statement about allegory to be "the key to the main theme of the entire novel and to the tragic flaw in Ahab's character." To Cook, Ahab created "a hideous and intolerable allegory" for he oversimplified the complexity of life and presumed to know the intentions of the white whale. Since Melville did not mention Ahab nor Moby-Dick in his comments about allegory or in the details he used to give his allegory a realistic foundation, Cook's interpretation seems ingenious.

Melville referred specifically to at least one "key" to Moby-Dick when Ishmael alluded to Narcissus who drowned while attempting to grasp his own image. Narcissus may have made an error in judgment, but the image he saw is the same image

" . . . we ourselves see in all the rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and that is the key to it all."

What is "intolerable" is the book in never-never land Melville suggested in his mythological allusions but did not integrate in a logical manner, and not his exacting analysis of Ahab's drive for power and search for transcendent meanings.

The Pequod continues on its way. Whaleboats are lowered from the deck and crews risk their lives seeking oil for the candles and lamps of America. A spirit spout appears in the water and seems to beckon the ship on in pursuit of a demon phantom swimming before it. There is much of Coleridge in these passages. There are strange forms in the water, demoniac signs in the air, and episodes of sweet poetry:

And heaved and heaved, still unrestingly heaved the black sea, as if its cast tides were a conscience; and the great mundane soul were in anguish and remorse for the long sin and suffering it had bred.

After the Pequod had rounded the Cape of Good Hope, she met the Town Ho in the Indian Ocean and exchanged visits. Ishmael hears from Tashtego the secret story of the Town Ho, as it had been told to him by one of the ship's crew. Melville made of this episode a short story by causing Ishmael to repeat the tale of a group of dons in the Golden Inn of Lima. The dons form a circle around the teller and their exclamations of surprise complete the pleasant picture.

The tale concerns a quarrel between the villainous Radney, chief mate of the Town Ho, and the noble Steelkilt, an ordinary seaman, and accounts for Steelkilt's escape to Tahiti. There are amazing descriptions such as:

. . . as he steadfastly looked into the mate's malignant eye and perceived how the stacks of power casks heaped up in him and the slow match burning towards them; as he instinctively saw all this, that strange forbearance and unwillingness to stir up the deeper passionateness in any already ireful being --- a repugnance most felt, when felt at all, by really valiant men even when aggrieved --- this nameless phantom feeling stole over Steelkilt.

The story may have been suggested by Melville's mutiny and escape from the Lucy Ann. Few writers have duplicated its calm, mysterious atmosphere. Perhaps, if the times had been kinder to him, Melville would have given his readers more products of his happier moods instead of the bitter works that characterized his later years.

Something of the ambivalent meaning of the white whale worked itself into the Town Ho narrative, for Moby-Dick, acting as an agent of retribution, swallowed Radney after he had flogged Steelkilt unjustly. The story anticipated Billy Budd,, where Billy (Steelkilt) and Claggart (Radney) reenact their roles. In the later story, Billy kills Claggart by accident, and then, so that justice would be vindicated, he consents to his own execution.

The Pequod heads northeast across the Indian Ocean and, entering through the Straits of Sunda, encounters a vast armada of whales. Perceiving the domestic secrets of the great whales, Ishmael describes calves suckling their mothers.

But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface another and still stranger met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in these watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the same time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence; --- even so did the young of these whales seem looking up toward us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their newborn sight. Floating on their sides, the mothers also seemed quietly eyeing us. One of these infants that from certain queer tokens seemed hardly a day old, might have measured some fourteen feet in length, and some six feet in girth. He was a little frisky; though as yet his body seemed scarcely recovered from that irksome position it has so lately occupied in the maternal reticule; where tail to head, and all ready for the final spring, the unborn whale lies bent like a Tartar's bow. The delicate side-fins and the palms of his flukes, still freshly retained the plaited crumpled appearance of a baby's ears newly arrived from foreign parts.

Seizing an opportunity to intrude, Melville declares that possession is "the whole of the law," and asserts that whomever finds a whale that has been loosed from a ship is the owner of the whale. Similarly, if Mexico were ever to become a "loose fish," the United States would have a legal right to "harpoon" this unattached country, which is what the United States did to two-thirds of Mexico's territory at the end of the Mexican-American War (1846-48), three years before Melville wrote his novel. Expanding on the theme of ownership, Melville referred roguishly to an old English law that granted the head of whales captured along the coast to the king and the tail to the queen. The division effectively disposes of the whale as there is no "intermediary remainder."

Taking a figurative bow, Melville leaves and Ishmael appears. He experiences strange feelings while squeezing lumps of sperm into oil. The soft fluid frees him from ill will. He imagines he is squeezing hands with the inhabitants of the world and that eventually everybody will squeeze themselves into "the very milk and sperm of kindness." Ever alert, Leslie Fiedler pointed out the sexual meaning of sperm. Fiedler considered this passage to be revelatory of the contrast between Ishmael's passive feminine wisdom and Ahab's active masculine rage. (Is Ahab the sperm and Ishmael the ovum?) Whatever the architectonic significance of the sperm image, Ishmael loses his loneliness --- "the permanent lot of man." His isolated ego merges into a larger superego. Yet, Ishmael knows this is only an illusion of happiness, because of the separateness of human beings.

The reader has seen how his sense of isolation has made Ishmael a sympathetic and sensitive person and how the same sense has hardened and warped Captain Ahab. But there is more to come. Pip, the Negro cabin boy, becomes insane, the result of being abandoned in the ocean by Stubb while in pursuit of a whale. Recognizing in Pip's insanity, a counterpart of his own, Ahab embraces him. The scene borrows from King Lear's interchange with his court fool on the storm-racked heath. Unlike the proud king who learns too late from his own and his servant's suffering about his common humanity, Ahab cannot grasp the wisdom of fear and terror in his little companion's frightened idiocy.

Stricken by fever, Queequeg lies down to die, but rallies after the carpenter makes a coffin for him. Mere sickness cannot kill Queequeg. For this a gale, a whale, or some "violent, ungovernable destroyer" will be needed.

The Pequod moves into the Japanese cruising ground. Impressed by the playful movement of the waves, Ahab wishes the calm moment would last. He would like to believe in the comforting appearance before him instead of the uncomfortable truth it hides; but, unlike Starbuck, he cannot say of the sea:

"Loveliness, unfathomable, as ever lover saw in his young bride's eyes! Tell me not of thy teeth-tiered sharks, and thy kidnapping cannibal ways. Let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe."

A typhoon comes up. The clouds darken and the heavens release their fury. The three corposants on the Pequod blaze with fire. Ahab rides out the gale in a frenzy of agitation. He apotheosizes the burning spires as the godlike trinity whose "right worship is defiance." His blasphemous challenge to destiny recalls the desperate speeches that Shakespeare's ill-fated characters --- Antony, Lear, and Macbeth --- make before their downfalls. Here Ahab flings his human grief against God and Nature:

"Thou knowest not thy beginning; hence callest thyself unbegun. I know that of me which thou knowest not of thyself, oh thou omnipotent."

Ahab believes the laws of the universe are insentient. Man only can perceive and control these laws to his advantage.

Unlike Fedallah, Ahab will not adore the fire which had branded him. He declares instead that he is "darkness leaping out of the light," and that the white flame surrounding the masts "but lights the way to the White Whale." Ahab's excitement reaches its peak. His is a mental thirst driving him to heights of madness.

But now, even with the sense that the circumference is closing on its center and that the mysterious whale will shortly appear, a calm or "symphony" ensues. The sea seems masculine, the air feminine, and the two join in conjugal unity. Harmony exists again in the universe and Ahab vacillates. He sees his wife and child in Starbuck's eye and drops a single tear into the sea. The great god Caesar weeps over the Pequod as the great god Mars despaired for Antony; but Moby-Dick appears in the distance; Ahab sights him from his perch; and the first day's chase begins.

Melville's glowing prose fittingly matches the sublime first appearance of Moby- Dick:

A gentle joyousness --- a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness --- invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.

The White Whale appears in glory. Yet, for all his loveliness, each phrase carries a cutting edge, for the seemingly peaceful whale surpasses Jove in his power to destroy.

The three-day chase is a masterpiece of mounting suspense. If Moby-Dick has been a struggle up to now, Melville compensates by packing his compressed fury into the concluding chapters. To write this book, Melville asked for a condor's quill, for Vesuvius as an inkstand. Here is the strength of that other Job who would not acquiesce.

Moby-Dick performs cunning feats of destruction. Instead of fighting with Ahab and his crew, the whale plays with them mercilessly, as a cat with a mouse. The first day, he bites Ahab's boat in twain, permitting the captain to escape. The second day, he again throws Ahab from his boat and Fedallah mysteriously disappears. Now the third day begins, cool and peaceful. Ahab senses the day will conclude his battle. He shakes hands with Starbuck and goes to his boat, but not before Pip's piercing cry,

"The sharks! the sharks! O master, my master, come back!"

Moby-Dick is waiting. Fedallah reappears in fulfillment of his prophecy, as a corpse wrapped by his fouling line around the whale's body. Ahab hurls his harpoon. It goes foul, catches him round the neck, and catapults him from the boat.

While Ahab drowns, the Pequod sinks into the sea, for Moby-Dick had charged the ship and broken its planks. Tashtego, at the top mast, as his last act, succeeds in nailing the ship's flag to the spar; but, in the process, he captures a bird between his hammer and the mast and drags it down into the water:

The boat would not sink into hell until she carried a living part of heaven with her, and helmeted herself with it.

Ishmael is the only survivor of the wreckage. He gains the coffin that had been made for Queequeg as it rises from the sunken ship and floats with it until he is picked up by the Rachel, the ship which Ahab had previously refused to help it its search for crewmen lost at sea.

Ahab is the quintessential example of Melville's isolated heroes. D. H. Lawrence, in a pioneer study in 1923, concluded that Melville's obsession with "isolatoes" stemmed from his inability to be alone with himself. With characteristic Lawrencean egoism, he blamed Melville for trying to intellectualize his blood instincts. Because he could not achieve lasting friendships and was incapable of detachment, Melville hated the world.

Ludwig Lewisohn, in 1932, also focused on Melville's personal problems. He wrote: "He (Melville) adopted all his life the regressive attitudes of the neurotic, of the favorite child who wants the world to reconstitute for it the conditions of the nursery."

Leslie Fiedler, in 1960, examined Melville from a Gothic-Freudian viewpoint. Instead of speculating about the author's obsessions, he scrutinized the writings. He found much veiled and unveiled sexual comment in them. Mardi sprang from sexual disillusionment. Taji, the hero, pursues Yillah, a blonde spiritualized maiden, and is pursued by the emissaries of Hautia, a dark-haired enchantress. This weird allegory of sexual repulsion, written shortly after Melville's marriage, bewildered his wife, who showed her misgivings in a letter to her mother, April 30, 1849:

I suppose by now you are deep in the "fogs" of Mardi --- if the mist ever does clear away. I should like to know what it reveals to you --- there seems to be much diversity of opinion about Mardi as might be supposed. Has father read it? When you hear any individual express an opinion with regard to it, I wish you would tell me --- whatever it is --- good or bad --- without fear of offense – merely by way of curiosity.

Pierre reversed the contrast between blonde and brunette found in Mardi. This time the hero rejects the blonde angelic maiden Lucy for the more interesting dark-lady Isabel, who turns out to be his half-sister. With the most idealistic of motives, Pierre, who had loved his mother as a "sister," winds up loving his real sister as a wife.

Redburn, White-Jacket, and Billy Budd contain covert homosexual references. Frustrated sexuality enters into the characterizations of Jackson, Bland, Ahab, and Claggart. In Moby-Dick the theme of manly affection becomes explicit in the comic description of the marriage between Ishmael and Queequeg. In the same sardonic vein, phallic worship is linked with Christian ritual in the chapter describing the sperm whale's penis.

Melville is squeamish about sex. For all his boasts concerning the unmuffled character of his age as opposed to the censorship of Shakespeare's. his reluctance to treat sexual subjects openly, as Walt Whitman would do, lessens the effectiveness of his finest stories and shows that he bridled under the taboos of his time.

The Victorian idealization of "pure" womanhood to which Melville's mother and wife gave their allegiance thwarted an easy relationship between the sexes. Melville's poem After the Pleasure Party, written shortly before his death, described the pestilence that unrequited love inflicted upon a virtuous woman:

. . . . . . . Nothing may help or heal While Amor incensed remembers wrong. Vindictive, not himself he'll spare; For scope to give his vengeance play Himself he'll blaspheme and betray .

Was Melville's sexual uneasiness caused by his mother, his wife, Calvinism, or the Victorian Age? To Leslie Fiedler, Oedipal feelings plus a head-heart separation provided an adequate explanation. Ahab and Ishmael were both betrayed by parents. Ahab focused his anger against his stepfather, whom he identified with the furious father-god of the Old Testament. In some inexplicable way, this father had robbed him of his mother and threatened his sexuality.

According to Fiedler, the fiery corposants represented a destructive principle. Ahab speaks of them as a "clear spirit of clear fire," then as a "fiery father" who had deprived him of his "sweet mother." Ahab equates the corposants with the fiery presence that had appeared to Zoroaster and to Moses. Likewise, Ishmael compares the corposants to the writings of "God's burning finger" on the walls of Balzhazzar's banquet hall. The fire with which Ahab wishes to be united is not simply a demiurge. It also represents the anti-sexual Gods of the Avesta and the Old Testament. As Henry A. Murray pointed out in 1951, the Biblical King Ahab of Israel, like his nineteenth-century counterpart, rejected the father-God of Jews for Astarte, fertility goddess of ancient Phoenicia (1 Kings: 17-22).

Ishmael, named after a disinherited son of Abraham by an Egyptian maidservant (Genesis: 17-22), had, like his Biblical forebear, a stepmother who was always chastising him. Thus, Ahab's and Ishmael's discontents have Biblical and psychological dimensions. Ahab defies the paternal fire, but he concentrates his hatred on the white whale as the epitome of iniquity. Through his experience of love and his intuitions into the wonders of procreation, Ishmael makes peace with the maternal principle, while the deprived Ahab goes to destruction. Significantly, the ship Rachel, symbolic of the weeping mother who has lost her children, rescues the outcast Ishmael.

Melville, like Ahab and Ishmael, was a mixture of masculine and feminine impulses. Because he desired more love from others than they were prepared to give him, his marriage was burdensome and his friendships impossible. Surrounded by a household of women and plagued by financial troubles, he longed for the easy-going society of men. Taught by parents and church to regard sex as sinful, he found an exhilarating alternative in the sexual attitudes and habits of sailors and South Sea natives. His discovery that sex and joy could coincide if people freed themselves from inherited "ghosts" placed him in opposition to the tenor of his times.

The knowledge of evil that besets Redburn, White Jacket, Moby Dick, and Pierre could be the result of projections which have their origins in the nursery or in the forecastle; nevertheless cruelty and deceit in nature and in society do not therefore go away. Tragedy is no less tragedy because Oedipus slept with his mother, because Hamlet browbeat his, and because Moby-Dick may or may not represent the archetypal father.

Sex, ambiguous or direct, is not Fiedler's only explanation for Melville's problems. Like Faust, Ahab in Moby-Dick, Jackson in Redburn, Bland in White Jacket, Taji in Mardi, and Claggart in Billy Budd look for a devil to whom to sell their souls. To escape from their chronic unhappiness, these men try to destroy themselves.

Fiedler's association of Melville's brooding characters with Faust is not warranted for these men sell their souls to no one, devil or god. Even when Ahab tempers his harpoon in the blood of his dark-complexioned harpooners and consecrates it with the words: "Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomini diaboli!" he does not place himself in the devil's party. Rather he uses magic as a means to kill the white whale, agent or principal of all that is arbitrary and inscrutable. After Starbuck accuses him of blasphemy, Ahab denies the charge:

"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, jealously presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confines."

This is not the language of a man who has made a pact with the devil for the enjoyment of sensual gratifications or superhuman powers.

If Ahab is of the devil's party --- as William Blake said all true poets were ---, it is in the sense that the devil is within him as a rich libidinous force, while the white whale represents an external world of sanctions stemming from Christianity and the laws of the State. The white whale is --- as Ahab puts it --- "the wall" shoved near of prohibition which he must "thrust through" to be free. Henry A. Murray claimed Melville's real enemy was "the upper-middle class culture of his time" whose God was shaped after its own hypocritical, anti-sexual image.

In the first century A.D., D. H. Lawrence said Jesus, dutiful son of God the Father, was Cetus, the Whale. It was this Cetus that, in the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes called Leviathan --- the Commonwealth --- created by art and ruled by an absolute sovereign who compelled obedience through threats of punishment and death.

Though he was aware of the early Christian identification of Jesus with the Whale and of Hobbe's identification of despotic government with Leviathan, Melville envisioned his own white whale sometimes as the arbitrary God of the Old Testament, sometimes as a malignant God from Greek and Egyptian mythology, and sometimes as a superior force in a mindless, purposeless world. He envisioned Ahab, however, as the suffering and crucified Jesus, only this Jesus was a Son of Man rather than a part of a theological trinity. In the following passage, Melville hinted that Ahab's imaginary iron crown was analogous to the crown of thorns:

Yonder, by the ever-brimming goblet's rim, the warm waves blush like wine. The gold brow plumbs the blue. The diver son --- slow dived from noon --- goes down; my soul mounts up! she wearies with her endless hill. Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy. Yet is it bright with many a gem; I, the wearer, see not its far flashings; but darkly feel that I wear that, that dazzlingly confounds. ‘Tis iron --- that I know --- not gold. ‘Tis split too --- that I feel; the jagged edge galls me so, my brain seems to beat against the solid metal; aye, steel skull, mine; the sort that needs no helmet in the most brain- battering fight!

Like Lear on the heath, Ahab, on beholding Pip's insanity, assails the gods:

"Lo! ye believers in gods, all goodness, and in man all ill, lo you! see the omniscient gods oblivious of suffering man; and man, though idiotic, and knowing not what he does, yet full of the sweet things of love and gratitude."

God is not a universal principle who creates love as Christians and Transcendentalists proclaim. Love originates in the hearts of people who venerate their own.

Ishmael, Ahab's comprehending opposite, comments:

. . . that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true --- not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon's, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe.

To Ishmael (and to Melville) blackness, gloom and sorrow were aspects of life. He who denies, despises or shuns their existence is not an angel, but a simple-minded optimist, or a half-developed man, like the good-humored Boomer, captain of the Samuel Enderby, who accepted Moby-Dick's swallowing of his arm with the commonsense conclusion, "one limb is enough," or like the mild-mannered Starbuck who goes to sea to make money, not "to crusade after perils."

Readers who think the good father Captain Vere in Billy Budd is more moral and mature than the morose Captain Ahab are incurable conformists. When Captain Vere says to the innocent Billy, after the young man has accidentally killed the blackguard Claggart: "Struck dead by an angel of God. Yet the angel must die." he insults human intelligence. If this is the price people must pay to belong to human society, the price is too dear. In agony, Pierre shouts: "Now ‘tis merely hell in both worlds. Well, be it hell, I will mold a trumpet of the flames, and with my breath of flame, breathe back my defiance."

Irreconcilable to the end, Ahab said "No! in thunder" to the injustices and sordid cruelties of the world. Not so Herman Melville, who grieving over the absence of love and fearing death, surrendered in his old age to a saccharine Jesus, for whom he showed his contempt in Moby-Dick.

And whatever they may reveal of the divine love in the Son, the soft, curled hermaphroditical Italian pictures, in which this idea has been most successfully embodied; these pictures, so destitute as they are of all brawniness, hint nothing of any power, but the mere negative, feminine one of submission and endurance, which on all hands it is conceded form the peculiar virtues of his teachings.

While Melville compared Pierre and Ahab with a compassionate, reform-minded Jesus, he took greater pains to identify them with the heaven-storming titans of Greek mythology. In his later works, he related the Chola widow in The Encantadas, the mute in The Confidence Man, and Billy Budd to Jesus as victims who bore their afflictions silently. These submissive people lack Pierre's and Ahab's fearless sense of self-reliance. In acquiring patience, the older Melville acquiesced in conventions he had formally deplored, such as the right of society to punish the innocent.

In Call Me Ishmael (1947), Charles Olson claimed Melville's depiction of Captain Ahab was his greatest accomplishment. With the aid of black magic, Ahab broke through the mask of appearances. Regarding the forces of Nature and of God to be inimical to people, he sought power over them. Like D. H. Lawrence, Olson saw in Ahab's quest an American obsession to span distances and to conquer space. Lawrence disapproved of Ahab's goals, whereas Olson admired him for his daring. Additionally, he found parallels between Ahab's battle with the white whale and the battles of the gods in Egyptian and Greek mythology --- father fighting son for supremacy --- as illustrated in the stories of Osiris and Seth, Uranus and Cronos, and Zeus and Cronos. Olson's thesis was vitiated slightly be a poor example as the slayer of Osiris was his brother Seth, while Horus, son of Osiris, avenged his father's death by vanquishing his murderer.

Melville may have intended to stress a father-son conflict in Ahab, but Moby-Dick is not, like Yahweh, a father-god. Doubtless, one reason Ahab excites sympathy is that readers see in him one side of a universal conflict, which may be father-son, age-youth, or authority-freedom. Perhaps the son does not have to kill his father in the civilized world as age and nature do this for him. The appalling and deadly hostility between generations which Shakespeare sketched in King Lear and The Winter's Tale is an implicit theme, among many, in Melville's "wicked tale."

In The Wake of the Gods (1963), H. Bruce Franklin extended Olson's suggestion of mythological parallels. According to Franklin, Melville cast Ahab as a dragon slayer and savior-god who restored fertility to the earth by submitting himself to periodic dismemberment and death in the manner of Osiris and Jesus. Three symbols associated with Osiris --- the phallus, the coffin, and the hawk --- recur in Moby-Dick. Like Olson, Franklin ignored Horus who, in Egyptian mythology, is represented by the hawk or winged sun disk which flies daily across the sky. As the king of the dead, Osiris is represented by the setting sun. Identifying the hawk with Osiris or Horus, as the case may be, lessens the dreadful finality of the conclusion when Tashtego drags the reappearing hawk of heaven to destruction with him. Horus leads the dead to his father Osiris for judgment before they are resurrected in the afterworld, and, in his designation as heir to the throne, he succeeds his father in the world of the living.

As Osiris and Jesus lay in the bonds of darkness before they are resurrected, so Ahab lies three days and nights in his cabin after Moby-Dick bites off his leg. So, also, he hides from his crew --- a victim of a disability to his groin --- from December 25 --- period of the winter solstice --- until the Pequod enters warm southern waters.

The birthdays of the Roman Emperor, identified with the sun-god Sol, and of Adonis, Mithra, and Osiris --- gods of light and dark kingdoms --- were celebrated near December 25. By choosing this date to mark the start of Ahab's search for Moby-Dick --- a time when the northern hemisphere is given to darkness and the earth is barren --- and by his comparison of Ahab to benefactors such as Perseus, Prometheus, Noah, and Zoroaster, Melville substantiated his claim for him as a man on whose brow the sorrowful gods have signed their name.

If Ahab thought of himself as a savior-god, as Franklin inferred, this was not necessarily the cause of his downfall. Granted Ahab was not a god --- even in nineteenth century form. He cannot, however, be faulted for trying to act like one. Dragon slayers and gods of fertility do not win all their battles. For all his megalomania, Ahab knew he was mortal. In his speech to the corposants, Ahab typified the case for man:

"No fearless fool now fronts thee. I own thy speechless, placeless power, but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional, unintegral mastery over me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here."

Franklin's case for Seth --- also known as Typhon --- as a prototype for Moby- Dick is hard to prove. Modern research suggests that Seth represented the desert wind, enemy of the overflowing Nile. On the other hand, he represented the ocean into which the Nile flows. In Egyptian tombs, Seth is pictured as the Typhonian animal with a long curving snout, square upstanding ears, and upright tufted tail. In many stores, he was associated with pigs, boars, hippopotami, crocodiles, and serpents. However depicted, he was regarded as a lying demon, an enemy of Egypt and a friend of her foes. Melville's knowledge of Seth may stem from his readings of Philemon Holland's translation of Plutarch's Isis and Osiris (London, 1603) and of the Reverend Thomas Maurice's Indian Antiquities (London, 1794-1800).

In the Twenty-sixth dynasty (663-525 BC), Egyptian priests identified Seth- Typhon with Apep or Apophis, a huge sea serpent who resided in the sea and tried daily to keep the sun from rising. It is because of this association with Apep that Franklin adduced Seth's similarity with the white whale in Melville's novel. Ironically, in the Pyramid Texts (2625-2475 BC), Seth each morning slew Apep before Ra, the sun god, began his cosmic journey across the heavenly ocean.

As myths are never stable, Melville added to his sources as he retold the legends. Ahab may well have been an avatar of Osiris-Zeus and Moby-Dick a destroyer demon. To maintain, however, as Melville did, that Seth-Typhon was Leviathan and that Ahab's conflict with Moby-Dick is a later day version of the battle between Osiris and Seth prefigured in the wanderings of the zodiac is to go far into the insubstantial ether.

Nor when expandingly lifted by your subject, can you fail to trace out great whales in the starry heavens, and boats in pursuit of them. . . . Thus at the North I have chased Leviathan round and round the Pole with the revolutions of the bright points that first defined him to me. And beneath the effulgent Antarctic skies, I have boarded the Argo-Navies, and joined the chase against the starry Cetus, far beyond the stretch of Hydrus and the Flying Fish.

Searching for mythological parallels simultaneously helps and hinders comprehension. By representing too many things, the personages cited --- Perseus, Zeus, Osiris, Zoroaster, Jesus --- ultimately represent nothing. In Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, Shakespeare used cosmic analogies to enhance dramatic situations, not to control them. Masters of allegory, such as Dante, Spenser, Bunyan, and Milton, took pains to keep the levels of interpretation in their works consistent so that one level did not contradict another.

Trying to explicate the mythical parallels and allegorical layers of Moby-Dick is an exhausting procedure. As Melville was not always successful in producing effects nor in clarifying ideas, many of his asides do not work. In trying to be encyclopedic, he frequently scratched out or covered up what he had written before. Again and again, the "literary" expositions read like a palimpsest.

In trying to make sense of the literary "ballast" in Moby-Dick, William Ellery Sedgwick (1944) pointed out that Shakespeare left "the mysterious background of life to random probings or to inference," whereas Melville inserted his background material "in the forefront of palpable facts." If by background, Sedgwick meant historical data, Shakespeare's use of historical facts in Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar is unobtrusive. In The Trying Out of Moby-Dick, Howard P. Vincent made a similar claim for Melville. He compared Melville's laborious comments about whales to their sources in Beale and Scoresby and suggested that Melville's improvements were of the same order as Shakespeare's reworking of Plutarch and Holinshed. Vincent had an unusual capacity for toleration or for self-delusion.

Many critics have echoed Sedgwick's comments about Melville's non-dramatic technique. Leslie Fiedler called Moby-Dick "the most improbable of all epic poems." Richard Chase referred to the novel as "in one sense a symbolist poem." R. P. Blackmur considered Moby-Dick to be a bad novel and a bad allegory because Melville lacked control over his themes.

Bad allegory, even to the allegorist, comes very soon to seem not worth doing, which is why charades and political parties break down. Melville's allegory in Moby-Dick broke down again and again and with each resumption got more and more verbal, and more and more at the mercy of the encroaching event it was meant to transcend. It was an element in the putative mode in which, lofty as it was, Melville himself could not long deeply believe.

Giving back a fraction of what he took away, Blackmur concluded that, though a failure as a novel, Moby-Dick was a triumph as an exercise in language. Because Ahab's relations with his crew were not continuous, Blackmur considered him to be "a great figure, not a great character."

Ahab does relate to his crew whenever it is necessary for him to do so, but his sessions with them are interspersed with lengthy sections of exposition and these are what apparently disturbed Blackmur.

Since Melville was not a conscientious dramatist, his "putative" (editorial?) comments were often better than his dramatic incidents. However, regardless of the means Melville used to create Ahab he is still an overwhelming creation.

To Blackmur the following passage about Nantucket men with Biblical names is "putative" because, though it is about Ahab, it does not say so.

So that there are instances among (the Nantucketers) of men, who, named with Scripture names --- a singularly common fashion on the island --- and in childhood naturally imbibing the stately dramatic thee and thou of the Quaker idiom; still, from the audacious, daring, and boundless adventure of their subsequent lives, strangely blend with these outgrown peculiarities, a thousand bold dashes of character, not unworthy of a Scandinavian sea king, or a poetical Pagan Roman. And when these thing united in a man of greatly superior natural force with a globular brain and a ponderous heart; who has also by the stillness and seclusion of many long night watches in the remotest waters, and beneath constellations never seen here at the north been led to think untraditionally and independently; receiving all nature's sweet or savage impressions from her own virgin voluntary and confiding breast, and thereby chiefly, but with some help from accidental advantages, to learn a bold and nervous lofty language --- that man makes one in a whole nation's census --- a mighty pageant creature, formed for noble tragedies. Nor will it detract from him, dramatically regarded, if either by birth or other circumstances, he have what seems a half-wilful overruling morbidness at the bottom of his nature. For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but a disease.

Richard Chase regarded the above description as a formulation of aesthetic intention which Melville discovered while he was in the process of creation. Chase believed the essential meaning of Moby-Dick could be found in the allusion to Narcissus in the first chapter.

Like Narcissus looking at his own reflection, Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, the Manxman, Queequeg, and Fedallah interpret the doubloon nailed to the mast according to their own temperaments and interests. Ahab's projections of himself went farther than the others because he thinks everything is contained within himself

". . . this round globe is but the image of the rounder globe, which like a magician's glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self."

To paraphrase Blackmur, Ahab is "a great figure" as well as "a great character."

Ishmael, Bulkington and Pip mirror the world and not themselves because they are aware of the difference between "the self and non-self." These insightful characters (and presumably their author) look and see, whereas the solipsistic individual looked "but not to see," and sought "but not to find."

Though Chase called Moby-Dick "in some sense a symbolist poem," his conclusion substitutes for ambiguous symbolic associations a compressed and simple solution. Blackmur placed the compositional center of Moby-Dick in the chapters on whaling which take the most space, provide the most interest, and prepare the reader for the "momently present . . . cold live evil" of the White Whale.

To extend Blackmur's intimation of demonism, if men and animals are both assassins and life is a cannibalistic activity, Herman Melville, like Shakespeare and Hawthorne, probed "the very axis of reality."

In her book Melville's Orienda (1961), Dorothee Finklestein traced Fedallah's name to an Islamic word meaning "ransom of God.". In so doing, she reversed the widespread interpretation of this figure as an evil genius. Far from being in league with a sinful Ahab whom he lures to destruction, Fedallah is "a destroying angel." To propitiate his deity, Fedallah must sacrifice himself. Even his prophecy to Ahab --- "hemp only can kill thee" has a cryptic significance, for hemp is made from hashish which is linked to the word "assassin," the role Fedallah plays in the narrative. Thus Fedallah, who at first glance appeared to be a fire-worshipping Parsee with a Polynesian appearance, becomes an intricate figure who serves God or the devil. As with Ahab, Melville has supplied enough clues for both hypotheses to be plausible.

Melville's religious views were rooted in dualistic assumptions. God and people are joined in conflict. God has ordered people to control their minds and flesh. On one hand, man is evil. On the other, he must not aspire to divinity. Adam and Eve desired to know the difference between good and evil. As punishment, God ordained that they must die. Their descendants still seek knowledge and still chafe under dualistic prohibitions.

By depicting God as "inscrutable," Calvinism complicated man's desire to find truth. From the beginning of time, God has chosen a preferred few. Those who have been rejected deserve their misfortunes. When Ishmael referred to white as "the veil of Christian deity" and then as "the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind," he was proclaiming the Bad rather than the Good News.

Melville was born in the Calvinist-inspired Dutch Reform Church. As a child, he took the teachings of his Church seriously. His parents believed that "the finger of God" was behind all events and that a life of hard work, Bible reading, and prayer was the right way to serve God and themselves.

As a member of the Albany Young Men's Association for Mutual Improvement (1835), the adolescent Melville was inclined to be self-righteous. His broadening experience of the world acquired by his sea cruises, his contact with sordid goings-on in the slums of Liverpool, his knowledge of the harm done to South Sea islanders by missionaries, and his reading of Seneca, Bayle, Voltaire, Montaigne, and Hume opened up to Melville the wide gap between Christian pronouncements and Christian deeds. Queequeg said:

"Alas! The practices of whalemen soon convinced me that even Christians could be wicked; infinitely more so than all my father's heathens. It's a wicked world in all meridians, I'll die a pagan."

Transcendental philosophy, which dominated the intellectual world in Melville's day, offered an alternative. Immanuel Kant claimed that people, through their intuitive faculties, could grasp the infinite. The undifferentiated wisdom thus attained remained, however, precisely that: the mind wrapped up in the experience of the All, ceases to think.

At the mast head, Ishmael expressed his fears that transcendental epiphanies are dangerous:

In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Wickliff'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 is on ye, move your feet or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps at midday, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through the transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well ye Pantheists!

Melville came to his decision. There is only one truth. That truth comes from man's reason, not from Christianity nor from the exhilarations of transcendental experience.

Let any clergyman try to teach the Truth from its very stronghold, the pulpit, and they would ride him out of his church on his pulpit banister. It can hardly be doubted that all Reformers are bottomed upon the Truth, more or less; and to the world at large are not reformers universally laughing stocks?

Contrary to Lewis Mumford, Melville opposed synthesis. He believed in his individuality. He and Ahab shared the same desire for truth and the same hatred of the obstructions that Church and State have erected to keep it from them. They accepted the dualism of Judaic and Christian theologies, but they did not agree to play the game according to foreordained rules. Sensing the ambivalence in his friend, Hawthorne said of Melville:

He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief, and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.

More than the other characters in Moby-Dick, Ishmael occupied the median position between extremes of belief and unbelief, intuition and doubt, where Hawthorne thought Melville belonged.

And how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to behold him solemnly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapor, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapor --- as you will sometimes see it --- glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts. For, d'ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, through all the thick mists of dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few among them have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.

Ishmael's placement between poles of belief and unbelief and of joy and sorrow seems at times to be too casual and fortuitous. At others, it seems to spring from penetrating insights into human predicaments.

Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And, even if he forever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than the other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

What is the moral of Moby-Dick? Ahab defied God and lost. His was a desire for truth, a contempt of the old ways of belief, and a willingness to achieve his goals at any cost. Does his failure mean that people should not defy the gods, but should content themselves with the world as they find it? Is the obedient wisdom of Jonah's discovery of God in the belly of a whale described by Father Mapple, the inactive independence of Bulkington, the idiotic disclosures of Pip, the oleaginous lesson Ishmael learns while squeezing the whale's sperm, the self-sacrificing connotations of Ishmael's escape in Queequeg's coffin of love, greater and more humane than Ahab's futile thirst?

Ahab dominates Moby-Dick. Ishmael is merely a looker-on. Ahab's last words recall Macbeth's, but, unlike Macbeth, Ahab realizes fully the meaning of his existence.

"Oh, lonely death, on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bonds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! 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 hearses and all coffins 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."

One of the few characters in American literature worthy of comparison to Prometheus, Oedipus, Tamburlaine, Faustus, Macbeth, and Lear, Ahab challenged the gods and went down to defeat. Presented with innumerable opportunities to relinquish his fanatic quest, he pushed on. As a final irony, Starbuck cries out to him:

"See! Moby-Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, that madly seekest him!"

Yvor Winters put the Christian case against Ahab powerfully when he wrote:

His sin, in the minor sense, is monomaniac vengeance; in the major, the will to destroy the spirit of evil itself, an intention blasphemous because beyond human powers and infringing upon the purposes of God.

This is Starbuck's pious and moral reasoning. If this cringing submission to the Almighty is all, then Ahab is rightly punished and the Judeo-Christian God vindicated. But this is not all, for everyone battles evil, in small or in large. The courage and force people exercise in this battle gives their lives meaning and dimension. Lewis Mumford, humanist, answered Winter's objection before Winters had voiced it:

There is no triumph so petty and evanescent as that involved in capturing the ordinary whale. . . . By the same token, there is no struggle so permanent and so humanly satisfying as Ahab's struggle with the white whale. In that defeat, in that succession of defeats, is the only pledge of man's ultimate victory, and the only final preventive of emptiness, boredom and suicide.

In the eighth circle of the Inferno, Dante met the spirit of Ulysses, the great wanderer of the ancient world. He is imprisoned within burning flames among the souls of evil counselors. At Virgil's request, Ulysses recounts his last voyage away from home, across the Mediterranean, through the Gates of Hercules, and into the unknown West. Within sight of Purgatory, a storm sinks his ship, drowning everyone on board. Ulysses, like Ahab, transgressed divine limits by going too far. Through defeats endured by truthseekers like Ulysses and Ahab knowledge has been extended, superstition contracted, and evil sensibly defined as that which hurts mankind.

In so far as he was a person and not a mythical symbol, Ahab erred because his desire for vengeance distorted his judgment. To possess hidden knowledge, to stamp out evil, to enjoy sensual love, to know oneself, these are praiseworthy objectives. But to hate one object --- even an object as vast as Leviathan --- with such passion that it becomes the summation of all truth or falsehood, this is paranoia. And it is not the best foundation from which to make discoveries.

John Parke and Harry Slochower criticized Ahab because his quest was personally and not socially motivated. In pursuit of an evil that he had engendered in his own mind, Ahab caused the deaths of innocent people. This criticism, so far as it goes, is true. Parke said Ahab's doom was "richly deserved," Slochower said that Oedipus and Hamlet fulfilled personal as well as social functions when they died to relieve the community of sicknesses.

As a romantic hero engaged in self-discovery and self-aggrandizement, Ahab, like Goethe's Faust, made ridiculous mistakes and brought calamity on others. For all his faults, Goethe's Faust served the purposes of heaven. Even so possessed and monstrous a person as Ahab may also be converting evil into good.

"Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I."

Bertrand Russell took aim at the romantic movement when he wrote:

"Man is not a solitary animal, and as long as social life survives, self-realization cannot be the supreme principle of ethics."

As romantic heroes, Manfred, Werther, Faust, Teufelsdrockh, and Ahab depended on their ability to feel and to think and not on commands sanctioned by custom, status or authority. To these people, man was his own subject and the world of experience his object.

Manfred and Werther were sympathetic to nature and at odds with society whereas to Ahab nature was the enemy and society was of minor importance. Nevertheless, the disjunction Ahab shared with Manfred and Werther was different from Faust's and Teufelsdrockh's delusion that their inner energies were magically fused with the energies of the universe --- a pathetic fallacy as paranoid in its own way as was Ahab's intense hatred.

Melville may have meant to expose Ahab's folly through the contrasting positions of Bulkington, Ishmael and Pip, as Dostoyevsky may have meant to expose the inadequacies of Ivan Karamzov's skepticism through the saintliness of Alyosha. But neither author has satisfactorily refuted their pestiferous antagonists. Conflicts may subside temporarily, but questions remain. Struggles continue. The great featureless head of the sperm whale is Melville's most arresting image of the enigmatic problems that confront people as the color white is his symbol of the vexing character of human knowledge.

But in the great Sperm Whale, this high and mighty god-like dignity inherent in the brow is so immensely amplified, that gazing on it, in that full front view, you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than by beholding any other object in living nature. For you see no one point precisely; not one distinct feature is revealed; no nose, eyes, ears, or mouth; no face, he has none, proper; nothing but that one broad firmament of a forehead, pleated with riddles; dumbly lowering with the doom of boats, and ships, and men.

The world belongs to the committed, to those who risk everything and may gain nothing. Ahab personified conflicts raging in Melville that did not cease with the completion of Moby-Dick. Pierre, with its intermixing of good and evil, The Confidence Man, with its exposure of Christian fraud, and Benito Cereno, with its probing of interracial animosities, were to follow.

Ishmael's knowledge of the depravity of the estranged human soul, his discovery of love through his mock marriage to Queequeg, and his rescue by the symbolic mother Rachel may have been meant as a tribute to Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom Melville dedicated Moby-Dick. Hawthorne's gentle and tranquil spirit fascinated Melville. The cry of Hawthorne's tragic figure Ethan Brand as he committed, suicide is different, however, from Ahab's. Though Ethan Brand shared Ahab's sense of pride, he died in sorrow, worn away by conflicts that had turned him into a person disconnected from the faith and love that binds people together.

"O Mother Earth," cried he, "who art no more my Mother, and into whose bosom this frame shall never be resolved! O mankind, whose brotherhood I have cast off, and trampled thy great heart beneath my feet! O stars of heaven, that shone on me as of old, as if to light me onward and upward! - - - farewell all and forever. Come, deadly element of Fire, henceforth my familiar friend! Embrace me, as I do thee."

Ethan's confession of impotence is as proper as any good Christian could wish.

Though he explored evil, Hawthorne never went as far as Melville because common sense, confidence in the goodness of people, and fear of unleashing the "power of blackness" held him back. These self-protecting defenses came to Melville late in life. His greatest portrait, written when his energies were at their peak, was of a man haunted by the magnitude of his obsessions. Such audacity went beyond what temporizing people could hope to feel and produced a fatal finale.

A shaggy old whale hunter from Nantucket, Ahab was "as proud as a Greek god." His form was "shaped in an unalterable mold like Cellini's cast Perseus." Self- reliant, in an age of self-made individuals, he aspired to be "as free as air" and cursed the "moral inter-debtedness" which tied him to others. Though occasionally stirred by kind feelings, he had, in Starbuck's words, "a heart of wrought steel." Like the mechanistic god Melville described in a letter to Hawthorne, Ahab was "all brain like a watch." His undeviating will ran on "iron rails" like a train.

Like Pascal, Ahab had seen through "the wall" "the eternal silence of the infinite spaces" Like Pip, he had glimpsed "God's foot on the treadle of the loom." Unlike Pip, he was, as the Manxman said, "daft by strength" while Pip was daft "by weakness."

In Ahab, Melville explored the depths of an individual's existential anxiety while in the White Whale he grappled with the chilling immensities of the cosmos.

The only God Melville invoked with fervor in Moby-Dick was the God of Equality. Ahab may have thought himself the equal of authoritarian powers (Hobbe's Leviathan), but he was not keen on identifying himself with his fellow citizens. He came from the "kingly commons," which is an oxymoron. His "great heart" could "condense to one deep pang the sum total of those shallow pains kindly diffused through feeble men's whole lives." Other people's hearts may have been shallower, but they were also kinder and more intimate.

Ahab was not quintessentially insane. If he were, there would be no grandeur in Moby-Dick. He existed in his polarity, a rich symbol of human extremism. Job, Prometheus, Oedipus, Faust, Lear, or Macbeth, with whom he is often compared, do not duplicate his metaphysical fury.

Ahab's dualistic war with God may not be shared by many as they walk the streets benumbed by the obligations of a demanding world. In another sense, this dualism is a constant. At moments everybody feels the pull of ambivalent attractions and repulsions and resents the calamities life visits upon them. Ahab is Everyman, not in the good sense of the medieval morality play, but Everyman as he rages at the indignities and insubordinations of a capricious world.

The White Whale destroyed Ahab. It did not conquer him. Ahab abandoned the "insular Tahiti" in his soul for the terror of the unknown. He gazed too long into fire and lost his sense of proportion. He threw away the ship's quadrant in foolish disdain of the aid of the sun. He refused to turn the Pequod back in the face of repeated warnings and dire disasters . . . Gabriel's prophecies, the typhoon, the flaming corposants, the reversed compass, the breaking of the log line, the almost human wail of seals heard near the equator, the drowning of a seaman, the sinking of a life buoy, and the appearance of the Rachel sailing into the Pequod's wind.

With all his lack of ordinary reason and his stubbornness, Ahab had the "humanities" Peleg spoke of, had the "globular brain and ponderous heart" Ishmael described, and had the active spirit Stubb admired. It is because some portion of mankind has possessed a lack of humility akin to Ahab's and a like desire "to grasp the ungraspable phantom of life" that people have come thus far in their ascent from the caves and forests. Finally, it is the reader's identification of himself or herself with Ahab that saves this great figure from contempt and Melville's complex, clumsy novel from oblivion.

References cited: R. P. Blackmur, "The Craft of Herman Melville: A Putative Statement, Melville, A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice Hall, Inc., 1962; Richard Chase, "Melville and Moby Dick," Melville, A Collection of Critical Essays; Charles H. Cook, Jr., "Ahab’s ‘Intolerable Allegory’," Discussions of Moby Dick, D. C. Heath and Company, 1960; Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel, Criterion Books, 1960; Dorothee Finklestein, Orienda, Yale University Press, 1961; H. Bruce Franklin, The Wake of the Gods: Melville’s Mythology, Stanford University Press, 1963; Leon Howard, Herman Melville, A Biography, University of California Press, 1967; Lewis Mumford, Herman Melville, Harcourt, Brace, 1929; D. H. Lawrence, "Moby Dick, or the White Whale" Discussions of Moby Dick; Ludwig Lewisohn, "Melville, Not Even a Minor Master," Moby-Dick, edited by Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker, W. W. Norton and Company, 1967; Henry A. Murray, "In Nomine Diaboli," Melville, A Collection of Critical Essays; Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael: A Study of Melville, City Lights Books, 1947; Bertrand Russell, A History of Philosophy, Simon and Shuster, Inc., 1945; W. E. Sedgwick, Herman Melville, Paris: Bolvin, 1939; Harry Slochower, "Moby Dick: The Myth of Democratic Expectancy," Discussions of Moby Dick; Willard Thorp, Herman Melville, American Book, 1938; H. P. Vincent, The Trying Out of Moby Dick, Houghton Mifflin, 1949.

July 26, 2000. The first version of this paper was written for a class project at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, 1947.

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