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Here you will find excerpts from various essays on Moby Dick. I created this page to demonstrate the many perspectives and opinions on what Moby Dick is about. Enjoy!


Excerpt from: In Nomine Diaboli 

Henry A. Murray

The New England Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Dec., 1951), pp. 435-452



In this epic struggle Melville ignores the common feud of man with man and passes on to the deeper, universal feud of man with Fate and Infinity. "Oh, what quenchless feud is this," he exclaims, "that Time hath with the sons of Menl" The white whale is the cosmic will incarnate. The fight against this inscrutable order is what makes the conflict so deeply human; and, when the warmth of strife ends in hopeless disaster, it produces what is surely one of the most dramatic climaxes in all literature

That it was Melville's intention to beget Ahab in Satan's image can hardly be doubted. He told Hawthorne that his book had been boiled in hell-fire and secretly baptized not in the name of God but in the name of the Devil. He named his tragic hero after the Old Testament ruler who "did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the Kings of Israel that were before him." King Ahab's accuser, the prophet Elijah, is also resurrected to play his original role, though very briefly, in Melville's testament. We are told that Captain Ahab is an "ungodly, god-like" man who is spiritually outside Christendom. He is a well of blasphemy and defiance, of scorn and mockery for the gods -- "Cricket-players and pugilists" in his eyes. Rumor has it that he once spat in the holy goblet on the altar of the Catholic Church at Santa. I never saw him kneel," says Stubb. He is associated in the text with scores of references to the Devil. He is an "anaconda of an old man." His self-assertive sadism is the linked antithesis of the masochistic submission preached by Father Mapple.

Captain Ahab-Lucifer is also related to a sun-god, like Christ, but in reverse. Instead of being light leaping out of darkness, he is "darkness leaping out of light." The Pequod sails on Christmas Day. This new year's sun will be the god of Wrath rather than the god of Love. Ahab does not emerge from his subterranean abode until his ship is "rolling through the bright Quito spring" (Eastertide, symbolically, when the all-fertilizing sun-god is resurrected). The frenzied ceremony in which Ahab's followers are sworn to the pursuit of the White Whale -- "Commend the murderous chances!" -- is suggestive of the Black Mass; the lurid operations at the try-works: is a scene out of Hell.

There is some evidence that Melville was rereading Paradise Lost in the summer of 1850, shortly after, let us guess, he got the idea of transforming the captain of his whale-ship into the first of all cardinal sinners who fell by pride. Anyhow, Melville's Satan is the spitting image of Milton's hero, but portrayed with deeper and subtler psychological insight, and placed where he belongs, in the heart of an enraged man


On Ishmael and the book’s introduction and intent for its narrator - Father Mapple’s sermon etc. (taken from Moby-Dick Centennial Essays -- Book by Tyrus Hillway, Luther S. Mansfield; Southern Methodist University Press, 1953) :

The opening pages of Moby-Dick make it plain that Melville was intensely interested in at least one problem which involves "Society" as we understand it -- the problem of alienation, of disturbance in the relation between the individual and the community. To choose the name Ishmael for his narrator was to designate this relation as a primary theme of the novel. The name and the biblical story which it called up were often mentioned by American writers in the early nineteenth century. The figure of the outcast was fascinating to a society whose official code of values gave an especially high value to conformity -- whether the outcast was felt to be elegantly misanthropic, like Childe Harold, or strong but crude and barbaric, like the frontiersman Ishmael Bush in Cooper The Prairie. A great deal of attention was paid to the Bedouin Arabs, for example, and to the wild Indians of the Great Plains, both groups being recognized as "Ishmaelites." The migratory life of these nomads of the desert was habitually contrasted with the "social state" of people who lived by agriculture and possessed settled places of abode. The contrast was felt to raise the basic issue of the rationale of society, the issue of primitivism.

Such considerations were evidently present to Melville when he chose to convey the events of his story through the mind of a fugitive from society, a man alienated from the normal life of settled communities. Ishmael has no stake in society: he is penniless and apparently without relatives. His "splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world." Feeling as he does, he might kill himself, as Cato did; instead, he escapes to the unsocial wastes of the sea.

Ishmael is an American, and he ships on the Pequod in Nantucket harbor. In a vague sense, therefore, the wolfish world from which he is fleeing is an American world. But Melville does not insist on this, and Ishmael's case against society is general rather than specific. What we have in the opening chapters is a hostility toward all social institutions rather than a specific indictment of American society. The Nineveh of Father Mapple's sermon is just as relevant as New York to Ishmael's and the author's meaning. The problem, indeed, tends to become more rather than less abstract and generalized. We hear, for example, the "mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore." Ishmael's admiration for "deep, earnest thinking" and for the independence of the soul requires us to see a close parallel between him and the Jonah who was divinely appointed to be a "Pilot-prophet, or speaker of true things." And Melville evidently agrees with the stirring exhortation of Father Mapple:

“Delight is to him -- a far, far upward and inward delight -- who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges.”

The sentiments with which Ishmael shipped on the Pequod, and those developed in Father Mapple's sermon, derive from the assumption that organized society is intrinsically evil. Despite the pretense of virtue that characterizes official codes of morals, society is founded on force and fraud. Its rulers -the proud commodores, the senators and judges -- are but the more eminent in wickedness and in hypocrisy. They are the mighty ones whom every speaker of truth, every Jonah sent to preach to wicked Nineveh, must defy. Every anointed prophet of the Lord will become an outcast, driven forth for the crime of uttering the truth.


From the WEB “Moby Dick from the Vision of Tragedy” by Richard Sewall

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Ahab himself never achieved such repose or looked on life so steadily, or if he did it was only momentarily. One other momentary insight comes to him in the frenzy of his final battle with the whale, and in a way it is his climactic insight. The perennial sense of injustice, the cry of Prometheus and Job as of Lear and Hamlet, was also Ahab's. Why do the innocent suffer? "O cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right." This was the "inscrutable thing" that Ahab hated. Ahab never penetrated the mystery nor came to as full an understanding of the meaning in suffering as did Job or Lear. But in the moment of final conflict he senses a new dimension in his suffering, a relatedness to something other than the sheer malice of the universe, the whiteness of the whale.

Ahab is the tyrannical captain of the Pequod who is driven by a monomaniacal desire to kill Moby-Dick, the whale to whom he lost his leg. Ahab believes he is fated to kill Moby-Dick and lives for this purpose alone. Ahab's name comes directly from the Bible. When Ishmael first encounters the name he responds "When that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood?" (Moby-Dick, Chap. 16) Elijah, the prophet in the Bible who portents Ahab's fate, warns Ishmael and Queequeg that by signing to Ahab's ship they have effectively signed away their souls.


Moby-Dick Centennial Essays

Book by Tyrus Hillway, Luther S. Mansfield; Southern Methodist University Press, 1953


Ahab is likewise endowed with menacing and irresistible force through being associated with the machines of the Industrial Revolution. There are a number of passages in MobyDick indicating that Melville felt an almost physical apprehension toward the machine. Thus in chapter 1x ("The Line") we read: "For, when the line is darting out, to be seated then in the boat, is like being seated in the midst of the manifold whizzings of a steam-engine is full play, when every flying beam, and shaft, and wheel, is grazing you." Melville exploits this ominous character of the machine in chapter xxxvii ("Sunset") to express Ahab's inhuman determination to use the crew of the Pequod as mere tools. Ahab feels that he wears an iron crown; he lacks "the low, enjoying power" of ordinary human beings. I thought to find one stubborn," he says, "at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve." And in the often-quoted conclusion of the chapter, he exclaims to the "great gods":

“Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else you swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents' beds, unerringly I rush! Naught's an obstacle, naught's an angle to the iron way!”

At the beginning of the next chapter Melville gives to Starbuck an image from mining to stand beside the railroad image: Ahab "drilled deep down, and blasted all my reason out of me!"


The general impression conveyed here is that machines violate humanity. The one other passage of considerable length in which technology is drawn upon is more ambiguous, so complex indeed that it almost defies exegesis. It concerns the whale's skeleton in "A Bower in the Arsacides" (chapter cii):

“Now, amid the green, life-restless loom of that Arsacidean wood, the great, white, worshipped skeleton lay lounging -- a gigantic idler! Yet, as the ever-woven verdant warp and woof intermixed and hummed around him, the mighty idler seemed the cunning weaver; himself all woven over with the vines; every month assuming greener, fresher verdure; but himself a skeleton. Life folded Death; Death trellised Life; the grim god wived with youthful Life, and begat him curly-headed glories.”


Moby Dick: Mystery and the Chase The following essay by Greg Dixon who discusses Moby Dick in the context of Tragedy

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Ahab cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell, for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them. . . . All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. [He is the devil-god of the second century Gnostics, the unjust God of the Old Testament.]

Speaking roughly, it might be said that Captain Ahab, incarnation of the Adversary and master of the ship Pequod (named after the aggressive Indian tribe that was exterminated by the Puritans of New England), has summoned the various religions of the East to combat the one dominant religion of the West. Or, in other terms, that he and his followers, Starbuck excepted, represent the horde of primitive drives, values, beliefs, and practices which the Hebraic-Christian religionists rejected and excluded, and by threats, punishments, and inquisitions forced into the unconscious mind of Western man.

Stated in psychological concepts, Ahab is captain of the culturally repressed dispositions of human nature, that part of personality which psychoanalysts have termed the "Id." If this is true, his opponent, the White Whale, can be none other than the internal institution which is responsible for these repressions, namely the Freudian Superego. This, then, is my second hypothesis: Moby Dick is a veritable spouting, breaching, sounding whale, a whale who, because of his whiteness, his mighty bulk and beauty, and because of one instinctive act that happened to dismember his assailant, has received the projection of Captain Ahab's Presbyterian conscience, and so may be said to embody the Old Testament Calvinistic conception of an affrighting Deity and his strict commandments, the derivative puritan ethic of nineteenth-century America and the society that defended this ethic. Also, and most specifically, he symbolizes the zealous parents whose righteous sermonizings and corrections drove the prohibitions in so hard that a serious young man could hardly reach outside the barrier, except possibly far away among some tolerant, gracious Polynesian peoples. The emphasis should be placed on that unconscious (and hence inscrutable) wall of inhibition which imprisoned the puritan's thrusting passions. "How can the prisoner reach outside," cries Ahab, "except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. . . . I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it."As a symbol of a sounding, breaching, white-dark, unconquerable New England conscience what could be better than a sounding, breaching, white-dark, unconquerable sperm whale?

Who is the psychoanalyst who could resist the immediate inference that the imago of the mother as well as the imago of the father is contained in the Whale? In the present case there happens to be a host of biographical facts and written passages which support this proposition. Luckily, I need not review them, because Mr. Arvin and others have come to the same conclusion. I shall confine myself to one reference. It exhibits Melville's keen and sympathetic insight into the cultural determinants of his mothers prohibiting dispositions. In Pierre, it is the "high-up, and towering and all-forbidding . . . edifice of his mothers' immense pride . . . her pride of birth . . . her pride of purity," that is the "wall shoved near," the wall that stands between the hero and the realization of his heares resolve. But instead of expending the fury of frustration upon his mother, he directs it at Fate, or, more specifically, at his mother's God and the society that shaped her. For he sees "that not his mother had made his mother; but the Infinite Haughtiness had first fashioned her; and then the haughty world had further molded her; nor had a haughty Ritual omitted to finish her."


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