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Moby Dick Essay, Research Paper

It is easy to see why Melville, himself a prey to the deepest forebodings about the optimism of his day, recognized at once his kinship of spirit with Hawthorne. “There is a certain tragic phase of humanity which, in our opinion (he wrote), was never more powerfully embodied than by Hawthorne.” A year after Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter, Melville dedicated his own most powerful embodiment of this tragic phase, Moby Dick, to Hawthorne, his acknowledged master. Together the two books are witness to the vitality of the tragic vision, which pierces beneath the “official view” of any culture to the dark realities that can never be permanently hidden, and together they mark a recrudescence of the tragic spirit in what would seem an unlikely time, on unlikely soil, and without benefit of tragic theater or tragic audience.

Both authors were aware of the untimeliness of their books. Hawthorne, in the famous letter to his publisher, Fields, spoke of fearing that his novel would “weary very many people and disgust some” by keeping so close, and with so little diversification, to “the same dark idea.” Would he have an audience receptive to his peculiar view of things? The Greek and Elizabethan dramatists or Racine or even the poet of Job could count on an audience culturally predisposed through myth, theater, or racial view to accept at once a drama of direness. Hawthorne had to make his own audience, to lead it by easy stages, as it were, into the dark idea. Hence the familiar, reassuring tone of the Custom House introduction, where the only dire events involve a certain goose of tragic toughness and the routine political loss of a job not worth holding. Hence the whimsical apology, in advance, for the “stern and sombre aspect” of Hester’s story— “too much ungladdened by genial sunshine; to little relieved by the tender and familiar influences which soften almost every scene of nature and real life, and, undoubtedly, should soften every picture of them”— an apology which we may well regard as almost wholly tactical.

And hence (among other reasons) the long preliminary phase of Moby Dick, introducing Ishmael, the reassuringly normal one who would go to sea now and again to drive off the spleen, or merely to satisfy “an everlasting itch for things remote”; who would take “the universal thump” with equanimity, and cry three cheers for Nantucket— “and come a stove boat and stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot.” The world of Ishmael’s setting forth, like the world of the Custom House, was undimmed by the dark idea and seemingly invulnerable to any Jovian thunderbolts. God was above young Ishmael’s world as he packed his bag for Cape Horn and the Pacific; and even as he read on the tablets of Father Mapple’s chapel in New Bedford the fate of the whalemen who had gone before him, he “grew merry again.” The rest of his story shows how shallow his optimism was, as Melville leads him (and the untragic American audience) by slow degrees, but remorselessly, toward tragic truth. Ishmael has been caused the chorus to Ahab as tragic hero, but this is hardly adequate to describe his total participation in the tragic action. To be sure, Aeschylean choruses became involved, acted, and suffered as the other choruses in Greek drama for the most part did not. But it is significant of Melville’s task of rendering his tragedy probable to his age that Ishmael frames and pervades the story as no Greek chorus does. He is a constant link to the known and familiar. He is average, goodhearted humanity, though somewhat more given to meditation than most and (as he says of himself) “quick to perceive a horror.” His optimism lies not in his denial that the horror is there but in his hope of being “social with it”— “since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in.” Only gradually does this hope come to be fully tested. All the little horrors of the early stages of his adventures are accommodated to his hearty, comic vision. He accepts the wintry and forbidding conditions of his stay in New Bedford with good cheer. The inauspicious omens in Father Mapple’s chapel fail to daunt him. He shares his bed with the terrifying Queequeg, and rejoices in the evidence of natural goodness even in this pagan cannibal. Queequeg’s rescue of the man overboard on the trip to Nantucket confirms his faith in his new friend and in this “mutual jointstock world” where Christians and cannibals live and let live. “Dost know nothing at all about whaling, I dare say— eh?” asks Captain Peleg as Ishmael presents himself at the Pequod to sign on for the voyage. “Nothing, Sir,” he answers handsomely; “but I have no doubt I shall soon learn.” Only Peleg’s strange confidences about the captain of the Pequod— that “grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab”—momentarily shake his confidence that there is no horror he cannot be social with. As he hears the story of Ahab’s fierce troubles, he is filled “with a certain wild vagueness of painfulness concerning him”—”a sympathy and a sorrow for him, but for I don’t know what, unless it was the cruel loss of his leg.” But more than that— “a strange awe of him; but that sort of awe, which I cannot at all describe, was not exactly awe; I do not know what it was.” Such were the first intimations to this young novitiate of mysteries not to be resolved by his philosophy, the first hint (as Stephen Daedalus was later to refine on Aristotle’s notion of terror) of “the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.” So far in Ishmael’s experience whatever had been grave had not been constant, and what had been constant had not been grave. Pity, of the sort which he felt for Ahab’s misfortune, is a passing thing, as he soon confesses: “However, my thoughts were at length carried in other directions, so that for the present dark Ahab slipped my mind.”

But the sense of awe, the intimations of terror, were not to be denied, nor the full terror in store. Queequeg’s pagan fanaticisms, his all-day Ramadan, or Fasting and Humiliation, were easy for Ishmael’s ready rationalism— “I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects”— and he pled with his cannibal friend to give over his “prolonged ham-squattings in cold, cheerless rooms” as opposed to “the obvious laws of Hygiene and common sense.” But he could not so easily accommodate his second warning about Ahab this time from old Elijah, whose “ambiguous, half-hinting, half-revealing, shrouded sort of talk begat in me all kinds of vague wonderments and half-apprehensions.” He even chided himself for not facing squarely this challenge to his security, but in the busy preparations for the voyage he “said nothing, and tried to think nothing.” In such situations, he said, a man “insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself.”

But in spite of himself he was coming even nearer the vortex. One morning, several days out, “as I levelled my glance toward the taffrail, foreboding shivers ran over me. Reality outran apprehension; Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck.” What Ishmael saw for the first time was no Queequeg with his crazy conceits, nor “humbug” Elijah, but a man “with a crucifixion in his face,” standing there “in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.” Ahab had looked on terror, and Ishmael looked on Ahab. Soon he was to stare into it face to face.

Somewhat before this first startling encounter, Melville had begun to shift his method from the narrative mode to the dramatic. It is as if he were confident by now that the bridge was whole and firm between the world of his readers and the tragic world of his imaginings. Ishmael was doing his work; the audience, like him, is almost ready for the full revelation. The “Knights and Squires” of the ship’s company have been introduced. Stubb has had his first encounter with Ahab, told not by Ishmael but by Melville as dramatist: Stubb’s mild plea that Ahab curtail his nightly deck-walks over the sleeping sailor’s heads; Ahab’s furious rebuke: “Down, dog, and kennel!”; and Stubb’s bewildered ruminations: “He’s full of riddles….Damn me, but all things are queer, come to think of ‘em.” We have met the staid and steadfast Starbuck, “firm in the conflict with seas, or winds, or whales, or any of the ordinary irrational horrors of the world” yet unable (we are told prophetically) to “withstand those more terrific, because more spiritual terrors, which sometimes menace you from the concentrating brow of an enraged and mighty man.” We know the “ignorant, unconscious fearlessness” of Flask— “a little waggish in the matter of whales.” We have seen Ahab throw away his pipe— his next rejection, after his rebuke of Stubb, of his links with common humanity, which would seek only rest after toil and the solace of creature comforts. We learn of “that certain sultanism of his brain” which the hierarchical situation on shipboard encourages toward “an irresistible dictatorship.” We have already accepted the possibility (ch. 16) that out of these old Quaker whalemen might come the “globular brain,” the “ponderous heart” the “bold and nervous lofty language,” of “a mighty pageant figure”— a Job, an Oedipus, a Lear— “formed for noble tragedies.” The stage is set and the characters drawn for “the tragic dramatist” (as Melville now openly calls himself) to present his action.

There is a preliminary lull, but full of portent, in the brief “Mat-head” chapter, when Melville returns the story to Ishmael’s consciousness (as, occasionally, he does throughout the action) to show the youthful novitiate’s view from the crow’s nest, how it induces a mystic, Platonic reverie, providing a kind of “asylum (in the whaling industry) for many romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted with the carking care of earth, and seeking sentiment and tar in blubber.” Here, to the young dreamer at the masthead, the Many merge into One; the watcher, “lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie,” ceases to watch; the waves blend with his thoughts and the sea with his soul: “he loses his identity.” For a moment we hear Ishmael talking: “For one, I used to lounge up the rigging very leisurely, resting in the top to have a chat with Queequeg, or any one else off duty whom I might find there…” But it is Melville’s voice that dispels this Emersonian dream, the tragic dramatist who prepares for the full revelation. “But while this sleep, this dream is on ye (Melville so addressess the young dreamers), move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise forever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!”

Ishmael was never in greater danger than on his seemingly secure and sunny perch. Here, says the tragic dramatist, was no true wisdom and therefore (in the literal sense) no true poise. Ishmael must return to the common deck and the rigors of whaling. He must know it at its worst as at its best. He must “look in the face of fire.” Only then does he learn (in “The Try-Works”) that “that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true— not true, or undeveloped.” Down from the masthead, on Ahab’s own quarter-deck, a major event in Ishmael’s development is about to take place.

In the Quarter-Deck scene, when with his demonic eloquence Ahab enticed the crew into his terrifying enterprise, Ishmael was confronted for the first time with a “hero” in action. Ishmael’s presence as the percipient narrator is not felt during the scene; we have only his belated comment afterward. In Melville’s dramatic presentation Starbuck is given the only role as antagonist to Ahab; but against the “general hurricane” of Ahab’s fury, his protest in the name of common sense and respect for God’s creatures could not stand. The full drama starts with this thrust of Ahab’s against his destiny, against “the unknown but still reasoning thing” (as he sees it) that has worked his woe; and to this heroic fury— terrifying yet somehow appealing— Ishmael could not be a passive witness only. In the turbulent scene, all thought of comic detachment, of being sociable with horror, was for the moment overwhelmed. “I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine.” All of his old, reassuring categories are burst asunder in this first experience of “the dread in the soul.”

But, as the voyage progressed, this dread had its abatements for Ishmael— signalizing, perhaps, how sturdy are the “admirable evasions” of average man, loath to admit his failure to domesticate the universe. Ishmael is normal, unpossessed humanity. There are moments of calm when he detaches himself from Ahab’s quenchless feud and returns to his philosophizings. They are still cheerful, even if they have a new somber note, as with making mats with Queequeg, he speculates about “chance, free will, necessity,” finds them “no wise incompatible— all interweavingly working together.” But chance, he concludes darkly, can rule either one, and has “the last featuring blow at events.” Later (ch. 49), speculating on “this strange mixed affair we call life,” he slips into a sort of “desperado philosophy.” In such a mood, he regards the universe as a “vast practical joke,” perhaps on himself, but “with nothing to dispirit a man and nothing to dispute.” He simply makes his will. “Now then, thought I, unconsciously rolling up the` sleeves of my frock, here goes for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost.” Thus, argues the wise youth, if we cannot be merry, we can at least know the universe for the risky thing it is and be prepared for whatever comes. This is not Ahab’s feud; it is a stoic rather than a tragic phase. It is as far, except for one other episode, as Ishmael ever gets.

If, as in The Scarlet Letter, there is something archetypal of all tragedy in this steady uncovering, layer by layer, of the hard meaning of existence, it is not through Ishmael’s consciousness that Melville uncovers it all. Ishmael recedes as Ahab occupies the foreground. The frankly dramatic episodes (for example, The Quarter-Deck, the nine gams, The Forge, The Carpenter, the chases), like much of the whaling lore, are not controlled by Ishmael as narrator (as, for instance, the narrator Marlow controls some of Conrad’s stories), nor do they reveal to us any sustained or intense spiritual struggle. A few times only, as Melville develops the “linked analogies” between whaling and human existence, is Ishmael’s voice heard unmistakably. The “Monkey-Rope” episode reminds him of the precarious interdependence of human beings, how one man may innocently perish through another’s error— Queequeg’s, in this instance— and for a moment we hear the young tyro philosophizing again. Squeezing “case” with Queequeg puts him in mind of the friendly pressure of the hands that should bind all men together in “the very milk and sperm of kindness.” But is it Ishmael’s voice (or Melville’s) which thanks God (in “The Fountain”) that “through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray”? or, in “The Grand Armada,” likens the state of his soul, “amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being,” to the calm center in the midst of the vast encircling herd of whales: “But even so…do I myself still forever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy”? Who dichotomizes all men and nations, nay the great globe itself, according to the categories of Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish? All this may be a measure of Ishmael’s deepening stoicism or growing philosophic poise; but actually about this time he ceases to be a fictional narrator with an autonomous spiritual development, and merges into Melville the omniscient novelist, commenting and discoursing without regard for Ishmael’s fictional status or his personal point of view, and taking us within the personalities of other characters, especially Ahab and Starbuck, where Ishmael as observer could not penetrate.

Only once more before the very end do we see through Ishmael’s eyes. In “The Try-Works” he knows for an awful instant what it actually feels like to be “given up” to fire. As helmsman, staring at night into the flaming try-works, he sees in the “tartarean shapes of the harpooneers,” as they pitch and pole the hissing masses of blubber, “the material counterpart of (their) monomaniac commander’s soul.” He sees the “redness, the madness, the ghastliness,” and he sees nothing else. He slips into an hypnotic drowsiness; his hold on the helm loosens, and he comes suddenly to consciousness to find himself facing dead astern. Only barely does he save the ship from being brought by the lee and possibly capsizing. He sees in his temporary distraction a sign of Ahab’s moral inversion— Ahab who had looked too long on fire. Ishmael, having learned the “wisdom that is woe,” now learns the “woe that is madness”; and he learns it this time on his own pulses. He learns that he is not the “Catskill eagle,” nor is Ahab, who can dive down into the “blackest gorges” and rise again into the sun. “Give not thyself up, then, to fire (says Melville-Ishmael) lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me.”

This is the last of Ishmael’s moral revelations. Here, except for the occasional reflections on the likeness of whaling to human life and except for the Epilogue, where he recounts only in the barest fashion the circumstances of his lone survival, we leave him. With “The Try-Works” his main function in the novel is done. He has cast off his green and dreamy youth and brought us to the edge of the vortex. The drama is now Ahab’s (with Starbuck the main but ineffectual human antagonist) and Moby Dick’s. The necessary probability has been established for Ahab’s final plunge into the vortex itself, carrying all but Ishmael to destruction. And not since Job, as Melville’s epigraph reminds us, has the destruction been so complete: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” All is gone, the whole “Anacharsis Clootz deputation” for the human race so devilishly misled by Ahab. The sea rolls on undisturbed as it rolled five thousand years ago. No angels sing the hero to his rest; no kingdom remains to be restored to order; only one lad just out of his novitiate lives to tell the story. Even the “bird of heaven,” pinned to the mast by Tashtego’s hammer, “his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab,” goes down with the ship, which “like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her…”

Such an ending forces to the limit any definition of tragedy comprehending positive values. We look in vain for precedents, certainly among the “Christian” heroes. Dr. Faustus had defied God and ended in hell. But he had defies God not out of hate but out of boredom or curiosity or restlessness, and in the end he had a vision of God’s grace and forgiveness none the less real because he could not (or thought he could not) share in them. Lear railed at the universe but sought instruction even in his madness and learned reconciliation and love in unexpected ways. Hester lived out the dark ambiguities of her existence, with no satisfying resolution either way, but grew toward acceptance and humility rather than hate and denial. Ahab hated and denied. The universe had wronged him; he adjudged it evil and defied it. In this phase, he is a demonic, not a tragic, hero; less a Faustus or Lear or Prometheus, with destruction not salvation in his heart. Ahab’s is no “puritan drama of the soul,” a constant tension between the vision of innocence and the accepted guilt. He rejects guilt, both when he puts himself beyond good and evil as lord and master over all the souls on the Pequod (”Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me…Who’s over me?”) and in his final conception of “this whole act (as) immutably decreed”: “I am the Fate’s lieutenant.” In the first pose, Ahab is more than man— and more than tragic man; he is a self-appointed God. In the latter, he is less than man, a mere agent of destiny. To the extent that the book glorifies Ahab in these two poses and passes no further judgment on him, Melville was right in telling Hawthorne that in Moby Dick he had written “a wicked book.” To this extent also, it is no tragedy.

But the indictment fails to do justice to Ahab and to that in the book which is not Ahab. Ahab is an emblem of no absolute order, and the book is not a “hideous allegory” of the triumph of Evil over Good. Like the tragedies which it recalls, it is more an exploration of mysteries than a rejection of mysteries in a sweeping nihilistic gesture. Much has been made of the book as a document in Melville’s personal “quarrel with God,” and his rebellious accents ring (or so it would seem) unmistakably in passage after passage. But so do Melville’s accents sound in Ahab’s melting moods, of which there are many, and Ahab’s passages of introspection and self-doubt, as in his confession to Starbuck: “…and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab had furiously, foamingly chased his prey— more a demon than a man— aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool— fool— old fool, has old Ahab been!” Ahab “has his humanities,” as Captain Peleg announced to the novitiate Ishmael at the signing on. He understands and admits (as no demonic and few romantic heroes do) his own ruthlessness— toward Pip (”Thou touchest my inmost centre, boy”), toward Starbuck, toward the captain of the Rachel who would engage his help in searching for the lost child. He drops his one salt tear into the great Pacific. But more than this, his feud, like Job’s and Prometheus’ and Lear’s, is not entirely his own. He is no Byronic hero kicking himself loose from the moral universe in ironic bitterness. He took upon himself what he conceived to be the burden of humanity. He faced the darkness as he saw it. Starbuck reconciled it with his traditional beliefs; Stubb and Flask laughed it off; Ishmael saw it and adopted his “desperado philosophy.” Only Ahab felt what “some deep men feel”: “that intangible malignity which has been from the beginning”— whatever it is in nature that makes these hard hearts, whatever oppresses, bewilders, and bears man down. Like Job and Lear, he saw his own misfortunes as a sign of the common lot; and like them he struck back. “He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

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