Themes in Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Themes in Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Moby Dick Themes



One of the dominant themes of the novel is ‘alienation’. It is the alienation of man from his environment which may lead to disaster. The narrator of the story, Ishmael, himself is an alienated person. Alienated from his community, he seeks the solidarity of the crew of a whaling ship. The crew of the Pequod is also an isolated lot. They seek comfort in one another.

Ishmael meets the pagan, Queequeg, another isolated person, whose only companion before meeting Ishmael is the image he worships. The captain of the ship, Ahab, is the most alienated of all. This alienation coupled with his overweening egotism, intensifies his anguish and his revengeful hatred of the white whale, who hurt and crippled him beyond cure. His hatred of the whale and his desire for revenge become an obsession with him.

The long vertical scar on his body puts us in mind of the scar on Satan’s body, caused by God’s thunderbolt, in Milton’s Paradise Lost. This opens up another dimension of the story which we shall examine in detail in the chapter on symbolism and the meanings of Moby Dick.

Melville calls our attention to the dangers of ‘Solipsism or hypnotic self regard’. He refers to the ‘water-gazers’ in Manhattan engaged in ocean reveries and alludes to the mythological anecdote of Narcissus who, not being able to grasp his own image, plunges into the water.

Ahab, like Narcissus, is a water-gazer. He sees his own image while peeping into “the profound and unknowable abyss of nature.”

The infinite possibilities of the mind could throw up even the image of a white whale. Ahab, in his self-absorption, might have created the white whale in his own mind, or, in his egoistic pride and hatred of the whale, which had hurt and crippled him, might have become a monomaniac with only one obsessive thought of killing the white whale.

When Melville goes to sea, his predicament is Ishmael’s predicament. He feels alienated and his mind is torn with doubts and questionings that cannot be answered. The materialistic society of America has given birth to a robust individualism, which in turn has led to alienation. The disease of alienation is not found in primitive communities and ancient civilizations where the religious bonds are strong and people can relate themselves to one another or to their past. In his novels dealing with the tribal of the South Sea islands, Melville describes such communities.

Human Solidarity

Captain Ahab, in a way, represents the American psyche, particularly in respect of his alienation and egotism. The alternative to these is cosmic piety.

The human solidarity is another major theme in Moby Dick. It is counterpointed to alienation. It is at once an escape from and a remedy for alienation. This is a common theme in 19ch century fiction. We find it in the friendship of Natty Bumpo and his companions in Cooper’s novels, in the friendship between Huck and Jim in Mark Twain, and in Hawthorne’s Blithedalers. The crew of The Pequod is a heterogeneous combination of a Negro, a Pagan, a Red Indian, a Christian, a Parsee and others. This is human solidarity at its best. The members of the crew subordinate their individualities and follow Captain Ahab without a question and act like one man and their solidarity is unparalleled.

The Self

Another important theme that engages the attention of Melville in Moby Dick is the question of self and the Truth which is related to the problem of alienation. In Moby Dick and Mardi, some characters show their concern with the self. Ahab, Ishmael and the philosopher, Babba-Lanja, are engrossed in understanding nature and the mystery of the self.

The self has two aspects. In one aspect, the self is governed by the dark unconscious, and hence mysterious and delusive. In the other aspect, man is related to the universe. His adoption of a particular course of action in a neutral or hostile universe causes him a sense of loneliness and intensifies his sharpened sensibility. He gets a sense of fulfillment through his deeds.

We have already noted that the self is mysterious. A man first comprehends the deeds and actions of others and discovers a sense of mystery. In his isolation he encounters his own self. When he is introverted and encounters his own self, he finds conflicts and contradictions. This causes a conflict between the head and the heart and he is torn between the two. The soul sets maturity in loneliness and seclusion. Man has a vast dark forces within. This dark force is the lower layer In his psyche. Ahab has this power and he is conscious of it and that makes him a supreme egoist. The darker part of human psyche is unfathomable and mysterious. It is the real self, the ‘inner dignity’.

But introversion and contemplation of self is not enough to enable the hero to have a vision of reality. The contemplation and self-absorption should be supplemented with experience of the outside world. The sole reliance on self-absorption leads to barrenness like the images seen by Ahab in the water. Sometimes we feel that Melville is making fun of Transcendentalism, while at other times he sounds like a Transcendentalist himself.

In the chapter on the masthead, Ishmael describes the wonders of the seas, the fabulousness of the whales, and the terrors of the deep. His mind ranges with extraordinary exuberance through a description of the sea and its mysteries. His reveries transcend space and time as he stands watch high above the sea. Ishmael is the complete transcendentalist. Melville seems to have created this character, as a first-person transcendentalist narrator in all seriousness.

Also Read:

In Melville’s earlier works like Typee, Omoo, and White Jacket, he seeks the experience of the external world which is, like the ocean, inscrutable. It conceals the ministers of death and destruction.

Science cannot show us anything of the soul. The soul is vast and impenetrable like the ocean. Melville turns his attention to the soul in Moby Dick – the mysterious self mirroring the mysterious universe.

Ahab is hurt more deeply at the psychic level than at the physical level and this intensifies his hatred of the white whale. Like Lucifer hating God, like Prometheus hating Zeus, and like the great demon kings in Hindu Puranas (old stories hating Vishnu, the great God, Ahab hates Moby Dick.

The Manichean Conflict

Like most great works of literature, Moby Dick deals with the Manichean conflict – the conflict between good and evil. But what makes the book extremely interesting and puzzling is its ambiguity regarding good and evil.

If we look at the destructive whale as evil, captain Ahab, the powerful leader who could motivate and unite the entire crew as one man behind him, looks like a good force. He chases the bad whale and fights heroically with it. The fight is unequal and Ahab dies a tragic death. He is a tragic hero.

But if we look at the egoistic, intemperate Ahab, who is filled with a revengeful hatred of the white whale and, oblivious of his duties as the captain of a whaling ship for whom all whales should be equal, singles out the white whale as his personal enemy, Ahab is evil. His Satanic character is further emphasized by the long vertical mark on his body which resembles the mark on Satan left by God’s thunderbolt described by Milton in Paradise Lost (Bk. I). He is a bad leader who misleads the crew and transmits his hatred of the white whale to them. Moby Dick, whose colour is completely white, is not like other whales. He is a special whale, extraordinarily large and invincibly powerful. He seems to represent divinity.

Leave a Comment