Herman Melville: Contribution to American Novel

Also Read

      Herman Melville (1819-1891), was a descendant of an old, wealthy family that fell abruptly into poverty upon the death of the father. Despite his patrician upbringing, proud family traditions, and hard work, Melville found himself in poverty with no college education. At 19, he went to sea. His interest in sailors’ lives grew naturally out of his own experiences. Most of his early novels grew out of his voyages.

      In these, we see the young Melville’s wide, democratic experience and hatred of tyranny and injustice. His first novel, Typee, was based on his time spent among the supposedly cannibalistic but hospitable tribe of the Taipis in the Marquesas Islands of the South Pacific. The novel praises the islanders and their natural, harmonious life, and criticizes the Christian missionaries, who Melville found less genuinely civilized than the people they came to convert.

      Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Melville’s masterpiece, is the highly complex story begins with the narrator’s decision to go to sea. On the his way to Nantucket he meets and befriends Queequeg, a harpooner from the South Sea islands who is the image of the noble savage - a ‘George Washington's cannibalistically developed’. The two friends sigh abroad the whaler Pequod, a ship named after the first Indian tribe extenninated by white Americans. Before they set sail, a man named Elijah delivers mysterious warnings about a disastrous voyage. Father Mappie delivers a symbolic sennon about the prophet Jonah who was swallowed by a whale. The Pequod’s mysterious Captain Ahab appears after several days at the sea. He reveals to the crew the purpose (as he conceives it) of the voyage; to hunt and kill the white sperm whale, known among whalers as Moby Dick, which took off his leg on a previous voyage. Ahab’s eloquence convinces the crew to pledge themselves to his monomaniacal plan of vengeance. Only Starbuck, the first mate, demurs, feeling that Ahab’s mission is a sacrilege and a threat to the financial investment the ship’s owners have made. Stubb, the second mate, and Flask, the third mate, are easily drawn into Ahab’s plan. The crew, cast offs and refugees of all races and lands, is a microcosm of the whole humanity. The harpooners are Queequeg, Tashtego (a Gay Head Indian) and Daggoo (an African). On the first encounter with whales, they find that Ahab has kept hidden his own boat’s crew, which is led by Fedallah, a Parsee and a fortuneteller. The narrative is sometimes naturalistic, sometimes fantastic and shaped into obscure parables. Large sections of this epic novel dwell upon the science of whales or upon the intricacies of the whaling business and its history. Amid the often turbulent complexity of the narrative form, the dramatic events unfold slowly. As men of the Piquod sail the open sea in search of a single whale, they still occupy themselves with the regular business of whale hunting. Occasional chases niter the whales, storms, or meetings with other ships punctuate the long voyage. The crew captures and processes a sperm whale; Pip, a young black cabin boy, becomes caught in a harpoon line and is hourly drowned, where he becomes insane. The Pequod locally founders when Ishmael drowses at the helm; a meeting with the British whaler, the Samuel Enderby, provides Ahab with news that Moby Dick has been sighted recently. The Queequeg has a coffin made when he nearly dies of lever. When lightning, and storms sets the masthead's ablaze with St. Elmo’s fire, Ahab delivers a speech to his new that confines his mad devotion to the quest. The crew panic-stricken and Starbucks warns that God is against him. These ominous events lead up to the eventual sighting, Moby Dick and the three-day chase with which the novel culminates. On the first day the great whale crushes one of the boats and nearly kills Fedallah. On the second day it drags Fedallah down in Ahab’s harpoon line, and Ahab’s artificial leg is snapped off as the whale boat is wrecked. Finally, on the third day, a stricken Moby Dick charges Pequod and smashes her sides. Ahab, in the whaling boat, manages to strike a final blow but is himself caught in the harpoon line and drowned, tied to the whale. The Pequod sinks, taking all of the whaling boats and their crews down in the suction. The only survivor is Ishmael, who is shot back up, clinging to the coffin that had been made for Queequeg.

      It is the epic story of the whaling ship Pequod and its “ungodly, god-like man” Captain Ahab, whose obsessive quest for the ship and its men to destruction. This work, a realistic adventure novel, contains a series of meditations on the human condition. Throughout the novel Whaling is a grand metaphor for the pursuit of knowledge. The realistic catalogue and descriptions of whales and the whaling industry punctuate the book but these carry symbolic connotations. In chapter 15, “The Right Whales Head,” the narrator says that the Right Whale is a Stoic and the Sperm Whale is a Platonian, referring to two classical schools of philosophy. Although Melville’s novel is philosophical, it is also tragic. Despite his heroism, Ahab is doomed and perhaps damned in the end. Nature, however beautiful, remains alien and potentially deadly. In Moby-Dick, Melville challenges Emerson’s optimistic idea that human beings can understand nature. Moby-Dick, the great white whale, is an inscrutable, cosmic existence that dominates the novel, just as he obsesses Ahab. Facts about the whale and whaling cannot explain Moby-Dick; on the contrary, the facts themselves tend to become symbols, and every fact is obscurely related in a cosmic wed to every other fact. This idea of correspondence (as Melville calls it in the “Sphinx” chapter) does not however, men that humans can “read” truth in nature, as it does in Emerson. Behind Melville’s accumulation of facts is a mystic vision but whether this vision of evil or good, human or inhuman, is never explained.

      The modern novel in its tendency to be self-referential, or reflexive. In other words, the novel often is about itself. Melville frequently comments on mental processes such as writing, reading, and understanding. One chapter, for instance, is an exhaustive survey in which the narrator attempts a classification but finally gives up, saying that nothing great can ever be finished (“God keeps me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught-nay, but the draught of a draught. “O Time, Strength Cash and Patience” text as an imperfect version or an abandoned draft is quite contemporary. Ahab insists on imagining a heroic, timeless world of absolutes in which he can stand above his men. Unwisely, he demands a finished text, an answer. But the novel shows that just as there are no finished texts, or no final answers except, perhaps, death.

      Certain literary references resonate throughout the novel. Ahab, named for an Old Testament king, desires a total, Faustian, god-like knowledge. Like Oedipus in Sophocles’ play, who pays tragically for wrongful knowledge, Ahab is struck blind before he is wounded in the leg and finally killed. Moby-Dick ends with the word “orphan.” Ishmael, the narrator, is an orphan-like wanderer. The name Ishmael emanates the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament - he was the son of Abraham and Hagar (servant to Abraham’s wife, Sarah). Ishmael and Hagar were cast into the wilderness by Abraham. Other examples exist Rachael (one of the patriarch Jacob’s wives) is the name of the boat that rescues Ishmael at book’s end. Finally, the metaphysical whale reminds Jewish and Christian readers of the biblical story of Jonah, who was tossed overboard by fellow sailors who considered him an object of ill fortune. Swallowed by a “big fish,” according to the biblical text, he lived for a time in its belly before being returned to dry land through God’s intervention. Seeking to flee from punishment, he only brought more suffering upon himself.

      Historical references also enrich the novel. The ship Pequod is named for an extinct New England Indian tribe. Thus, the name of the ship suggests that the boat is doomed to destruction. Whaling was in fact a major industry, especially in New England. It supplied oil as an energy source, especially for lamps. Thus, the whale does literally “shed light” on the universe. Whaling was also inherently expansionist and “linked with the idea of manifest destiny, since, it required Americans to sail round the world in search of whales in fact. The present state of Hawaii came under American domination because it was used as the major refueling base for American whaling ships). Pequod’s crew members represent all races and various religions; suggest the idea of America as a universal state of mind as well as a melting pot. Finally, Ahab embodies the tragic version of democratic American individualism. He asserts his dignity as an individual and dares to oppose the inexorable external forces of the universe. The novel’s epilogue tempers the tragic destruction of the ship. Throughout, Melville stresses the importance of friendship and the multicultural human community. After that, the genres of science fiction, horror, and fantasy became very popular today.

Previous Post Next Post