Saturday, February 26, 2011

Christian Or Else

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville has many different themes and ideas scattered throughout the book. In Ray B. Browne’s book Melville’s Drive to Humanism the concept of humanism in respects to Moby-Dick are examined by Browne. He does this by critiquing using several examples and situations where Melville critiqued many aspects of society during his time, including religion. Melville does not come right out and say it put in different parts of the book he compares religions of two major groups; the white Christians and all others. The all others category can really be split into two subgroups, the Negros and the Pagans. Both are used by Melville to say similar things about religion. The first encounter that the main character Ishmael has with one of these groups is at the black church.

“It seemed the great Black Parliament sitting in Trophet. A hundred black faces turned round in their rows to peer; and beyond, a black Angel of Doom was beating a book in a pulpit. It was a Negro church; and the preacher’s text was about the blackness of darkness, and weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there,” (Melville 11).

This scene is only one paragraph of the story and can be overlooked. Browne brings up the comparison of this Negro church to the chapter “The Chapel”. He says that this is where Melville tries to get his thoughts of religion out to the reader. In the black church there were many attendees and in white’s few people attended. Also, in the white man’s church Melville said that everyone sat away from others to isolate their grief, whereas the blacks sat together becoming a unite (Browne 48). As Browne pointed out, although Melville does not clearly compare the two churches he definitely is comparing the two churches. I believe that how Melville represents the churches is how he symbolizes the whaling ship working. The blacks are mainly the crew of the ship, working hard and needing to be a unit to survive and get the job done; where the white men watch over in isolation leading the vessel. Browne enhances this idea with his critique of Father Maple and his actions.

“Maple comes in alone, not having used any man-made means of traveling in the storm. To have used such a conveyance would have been an admission by Maple that he had to depend upon his fellowman. As soon as he enters, he isolates himself from the congregation by climbing up to his crows-nest of a pulpit…The pulpit leads the world…The pulpit is the forward part of the ship as it plows through the sea and life. It travels blindly and unchanging (Browne 49).

In this analysis of Melville’s work Browne sees that the church and ship are being compared. Another thing that can be compared and are not opposites but almost two of the same is Father Maple and Captain Ahab. Like in the quote above when Browne said the pulpit is like the front of the ship, I believe a similar comparison can be made of Ahab and Maple. Browne said the front of the ship, “travels blindly and unchanging”. This sounds to me like a critique of the Christian religion. Maple leads a group of white men in a sermon praising the works of God and shaping the way the men believe blindly all because he is up in his pulpit. The same can be said about Captain Ahab, where instead of a church he has a ship and he leads these men with them trusting and following his commands. They both are in some way or another are acting to be a God-like figure. After scaring men they get them to follow their ways and do as they say. This could be said to be what Melville dislikes about religion.

Another tacit that Melville uses in the critique of American religion is the character Queequeg. He actually was in attendance for the sermon preformed by Father Maple and Melville is quick to point out that he left early. Almost to say that the Pagan, Queequeg, was fet-up with the preaching and had better things to do. “Queequeg is exactly the opposite of Maple. Puzzled by Maple’s hard-hearted Christianity, Queequeg is studying his god to see if he is of such nature. Instead of taking another man’s word about the nature of God, Queequeg is digging into the truth himself (Browne 62). In the chapter “Bosom Friend” Ishmael wrestles with himself asking questions about if he a Presbyterian could join this Pagan in a religious event with his god, Yojo. Ishmael does join Queequeg in the worship of Yojo in their room before bed.

He said, “So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol (Yojo); offered him burnt biscuit; salaamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our consciences and all the world.”(Melville 58).

In a way Melville in my eyes is saying that although the Paganistic religion can seem simple in its premise, it can also provide a good sense of one’s self. And after reading and learning about Melville that is one of the popular feelings on the interpretations of his religious outlooks. Browne would call in humanism and so would most people that are more intelligent then myself, but I would call it common sense. To me religion is not following a minister to shape God into what he thinks or wants it to be. It is believing in something that will benefit you as a person and if that means kissing a wooden idol before bedtime then more power to you and I think Melville would agree.

Browne, Ray B. Melville’s Drive to Humanism. Purdue Research Foundation. 1971.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Penguin Books. 2003.


  1. I found your ending a little sudden - maybe just because religion is such a loaded topic, I would have liked to see it unpacked a little bit more. That being said, I really thought your summary of Browne was pretty nimble - you compactly explain a fairly complicated argument, which is clearly related to one of the novels obvious central concerns: unity vs. isolation.

    One thing that bothered me was your argument (or was it Browne's?) that "Christianity" is being critiqued. The problem with that is that, while Q. is a pagan, the people in the "Black" church are not - in this novel as in the world, there are multiple Christianities (as there are multiple Islams and multiple Buddhisms...), and either you or Browne, or probably both, a little, are oversimplifying matters.

    That said, I think you did well with the core of this paper, and just could have done with a little more clarity toward the end.

  2. I would have liked to see more of a discussion of unity vs. isolation. You sort of framed the other religions around that idea and moved on to their significance, but I think you could do it more cleanly. It seemed like you didn't really know where you were going with the paper so kept putting down more thoughts, but that's pretty easy to clean up. I think you should talk more about the unity of Ishmael and Queequeg, and think more about why they are united in this Pagan tradition. And as far as the differences between the black church and white chapel, to what extent does race play a role, and what is the significance of different atmospheres/levels of unity in the Christian church. Like I said, these were all main ideas already, you just need to push them farther. Good luck :)