Sunday, February 27, 2011

False Hope

Throughout all of Herman Melville’s life, it seems that he has always had a special taste for adventure. From as early as age 1, Melville was exposed to the true thrilling story of the Whale ship Essex, which was attacked and sunken while Melville was a young boy. From that point, it seems like Melville lived a life on the sea; at age 20, Melville took his first voyage across the Atlantic Sea as a cabin boy on the St. Lawrence. Shortly after, Melville joined a whaling ship called Acushnet that would ultimately satisfy his desire for excitement and provide him with enough memories to write his first few novels (American). Melville’s strong desire to grow can be easily be seen throughout many of his novel’s, as most seem to be allegorical of his own life. For example, Moby Dick, one of Melville’s most well known novels, was originally intended by Melville to be a detailed account of his whaling experiences. However, after receiving precious feedback by Nathaniel Hawthorn, Melville decided to change the story into an allegorical novel instead. In Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael and the Pequod crew, ‘blindly’ follow their captain, Captain Ahab, on his journey to seek revenge on the legendary great white whale, Moby Dick. This “blind mob mentality” parallels the American Gold Rush, something Melville experienced in its entirely.

During Melville’s lifetime, the American lifestyle was changing rapidly. Melville witnessed not only the drastic decline of the whaling industry but also the rise of industrialism and the popularization of Manifest Destiny. Due to the recent development of the transcontinental railroad and transportation technology, movement to the West became a prominent theme in American culture. This migration Westward was amplified greatly when gold was found at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California (BooksWriters). This news caused a great influx of people rushing into California to cash in on the “gold craze.” However this promise of quick riches proved too good to be true as although gold was discovered, only a few lead to actual great wealth. Many gold-seekers, known as “Forty-niners,” experienced substantial hardships on the trip to California, only to come up empty handed and broken hearted.

Herman Melville was around for the entire gold rush and personally witnessed the floods of “lemmings” all following one another across the country. Melville’s depiction of the whaling industry seen in the journey and demise of the Peqoud is symbolic of the ups and downs found in the many superfluous mining communities. Captain Ahab and the Pequod crew’s adventure on the sea to hunt Moby Dick is a metaphor for the average American’s desire to push west and follow the Gold Rush (the gold being the whale). In fact, the entire attitude and outlook of the Gold Rush can be reflected in Ahab’s stubborn vengeance. In Chapter 37, Ahab finds himself talking to himself, daring anyone to divert or “swerve” him from his purpose, not even himself (183). Although Ahab leads his crew, his path is evidently “fixed [and] laid with iron rails” as he admits he has no control over his own behavior; his desire for revenge is so strong that even he no longer can justify it. This speech is so strong that Ahab uses this energy to persuade his fellow crew members to take part in his ‘journey’ in promise of money and adventure, even going as far as offering a “gold” reward for the first shipmate who sights Moby Dick.

Ahab’s empty promises used to entice his crew members to accompany him reflects the “empty promises” believed by many of the “forty-niners” lured across country with desires of wealth and riches. These groups were so attracted to the false assurances of wealth that they were willing to leave everything they had behind, in order to start anew. This is very similar to the Pequod ship crew, who all seem to leave everything behind, in order to risk their lives recklessly following Captain Ahab. They both seem to demonstrate the same mob mentality that tempts them to take such ‘dangerous’ risks.

Moby Dick can also easily been seen as representative to the Gold Rush from the other side, the environmental side. In both cases, mankind is venturing into unknown or foreign territory. In the Gold Rush, Native Americans were attacked and forced off traditional lands while intense gold mining caused great environmental harm. In Moby Dick, man was exploring into the vast unknown sea in order to hunt an animal in its habitat. It seems that in both situations mankind ended up seeing demise after ‘disturbing the natural balance of the world.’ Perhaps Melville was also showing his negative reaction towards the gigantic influx of migration west for such a “pointless” reason. It is very possible that the eventual demise of the Pequod is Melville’s way of foretelling the weary future of the many who left everything in order to chase a silly dream.

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

Biography: Herman Melville. American Experience.

Herman Melville (1819-1891). Books and Writers.


  1. That's not good research.

    And the gold rush? It's always seemed like a huge stretch to me. Obviously it happened in Melville's life, and there's not to expect it to be included in the range of his references. In fact, it's relevant to a trip he took on his brother's ship. That being said, the big problem with that sort of reading is it's looking for a metaphor at the expense of the literal: this is, in fact, a whaling story, obsessed with the details of whaling, and also demonstrably obsessed with a range of philosophical and religious problems. You do not at any point give any reason to think that the gold rush is an important topic in MD - other than the fact that Ahab offers a doubloon (not California gold, mind you - it's from Ecuador) as a reward. This was in a time when gold coins were an important form of money... In short, there's no research here and no evidence. Just speculation.

  2. I think your "gold rush" interpretation is creative and interesting, but a bit risky. If you plan to revise this paper, I think you will need to do much more research to support your argument. Your connection between Moby Dick and the Gold rush needs to be much more explicit and pronounced; you provided several similarities between the Gold Rush and the events in the novel but these connections are not well supported. Also, I think you could stand to provide more textual evidence from Moby Dick. This is a very intellectually stimulating paper though.