Sunday, February 27, 2011

Melville's Inversion

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick has been subjected to a countless number of interpretations. However, according to Fred Bernard, “currently Melvillean studies are awash with racial and ethnic interpretations” (Bernard, 1). Thus, it shouldn’t come as a sock that I found that a racial interpretation was most fitting of Melville’s Moby Dick: it is a novel that attempts to cast light unto “the dark”. Melville, with his signature metaphorical language, highlights the beauty of that which was unknown, misunderstood, underestimated, and undesired in the nineteenth century. Specifically, he criticized the ignorance that underlies racism and sympathized with African Americans, as they were the unknown and undesired in the nineteenth century; in Moby Dick the conventional norm—the white race as superior and more desirable to the black race—is challenged as Melville portrays the victimization of African Americans by Caucasians. Melville fails to find beauty or superiority in such cruelties of racism and slavery, both of which were norms in the nineteenth century.

Perhaps Melville’s Moby Dick is regarded as complex because it provides readers with, what I believe to be, an unusual perspective relative to the nineteenth century; he inverted widely accepted norms in an attempt to allow readers to experience what life is like on “the other side”. Melville reveals his sympathy for African Americans as he provides an image of Ishmael—someone who has not experienced what it it like to be African American—as he stumbles into a black church, in which the preacher discusses the trials and tribulations of being black: “It seemed the great Black Parliament sitting in Tophet. 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 the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there” (Melville, 11). Melville sympathizes with African Americans by showing his readers that being black is painful and is like being in hell on earth.

Melville uses land and sea as metaphors to challenge the conventional idea of black inferiority. He informs that the land, as it is greatly cherished, is overrated and should not be viewed as superior to the sea; the sea, which Melville frequently describes as dark or black, is too often underrated by landsmen due to their lack of understanding and exposure to its beauty. Melville writes: “But though, to landsmen in general, the native inhabitants of the seas have ever been regarded with emotions unspeakably unsocial and repelling” (Melville, 298). Thus landsmen’s distaste for the sea represents the white race’s distaste for blacks. However, Melville challenges this distaste by informing readers that although subtle and underestimated the sea is dominant; landsmen, however, are oblivious to the sea’s dominance: “For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life” (Melville, 299). Fred Bernard provides another example of Melville’s challenge of the notion of black inferiority, “Ishmael…betrays his own color by references ‘to a story of a white man’, ‘white seaman’, and ‘the white sailor-savage’, which contrasts strongly, for example, with his neutral reference to an ‘oarsman’ whom he singles out in a painting by Ambrose Louis Garneray, an oarsman who is in fact a black” (Bernard, 386-387).

Melville places emphasis on colors, particularly black and white, throughout Moby Dick. There is an apparent inversion of each color’s associative meanings: white is described as evil and impure while black is described as mystical and admirable. This inversion can be seen as Ahab expresses great hatred towards the white whale: “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him” (Melville, 178). Not surprisingly, Ahab, given his extreme hatred of the white whale, is frequently associated with positive descriptions of blackness, such as “the black terrific Ahab” (165). Moreover, Ahab is essentially the “rock” of the Pequod; he is respected, admired, and worshipped by all on board: “…Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe (Melville, 135). I believe that Melville uses Ahab to represent a force to end racism, as Ahab is adamant about hunting and killing the ferocious white whale. Stubbs, on the other hand, represents racism at its worst since he takes pleasure in belittling African Americans, specifically Fleece. However, I suppose Melville considered the force against racism to be superior to racism itself because Ahab is clearly superior to Stubbs. Although Stubbs was able to belittle Fleece, he stood no chance against Ahab; Ahab belittled Stubbs as he commanded, “Down, dog, and kennel” (Melville, 138).

Works Cited:
Bernard, Fred, “The Question of Race in Moby-Dick”. Massachusetts Review: A Quarterly of Literature, the Arts and Public Affairs. 2002. 384-404.


  1. Your summary of Bernard's article was fluid and interesting throughout; you were able to make your argument both interesting and personal without sacrificing the quality of the summary itself. I love your mention of the black boatman whose color isn't brought up explicitly - I may have known that at some point, but I've long since forgotten.

    Your argument that Ahab is a force for tolerance is interesting and worthwhile - you could easily write a much longer essay around that theme. Pay attention to his relationship with Pip, and where it leads! Also keep in mind, though, the tight equation between Ahab and Egypt (which might serve your argument) and between Ahab and power (which might, or might not). In any case, this is an argument well worth making.

  2. I like your interpretation (and I guess Bernard's) of race throughout the novel. The first question that popped into my head was this: You say that landsmen (or racists) were ignorant to the ocean (other races). Does this mean that sailors weren't? We see when Queequeg first tries to join the Pequod, he is turned down for his race. I guess the owners of the boat (not necessarily sailors) could be symbolic of something else - perhaps the businessmen who, once seeing races could be used lucratively, were literally or practically slave drivers. Interesting.

    I don't know how I feel about Ahab being a symbol of tolerance. I would be interested in seeing the argument play out, though. Here's a question - if Ahab is the force of tolerance, does his crazed search and cruel methods of such mean anything to your argument? Is this a symbol of something else, or is unrelated altogether?