Sunday, February 27, 2011

Melville's Quest

Though raised within a family steeped in Calvinist tradition and experienced in a multitude of Christian denominations throughout his youth and early years of marriage, Herman Melville was decidedly nonreligious (Pardes 12). It was perhaps these experiences with varying sets of beliefs that ultimately led Melville to become disillusioned with the constricting tenets of such a doctrine and made him a veritable religious nomad. As a good friend Nathaniel Hawthorne once stated of the author, it wasn’t that Melville was anti-religious but rather that “he can neither believe nor be comfortable in his unbelief…and, I think, [he] never will rest until he gets a hold of a definite belief,” (Elliot 168). Due to this indecisiveness Melville rarely spoke of his beliefs but this is not to say that his opinions are unknown; he instead projected his curiosities onto the pages of his books so that “readers and critics must continue to rely to a large extent upon the words of the characters and narrators…for insights regarding…his religious beliefs,” (170). Melville’s Moby Dick is perhaps the paramount example of this translation of curiosity into fiction, whereby the author uses his two protagonists to exemplify his feelings towards religion.

Essential to the reading of Moby Dick as Melville’s metaphorical religious exploration is the significance and symbolism of the White Whale. Regarded at least by whalers, a set of followers or believers, as an object of ultimate mystery and with some degree of reverence, the whale acts much as a figure of deity would in some religions. This understanding renders the voyage of the Pequod and its quest to find Moby Dick a direct parallel to Melville’s quest for religious understanding and attainment of definite belief. The protagonists then act as the author himself, reflecting his doubts, fears, criticisms and general understanding of God through their respective understandings of the White Whale. Upon examination of the attitudes and actions of both Ishmael and Ahab, we find the once absent source of insight to Melville’s religious opinions.

Much can be said about Melville’s similarities to Ishmael, indeed many people believe that Ishmael is the direct translation of the author’s whaling experiences into his literature. While Ishmael, like his biblical correlate, has separated himself from the normal confines of living a sedentary life on shore so too had Melville separated himself from the heavily present Catholic Church of the nineteenth century (172), allowing them both the opportunity to independently examine their true set of beliefs. Ishmael personifies the more positive experiences of Melville’s earlier religious examinations; he enters the Pequod a novice eager to find “what the White Whale is to [him]” (Melville 198) just as the young Melville was so intrigued to build a better understanding of the God he was expected to obey in his youth (Elliot 175).

While the correlation of Ishmael’s experiences to Melville’s certainly has merit, it is the behavior of the more experienced Captain Ahab that reveals Melville’s later and darker thoughts and criticisms of a religious doctrine. Having spent years questioning without answer Melville did in fact become much like Ahab in his voyage to capture Moby Dick. As Nathaniel Hawthorne once stated of the author, “it is strange how he persists…in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts” (Elliot 168), a statement which gives Melville a strikingly similar appearance to the ivory-legged Captain Ahab shuffling across the deck of his vessel. Both of these men had the objective “to master what lie[d] beyond possession” (Pardes 170) and neither was content to act the way they were perhaps expected to. Ishmael accounts that “Ahab did not fall down and worship it [Moby Dick] like them…he pitted himself against it” (Melville 195) and it would be hard to ignore the correspondence to Melville’s unwillingness to accept the religion given to him until he captured its meaning. It is unfair, however, to say that Melville has placed himself completely within his character Ahab for he also uses the captain to exemplify those facets of a religion which he has found to be peculiar. In his “monomania” to capture and understand Moby Dick, Ahab has become full of a delirium that compels him to follow Moby Dick unquestioningly, perhaps representing Melville’s criticism of the unwaveringly devout follower of God who no longer has the ability to objectively evaluate what it is that they are following. And as the leader of the voyage Ahab projects this mania upon his crew so “that at times his hate seemed almost theirs” (Melville 197), pinpointing Melville’s criticism on the politics of religion; religions are structured in ways so that leaders like Ahab “who believe [they have] the knowledge of good and evil…may act for the rest of [their] society” and are thereby unjustly empowered (Elliot 191).

While it appeared that Herman Melville remained curiously quiet on the topic of religion, in reality he was anything but silent. With literature so rife with biblical reference, it would be silly to ignore the possibility that these characters are saying more than they do at the superficial page level and that they are, in their own adventures, a representation of Melville’s quest to religions understanding.

Elliot, Emory. ""Wandering To-and-Fro"" A Historical Guide to Herman Melville. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. 167-202.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.

Pardes, Ilana. Melville's Bibles. Los Angeles: University of California, 2008.


  1. This is a very nice entry into an extremely big and complicated territory. I'm particularly interested because I'm fascinated by Melville's religious attitudes (partially, no doubt, because I identify with them). I have only good things to say about your research, and about your initial entry into this topic. If you are interested in revising, I think I'd emphasize first that this topic is simply too big for a single essay - you would need to focus on some subset of the religious material in MD. I think your choice to contrast Ishmael's attitudes with Ahab's are a great start, but that you would need to embrace both characters in their complexity (Ahab's quaker origins, and Ishmael's initial identification with the biblical character of that name) in order to do so. Possibly examining both of their attitudes specifically toward Moby-Dick himself would be the right approach. In any case, this is a promising start for a revision, as long as you can find a good area to focus upon.

  2. I particularly liked the idea of comparing Ahab/Ishmael to Melville's own personal religious ideas. Your paper flows very well and it is very easy to see your stance and supporting view points. I'm personally not a very religious person but I can still relate to your ideas fairly strongly. This idea I feel is extremely intricate and could be taken in numerous other directions, which could make it a very good choice for future revisions. Overall, it reads very nicely and supports itself very nicely as well for a paper of this length.