Saturday, February 26, 2011

Melville's take on We, Civilized Folk

It is obvious that Melville has some ill feelings for the developed world – or at least the people of it. This is hard to put into general terms, as his opinions sometime shift depending on what exactly he’s talking about it, but using Typee and Moby Dick as references, I am finding his disdain for “enlightened” folk easily separated from his cryptic praise of “savages”.

In Moby Dick, Melville creates the image of Ahab as an unfeeling, unmoving mad-man. This is not singularly a plot-device meant to drive the Pequod to the edges of existence in search for a whale. I think Melville is commenting on the obsessive, cruel development of man as a product of perhaps greed, maybe even capitalism. Within the first few chapters of Typee, we are given numerous examples of militant take-overs and indulgence – most of which are at the expense of “savages”. In one instance of the French/Western powers asserting themselves on the Nukuheva Islands, we see “civilized” means of laying claim to the bay (inhabited by a more or less harmless tribe);

“Four heavy, doublebanked frigates and three corvettes to frighten a parcel of naked heathen into subjection! Sixty-eight pounders to demolish huts of cocoanut boughs, and Congreve rockets to set on fire a few canoe sheds!” More to the point (as later discussed), “Thus it is that they whom we denominate 'savages' are made to deserve the title. When the inhabitants of some sequestered island first descry the 'big canoe' of the European rolling through the blue waters towards their shores, they rush down to the beach in crowds, and with open arms stand ready to embrace the strangers. Fatal embrace! They fold to their bosom the vipers whose sting is destined to poison all their joys; and the instinctive feeling of love within their breast is soon converted into the bitterest hate.” (

Melville uses such instances of excessive domination in both texts. A scene from Moby-Dick that comes to mind first is one that we discussed in class – Ahab’s humiliation of Stubbs; and I quote, “’Below to thy nighty grave; where such as ye sleep between shroud, to use ye to the filling one at last. – Down, dog, and kennel!’” (Melville 126). Each of these incidents takes place on much different scales, but I believe the message to be the same. The madman Ahab has a lust for vengeance and the will to enforce his power over anything that may help him accomplish his goal. This is not but a stone’s throw away from the French’s invasion of the Pacific isle aforementioned. In the case of culture clashes, we see the piqued curiosity of new people with new ways and objects. It is sickening knowing that in history, tribes such as these fell victim to the unfair trades that were swindled past them, usually in exchange for valuable goods or even human beings.

Now, taking into consideration the context in which I have read Melville’s work, he undoubtedly is trying to say that we are in danger of losing humanity in exchange for plunder and self gratification. In the argument that explodes between Stubbs and Ahab, unnecessary insults affect the poor mate for the remainder of the story – extrapolating the idea; we see this harsh, undeserved punishment afflict the ship until its demise. Ahab exerts a mental advantage over the uneducated and submissive members of the crew and uses to his ends. Just as with the French’s exploitation of a weaker, less advanced tribe, Melville develops a theme that with great power is a great tendency to abuse it. More conventional, less excessive ways of accomplishing the same ends could very well have been used to realize a similar effect. In the non-fiction world, there is a lot of this behavior readily available for evidence. Tyrants and warlords have been replaced by dictators and collusion. Resources, once raced for in the age of imperialism have all been laid claim to, and are now held for ransom. America, quite frankly, has become the world’s capital for bigger, badder weapons – and the cojones to implement them. I find this theme very familiar (Marcuse).

In contrast to the controller, we see Mellville’s soft side for the controlled. He sings praises of Queequeg and the natives of Nukuheva, making their culture look like that of saints compared to the Christendom of invading forces (applicable to both cases). “There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits. “ (Melville 63). What does this mean in comparison? Melville, like Marcuse (sorry to harp on him) believes that returning to a more simple state, a state of real emotions, passionate traditions, and a quest for survival and self-fulfillment is superior to the contemporary world of bottom-lines.

On a side note, and I think this exists only out of favoritism, Melville believes the whaling boat to be a masterpiece of technology. Literally speaking, this would simply represent his life and his opinion on the matter. Symbolically, I easily seeing this idea being a definition of the way in which capitalistic expansion has taken on a mechanical and perfected methodology, lead by the war-pigs – or Ahabs.

Works Cited
Melville, Herman. Typee: A Romance of the South Sea (eBook). The Project Gutenberg. <>

Melvill, Herman. Moby Dick or the Whale. New York, New York: Crown Publishers. 1987.


  1. This is a more thoroughly developed essay than I was looking for - which is great, really. It just means you did more work than you probably had to. The connections between Marcuse and Melville are great, and are obviously a point which could be developed at length in a revision. At the heart of why this is good, though, is your clear understanding of the centrality of domination (Marcuse's word!) in Melville's thought. One question for you in particular (given your interest in Marcuse) is whether Melville captures the specifically technological character of domination in *Moby-Dick*; I'd argue yes, but the devil is certainly in the details.

    You might find Joyce Adler's book "War in Melville's Imagination" interesting. It's a straightforward analysis of the importance of war in his early work - which can be a great way into the more metaphorical nature of war & domination in *Moby-Dick* and in other, later works.

    Re: your last paragraph - Omoo, especially, is concerned with the way in which various capitalistic-"Christian"-Western institutions spread over the south Pacific in the wake of the whaling industry. In other words, I think you have the right take on the combination of literalism and metaphor here.

  2. Well, honestly it's a relief to see you say I did more than expected, because I thought I had done less.

    Maybe it's me, or even more likely, you've got a bigger plan that I'm just starting to see - but I find it really easy to relate all of the material we're reading. If I was right in my depiction of domination in Melville's work, I could easily write lengths of text about the connections and contrasts in Marcuse's and Melville's worlds, branching out into foreign affairs and natural resources, even.

    It's early, but I may have found my topic of revision already.