Friday, March 18, 2011

The Albatross

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is a novel rich in symbolism and allegorical reference, all of which certainly have merit in discussing their significance and effect on the understanding of the piece. While imagery of the phantom and symbols of religion and fire are abundant, of particular interest to my reading was the more peculiar symbol of the albatross. While it is only mentioned eleven times throughout the novel, Melville’s manipulation and clever usage of the bird provides a further means of foreshadowing events to come.

The connection of the albatross to seafarers is perhaps not commonly known but is nonetheless significant and should therefore impact the reading of novel such as Moby Dick that takes place almost entirely on open water. Previously known as a goney bird, the albatross was given its name and subsequent symbolism by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In the seven-part piece, a troubled ship is one day stalked by an albatross which then brings the sailors good fortune:

“At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!”

So long as the bird followed the ship, the men were guided by “a good south wind” and no longer encountered the mist, snow, and ice they had struggled against early in their journey. As popularity of Coleridge’s poem rose, the albatross came to be a symbol of good fortune on the sea, a guide to safety for sailors in unknown and troubled waters. In chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Ishmael recounts “the first albatross [he] ever saw” (Melville 201) in what appears to be an insignificant, foot-noted anecdote. For the protagonist, it is the whiteness and mysterious regality of the bird that is most striking; He recalls that “it arched forth its archangel wings” and “as Abraham before the angels, I bowed myself” (201). Although this does not necessarily indicate that the albatross will become a bearer of good fortune throughout the novel, it provides even the reader unfamiliar with Coleridge’s work with a context of how to regard further references made to the bird.

The Pequod’s encounter with the Goney in Chapter 52, itself titled “The Albatross,” is Melville’s first true representation of the bird as harbinger of safety at sea. The boat itself bears a resemblance to the white bird that Ishmael revered so many years ago as it was “bleached like the skeleton of a stranded walrus” (252). Though manned by weary looking whalers “long absent from home” the craft is still described as one homeward bound and is guided by the same good wind that Coleridge hails the force of the albatross in his poem. With “the wind now rising amain” the Goney is pulled past the path of the Pequod while “shoals of small harmless fish, that for some days before had been placidly swimming by our side, darted away with what seemed shuddering fins, and ranged themselves fore and aft with the stranger's flanks” (253). Here Melville provides us with a more symbolic and humanized albatross that guides its sailors and signals to all nature around it to follow its kind hand and stray away from the terror that is the journey of the Peqoud. This meeting did not bring the Pequod any further luck because by so adamantly sailing away “round the world” Ahab has denied the safety and guidance the albatross provides; in this way Melville uses each encounter and denial of the albatross throughout his novel as a sign of increasing bad fortune for the Pequod as it delves deeper and deeper into Ahab’s madness.

Though brief, the next mention of the albatross in Moby Dick is one of the most significant as it marks the change from albatross as a good omen to one of a darker meaning. In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” the bird likewise comes to attain a more foreboding significance when a sailor aboard the ship decides to murder the bird with his crossbow, at which point he was burdened with wearing it around his neck as a reminder of their lost luck. After encountering a large typhoon and suffering some structural damage to the ship, the crew is still urged on by Ahab to continue their doomed voyage. Ishmael watches as “the shivered remnants of the jib and fore and main-top-sails were cut adrift from the spars, and went eddying away to leeward, like the feathers of an albatross” (547). This second denial marks the Pequod’s own metaphorical murder of the albatross, the casting away of whatever remnants of good fortune may have been with them. The old sails, which had guided the crew on a relatively safe journey, were tossed to the sea in favor of new ones marking the beginning of the most perilous stretch of the Pequod and the now bad fortune of the forsaken albatross. With a careful reading of Melville’s use of the word throughout the novel, we may gather from this symbolic sacrifice that the Pequod will never be guided safely to her home waters.


  1. There is an additional mention of an albatross in "The Chase-First Day" that is significant to the reading and supports my argument for the transition into the albatross as a bad omen but I was already over the limit. In a revision, however, I would be sure to include the final reference.

  2. This is a narrowly focused topic; it's of the ideal length and complexity for a 3 page essay, or even a revision thereof, and your execution seems quite strong from the beginning to the end. Lots of other people are doing good jobs on this one, but my one comment about yours is that it would be a good *model* for this essay for future classes, partially because the topic is so ideal for the length of the essay.

    A couple minor objections/questions: first, I thought it was odd that you didn't mention that Melville actually cites Coleridge. Length may have been on your mind, but that definitely belongs (and could lead you in all sorts of directions - for instance, you might ask whether Melville understands himself as, for instance, a Romantic, or maybe even anti-Romantic in some way). I also thought you could have had a stronger ending, although that's a minor complaint - that can certainly wait until a revision, if any.

    As an aside - I'm a strong believer (although I haven't written about it) that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a major influence on Melville's text, primarily on his portrayal of Ahab. Shelley herself was obviously influenced by Coleridge. This may or may not seem important, but Melville was getting his Coleridge both directly and indirectly, which seems like a starting point for *something*.

    Mostly, I want to see you do more interpretation - is the vision of the Albatross alone derived from Coleridge, or can we apply Coleridge more broadly to the novel, or perhaps to Ishmael's character?

  3. Your paper was really well organized and was put together great! I have no criticisms on what you wrote but I agree that in a revision it would be nice to see you analyze more examples of the albatross throughout Moby Dick and how it contributed to the flow of the novel. Maybe another aspect you could further analyze is when the bird was shot and why that happened and if you can blame all of the bad luck the crew encountered purely on the dead bird.