The story of Moby Dick is set almost completely at sea. The sea, however, provides more than the just the setting of the novel, but also plays an important role symbolically. Similarly, the land also plays a symbolic role in Moby Dick. Although it is not as much a presence as the sea, for obvious reasons, the land, and all that it stands for and symbolizes, is an important part of understanding Moby Dick.
Ishmael’s first discussion of land comes in the very first chapter: “But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.” (4) In this section, Ishmael is discussing landsmen who live in by the shore and look to the sea. In this description, it seems as if these landsmen are almost prisoners. They are “pent up,” “tied,” “nailed,” and “clinched,” trapped on land but looking towards the adventure the sea offers. When Ishmael goes on to discuss his own reasons for wanting to become a whaleman, it is clear that in the beginning, Ishmael does view the land as a sort of holding room. He is restless to leaves the confines of dry land and get out on the ocean, which provides a seemingly endless opportunity for freedom.
Ishmael goes on to criticize the land and its occupations when he discusses the importance and honor of whaling. He believes that to a true whaleman, the sea can provide the same simple comforts as the land: “With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.” (71) Even “out of sight of land,” the whaleman gain all the same ease from the sea as he would from land, rending the land less important that the sea, for the sea also provides a livelihood and home for these men. When describing the whalemen Bulkington, who at the beginning of the novel has just landed and is already eager to sail off again, Ishmael says “The land seemed scorching to his feet.” (116) This goes beyond merely saying that to whalmen, the land is less important than the sea, but also says that to a true whalemen, the land is that same prison it was compared to in the first chapter. Ishmael goes even further in criticizing the land when describing what it does to ships: “one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through.” (116) With this, the land becomes not only imprisoning, but actually dangerous.
In the final paragraph of this same chapter, the great ocean is compared to the highest of powers, God, while the land is compared to the lowest of creatures, the worm: But as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God—so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land!” (117) With this final image, it is clear that the land is to be considered inferior to the sea.
Other images appear later in the novel which also depict the land in a negative light. When Ishmael is talking about the blacksmith’s unfortunate past, he tells of how the mermaids of the sea cry out “Come hither! bury thyself in a life which, to your now equally abhorred and abhorring, landed world, is more oblivious than death.” (529) The land here seems unforgiving, constantly reminding the blacksmith of his life’s failures. Despite these many negative descriptions of land, Melville also portrays it in a positive light. Although the land is portrayed at other points at being “peaceful,” (590) “flowery,” (534) and “steadfast,” (605), the best positive description for the land comes in the middle of the novel:
Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? 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. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return! (229)
In this description, all land is an island, surrounded by the harsh, cannibalistic sea. This island is equated to the peacefulness of a man’s innermost soul, the only part untouched by the “horrors” of life.
Although these many descriptions of land, both negative and positive, seem contradicting, I think that they all portray land in perfect contrast with the sea, and thus set the land up as the sea’s symbolic opposite. The sea is portrayed as the superior to the land in almost everyway, even if the sea’s superior power means it is less peaceful than the land. Even the land’s greatest living being, the elephant, is directly compared to Leviathan, and found to be in every way inferior to the sea’s greatest beast. If Moby Dick can be seen as God, or at least as godly, then the sea would be his heavenly realm. This leaves the inferior land to be just what it is: earth. While the god that Melville portrays in Moby Dick, often through the whale himself, is certainly a vengeful and unforgiving god, this god is still far superior to anything that the land has to offer. The land may be a flowery, steadfast sanctuary of peace, but based on the entirety of the novel, Melville seems to believe that a life lived completely on land is not a life fully lived.
To go a little further, if we view the sea and those that inhabit it as being god-like in their power, then where does that leave the inferior land? I believe that in comparison to the godly sea, land seems almost human. Land, just like man, can have its positive characteristics. But land, just like man, can destroy things. Man can also be vengeful and unforgiving. Man can imprison, and man can be unwelcoming and useless. If the sea is everything god-like and superior, then why shouldn’t land represent the epitome of everything flawed and inferior to God: mankind.