Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Leviathan

Extract: “The great Leviathan that maketh the seas to seethe like boiling pan” (xli).

In my opinion, the preceding extract is a testimony of Herman Melville’s use of irony throughout the entirety of his novel Moby Dick. In the novel Melville uses irony in his discussions on such topics as race, religion, and class/status. For the sake of this paper, however, I will argue that Melville intended to use irony in his portrayal of Moby Dick and the sea. Many have speculated that Herman Melville intended for Moby Dick to symbolize God or some sort of representation of good and righteousness. My interpretation of Moby Dick’s role stands in stark contrast to these speculations; I believe that the sea and Moby Dick, as the whale is referred to as the Leviathan throughout the novel, represent evil, fear, darkness and punishment. Accordingly, I believe that Melville, ironically and blasphemously, portrays evil in aesthetic light. “The great Leviathan that maketh the seas to seeth like boiling pan” is an extract that alludes to Moby Dick’s role as the gatekeeper of Hell (Satan), as the sea functions as Hell.

It is easy to mistakenly interpret the whale as a symbol for God or good, since Melville frequently associates this creature with great beauty, admiration, mystique, and might; however, Moby Dick is generally associated with evil, fear, and destruction: “Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man’s soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form” (Melville, 204). Furthermore, Moby Dick is an aesthetic source of fear and darkness; he is not a good representative of God.

Moby Dick symbolizes Satan, the gatekeeper of Hell, and the sea represents Hell itself. Ironically, Melville uses aesthetic language to describe these dark concepts. For example, Melville frequently describes the beauty and allure of the sea, however, this same sea functions as a place where darkness resides:

Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began (Melville, 299).

Henceforth, the sea should not be seen as pure and magnificent but as glorified darkness. I believe that Melville, in a sense, places an aesthetic, alluring value upon this darkness yet he still testifies that it is inherently evil.

In our most recent class discussion the majority of the class believed that Moby Dick served to represent God, specifically in the chapter where Radney was eaten by Moby Dick. There was the belief that God (Moby Dick) avenged Steelkilt for Radney’s evils. I disagree with this notion; defiantly, Moby Dick functioned as the gatekeeper of Hell to punish Radney for his sins, “Radney was doomed and made mad” (Melville, 268). Steelkilt, on the other hand, was spared from this punishment as a result of his good-nature. The basis for my belief is the biblical portrayal of the Leviathan—a demonic sea monster that brings wrath; based on Moby Dick’s actions it seems more likely that he, the Leviathan, represents a source of torment and darkness. Additional irony kicks in when it is realized that this source of darkness serves to punish darkness/evil, just as Hell functions to do so. In conclusion, “The great Leviathan that maketh the seas to seeth like boiling pan” is an extract that alludes to Moby Dick’s role as the gatekeeper of Hell, as the sea functions as Hell.

1 comment:

  1. This is stylistically and aesthetically one of the better essays I've read for this class. Your argument, which pushes back against the class, has obvious and immediate merits. A more extended reading of the role of Leviathan in the Bible, and the way that he is used both in Psalms and in the novel, could make that case more clearly.

    While your evidence from the novel is somewhat limited, you do use the "universal cannibalism" of the sea to great effect; I'd be interested to see what else you can come up with.

    One thing that this essay doesn't get at (nor did our discussion class!) is what I see as a theme of *confusion* between the diabolical and the divine. You're making an initial stab at the case for seeing MD as evil incarnate; we've collectively gone through some reasons to think he's divine. A fuller analysis (which I hope to make on Tuesday), using material from the end of the novel, would try to deal with how this categories slip easily into one another. Also, you don't deal at all with the divine & demonic symbolism which also surrounds Captain Ahab; dealing with that seems like a prerequisite for finalizing the argument.

    Anyway, I thought your approach was good. A revision would need to deal with counterargments and with especially with Ahab (see also the last two pages of the novel, with the hawk and the sinking ship), and with Fedallah; in short, it would need to become more complicated, but this is a good beginning.