Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Oil = Light = Life

In class and for most people that read Moby-Dick a common question comes up all the time. What do the whales represent? To answer this question like we said in class could and is books upon books of materials. I’m not going to argue that whales in the book don’t mean some of the popular answers like God, the path of life, or the unknown. No, I’m here to say that Melville as a fisherman wanted to get a crossed to his readers that whales were like a new version of technology in the time the book was told and their oils brought a great good to the people. In the Extracts Melville put this quote by Fuller’s Profane and Holy State:

“The mighty whales which swim in a sea of water, and have a sea of oil swimming in them.”

I think one reason Melville added this in the Extracts is to call attention to not only the whale’s oil but the size of the whale. Whale oil was discovered to be a great fuel for light and was a major upgrade from using candles as the only source of light that was not the sun. I think people in our time can look past this idea of having little or no source of light. The discovery of whale oil provided the citizens and the whaler’s themselves ironically light. This allowed for more work to be done and the schedule of humans to not only be based on the suns patterns. I’m not trying to simplify the aspect of the whale in Moby-Dick; I’m just trying to bring attention to an angle that I feel is more literal and often overlooked in the great hunt to find the symbolic meaning. Someone had to at least write one entry on the benefits of hunting the whales. Melville’s description of some of the whale dissections can be a little harsh for the PETA members but, he does not mean to come off cruel and neither did the fishermen. Hunting the large whales was a job; a job that if done correctly could bring light back to the people. And with the stronger better glow the whale oil gave off people could in turn b enlightened with knowledge, reading and working later in the night. Although this entry was not the one dealing with Marcuse; I’m sure he would see my last sentence as a terrible thing and in turn would probably hate the idea of whale hunting. That is an argument for another day. I believe Melville saw the whale oil as a great invention, like the internet or something. Finally, candles and all their wax and dim dark light would no longer be the only source of light.

In Moby-Dick Melville’s chapter “The Lamp” helps explain my point that the whale was seen as necessity to kill for its oil so man could see. When the quote above said a sea of oil inside them, I think the point was to man the whale is so large and has so much oil killing it would help their society so much. For what other reason would Melville include a chapter about these oils that fuel lamps that is one if not the shortest chapter in the book. I think the actual shortness of The Lamp is symbolic of how readers, just as they do this chapter, skim over the meaningfulness of the whale oil.

“But the whaleman, as he seeks the food of light, so he lives in light….so that in the pitchiest night the ship’s black hull still houses illumination. He burns, too, the purest oil, in its unmanufactured, and, therefore, unvitiated state; a fluid unknown to solar, lunar, or astral contrivances ashore. He goes and hunts for his oil, so as to be sure of its freshness and genuineness, even as the traveler on the prairie hunts up his own supper of game.”

With the whale oil burning so bright and lasting so long it can guide the massive ship through the night on its voyage to get more oil. The last sentence of my quote, which is also the last sentence in the chapter, is the most important and powerful in my eyes. Melville says that a travel in the prairie that needs to hunt his own food whether it is deer, squirrel, or bird needs to hunt the animal for food. The traveler needs the food to sub stain life for not only himself but his family. Melville compares this needed of game for survival to that of the need for oil by a whaleman. This was actually shocking to me when I first read it. He is saying that in a whaleman’s eyes the whale oil is like supper. So in that thinking a whaleman would give up supper for light. I’m not saying this is wrong or right, I just wanted to bring this topic to the surface. The whaleman like Captain Ahab would give anything for the capture of the right whale. The whaleman seeks the food of light, as if it could sub stain life. I find his most interesting that Melville described them like this and makes me wonder if this was how it really was. They voyage on these ships knowing that the chances are already against them for survival, but the ships are always full. I believe that this is a way of Melville showing how important the oil was to not only society but the actual whaleman themselves. It may seem selfish, what some of the men do like Ahab, but I respect their drive to achieve what they sent out to do. Though Ahab’s case is very extreme, I feel the thousands of other whale ship captains and their crews set out to sea trying to get that oil. And maybe it was for them and the captain to feel good but the reality of it all is that the oil helped society in America. It brought light ashore and for that I respect each and every whaleman.


  1. I like that you wrote an essay on a very literal meaning behind the whale, its oil, and the whalemen. I think you should have talked more about the "technology" behind oil though, and more specifics behind the actual whale and the oil itself (based from the title of your essay). I think you talked about the whalemen and your opinions on them too much, at least more than what you needed to for the purpose of what your title prepares the reader for. So with this said, I think you need to make your argument more clear and consistent throughout the essay. I also want to point out that I think you should double check your paper because there was a good bit of spelling mistakes that threw off the flow of the essay.

  2. For me, the first few paragraphs didn't really go beyond repeating things I'd said in class about the economic importance of whaling. I'm not totally opposed to repetition when I understand its purpose, but I didn't really understand its purpose here.

    Here's another thing that gave me pause: "Melville’s description of some of the whale dissections can be a little harsh for the PETA members but, he does not mean to come off cruel and neither did the fishermen." This is the sort of claim that needs to be analyzed in detail, through passages, if you want to make it. Take the following passages from "The Pequod Meets the Virgin" as representative:


    His eyes, or rather the places where his eyes had been, were beheld. As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale's eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. but pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all. Still rolling in his blood, at last he partially disclosed a strangely discolored bunch or protuberance, the size of a bushel, low down on the flank.

    'A nice spot,' cried Flask; 'just let me prick him there once.'

    'Avast!' cried Starbuck, 'there's no need of that!'

    But humane Starbuck was too late. At the instant of the dart an ulcerous jet shot from this cruel wound, and goaded by it into more than sufferable anguish, the whale now spouting thick blood, with swift fury blindly darted at the craft, bespattering them and their glorying crews all over with showers of gore, capsizing Flask's boat and marring the bows.


    Are you really going to argue that Melville doesn't portray whaling as cruel? He may be portraying it as a *necessary* evil; he may see its cruelty as inevitable. But to say that he doesn't portray it as cruel in the first place is a huge stretch. This lack of attention to detail pervades this essay. There are many moments when you could be making good use of the text, either to extend your point, or to question yourself (as I do here), but instead you generalize, in a way which doesn't really advance any particular argument.