Friday, April 15, 2011

Beginning of Final Project (Draft): Hermeneutic foundations of Moby Dick

Hermeneutic foundations of Moby Dick

Herman Melville’s highly praised nineteenth century novel, Moby Dick, encompasses a spiritual interpretation that can be explained in terms of hermeneutics—a philosophical term that Frank Kermode explores in his book entitled The Genesis of Secrecy: on the Interpretation of Narrative. According to Kermode, a spiritual reading of texts emerges only when “Our divinatory powers grow as the primary reading, carnal, manifest—the one most obvious to the first readers—loses its compelling its compelling force, its obviousness” (Kermode, 10). A carnal reading of Moby Dick will portray a whaling crew that embarks on an a voyage in search of a whale that will bring great economic profit, but a spiritual reading of the novel will reveal that Melville performed a biblical midrash using especially the Book of Job; thus the spiritual meaning of Moby Dick “[emerges] in historical circumstances quite unlike those in which the oracle spoke” (Kermode, 1).

Specifically, Melville performs a biblical midrash in which he warns against modern day rousing of leviathan—the demonic sea creature that is repeatedly spoken of in the Bible; “Such midrash presupposes belief in the continuing relevance of Old Testament texts, a relevance that is brought out by remolding it, and setting it in a new narrative context , where it will enhance the truth and power of the doctrines…The basic assumption is that the present is the end-time, when all the figures and prophecies will be fulfilled…” (Kermode, 82-83). In a spiritual sense, Melville is attempting to illustrate one of God’s key proclamations, located in the Book of Job, that man should exercise humility as opposed to pride and that no man, no matter how rich, is above the works of God: “Do you have an arm like God’s…look at every proud man and bring him low, look at every proud man and humble him (New International Version Bible, Job:40).

Given that Herman Melville practiced Puritanism, it is very likely that his biblical midrash through Moby Dick was developed with biblical/Christian typology in mind. Jonathan Cook, in his essay entitled Christian Typology and Social Critique in Melville's 'The Two Temples' describes the term Christian typology as a hermeneutic tactic and explains that it was widely utilized by nineteenth century Puritan authors; Melville’s practice of Puritanism possibly inspired his midrash in Moby Dick:

As a key hermeneutical technique in both the composition and later interpretation of scripture, Christian typology was premised on the assumption that the New Testament was the fulfillment of the Old, and thus a number of representative individuals, objects, and events in the Old Testament, designated "types," were duplicated and superseded by corresponding "antitypes" in the life and ministry of Christ…Typological symbolism was pervasive in Puritan religious writing, history, and poetry, and it continued to influence nineteenth-century American authors grounded in Puritan theology and its traditions of biblical interpretation (Cook, 6).

Thus, many characters that appear in Moby Dick may be attributed to Melville’s use of Christian typology. For example, the prideful Ahab represents the antitype of Job; Pip with his abundant humility can be seen as the type of Job. Additionally, the fearsome yet aesthetic Moby Dick represents the type of Leviathan, as it is described in the bible: “Nothing on earth is his [the leviathan] equal—a creature without fear (Job 41:33). Accordingly, Melville portrays Moby Dick in such terms: “He [the White Whale] is without doubt, the largest inhabitant of the globe; the most formidable of all whales to encounter; the most majestic in aspect…” (Melville, 149). To be continued...


New International Version of Holy Bible

Herman Melville. Moby Dick. New York, NY: Baronet, 1990.

Kermode, Frank (1979), The Genesis of Secrecy: on the Interpretation of Narrative, Cambridge, Mass.; London, Harvard University Press.

Cook, Jonathan A. “Christian Typology and Social Critique in Melville's 'The Two Temples’” Christianity and Literature (2006): 5-33.


  1. I am largely on board with this introduction; since it's pretty compact, I don't have a great deal to say - just two main comments, really.

    1) While I think this argument is workable, I'm always in favor of pushing people to be more specific. If this is a Midrash, primarily on Job, urging humility, what is his specific target? A midrash applies an old text to a new world (my words, not Kermode's!). What, then, is the meaning/purpose/role of this specific variety of humility in Melville's world (or, alternatively, you might do some midrashing of your own and apply it to ours.

    2) "Herman Melville practiced Puritanism" This line is a serious error. My flawed recollection says that he was brought up within the Dutch Reformed church, but his father was, I think, a unitarian; I may have the details of his relationship Unitarianism slightly off. Regardless, saying that he was a Puritan (a claim which arguably is impossible in the 19th century, since Congregationalism had long since ceased to be the same as what we think of Puritanism today.

    Anyway, my point is that you need to get the details right, if his personal religious beliefs and background are relevant to your essay - read the relevant sections of a biography.

  2. I like this start and your topic is interesting to me. I would ask for a clear explantion or interpretation of the Book of Job because not everyone has read it and I think it could pose confusion problems for some. Also, when you say this is a midrash I want to know why you think so. I wrote any entry on midrash so I feel that might be a reason I am attacted to the term in your intro. The arguement that Moby-Dick is a biblical midrash is an awesome topic and I think you could write a really nice paper on it.