Author Herman Melville was raised within a family steeped in Calvinist tradition and was experienced in a variety of Christian denominations by the time he reached adulthood, but was decidedly ambivalent in terms of his own religious beliefs (Pardes 12). It was perhaps this series of subtle changes in his beliefs that ultimately caused Melville to become slightly disillusioned with the constricting tenets of such a doctrine and made him a veritable religious nomad. As a good friend Nathaniel Hawthorne once stated of the author, it wasn’t that Melville was anti-religious but rather that “he can neither believe nor be comfortable in his unbelief…and, I think, [he] never will rest until he gets a hold of a definite belief,” (Elliot 168). Due to this indecisiveness Melville rarely spoke of his beliefs but this is not to say that his opinions are unknown; he instead projected his curiosities and criticisms onto the pages of his books so that “readers and critics must continue to rely to a large extent upon the words of the characters and narrators…for insights regarding…his religious beliefs,” (170). Melville’s Moby Dick is perhaps the paramount example of this translation of curiosity into fiction, whereby the author uses the troubled Captain Ahab to exemplify his darker and more malicious inner-wonderings, his vital criticisms of the Christian faith in which he was raised.
Essential to the critiques of Christianity in Moby Dick is the understanding that Melville portrays the whale simultaneously as God and Devil, mapping the progression of madness he feels is inevitable for a follower of the faith. Regarded at first as an object of ultimate mystery and reverence, the whale rapidly becomes the sole fixation of his follower thereby rendering him mad in his quest to “master what lies beyond possession” (Pardes 170). In this way, Melville views the influence of religion as an ultimately negative force that takes advantage of us at our most vulnerable and only serves to become increasingly evil the more we subject ourselves to its power. Melville then projects this opinion into the plot of his novel, having Captain Ahab himself progress down this line of insanity in his quest for the all-powerful Moby Dick.
Much as Melville viewed the objective of “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13) as an impossible yet desired feat, so too did whalers regard the capture of the great White Whale. While those members of the Pequod not as “wedded to a fiery whaleman’s ways” (Melville 225), metaphorically as religious, as Ahab held reverence for the whale but with an understanding that “it is a thing eternally impossible for mortal man to hoist him bodily into the air” (282) and that “there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like” (283). Ahab though, in his monomaniacal obsession to capture Moby Dick sees only the goal and not the maddening and impossible means by which he must achieve it. What Melville criticizes here is his opined root of the evils in Christianity; that it forces its most devout followers and believers to direct all of their resources, much as Ahab “yield[ed] up all his thoughts and fancies” (174), to attaining what is unattainable.
But there is much to be said about the fact that not all of the whalers aboard the Pequod fell victim to the same demented fate as Ahab. In Melville’s eyes it is not the objective of attaining Christ that makes Christianity evil in principle but rather its ability to exploit the vulnerable, those most in need of a purpose. Paradoxically it is the most compelling aspect of religion, its ability to “save”, that finally destroys those who seek it out. Though not much of Ahab’s past is known Melville details that he did indeed have a wife in Nantucket, leading us to conclude that he must have led some semblance of a normal life at one point or another. But like so many people of faith, Ahab finds himself vulnerable an in crisis after the loss of his leg and thereby turns to his “religion of rowing” (233) to aid in filling the void of this blow. What makes Ahab so vulnerable though to the clutches of religious madness is not the loss of his leg but the second injury he sustained at sea that severed his last ties to any life apart from his quest for Moby Dick. Critic Robert Zoellner speaks of this incident and the subsequent consequences by arguing that “Moby Dick indirectly struck at the most vital point of a relationship, which is the primary influence of [Ahab’s] old age” (92). Subjected time and time again to the cruelties of his life and now completely exiled from what must have been his last remnants of hope, Ahab found salvation in the one thing that promised to provide him with purpose. It is at this hour of extreme susceptibility that Melville feels religion begins to convert itself into a maladaptive habit.
When we utilize our religion as our paramount source of guidance and purpose, Melville feels that it is something by which we become possessed as if by the devil. Ahab is described, at times, in cursed and bewitched terms more than a few times throughout Moby Dick as even crewmembers like Ishmael speculate the possibility by stating “this Ahab that had gone to his hammock, was not the agent that so caused him to burst from it in horror” (Melville 174). Melville seems to say that the more religious we are, the madder we become.
A secondary and almost as potent evil of religion in Melville’s view are the politics by which they are governed. The promotion of false “messengers” of the word of god in this sense only serves to further corrupt the already consumed minds of the desperate followers, giving them false hope that attainment of their goal is near, driving them further insane when they yet again fail their quests. At times, Ahab comes to represent these religious leaders by driving the rest of his crew into believing what he preaches so “that at times his hate seemed almost theirs” (197). Ishmael admits to succumbing to Ahab’s powerful authority when he states “I must resign myself into the hands of him who steered the boat” (242), yielding him now just as susceptible to the poisoning nature of religion as Ahab after his tragedy. To Melville these leaders take with them not only those inherently vulnerable to the necessity for guidance, but also innocent minds which have no choice but to abide by their proclamations. This becomes especially relevant when considering the context in which Melville composed Moby Dick, a nation dominated by the Christian faith, not yet immune to it by the contradictions of science; in Melville’s time religion was indeed a spiritual and political force. They acted politically on the nation in a very similar manner to the structure of a whaling vessel, corrupt in their power so that leaders like Ahab “who believe [they have] the knowledge of good and evil…may act for the rest of [their] society” despite the falsity of their promises (Elliot 191). The potency of this power is evident in Melville’s language surrounding Ahab at his most crooked when speaking to even the most usually headstrong member of the crew “Starbuck’s body and Starbuck’s coerced will were Ahab’s so long as Ahab kept his magnet at Starbuck’s brain” (Melville 183).
But these leaders also suffer, they are more alone in their divine purpose than even the most loyal follower, and are in fact even madder than the rest of us. Ahab struggles with maintaining his isolation in much the way that Melville assumes a priest must suffer with his vow of solitude and abstinence. Opportunity for salvation from his monomania arises in the form of Pip and his devotion to the captain but Ahab pushes him away “because he fears that the…boy’s devotion will cure his madness” (Zoellner 100). Ahab knows that he is being driven insane by his quest for he has come close enough to completing it to know that success will be impossible without death as the final solution, but he nevertheless perseveres for fear that giving it up will render him more hopeless and vulnerable than before. Though Ahab certainly does not exemplify the author himself he comes to completely embody and complete Melville’s paradoxical argument of god becoming devil. Though he may have joined the whaling career with some form of respect for the creature, Ahab becomes increasingly frustrated and angered by his failed attempts to capture him so that “all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified and made practically assailable in Moby Dick” (Melville 160). What is most maddening about Ahab’s situation is that in search for a solution or an answer he turns to the very being that denied him fulfillment and caused him so much pain in the first place, an irony which can only mean that Melville determines that god is perhaps the root and cause of evil rather than the savior from it.
The evidence of Melville’s frustration with and criticisms of the power and evils of religion is overwhelming in the reading of Moby Dick, especially with a focus centered on the troubled Captain Ahab. Though it is unfair to determine that this is Melville’s singular and final view on religion (as he never did articulate this in direct writing), Moby Dick certainly explores the more dark and grim ponderings of the author. Upon examination of the actions and attitudes of Ahab, we find clues to the once silenced religious opinions of Herman Melville which undoubtedly aid in the reading of the novel as a whole and provide a platform for the reader to evaluate his own religious standpoint.
Elliot, Emory. ""Wandering To-and-Fro"" A Historical Guide to Herman Melville. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. 167-202.
Jones, Alexander. The Jerusalem Bible. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1966.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
Pardes, Ilana. Melville's Bibles. Los Angeles: University of California, 2008.
Zoellner, Robert. The Salt-Sea Mastadon. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973.