Friday, April 15, 2011

Final Project Proposal: Moby Dick as Religious Actant

For my final project I am going to continue and expand upon my previous revision of the blog entry originally titled “Melville’s Quest” ( I completed my first revision of this entry two weeks ago with a strict focus on Ahab’s actions and personality as a reflection on Melville’s own beliefs regarding religion. The resounding criticism of this revision was that my focus was too strictly confined to one character within Moby Dick while many of Melville’s characters in represent some sort of religious attitude. My initial apprehension was over the fact that I didn’t feel confident in my ability to address and adequately argue the portrayal of Melville’s religious opinions through multiple characters, though my first draft did feature an equal focus on Ahab and Ishmael. For my final project I would like to return to the original structure of this blog entry and grant equal importance to both characters as I feel they both represent significant portions of Melville’s ideals. Although there is some opportunity for the creation of an argument that contradicts itself, there is an importance in the fact that Ahab views Moby as primarily evil while Ishmael views the whale with fascination, in the fact that Melville seems to regard the whale and its representation of god or religion in general as simultaneously good and evil. As I’ve explained in previous blog entries Melville was very religiously curious and quite unsure as to where his level of belief and confidence fell, a confusion which is best represented in the clear conflict and paradox that exists between Ishmael and Ahab.

Using Kermode’s Chapter IV as a launching point, I would like to examine how Ishmael and Ahab are each individual actants of Melville’s conflicting religious views by approaching this analysis in much the same manner I already have. In doing so I would like to keep much of the material itself that I have already drafted on how Ahab takes on this role but perhaps remove some of the language which made my first revision so entirely negative so that there is some cohesion between the shift to Ishmael’s role. Even in my first entry I brushed aside Ishmael as a character who, although sharing many similarities with the author, simply wasn’t as interesting as the darker Ahab; with this project I would like to more formerly address the merits Ishmael has as a portrayer and representative of Melville’s more positive attitudes (because they do exist). To bolster these individual arguments I would like to more heavily discuss language surrounding the sea according to the character context in which it is presented, how the sea is sometimes portrayed as beautiful, clear, with a likeness to heaven while when identified with Ahab it becomes an environment full of fire, death and dismay.

Ultimately, however, the examination of how Ishmael and Ahab represent Melville’s religious views is inadequate because we are already aware from the beginning of the argument that we should expect such conflict within the novel. What is intriguing is the simple fact that Melville is capable of so seamlessly working this contradiction into his piece while still addressing both sides with equal importance. My final argument will focus on the view that, even with all the importance rewarded to the human protagonists, Moby Dick himself is the decisive actant in Melville’s novel, allowing him to simultaneously and concisely address his varying and discordant views without sacrificing cogency. The, perhaps slightly aggressive, claim I would like to make is that while whaling did play a significant role in Melville’s life, Moby Dick (the novel and the whale himself) is really a means for the author to explore his religious opinions in a fictitious context that would allow him to formally address multiple points of view simultaneously.

The counterargument here of course comes from the fact that I’m making a very severe claim that Moby Dick’s existence as a whale is not as important as his significance as a vehicle for Melville’s religious exploration. One might argue that whaling did in fact hold a more important position in the author’s life and that these religious discussions happened merely as a consequence of Melville’s fascination with the whale.

Works to be Used:

“Moby Dick”, Herman Melville

“The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative”, Frank Kermode

“Melville’s Bibles”, Isabelle Pardes

I have used this book in both the original entry and revision of this blog but solely within the consideration of Melville’s biography. There is one essay/chapter within this book that specifically addresses the character of Ishmael in Moby Dick which I plan to use as part of the foundation for my creation of the argument as Ishmael playing the role of actant.

“The Salt-Sea Mastadon”, Robert Zoellner

This is another book which I have used in the past revision, again with a more narrow focus on the analysis of Ahab. This book will also be used in the final project to address the role of the whale and its importance to Ishmael and Ahab along with, and more importantly, how the beast pertains to Melville himself.

“Herman Melville: Moby-Dick” Nick Selby

This is primarily a critical reading guide for Moby Dick, but a chapter titled “Formalist Approaches, Humanist Readings,” which addresses the many ways critics in the past have read the novel, brings up many suggestions as to what Ishmael, Ahab, and the whale mean and which of these forces is “the dynamic” or most compelling force in the novel. This source may not ultimately be cited in the paper but I have and will use it as a means to compare, contrast, and weight the various analyses of these characters.

“Melville: The Ironic Diagram” John D. Seelye

Another literary criticism, this work was mentioned within Selby’s critique as one which heavily touches upon the issue of the protagonists in Moby Dick within a religious sense. While there is a general overview of Seelye’s opinions, I plan to read a bit more in depth to his opinions of the religious importance of each of the characters I’ve mentioned.


  1. This is an excellent proposal, and I don't have any real criticisms. I do have a few thoughts which might push you in productive directions.

    1) While you by no menas need to address the role of Gnosticism/Zoraostrianism/Manichaeism in the novel, that is one possible avenue for research which relates to your topic.
    2) There is definitely a way in which you could frame this paper with some kind of reference to religion in America in Melville's time: the role of religion both for and against the abolitionist movement, the extraordinary role and influence of Quakers in the early US, the role of dissenting minorities/sects/cults (we do, after all, have a significant part being played by a kind of Shaker prophet). While you can't do everything, I do think, at the least, you want to spend a little time thinking about what Ahab's quakerism (at least his ostensible Quakerism) means.

    3) Melville's poetry is a good place to think about how his religious thought developed. The poems from Timoleon that I used are on example.

    Anyway, none of those are demands - just possible directions. This is a very promising proposal, and you don't need to follow any of my suggestions, by any means.

  2. I like this proposal and think it's very interesting. It may be helpful to discuss the paradox between Ahab and Ishmael using some of the other characters in the story to aid with the comparison. For example, you may wish to discuss Ishmael's relationship with Queequeg as a representation of one of Melville's positive attitudes, or something of the like.