Sunday, February 27, 2011
During our reading of Moby Dick, I have noticed the stark changes in narration between the chapters. The novel begins with Ishmael’s account of Nantucket and the ships, but he quickly moves on to chapters entirely consisting of description and his witness to the going-ons aboard the ship. He is less and less relevant as a character in the plot as he takes on his role of narrator and informer. That he describes himself as a teacher seems a matter of convenience for Melville’s lesson chapters (such as cetology). But because Ishmael seems to take on such an expansive role as the sailor, thinker and teacher, his true nature is questionable. So then, who is Ishmael?
Thomas L. Dumm was concerned with Ishmael’s role and its evolution throughout the book. In his article “Who Is Ishmael?” Dumm both discusses Eyal Peretz’s analysis of Ishmael and presents his own theory. He describes Peterz’s argument as a relation of Ishmael to the lonely survivor who is merely giving his testimony. Dumm then goes on to make the argument that Ishmael is actually Pip, the black, fearful ship-keeper who hardly displays sailing ability and is more of a burden on the boat than helpful. He uses Ishmael’s views into the captain’s quarters and dining room and also his high regard for Pip as the most important sailor on the ship as his reasoning for this argument.
Ishmael does share characteristics with Pip. His name, as Dumm discusses, is a link between the two men. According to Dumm, in the bible Ishmael was Abraham’s illegitimate son born to his slave, Hagar (Dumm 401). He argues that Pip created Ishmael and chose this name for himself as a disguise to share his testimony because of this biblical connotation because Pip is the slave of the ship. His argument is plausible, because they do share many similarities such as this and as Pip he would have access to the quarters of the ship forbidden to the average sailor. But Pip is not the only character that Ishmael shares strong connections to. He has insight into the thoughts and emotions of many other characters as well.
I would argue that Ishmael is Pip, but he is also a piece of all of the characters. He is the conscience of the ship. When Captain Ahab walks among the ship, always thinking, Ishmael seems to share insight with him and understand his anxious desire to catch Moby Dick. When Ishmael sees the captain thinking, he is thinking as well, and analyzing the captain’s pacing on the ship. While Pip would have time to observe the captain, he could not definitively know of the pressing anxiety. Pip seems also to be a more simple character, so even if he constantly watched the captains mannerisms and observed the madness that the whale was driving him towards, he would not have insight into his thoughts to understand that Moby Dick was the sole source of this madness.
When Elijah ominously enters the text, he forewarns Ishmael and Queequeg of a danger that comes with boarding the Pequod. He is speaking of Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick that we learn about after the ship has already sailed. In this instance, Elijah represents Ishmael’s own fears that he cannot acknowledge on his own. When Elijah comes, Ishmael quickens his pace and tries to escape him, as if he is escaping his own questioning of his destiny aboard the ship. But while he externally seems to ignore Elijah and deems him a mad fool, the warning lurks below. He has constant anxiety awaiting Captain Ahab’s ascent to the deck, always in fear of what is unknown. Ishmael sustains a connection to Elijah through his suspicion, and so he is also a piece of him.
In all of his roles, Ishmael is an observer. He watches and analyzes the interactions of the sailors and relays through his narration those interactions of significance. He is always listening and watching because he is all of them. He is Pip, but his is also the captain and Elijah. He is also Queequeg and Starbuck. He is the soul of the Pequod and all who sail it.
Dumm, Thomas L. “Who Is Ismael?” Massachusetts Review, Sept. 2005, 46:3, p. 398-414. https://sslvpn.pitt.edu:11019/ehost/results?hid=112&sid=6d5621e4-ffb4-4df4-9d03-83f03ac12417%40sessionmgr113&vid=1&bquery=(SO+(The+Massachusetts+review)+AND+(Who+%22is%22+Ishmael)+AND+DT+2005+AND+AU+(%22Dumm%22))&bdata=JmRiPWFwaCZ0eXBlPTAmc2l0ZT1laG9zdC1saXZl
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Penguin Group, 2003.
One aspect of Moby Dick that clearly stands out to the reader is Melville’s ample use of scientific description to help tell the story of the White Whale. Melville devotes several chapters to classification and descriptions of whales as well as to detailed descriptions of the processes of whaling. I believe this use of science is an important part of Moby Dick, and that in trying to understand the novel, it is helpful to put it in a scientific as well as historical perspective.
In his thesis “He Gives Us More Besides: Reimagining Moby Dick as a Work of Science,” Nathaniel R. Young makes “an attempt to explore Melville and Moby Dick as a work of natural history, a work informed by the science of the day, which gives us more besides.” (Young 8) His introduction and first chapter give a short history of Melville’s education as well as a detailed analysis of Melville’s work put in the context of natural history. The second and third chapters elaborate on his argument, but are not as relevant to my argument. In reading this thesis, it is clear that Melville was influenced by the scientific studies of that time period, and that this influence should have an effect on how the reader understands Moby Dick.
In his introduction, Young compares Herman Melville to Charles Darwin, emphasizing the difference between Darwin’s desire to continue his education and Melville’s desire to “forge his spirit in the crucible of worldly experience.” (Young 4) I believe this strong desire of Melville’s to see the world, even if it meant taking a job that some might have considered below his station in life, is important to reading Melville’s descriptive sections on whaling. Melville believed in the power of experience; as a writer, I’m sure he wanted to convey this power to his readers. He achieves this through his detailed descriptions in chapters such as “The Line,” “The Dart,” and “The Crotch.”
To an author like Melville, these chapters are not merely filler in a story about a whale, but are an attempt to more deeply involve the reader in the story. If the reader can imagine himself in a whaleboat as it is about to take a whale, then the story of Moby Dick will certainly be more powerful. This fact seems obvious, but I think it is particularly important in understanding Moby Dick because Melville puts so much time and effort into these descriptions. It seems that Melville did not want to leave any room for terms and events related to whaling to be misunderstood or misinterpreted. It is important that the reader does not skip or skim these sections just because the information they convey does not seem to be directly related to the plot; this information is meant to enhance the reader’s understanding of the plot.
Another important point that Young makes regarding the use of description in Moby Dick is that Melville’s description of whales closely follows scientific descriptions of species in contemporary natural history texts. (Young 26) Young specifically cites the works of Androvaldi, Gesner, and Jonston, and lists eight topics that these scientists used to describe life: the origins of the animal’s various names, the animal’s habitat, the animal’s physical features, the animal’s general temperament, the animal’s use as a food or medicine, a description of how to eat the animal, specific medicinal uses for the animal, and the animal’s presence in human society. Examples of all of these categories can be found in Moby Dick. Many, including the full description of the whale’s name, physical appearance, and character can be found in “Cetology.” The whale’s use in food and medicine can be found throughout the descriptions of whaling’s importance or in “Stubb’s Supper.” Lastly, several chapters are dedicated to evaluating representations of whales in art, including chapters LV, LVI, and LVII.
Young shows through his analysis that Melville was following a pattern of description when he wrote Moby Dick. Although Melville was not really educated as a biologist, Young argues that he was aware of scientific descriptions of species, and would have thus been aware of what details would have been considered worth describing. (Young 25) Again, I believe Melville is trying to help the reader experience his encounters with whales through these precise and detailed descriptions. I also believe this is why three chapters are dedicated to evaluating images of whales in contemporary art; Melville wants to warn his readers that not all images are accurate, and that the best likenesses are made by men or women who have actually encountered a live whale. Without a clear picture of a sperm whale in one’s mind, it would be extremely difficult to imagine how terrifying a whale the size of Moby Dick could be, which is why, once again, it is crucial that the reader does not skip or skim chapters such as “Cetology,” as these chapters are so important to a full understanding of the story.
As Young describes it, “Moby Dick is a novel whose breadth and depth conspire to continually challenge the motivated reader.” (Young 9) Melville includes a scientific description of whales and whaling to help the careful reader reach a higher level of understanding through a deeper knowledge of relevant information.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick, or, the whale. Public Domain Books, 2009. Electronic.
Young, N.. He gives us more besides: Reimagining "Moby Dick" as a work of
science. Diss. University of Wyoming, 2010. Dissertations & Theses: FullText, ProQuest. Web. 27 Feb. 2011.
Melville’s father, Allan Melvill, a charismatic import merchant married his mother, Maria Gansevoort, in Albany. They promptly moved to New York City where Allan considered his prospects to be bright in a letter to his father in 1820. In actuality, Allan’s “yield from his talents was meager” (Delbanco 20). He spent most of his time fighting off creditors for the money he couldn’t repay and begging for more money. In an industrializing business where “good taste and personal charm counted for less than the ability to anticipate rising markets” (Delbanco 20) Allan’s charm was becoming only helpful in digging himself and his family into more debt. The family, however, seemed unaware of the increasing difference between the money they owed and the money they had. Allan lived well beyond his means employing numerous servants and other extravagancies. Not only was their home filled with housekeepers and cooks, but the family also moved through a string of house, the next greater than the last. As they moved from house to house they distanced themselves from their original home on the waterfront, “he was losing touch with the source of his livelihood” (Delbanco 23). The family ends up running from the debt collectors to Albany, where Allan took a job as a clerk in a fur store. Still buried in debt, Allan takes a trip to New York to try and pacify the collectors. His trip home goes awry and Allan spends most of the trip back in an open carriage and ultimately ends up crossing a frozen river to be united with his family. This trip ends up being Allan’s downfall. With their father’s death, the family’s fantasy of being well-off, which had already started to crumble with the move to Albany, is completely disillusioned. Herman is taken out of his prestigious schools, which the family can no longer afford, and his family tries to get him to take job after job. Herman felt disappointed and exasperated at his situation. He started high in society, being educated in the hopes of a bright future, to have it all taken away by his father who was so entrenched in his own society that he became engrossed in the social ladder until it literally consumed him. Frustrated with the supposedly Christian society who built his family up and then tore them down again, Herman takes to the sea. Herman’s opinion about civilized society, most evidently the Christian society, is influence by his past. This is represented in the comments on Christianity in Moby Dick. In many instances Ishmael blatantly expresses his doubts in the Christian ideology. For example, after he decides Queequeg is harmless he thinks “Butter sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian” (Melville 26). Here Ishmael calls attention to the misconception that that just because someone is a “Christian” it makes them a good person. Queequeg also notices the inconsistencies of Christianity when Ishmael realizes he left the sermon early. One of the largest statements Melville makes on Christianity is by explicitly pointing out the irony in Quaker whalers. The idea of the most peaceful sect of the religion making up the majority of the bloody business is a critique on the religion itself. Ishmael and even Queequeg call attention to contradictions in Christianity.
His first voyage from New York to Liverpool lasted about three months. Herman described this journey as the “first time in his life that he was neither pampered nor pressured by adults who had place high hopes in him” (Delbanco 29). Herman spent time on land for a length of time, but the sea was calling him and this time he set off on a whaling expedition on the Acushnet. After six months at sea, Herman found himself in “indulgent captivity” (Delbanco 41) in the Typee Valley. Herman perceived the inhabitants, who were rumored cannibals and covered in tattoos, as reasonable and, in the case of the women, doting and attentive. During this period Herman started to form a lot of his opinions about foreign cultures and the light they are viewed in back in America. He began to see “not of one universal form of civilization but of plural civilizations–thereby acknowledging no singular means of organizing life” (Delbanco 55) and recognized his captives’ way of life not only equal in its right to exist parallel to our civilized society, but he went so far as to say that it may be a superior way of life. One of the opinions during the time that Herman agreed with was the infantile eloquence of the savages’ language. Emerson noted that, “As we go back in history, language becomes more picturesque, until its infancy, when it is all poetry” (Delbanco 54). Emerson likens the guttural grunts of the cannibals to verse, an idea that Herman fell in accordance with believing that “Civilization, in other words, comes with a price: it weakens the imagination” (Delbanco 54). Herman’s view on savages is reflected in Moby Dick through Queequeg. During Ishmael’s first encounter with Queequeg he is unsure of how to react when he comes in the room and is frightened that Queequeg is trying to kill him. This response represents how civilized society perceives savages – they do not understand them so they fear them and such fear leads to rash conclusions. With Queequeg settling down and offering Ishmael half of the bed, Ishmael comes to realization that “the man’s a human being just as I am” (Melville 26) which is a more apt representation of Herman’s opinion about cannibals in general. Queequeg’s likable characteristics continue to demonstrate themselves when Queequeg gives half of all the money he has to Ishmael. This exhibits Queequeg’s loyalty to Ishmael and acts a contract of their friendship. In another scene where Ishmael and Queequeg are talking in bed they discuss Queequeg’s experiences with society so far. Queequeg speaks of the wickedness he’s seen in the whaling industry and says “it’s a wicked world in all meridians; I’ll die a pagan” (Melville 62). Here it becomes apparent one of the main reasons Ishmael and consequently Herman view the cannibals in such a good way, they perceive other cultures and learn from them but they don’t try to assimilate the other culture into their own. Herman may even connect this thought with the plights of his own family, believing if they had lived in a savage community the social pressures wouldn’t have driven his father to the brink. For being an “uncivilized cannibal” Queequeg is portrayed as rational, understanding, and loyal as opposed to the “civilized Christians” who are walking contradictions to their own doctrines.
Herman’s familial history and time with the savages affected his opinions about society. These opinions are echoed in Ishmael’s observations and actions around society and cannibals and speak to a different way of thinking that cherishes the tolerance and consistency of the savage way of life.
Delbanco, Andrew. Melville : His World and Work. Alfred A. Knopf Incorporated , 2005. eBook.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Penguin Group, 2003. Print.
Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819 in New York City and is best known for his novel “Moby Dick.” He was born into a country where the relics of aristocracy were fading, and Melville himself was an example of one of those relics. His paternal grandfather was an honored participant in the Boston Tea party and his maternal grandfather was a decorated general in the Battle of Saratoga. Herman’s father Allen; however, struggled financially to support his family and eventually filed for bankruptcy after his business failed. Melville’s once prosperous and decorated family had fallen into bankruptcy within only a couple generations. This forced Herman Melville to find his own way in life without the support of his family. This led him towards numerous adventures at sea, which may have been therapeutic for him.
“Moby Dick” is one of Melville’s novels where the idea of being independent is presented. The main character, Ishmael, states in the beginning of the book that “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is dam, drizzly November in my soul;…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” (Melville, “Moby Dick”)
It appears from this passage that going to sea is almost like a sort of therapy for Ishmael. It seems to me that Ishmael is feeling very depressed, perhaps almost suicidal in the beginning of the book. He doesn’t give any insight into what may be the cause of his bad feelings, but it seems that going to sea is the only therapy that can cure his illness.
This may have been how Melville felt during his early adolescence, when he was coming to terms with the financial condition that he was in. Herman was 12 years old when his father died and left his family penniless. Although Herman was able to study the classics for a couple of years, his time in school was interrupted and he felt compelled to support his family financially. I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to assume that at this point in his life Melville may have a little like Ishmael felt in the beginning of “Moby Dick;” although, Melville may not have been aware of the fact that a voyage out to sea would be the solution to his problems.
Another instance where Melville gives us insight towards is feelings about going off to sea is in his novel “White Jacket,” which is partly an account of the times Melville spent as a sailor in the United States Navy aboard the USS United States. There are many similarities between “Moby Dick” and “White Jacket” including the symbolism of the color white and the adventure of going to sea. Another similarity is the main character’s disposition towards life at sea.
Oh, give me again the rover's life — the joy, the thrill, the whirl! Let me feel thee again, old sea! let me leap into thy saddle once more. I am sick of these terra firma toils and cares; sick of the dust and reek of towns. Let me hear the clatter of hailstones on icebergs, and not the dull tramp of these plodders, plodding their dull way from their cradles to their graves. Let me snuff thee up, sea-breeze! and whinny in thy spray. Forbid it, sea-gods! intercede for me with Neptune, O sweet Amphitrite, that no dull clod may fall on my coffin! Be mine the tomb that swallowed up Pharaoh and all his hosts; let me lie down with Drake, where he sleeps in the sea. (Melville, “White Jacket”)
From this passage it appears that the narrator in “White Jacket” and Ishmael share many of the same feelings towards life at sea. They both seem to be sick of life on land and are drawn to the ocean in search of adventure. There is also a similarity in their views towards death. While Ishmael appears to be near suicidal in his desire to set sail, the narrator in “White Jacket” doesn’t seem to be depressed at the moment, but appears to have no trouble with the thought of dying at sea.
In both “Moby Dick” and “White Jacket” the narrator seeks an adventure at sea in order to escape the despair that he feels on land. I believe that these similarities can be explained by the difficulties that their author, Herman Melville, experienced during his life and the reprieve that he must have felt while he was on board a ship.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick Or, The Whale. New York: Penguin Group. Print.
Melville, Herman. White Jacket.
"Herman Melville." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 27 Feb. 2011
“The racial community of mankind, to which the individual owed not only his physical existence but intellectual and ethical values, was always supplemented by the social community in which the individual lived,” (37). People learn through experiences with other individuals, and society as a whole, on what is acceptable behavior and sometimes emotions and thoughts, just like we discussed with Marcuse. “Some virtues a man may acquire in solitude – such as, perhaps, self-reliance, truth, benevolent goodness; but he cannot acquire charity, love, beneficient goodness” (49). Those who refuse to become a part of society will only partially develop; they will become self-centered and narrow-minded as well as someone looked down upon from the community.
“Sailors, often presented unflatteringly by Melville, are what society and their circumstances make them” (37). Society and interaction with other individuals helps to make us who we are. This is the nurture spectrum of the nature vs. nurture argument. “But enough can be suggested to show that the individual, in Melville’s opinion, was to some extent limited by …a force which was evil rather than good” (39). This could probably go hand-in-hand with the possibility that Melville sees people as naturally dark or evil and that we are socialized to be good, as seen on page 60 where Ishmael states that man can only feel his true self when he closes his eyes. Ahab’s demeanor could be explained through the fact that he refuses the company of society and was therefore not socialized to be good. Instead, he is completely centered on one goal. In his eyes, this may be determination and passion while society may believe this to be insanity.
“‘Nothing can lift the heart of man Like manhood in a fellow man’” (37) is a quote used by the author from one of Melville’s Civil War poems. This could explain the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg. Although it has been argued in class that their relationship is sexual, another argument could be that they simply depend on one another for comfort. “But despite all Melville’s awareness of the evils and inadequacies of society and civilization, he knew that the individual’s physical and spiritual welfare is by no means independent of the social group” (37). Ishmael was in a very deep depression before he met and found companionship with Queequeg. Queequeg, on the other hand, could have a close relationship with Ishmael as a result of his upbringing: “In Typee [Melville] had applauded the ‘instinctive feeling of love’ in the breasts of the natives, who among themselves ‘appeared to form one household, whose members were bound together by the ties of strong affection.’” (47). Queequeg could have become close with Ishmael as a result of being away from his home culture and wishing to reconnect with it.
The article discusses the absence of society for certain characters by explaining how Melville believed in relationships between people: “Melville had opposed the transcendentalists’ approval of solitude and self-reliance by revealing the distortion which accompanied the individual’s arrogant separation from his fellows,” (49), and “Melville could believe that although man can not rely upon Nature he may (or must) rely upon mankind.” (43). The author goes on to argue that Melville demonstrates this with the individualists within several of his works. Ahab is a major individualist; he keeps to himself, he is in constant deep thought, he remains in his cabin for long periods of time, etc. He refuses to create any ties to anyone on the Pequod. Ahab’s individualism led to his demise, even though we have yet to cover this part of the novel.
I agree with the author in saying that society and relationships have a large impact on who we are or become. Like the saying, “choose your friends wisely”, we learn how to behave and think according to our surroundings and relationships with other people. Those who become individualists may be more selfish and will do as they please without first contemplating how it affects the group, and this may lead to their demise. “Though the individual may die, the community must live on, whole and sound. Unlike Ahab, who was dragged down to his death,” (49).
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers. 1851.
“Melville’s Sociality.” American Literature 17.1 (1945): 33. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 26 Feb. 2011.
I read a long academic essay entitled Moby-Dick After September 11th taken from a Law and Literature text-book in 2003. At first I was skeptical of the article, as I was not able to see many correlations between the tragic historical event and the epic novel. I figured it would be a simple article summarizing similarities; however, it turned out to be a very compelling piece about how the context of current events can affect one’s view of a novel—in this case Moby Dick. The two main time periods cited were the post-9/11 era and the Cold War era; the latter of which gave a very interesting new view of the themes for me. During this time, a critic named Francis Otto Matthiessen evaluated the book in terms of the increasing antipathy of the Soviet Union and the United States.
“In the later nineteenth century America, Matthiessen interpreted Moby-Dick as a conflict not essentially between Ahab and the White Whale but between Ahab and Ishmael” (Donoghue 170). Ahab represented totalitarianism, but he started out as a distinctive American aberration. Ishmael was a type of American democracy, as his dealings with Queequeg and the crew of the Pequod made clear. Ahab’s tragedy is that of an unregenerate will, which stifles his soul and drives his brain with an inescapable fierceness (Donoghue 170). This notion of characterizing these individuals with the only two sovereign social systems in the modern world of the time lets us delve into the conflict between man and his master as a whole. As the article continues (spoiling the end of the novel nonetheless), it tells of how nobody else survives, but Ishmael to spread the story of the journey. In other words, it is alluding to the belief that nothing but capitalism will survive after the climax of the Cold War.
Matthiessen, at this time, saw the communist party as blind to everything but their one pursuit, as confident in assuming an identification of their wills with immutable plan or manifest destiny, as liable to regard other men as merely arms and legs for the fulfillment of their purposes, and, finally, as arid and exhausted in their burnt-to-souls (Donoghue 171). Not coincidentally, that description also fits Ahab’s attitude towards the crew. This would eventually lead them to self-destruction and, as prophesized, shows capitalism surviving the ordeal and continuing on in history. This contrasts directly with Ishmael’s contemporary view of the world and his lack of racism, which he believes will be what rises from the debris after the Cold War.
Even though these metaphors seem to fit rather well, Matthiessen has been criticized for converting American classics into Cold War propaganda novels. The problem I had with his analysis is that he sees the opposing social systems in black and white—good and evil. Not only that, but there have been similar arguments during the Nazi/Fascist movement, which can fit Ahab’s motives exactly the same way as the Soviet Union has. Also, he works off the bias of being in a capitalistic government and does not take into account the Marcusian principle that both systems essentially lead to the same ends—the struggle against a form of life which would dissolve the basis for domination (Marcuse 55).
“Reading Moby-Dick again now, I think it inevitable that I interpret it as a revenge play, with all the simplifications that it entails. It is also a book of the Old Testament rather than the New; it has no place for a Sermon on the Mount or for turning the other cheek” (Donoghue 162). Much in the same way, I can say that this novel is viewed differently than it was thirty years ago, during the Cold War; however, there are many disturbing similarities between now and that period of constant fear. Now the adversary has turned into the Middle Eastern terrorist regime, which plays the role of the immovable Ahab seeking revenge on the white whale, or the United States. This just shows that there are innumerable ways to view the conflicts of Moby Dick and interpret them into separate themes. Whether it is Ahab versus the whale, Ahab versus Ishmael, or even the harpooners versus the mates, the conflicts can somehow be molded into the context of the current events taking place. I believe this allows vast interpretations of the novel and does not solidify it with one simple moral. This article definitely allowed me to get a sense of how broad the understanding of Moby Dick can be and while reading, I am sure it will help me notice many of the different directions the theme can go.
Narcissism first develops in the womb of a mother. The unborn child is at the center of its universe from day one; not having to worry about a thing and having every need fulfilled automatically while in its mother. The child is omnipotent at this stage of the game. Then once the child enters the world it is now in a state of primary narcissism due to the fact (in most cases) the baby is still the center of the universe, because the parents jump to fulfill every need of the baby, making the baby believe it still holds all power. What starts to ruin this all powerful state is the reality principle; when the mother doesn’t fulfill the baby’s needs at its first command. This will result in rage and even at times despair (Dyer 17). The first way to solve this problem is to shift attention. Instead of the attention being purely on the baby itself it shifts to believe that the mother is all powerful of the universe and that the baby believes it has full possession of the mother. Once the baby then realizes that this is not true either then the formation of the ego ideal is created.
The ego ideal is a Freudian concept that refocuses on the original narcissism of the child. The baby now focuses on what it wants to be, its highest aspirations towards perfection, it’s a restoration of the narcissism lost in childhood. The ego ideal develops through the longing to outdo the greatness of the parents and rid of the weakness the child harbors inside. This early ego ideal is more than unrealistic in the real world and sets a person up for misery and failure (Dyer 18). A person’s self-esteem is measured through the difference between the actual self and the ego ideal of oneself. The best outcome of these differences is that the reality of the world will break down the unrealistic ego ideal to a more realistic ego ideal to create a much better off person.
The average individuals growth in maturity usually creates the more realistic ego ideal but a lot of us are left with a bit of narcissism. There are two major disturbances that cause narcissism to reside in an individual. One major one occurs when the early idealization of the mother is destroyed in the child’s eyes. This causes a weak ego development causing the child to cling to the idea of itself being the center of the universe. Another example is when later on in life a person’s self esteem is hit hard and repeatedly, causing the individual to regress to its original omnipotence as described earlier (Dyer 19). Both of these situations cause major disturbances in the person’s life. “Any puncturing of this illusion (that the self is omnipotent and the universe is under its control) by the intrusion of reality provokes in him a violent fury the psychoanalysts label ‘narcissistic rage (Dyer 20).’”
This now leads us to the narcissistic Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. As stated in the novel through a conversation between Captain Peleg and Ishmael is how Ahab had “a foolish, ignorant whim of his crazy, widowed mother, who died when he was only a twelvemonth old (Melville 88).” This gives us a much greater insight into Ahab. One reason for Ahab’s narcissism is due to the early idealization of his mother being completely ruined due to her dieing when he was only a year old; causing Ahab to retreat to believing he, himself, is the center of the universe. The other main reason Ahab is narcissistic can be stemmed from the losing of his leg. Ahab losing his leg to a whale, is as close as Melville could possibly come to making Ahab suffer from castration without actually explicitly castrating him. Castration is the ultimate blow to a mans self esteem (Dyer 20). This is the second main reason why someone would be a narcissist and now Ahab has both of the biggest reasons contributing to his narcissism.
Melville is an educated man who puts the greatest meaning behind all of his words in the novel. Who would have thought that one mere simple sentence about Ahab’s mother would have as much meaning to say that this is the reason why Ahab is the narcissistic person he is? Melville creates intricate characters with such minute details that the lackadaisical reader would never notice. The scientific knowledge that Melville contains beautifully created the brilliance and depth of Ahab’s character.
Dyer, Susan K. "Narcissism in the Novels of Herman Melville." Psychiatric Quarterly 65.1 (1994): 15-30.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Penguin Group, 1992.
Though raised within a family steeped in Calvinist tradition and experienced in a multitude of Christian denominations throughout his youth and early years of marriage, Herman Melville was decidedly nonreligious (Pardes 12). It was perhaps these experiences with varying sets of beliefs that ultimately led Melville to become 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 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 his two protagonists to exemplify his feelings towards religion.
Essential to the reading of Moby Dick as Melville’s metaphorical religious exploration is the significance and symbolism of the White Whale. Regarded at least by whalers, a set of followers or believers, as an object of ultimate mystery and with some degree of reverence, the whale acts much as a figure of deity would in some religions. This understanding renders the voyage of the Pequod and its quest to find Moby Dick a direct parallel to Melville’s quest for religious understanding and attainment of definite belief. The protagonists then act as the author himself, reflecting his doubts, fears, criticisms and general understanding of God through their respective understandings of the White Whale. Upon examination of the attitudes and actions of both Ishmael and Ahab, we find the once absent source of insight to Melville’s religious opinions.
Much can be said about Melville’s similarities to Ishmael, indeed many people believe that Ishmael is the direct translation of the author’s whaling experiences into his literature. While Ishmael, like his biblical correlate, has separated himself from the normal confines of living a sedentary life on shore so too had Melville separated himself from the heavily present Catholic Church of the nineteenth century (172), allowing them both the opportunity to independently examine their true set of beliefs. Ishmael personifies the more positive experiences of Melville’s earlier religious examinations; he enters the Pequod a novice eager to find “what the White Whale is to [him]” (Melville 198) just as the young Melville was so intrigued to build a better understanding of the God he was expected to obey in his youth (Elliot 175).
While the correlation of Ishmael’s experiences to Melville’s certainly has merit, it is the behavior of the more experienced Captain Ahab that reveals Melville’s later and darker thoughts and criticisms of a religious doctrine. Having spent years questioning without answer Melville did in fact become much like Ahab in his voyage to capture Moby Dick. As Nathaniel Hawthorne once stated of the author, “it is strange how he persists…in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts” (Elliot 168), a statement which gives Melville a strikingly similar appearance to the ivory-legged Captain Ahab shuffling across the deck of his vessel. Both of these men had the objective “to master what lie[d] beyond possession” (Pardes 170) and neither was content to act the way they were perhaps expected to. Ishmael accounts that “Ahab did not fall down and worship it [Moby Dick] like them…he pitted himself against it” (Melville 195) and it would be hard to ignore the correspondence to Melville’s unwillingness to accept the religion given to him until he captured its meaning. It is unfair, however, to say that Melville has placed himself completely within his character Ahab for he also uses the captain to exemplify those facets of a religion which he has found to be peculiar. In his “monomania” to capture and understand Moby Dick, Ahab has become full of a delirium that compels him to follow Moby Dick unquestioningly, perhaps representing Melville’s criticism of the unwaveringly devout follower of God who no longer has the ability to objectively evaluate what it is that they are following. And as the leader of the voyage Ahab projects this mania upon his crew so “that at times his hate seemed almost theirs” (Melville 197), pinpointing Melville’s criticism on the politics of religion; religions are structured in ways so that leaders like Ahab “who believe [they have] the knowledge of good and evil…may act for the rest of [their] society” and are thereby unjustly empowered (Elliot 191).
While it appeared that Herman Melville remained curiously quiet on the topic of religion, in reality he was anything but silent. With literature so rife with biblical reference, it would be silly to ignore the possibility that these characters are saying more than they do at the superficial page level and that they are, in their own adventures, a representation of Melville’s quest to religions understanding.
Elliot, Emory. ""Wandering To-and-Fro"" A Historical Guide to Herman Melville. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. 167-202.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
Pardes, Ilana. Melville's Bibles. Los Angeles: University of California, 2008.