Although Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick deals with a variety of large-scale, intangible themes such as fate, faith, and death, through the text Melville also makes statements about the very tangible issue of working class America in the 19th century. Ishmael’s time aboard the Pequod acts as the novel’s central conceit by which Melville uses Ishmael’s lifestyle to illustrate his thoughts about the proletariat class in the United States. In essence, the Pequod itself is analogous to a jail, and therefore shows that Melville’s point is to demonstrate the ways in which being part of the working class during his time meant having the same limited freedoms and options as a person in prison.
The parallels between life on a whaling ship in the 1850s and life in a prison in the 1850s are striking. First, there is the obvious state of being isolated and confined to a limited amount of space. For prisoners it is their cell and the jail itself, for Ishmael and the crew it is the Pequod. This isolation from society is enacted not only on a physical level, but also an emotional one. Ishmael explains this sentiment when he states “While other hulls are loaded down with alien stuff, to be transferred to foreign wharves; the world-wandering whale-ship carries no cargo but herself and crew, their weapons and their wants” (Melville 416). Thus, the Pequod is akin to a prison when it is out at sea.
Additionally, there is also a variety of small details that solidify Melville’s use of comparing a harpooner’s life (and thus the working class overall) to that of an inmate: everyone eats the same things and only has access to a limited amount of food. The standard of living is very low: the living quarters are small and the health of the men is marginal at best. There is also a hierarchy within the social and ceremonial constructs of the ship similar to that of a prison. This is illustrated in Chapter 34 when Ishmael describes dinnertime on the Pequod. There is a stark difference between the rituals and rules that the harpooners, the officers and Ahab each abide to, similar to that of inmates, correctional officers, and the warden. As stated on page 162 “…Ahab presides like a mute, maned sea-lion on the white coral beach, surrounded by his war-like but still deferential cubs. In his own proper turn, each officer waited to be served…I do not suppose that for the world they would have profaned that moment with the slightest observation, even upon so neutral a topic as the weather” (Melville). In this moment Ishmael solidifies to the reader that Ahab is not only a tyrannical captain, but his actions and rules are akin to that of a warden overseeing a population of inmates, not free men.
The equivalent nature of the Pequod and prison is also relevant in the relationships that develop between men. The history of homosexuality in the prison system is a significant social construct and aspect of prison subculture that is an undeniable reality of what happens when men are incarcerated together. “Homosexuality has been a recognized part of prison culture since prison life came under study. It has been suggested that these homosexual encounters or relationships behind prison walls were a result of inmates being deprived of heterosexual opportunities (Sykes 1958). In order to fulfill the desire or need for sexual gratification, inmates of the same sex have turned to one another” (Blackburn 58). This theme is also found in Moby-Dick. Although in the 1800s it would have been taboo to make direct reference to men engaging in a sexual or romantic relationship, Melville sidesteps the standardized homophobia of his time by exploring the potential homosexuality of Ishmael’s relationship with Queequeg (that is more prominent early on in the novel) by using relatively subtle language which modern readers may find seemingly overt. For example “For now I liked nothing better than to have Queequeg smoking by me, even in bed, because he seemed to be full of such serene household joy then” (Melville 60). Thus Melville is having his protagonist engage in one of the most typical aspects of prison life: an intimate relationship with someone of the same gender.
Additionally, although the argument could be made that a significant difference between Ishmael’s time on the Pequod and a prisoner’s time in jail is the ways in which people from all walks of life seem to work together in harmony on the whaling vessel (an aspect that is markedly different than the dangerous social constructs that exist within prison populations), this fact can still be used to support the idea that Melville is equating Ishmael’s life on the Pequod (and thus working class America overall) to prison life. This is because the type of men that end up on a whaling ship and the type of men that end up in prison are comparable: while there is always the exception, overall men from the working class with very few options and, at times, issues with the law filled both The Tombs and the Pequod in Melville’s time. Therefore, although the hierarchy of a ship is different than ones found within a prison, they are connected by the fact that the socioeconomic and ethnic makeup of both situations is very similar, and both contain men who are where they are as a result of having few alternative options because of their social class.
To conclude, because of the connections that Melville is making between the nature of prison life and the proletariat class, he is expressing a negative attitude about the state of the working class in 19th century America. Although there are obvious physical differences between the two (such as prisoners no longer have the same rights as civilians, and civilians do have the ability to make choices beyond those that are afforded to inmates), Melville’s point on a more figurative scale remains the same: the option for the working class during his time were so limited as to suggest that they are in many significant ways in which the poor and proletariat were prisoners of their social class.
Blackburn, Ashley. “Too Close for Comfort: Exploring Gender Differences in Inmate Attitudes Toward Homosexuality in Prison.” American Journal of Criminal Justice. Louisville: Mar 2011. Vol. 36, Iss. 1.