Moby Dick is a story about man’s abiding fascination and struggle with the sea, and his desire to unravel the mysteries of the deep. The sea in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel becomes the context within which the author explores profound and universal themes about life and living. The story tells the story of vengeful captain as seen through he a stowaway sailor, Ishmael, who wanders and aboards the whaling ship, Pequod. The Pequod is commandeered by a certain Captain Ahab, whom Ishmael meets only when the Pequod has gone to sea.
Later on, Ishmael realizes that Captain Ahab has more sinister plans which went beyond simple commercial endeavors. While the Pequod is a whaling ship and her crew is supposed to catch whales for trade, Captian Ahab intends to use the ship and her crew to exact vengeance on a whale that has gravely injured and disfigured him. The whale’s name is Moby Dick, and the novel revolves around Ahab’s chase for this great creature amid the vast and unforgiving sea, as seen through the eyes of young Ishmael. Ishmael plays no actual role in the unfolding of the story; rather, he serves as the author’s narrator and the instrument by which the author expresses his profound musings on whales, whaling, and whalers and the relationships that each has to the other.
Much scholarly discussion has been made on Moby Dick and the underlying themes that buttress the story. As such, this paper intends to take on the story and frame the analysis within the context of one specific passage in the book. The particular quote goes: Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic oceans at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, up-rising fin of some indiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. (p. 152)
These words were told by an experienced whaler to a young and impressionable lad, like an old man passing on his wisdom and life experiences to the next generation, in the hopes that they might glean valuable lessons from it. The whaler notices that the young sailor has been going out to sea for three years already, without catching a single whale all those times. Thus the whaler goes to reflect on the elusive whale and the seemingly endless search for them. “Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon…”
At first sight and given the context of the book, it is obvious that the whaler is talking about whales in this line. The whaler waxes about the vastness of the ocean and that somewhere in this immense space lie an abundance of whales, whales which he has spent all his life hunting. However upon deeper analysis, one can see that the whaler is not just talking about whales. He is waxing about one’s search for dreams and the hopes for a better life, and that one can spend a lifetime chasing without ever catching those precious dreams. On the other hand, those who remain true to the chase and never turn their back on the sea will eventually be rewarded by a harvest of fulfilled dreams.
…But lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity…” Again the whaler speaks of whales and why most of them are hard to find. The whaler speaks of those who lose themselves in the vastness of the sea because of their youth and lack of direction. This perhaps is a veiled warning to the young sailor that life can be misleading and deceitful, and those who are too reckless may find themselves irretrievably lost.
…“Takes the mystic oceans at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him…” Here the whaler explains why whales can get lost. The whales are tempted by reckless instincts to explore the unknown. Enticed by the mysteries and beauties of the deep, the whale may be coaxed into plunging into deep waters where he is not equipped with the capacity to survive. Whales, being mammals, need oxygen to breathe, and as such, they need to break the surface of the water every once in a while.
When whales go too deep or explore too far, their oxygen reserves may run out too soon, and they run out of air before they can swim to the surface. Young whales that are too reckless drown because they gave in to the temptations of the deep. In contrast, older whales, wiser and more experienced, know how far they can go in the ocean. Again the whaler may very well be waxing about life, and how the impudence and lack of respect for the sea can lead sailors and whales alike to the eternal embrace of the ocean’s depths.
…”Every dimly-discovered, up-rising fin of some indiscernible form seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it.” This again is an elaboration of the deceitful nature of appearances; that physical forms almost always belie its true nature. Often the ones that come in the most attractive guises are those that are the most destructive in life, and whales, just like humans are tempted just the same.
The passage discussed in this paper symbolizes the very essence of what the novel is about. It talks about youth and dreams, and how such can be easily lost and wasted. It also talks about how whales, just like humans, can fall into the illusion of invincibility and fall prey to all kinds of temptations. The quote is also representative of man’s constant struggle to understand and tame nature.
The whales, as described by the veteran whaler, are abundant, but given the vastness of the sea, are hard to find. The whales are also symbolic of all the things that we are obsessed about, regardless of whether it is a futile chase or not. As Ishmael said, “There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath…” (361) Perhaps, the whaler as he was saying those words is also waxing about his own life, and how it once was so full of promise. In the same token, he might also be talking about Captain Ahab and how he has lost himself in the empty pursuit of revenge. The line which describes how whales may be lost may be representative of Ahab’s own disregard for his life and those of his crew; he is consumed with the desire to exact revenge, and he will never find rest until he meets the whale once again. In that sense he is lost and drowning in his blind obsession with vengeance.
The passage encapsulates the tremendous scope of Moby Dick as it tackles simultaneous social, religious, and personal issues all in one novel. While the book is a story of adventure and a chronicle at sea, it is a tale of life and all the wonderful and terrifying things about it. That the quote being analyzed in this paper lends itself to so many interpretations speaks of the character of the novel itself. Moby Dick can be different things to different people. A person’s interpretation of the book also depends on their current situation and their perception of the story changes when their situation changes as well.
Moby Dick is largely heterogeneous and mutable, constantly shifting and redefining itself (Brodhead 4) and does not lend itself to be limited to a particular literary genre. And the fact that it succeeds at being elusive, is a part of the character of the novel itself. Like the elusive Moby Dick, the novel itself is indefinable in the immensity of its scope. However, while the novel tackles a myriad of themes, his choice of the sea as the general setting is explained in Ishmael’s words, “If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.” (14) Indeed, the sea’s appeal is universal and it touches to some basic aspect of our common humanity. By the sea, we feel intimations of our smallness and greatness all at the same time.
Indeed, the book Moby Dick is filled with veiled and not-so-veiled philosophical musings about life and living. The sea has always been considered symbolic of life and its hidden meanings and challenges. Moby Dick, while fictional is not a product of the author’s imagination. Herman Melville knew what he was talking about, having worked in a whaling ship when he was twenty-one years old.
Herman, just like Ishmael, feels like an outsider of life, an outcast because of the circumstances of his lowly birth. It has often been said that Ishmael is Herman’s alter ego, through which Herman was able to express himself and all his thoughts about his life. The sea in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick represents life, in all its magnificence and enormity and the beauty and dangers that lie in its surface. Like Ahab, we all long to master our ship and triumph over the monsters of the deep. Not because of sheer folly but because of our fundamental need to understand the unknown.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Plain Label Books. 1851.Retrieved on December 13, 2007 from https://books.google.com.ua/books?id=cYKYYypj8UAC&printsec=frontcover&dq=moby+dick&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=moby%20dick&f=false.
Brodhead, Richard. New Essays on Moby-Dick. Cambridge University Press. 1986.