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Themes in Moby Dick by Herman Melville
One of the dominant themes of the novel is ‘alienation’. It is the alienation of man from his environment which may lead to disaster. The narrator of the story, Ishmael, himself is an alienated person. Alienated from his community, he seeks the solidarity of the crew of a whaling ship. The crew of the Pequod is also an isolated lot. They seek comfort in one another.
Ishmael meets the pagan, Queequeg, another isolated person, whose only companion before meeting Ishmael is the image he worships. The captain of the ship, Ahab, is the most alienated of all. This alienation coupled with his overweening egotism, intensifies his anguish and his revengeful hatred of the white whale, who hurt and crippled him beyond cure. His hatred of the whale and his desire for revenge become an obsession with him.
The long vertical scar on his body puts us in mind of the scar on Satan’s body, caused by God’s thunderbolt, in Milton’s Paradise Lost. This opens up another dimension of the story which we shall examine in detail in the chapter on symbolism and the meanings of Moby Dick.
Melville calls our attention to the dangers of ‘Solipsism or hypnotic self regard’. He refers to the ‘water-gazers’ in Manhattan engaged in ocean reveries and alludes to the mythological anecdote of Narcissus who, not being able to grasp his own image, plunges into the water.
Ahab, like Narcissus, is a water-gazer. He sees his own image while peeping into “the profound and unknowable abyss of nature.”
The infinite possibilities of the mind could throw up even the image of a white whale. Ahab, in his self-absorption, might have created the white whale in his own mind, or, in his egoistic pride and hatred of the whale, which had hurt and crippled him, might have become a monomaniac with only one obsessive thought of killing the white whale.
When Melville goes to sea, his predicament is Ishmael’s predicament. He feels alienated and his mind is torn with doubts and questionings that cannot be answered. The materialistic society of America has given birth to a robust individualism, which in turn has led to alienation. The disease of alienation is not found in primitive communities and ancient civilizations where the religious bonds are strong and people can relate themselves to one another or to their past. In his novels dealing with the tribal of the South Sea islands, Melville describes such communities.
Captain Ahab, in a way, represents the American psyche, particularly in respect of his alienation and egotism. The alternative to these is cosmic piety.
The human solidarity is another major theme in Moby Dick. It is counterpointed to alienation. It is at once an escape from and a remedy for alienation. This is a common theme in 19ch century fiction. We find it in the friendship of Natty Bumpo and his companions in Cooper’s novels, in the friendship between Huck and Jim in Mark Twain, and in Hawthorne’s Blithedalers. The crew of The Pequod is a heterogeneous combination of a Negro, a Pagan, a Red Indian, a Christian, a Parsee and others. This is human solidarity at its best. The members of the crew subordinate their individualities and follow Captain Ahab without a question and act like one man and their solidarity is unparalleled.