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One of the main themes (especially when viewed through a modern critical lens) in Moby Dick is race and racism. The harpooners, Queequeg (from the South Seas), Tashtego (a Native American from Martha’s Vineyard), and Daggoo (from Africa), are all people of color. They do the hard and dangerous work.
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.
The Whale as a Symbol of Unparalleled Greatness in themes of moby-dick
When Melville, through Ishmael, describes the Sperm Whale during the many non-narrative chapters of Moby Dick, the idea that the whale has no parallel in excellence recurs as a nearly labored point. Melville approaches this theme from a variety of standpoints, whether biological or historical, in order to prove the superiority of the whale over all other creatures. During a number of occasions Melville relates whaling to royal activity, as when he notes the strong devotion of Louis XVI to the whaling industry and considers the whale as a delicacy fit for only the most civilized.
In additional, Melville cites the Indian legends of Vishnoo, the god who became incarnate in a whale. Even when discussing the whale in mere aesthetic terms Melville lauds it for its features, devoting an entire chapter (42) to the whiteness of the whale, while degrading those artists who falsely depict the whale.
The theme of the excellence of the whale serves to place Ahab’s quest against Moby Dick as, at best, a virtually insurmountable task in which he is doomed to failure. Melville constructs the whale as a figure that cannot be easily vanquished, if it can be defeated at all.
The Whale as an Undefinable Figure , themes of moby-dick
While Melville uses the whale as a symbol of excellence, he also resists any literal interpretation of that excellence by refusing to equate the species with any concrete object or idea. For Melville, the whale is an indefinite figure, as best shown in “The Whiteness of the Whale” (Chapter 42). Melville defines the whiteness as absence of color and thus finds the whale as having an absence of meaning.
The recurring failed attempts to find a concrete definition of the whale leave the Sperm Whale, and Moby Dick more specifically, as abstract and devoid of any concrete meaning. By allowing the whale to exist as a mysterious figure, Melville does not pin the whale down as an easy metaphorical parallel, but instead leaves a multiplicity of various interpretations for Moby Dick.
A more personalized interpretation for the thematic significance of the inability to define the whale relates to Ahab’s comparison of Moby Dick to a mask that obscures the unknown reasoning that he seeks. In this interpretation, the inability to define a whale is significant not in itself, but because it stands in the way of greater reasoning and understanding.
Moby Dick as a Part of Ahab
Throughout the novel, Melville creates a relationship between Ahab and Moby Dick despite the latter’s absence until the final three chapters through the recurrence of elements creating a close relationship between Ahab and the whale. The most significant of these is the actual physical presence of the Sperm Whale as part of Ahab’s body in the form of Ahab’s ivory leg. The whale is a physical part of Ahab in this instance; it is literally a part of Ahab.
Melville also develops this theme through the uncanny sense that Ahab has for the whale. Ahab has a nearly psychic sense of Moby Dick’s presence, and more tragically, the idea of Moby Dick perpetually haunts the formidable captain. This theme serves in part to better explain the depth of emotion behind Ahab’s quest for the whale; as a living presence that haunts Ahab’s life, he feels that he must continue on his quest no matter the cost.
The Contrast between Civilized and Pagan Society in centeral moby-dick
The relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael throughout Moby Dick generally illustrates the prevalent contrast between civilized, specifically Christian societies and uncivilized, pagan societies. The continued comparisons and contrasts between these two types of societies is often favorable for Melville, particularly in the discussion of Queequeg, the most idealized character in the novel, whose uncivilized and imposing appearance only obscures his actual honor and civilized demeanor.
In this respect, Melville is fit simply to deconstruct Queequeg and place him in entirely sympathetic terms, finding the characters from civilized and from uncivilized societies to be virtually identical.Nevertheless, Melville does not include these thematic elements simply for a lesson on other cultures; a recurring theme equates non-Christian societies with diabolical behavior, particularly when in reference to Ahab.
Ahab specifically chooses the three pagan characters’ blood when he wishes to temper his harpoon in the name of the devil, while the most obviously corrupt character in Moby Dick is conspicuously the Persian Fedallah, whom the other characters believe to be Satan in disguise. With the exception of Queequeg, equating the pagan characters with Satan does align with the general religious overtones of the novel, one which presumes Christianity as its basis and moral ground.