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Moby Dick: Mystery and the Chase

The following essay discusses Herman Melville's Moby Dick in the context of Trajedy. As with all discussions of literature, you are strongly urged to read the novel before reading any analysis of the text.

Herman Melville's Moby Dick, like all truly valuable literary works we call tragic, strives to capture the essence of the endeavour we call life, without falsifying life, and without dragging it into the mire. Melville neither shuns the horrors of existence, nor destroys the glory of life in the pursuit of truth. Such a suspension, or balance between negation and affirmation may not be the ultimate characteristic defining tragedy, but nothing worthy of being called tragedy lacks it.

The Chase

Ishmael, the narrator of most of Moby Dick, suffers from a "damp, drizzly November" in his soul. He is compelled to go to sea to ward off "the pistol and ball." His land life can no longer sustain him and death seeks his company. (Chapter 1). Ishmael is drawn to the sea, compelled to see the world, driven by an innate need to get to the heart of life, to touch the mystery - that "one portentous something" embodied in the whale. The life Ishmael is drawn to is the life depicted in the painting at the Spouter Inn:

A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet there was a sort of indefinite, half - attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly frose you to it, till you voluntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through. - It's the Black Sea in a midnight gale. - It's a blasted heath. - It's a hyperbian winter scene. - It's the breaking-up of the ice-bound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture's midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop, does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? Even the great leviathan himself? (Chapter 3).

The whale embodies the "unimaginable sublimity" that draws Ishmael to whaling, that joins his fate to the fate of the Pequod and its universal crew. Ishmael joins the quest for the mystery, the mystery embodied in the White whale.

All is Ahab

Ishmael is destined to be an underling to Captain Ahab, a "moody stricken" man who stood before his crew "with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe." (Ch.28). Ahab sees Moby Dick as a supernatural source of all man's torments:

He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. (Ch.36).

[Ahab] cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before his as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating them, till they are left living with half a heart and half a lung .... All that most maddens; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. (Ch. 41).

Ahab is a kind of anti - theodicean who propels his ship and crew on a single - purposed mission to destroy the very source of evil in the world, which Ahab perceives in Moby Dick.

Often, Melville identifies the mystic force of the whale at, - an agent, or principle of God:

... let me assure ye that many a veteran who has freely marched up to a battery, would quickly recoil at the apparition of the Sperm Whale's vast tail, fanning into eddies of air over his head. For what are the terrors of man compared with the interlinked terrors and wonders of God. (Ch.24)

If Moby Dick is a force of God, then Ahab can be seen as a deicidal force leading his crew in rebellion against God. And all the crew, save Starbuck, shares to some degree Ahab's hate for God's agent of suffering and woe:

I, Ishmael, was alone of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and sore did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab's quenchless feud seemed mine. With greedy ears I learned the history of that murderous monster against whom I and all the others had taken our oaths of violence and revenge. (Ch.41).

In this sense, "all is Ahab," all share Ahab's "fatal pride" which leads him to his tragic doom.

Yet the Tragedy is Ishmael's

While Ahab, with his extreme hamartia, is the most obvious tragic figure in a classical sense, and Ishmael's fate is undeniably interwoven with Ahab's, Ishmael suffers an infliction which is not Ahab's, which perhaps is part of a larger, at least more modern tragic vision than Ahab's tragedy. Ishmael needs an explanation for the world.

Ishmael is sometimes stricken with the fear that all mystery, or meaning in the world is only illusion. He is disturbed when he wakes up in the middle of the night to find that the darkness inside him is shared with the darkness of the night:

Because no man can ever feel his identity aright except when his eyes are closed; as if darkness were indeed the proper element of our essences, though light be more congenial to our clayey part. Upon opening my eyes then, and coming out of my own pleasant and self - created darkness into the imposed and coarse outer gloom of the unilluminated twelve-o'clock-at-night, I experienced a disagreeable revulsion. (Ch.11).

And, pondering the whiteness of the whale, Ishmael asks, is it "a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?" (Ch.42). Nothing terrifies Ishmael more than the notion of a "palsied universe" lying "before us a leper." The terrors and wonders of God are infinitely preferable to the existential nothingness of a purely material world.

In that Ishmael's search for meaning represents man's search for meaning, Moby Dick ranks with King Lear, Anna Karenina, The Brother's Karamazov, and a few other great works as literature of the highest order. Each presents one or more characters locked in the struggle to make sense of the world. For Ishmael, it is a struggle of "If":

There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: - through infancy's unconscious spell, boyhood's thoughtless faith, adolescence' doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood's pondering of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbour, whence we unmoor no sore? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling's father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it. (Ch.114).

I Look, You Look, He Looks; We Look, Ye Look, They Look

The Pequod is a microcosm of the world. Melville stuffed all of the various ways of seeing the world onto one whaling ship. Throughout Moby Dick, Melville contrasts the various ways in which different crew members interpret nature's phenomena, such as the Candles. Especially in The Doubloon chapter, each individual has his own view of the world: Ahab sees Ahab in the doubloon, Starbuck sees the symbols in Christian terms, Stubb sees signs of the zodiac,. - Flask translates the value of the gold into cigars, the old Manxman takes it for a bad omen, Queelueg thinks it is an old button, Fedallah sees fire, and Pip remarks that everyone sees it differently. (Ch.99). And all this time, Ishmael is very interested in how the others see the doubloon.

As always, Ishmael has his eyes and ears open to some kind of explanation for the mysteries of the world. His nature is to sift through all data and hypotheses available with the hope of solving the puzzle. Ishmael is an omnimaniac compared to Ahab the monomaniac: life is not a puzzle for Ahab, it is a curse.

But Ishmael is destined never to solve the puzzle. The Pequod, Captain and crew - all explanations of the world - are plunged to the bottom of the sea. Only Ishmael, the orphan, the outcast, remains, clinging alone on the vast ocean to his coffin life-buoy.

Affirmation and Negation

Tragedy, according to my opening text, involves a suspension between Affirmation and negation. By affirmation, I mean the confirmation of the joy, the meaning, the purpose, the holiness, the whatever that makes life worth living. For many, affirmation requires God, a transcendent unity - a transcendent something to give the humble enterprise of living an aura of nobility. Negation happens when the mystery is punched out of the world, when man is reduced to a Hobbesean or Freudean animal, when the universe is reduced to the "colorless, all-color of atheism far too many writers of this century seem to work towards.

Then, is the final vision of Moby Dick a negation or an affirmation? Like the ending of King Lear, the ending seems to cut both ways, with the ship of the world sinking to its watery doom, dragging a "living part of heaven along with her." Just as Lear cannot save Cordelia, heaven cannot save the Pequod's crew. All man's attempts to explain the world are destroyed. It seems that man will not accept, or the universe will not provide an outright affirmation.

But Ishmael is preserved: "the unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea - hawks sailed with sheathed beaks." Not all heaven was dragged to the bottom; Providence still operates. The mystery survives, explanations of the mystery perish. And Ishmael is left with the eternal cycle of "If". Father Zossima's comment on Ivan's scepticism would also apply to Ishmael:

If the answer cannot be affirmative, it can never be negative either, for, as you know very well yourself, that is a peculiarity of your nature and the source of your suffering. (Book II, chapter 5).

Or, while floating "for almost one whole day and night," Ishmael recalled the sermon of Father Mapple:

Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. (Ch. 9).

Or, like Pip, Ishmael "saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom." (Ch.93).

Or perhaps he felt the inner joy he felt in the midst of The Grand Armada:

But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy. (Ch.87).

Or perhaps Ishmael recalled the brotherhood of A Bosom Friend, or of A Squeeze of the Hand.

But Melville does not tell us. We can only speculate. But perhaps we Ishmaels (and most, if not all, of us are Ishmaels at times) will one day ourselves be floating "on a soft and dirge-like main." Perhaps then we will feel what Ishmael felt. Till then, we can momentarily feel the mystery of life running through the pages of Moby Dick, and through the world within our grasp.


Herman Melville, Moby Dick (New York: New American Library[Signet Classic], 1961). All references to this work will be cited in the text. e.g. ".…" (Ch.28).

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Andrew R.

MacAndrew (New York: Bantam Books, 1972), p.81.