There is no folly of the beast of the Earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men • Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
Romanticism and The Rise of the Novel • 1800–1855
1845 In “The Raven”, a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, the bird repeats the word “Nevermore” to accelerate a grief-stricken lover’s descent into madness.
1850 In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne has a daughter out of wedlock. The scarlet letter is “A” for “Adulteress”, which she must wear on her dress.
1851 The House of the Seven Gables, also by Hawthorne, explores guilt, retribution, and atonement, with hints of the supernatural and witchcraft.
1853 In a foreshadowing of existential literature, a legal copyist in Melville’s story Bartleby, the Scrivener politely refuses to accept his tasks, dwindling to mere existence.
Early to mid-19th-century America witnessed the development of two strands of Romanticism. One, practised notably by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, was Transcendentalism, an idealistic movement centred on a belief in the soul or “inner light”, and the inherent goodness of humans and the natural world. The other was Dark Romanticism, which took a less optimistic view of human nature; writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville explored ideas of the individual susceptible to sin and self-destruction, in a reaction against Trancendentalist idealism.
"… 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."
The son of an importer and merchant, Melville was born in 1819 in New York. Starting his working life at his late father’s business, he then taught at local schools, worked on his uncle’s farm, and clerked in a bank. At age 20, he enrolled as cabin boy on a merchant ship sailing to Liverpool. In 1841 he got a job aboard the Acushnet, a whaling ship. An interlude of living in the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific inspired his first novel, Typee. Later he served on further whalers and on a US Navy frigate. Seafaring provided material for Moby-Dick, and Melville hoped to capitalize on popular interest in marine adventure. But by the time the book was published, public interest had shifted to the American West, and Moby-Dick was not seen as a masterpiece in Melville’s lifetime. He died of a heart attack in 1891.
Other key works
1853 Bartleby, the Scrivener
1857 The Confidence-Man
1888—91 Billy Budd (published posthumously in 1924)
The dark side
Both schools recognized a spiritual energy in nature, but whereas the Transcendentalists saw nature as a mediating channel between God and humanity, the Dark Romantics were less sanguine about human perfectibility. They saw nature as embodying dark, mysterious truths that humans confront at their peril. In the same spirit of pessimism, they regarded attempts at social reform as dubiously utopian.
In their poetry and prose from about 1836 through the 1840s, exponents of Dark Romanticism often depicted individuals failing in their attempts to bring about positive change. Drawn to horror, the supernatural, and the macabre, as well as to suffering and tragedy, they were fascinated by the human propensity for evil and by the psychological consequences of sin, guilt, revenge, and insanity. Such elements were also found in Gothic literature, and paved the way for the modern horror story. As the truths the Dark Romantics sought to reveal were primitive and irrational, they favoured the use of symbolism — a mode of communication that bypassed the faculty of reason. Edgar Allan Poe wrote stories and poems featuring sombre, dreamlike details such as people being buried alive, decaying mansions, and a raven that inflicts psychological torment. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who found his own nightmares in the hypocrisy of Puritanism in the real world, wrote about shame and secret sin.
On 5 August 1850 two of the great writers of Dark Romanticism, Hawthorne, aged 46, and Herman Melville, aged 31, met on a hike up a mountain in Massachusetts. Melville, in the throes of writing his great whaling novel Moby-Dick, was greatly inspired by the older writer’s intense Romantic inwardness and his rejection of conformity. Later he moved with his wife and family to live near Hawthorne, and he included a dedication to him in the opening pages of Moby-Dick, which read “in token of my admiration for your genius”.
Transcendentalism and Dark Romanticism were two opposing sides of the American Renaissance of the mid-19th century. The Transcendentalists saw both nature and people as inherently good; conversely, for the Dark Romantics, nature was a potentially sinister force and humans infinitely fallible.
The revenge quest
Rich in language, incident, character, and symbolism, and displaying an extraordinary depth and breadth of knowledge within its maritime subject area, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is the first great American fictional epic. It is a book driven by an intense literary ambition; from its famous opening line, “Call me Ishmael”, it sweeps the reader along, following the narrator’s quest to discover meaning “in the damp, drizzly November of [his] soul”.
In fact, Ishmael’s own quest is paired with an obsessive and ultimately tragic adventure conducted by Ahab, the captain of the whaling ship Pequod, as he searches the seas for the gigantic albino sperm whale known as Moby Dick that has bitten off one of his legs below the knee. Ahab, “a grand, ungodly, god-like man”, who stomps around the deck on his prosthesis made from whale bone, sends out a satanic charisma. At a profound psychological level he is engaged in a battle with God, the ineffable presence behind Moby Dick’s “unreasoning mask” — Ahab’s vision of the world being one in which all objects represent something unknown, inscrutable, and malign. By striking at the whale, he strikes at God, or that unknown agent. The story of his obsession, as the novel relates it, is also an enquiry into the meaning of life and death, with insights on subjects from religion to madness.
Ahab’s violent craving for revenge is tempered only by his tender feelings, towards the end, for the young black deckhand named Pip, and by a short interlude of nostalgia, when he drops a single tear into the sea. Speaking to the Pequod’s chief mate, Starbuck, of his 40 years of oceanic solitude, he thinks of his wife (“I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck”) and of his little boy. These regrets are overwhelmed by his hate-filled lust (two deadly sins in one) for vengeance.
The persona of Ahab as a hate-filled, obsessive sea captain is at first built through second-hand information and hearsay; Ahab only physically appears more than 100 pages into the novel.
"For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness … all mortal greatness is but disease."
A nation afloat
The Pequod’s voyage, and even the name of the ship itself, has allegorical overtones: the Pequod (or Pequot) was a Native American tribe that was almost exterminated by the British Puritan settlers during the 17th century. The story therefore hints at the doom of a civilization brought about by unquenchable thirst for material progress, imperial expansion, white supremacy, and the exploitation of nature. The ship may be seen as a microcosm of the world, and of the USA in particular; and since Ahab’s obsession infects the whole ship, a whole society is implicated.
The crew are a mixture of races and creeds, reflecting the universality of Melville’s vision. Working together, the shipmates are mutually dependent. Freedom of movement and communication takes place across the hierarchical boundaries of status and command. However, this diverse floating society is far from democratic: social and racial distinctions make for inequality and all on board bend to the iron rule of Ahab. The diversity of thoughts and feelings experienced by the crew of the whaler forms a dramatic counterpoint to the monomania of the captain and the monolithic energy of the whale that he is determined to track down and kill.
The ship is a floating factory, as well as a vessel of pursuit, and Melville was fully conscious of the parallels that readers would see between the ship and US capitalism, the machine age, and the market economy.
The giant albino whale that gives its name to Melville’s novel is a vivid symbol of Ahab’s quest for vengeance. However, the animal is interpreted by other characters in various ways, depending on their education, class, and faith — or lack thereof.
"And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol."
The Bible and prophecy
Moby-Dick is an epic tale of blasphemous aspiration (“Talk not to me of blasphemy, man;” says Ahab, “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me”), and it uses biblical references to add meaning to its structure. Its two main characters, Ishmael and Ahab, are named after figures in the Bible. In Genesis 16—25, Ishmael, the illegitimate son of the patriarch Abraham, was cast out in favour of the legitimate son, Isaac. By giving his narrator this name, Melville underlines the fact that Ishmael is a wanderer and an outsider: his inexperience at whaling prevents his unqualified acceptance by the crew. Ahab, in Kings 1.21, is a ruler who covets a vineyard and obtains it by means of deceit, but is destined to come to an inglorious end. His namesake follows a loosely analogous pattern in Moby-Dick, finding success in a way that seals his own doom.
Melville, concerned with the machinations of chance and fate, uses prophecy to create a sense of ominous foreboding. Before Ishmael signs up on the Pequod, a character named Elijah (in another biblical equivalence) predicts a vague doom for the vessel. Later, a prophecy by Fedallah, a harpooner, foreshadows the final stages of the narrative’s trajectory. He says that the captain will die only after seeing two hearses, one “not made by mortal hands” and one made of wood grown in the USA — which Ahab interprets as a sign of his surviving the voyage.
Whaling ships were a regular sight in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Melville worked and where the early parts of Moby-Dick are set. The last whaler left the harbour in 1925.
"Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!"
Hellfire and retribution
Ishmael comments tartly, after making the acquaintance of the harpooner Queequeg: “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” Such undermining of Christian orthodoxy, and of other religions too, is a strand running through the novel. Assembling the crew on deck, Ahab makes the three “pagan” harpooners drink from the hollow heads of their steel harpoons, in a scene that resembles a sacrilegious mass. He calls them his cardinals and their drinking vessels chalices, urging them to swear death to Moby Dick. To the harpoon point, anointed with blood, that he will use to skewer the whale, he later says mockingly in Latin: “I baptize you, not in the name of the Father but in the name of the Devil” — a sentence that Melville described to Hawthorne as the book’s “secret motto”. He wrote to Hawthorne that he had written “a wicked book”, and, in an earlier letter, that his novel was “broiled in hell-fire”.
The ship itself, painted black and festooned with the enormous teeth and bones of sperm whales, is reminiscent of the funeral ship of some dark, tribal religion — Melville describes it as a “cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies”. At night, the fires used to melt the whale blubber turn it into a “red hell”. In this way, even the setting of the novel picks up the note of subverted faith that is so often sounded in the action and dialogue.
The Nantucket whaling ship Essex encountered a large sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean in 1820 and sank. It was one of several events that inspired Melville to write Moby-Dick.
Drama and poetry
The book uses devices that are more often associated with drama than with novels, including soliloquies (speeches sharing a character’s thoughts directly with the audience), stage directions, and even, in Chapter 40 (“Midnight, Forecastle”), a short dramatization. In depicting self-destructive ambition, Melville was inspired by the Elizabethan tragic hero: Ahab has echoes of Shakespeare’s tragic hero-villain Macbeth, of King Lear in his heartless unreason, and of Hamlet in his impulse to avenge. In an essay of 1850, Melville wrote of admiring the “deep far-away things” in Shakespeare and the vital truths that are spoken by his “dark characters”. Melville used explicitly Shakespearean means to express his vision, from the soliloquies already mentioned (used with great power by Shakespeare) to intense, elevated language to prose that actually has the cadence of blank verse (the unrhymed, rhythmic poetic line).
Melville also drew inspiration for the language of the book from John Milton’s epic blank-verse poem Paradise Lost. There are parallels too with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner — the albatross brought down by the mariner is equivalent to Melville’s whale.
The use of various elements from drama and poetry, with the bold originality that helps to make Moby-Dick such a major landmark in fiction, is offset by borrowings from another literary genre: the encyclopedia. As the suspense of the story is ratcheted up through a series of increasingly dramatic whale hunts, the momentum is deliberately frozen, at strategic intervals, by chapters that present a wealth of anthropological, zoological, and other factual information on whales and the activity of whaling — for example, an account of the extraction of whale oil, or a discussion about the portrayal of whales in art. The prodigious volume and density of knowledge on display seem appropriate to Melville’s experience as a self-taught man: “I have swam through libraries,” declares Ishmael, and Melville did the same, absorbing mountains of knowledge through his own reading, often while at sea himself. The content and tone of the encyclopedic chapters provide the novel with a vastly detailed infilling of factual realism. This helps to relate Melville’s Dark Romantic world view to the civilization inhabited by the book’s readers, and taught to them through science and history.
Queequeg, the tattooed Polynesian harpooner, is part of the international crew of the Pequod. Although said to be a pagan and a cannibal, he is calm, generous, honest, and loyal.
"I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it."
A compelling mix
The strands of Shakespearean drama and factual content give the novel two of its characteristic prose styles, and offset against both is a third: conversational casualness. This mode announces itself in Ishmael’s second sentence (“Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money …”) and surfaces frequently in the midst of writing of elaborate impressiveness and theatrical exclamation. Genres and styles are mixed to powerful effect.
Moby-Dick has an encyclopedic depth and wide-ranging literary styles; since the oceans occupy two-thirds of the Earth’s surface, it could perhaps be described as a psychological drama conceived on the largest imaginable scale. With its consideration of good and evil in an indifferent cosmos, and its realization of a detailed social world, this monumental epic of fanaticism infused with a tragic vision set a new benchmark for fictional ambition.
"How can’st thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens yet hate thee, that thou can’st not go mad?"
The Great American Novel
Writing the “Great American Novel”, as an expression of nationalist pride and a challenge to the European fictional canon, became an explicit ambition in the 19th century.
The phrase “Great American Novel” was devised by the novelist John De Forest in 1868. An essential qualification was that the book should capture a distinctively American ethos. A family saga addressing race and other social tensions, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852) and, later, Beloved (Toni Morrison, 1987), was deemed appropriate. Some candidates for the label focused on self-creation, which in the 20th century became the cornerstone of the American Dream; these themes were scrutinized in The Great Gatsby (F Scott Fitzgerald, 1925) and Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison, 1952). Another suitable type was the so-called “mega-novel”, with multiple characters and plot lines presenting a microcosm of contrasting social and philosophical ideas. Moby-Dick, the first Great American Novel, belongs to both the second and the third of these categories; the next major contender, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain, 1884), largely to the second.
In the 21st century, the Great American Novel remains an ideal for writers and readers, although the notion has lost its swagger, and the idea of a unifying “American” voice is rejected by many critics.
See also: First Folio • Frankenstein • Leaves of Grass • Wuthering Heights • Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque • The Scarlet Letter • Dracula • Gravity’s Rainbow