Moby Dick Essay by Crad Kilodney
Note: this essay is suitable for junior college and college students
Moby Dick is an exciting sea novel about a captain who sails the high seas in search of a giant whale. The whale had bitten off his leg long before, so he wanted to get even. Author Herman Melville may well have been inspired by another sea-going novelist, Benito Cereno, whose novel Cyrano de Bergerac relates the story of an ugly captain with a long nose who sails the seas in search of a beautiful woman he met in the seaport of Paris during the Spanish Inquisition. It was a trip calculated to end in disaster, which embodies the theme that one must not challenge the forces of Fate but accept one’s humble place in a Christian universe.
Moby Dick has the most levels of meaning of any novel in American literature. At least eighteen have been counted by literary scholars at Oxford, Columbia, the U.S. Naval Academy at Acropolis, and many others. However, the three big ones are: a) a tragedy of revenge, b) animal rights, and c) superstition vs. science. It is the latter theme that interests me most.
Mid-way through the novel, Capt. Ahab, our egotistical hero, walks on the plank at night and asks the universe “whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them?” Ahab hopes to slay a supernatural whale by the application of modern weapons, such as the lance, spear, harpoon, and similar artillery. But his faithful first mate, Starbuck, a devout, church-going man, recognizes the danger, for he knows well that Moby Dick is no ordinary whale but a force of evil. During a crossing of the Line of Capricorn, a vision appears on the mast in the form of St. Elmo’s fire, an electrical phenomenon conjured up in olden times by the monks of the Order of St. Elmo. The vision of a satanic pentagon warns Starbuck to try to avert disaster. However, Ahab is stubborn, like the ancient Hebrew king of old whose name he took, and he is determined to get his revenge on Moby Dick.
Mysterious events along the way prove that superstitious forces are at work: a sailor falls into the sea and does not rise to the surface; the sun stands still for many hours; the wind dies down to nothing; birds fly confused in all directions; Queequeg, a South Pacific Indian who is an expert whale-killer, sees death in a pattern of bones; and a large piece of cheese disappears, causing the captain to lock up several innocent sailors by mistake.
The captain has bribed his men by offering his favorite gold coin as a reward to the sailor who is the first to harpoon Moby Dick, which overlaps another level of meaning, which is capitalism vs. morality, one that is not within the scope of this essay but deserves investigation at another time.
In the final climax, the whale appears, and it is as white as a snow-capped mountain, causing many experienced sailors to go faint and fearful. Half of them want to run away, but the others are hypnotized by the whiteness of the whale so much that they are willing to obey the commands of their captain wherever he leads them, even to the bottom of the sea. The boats are sent off, and Ahab himself gets into one, hoping to snare the prize himself. The whale, however, seems to be reading his mind, for just when Ahab is about to strike, it goes under the water. Ahab’s use of science will not do him any good now, for he is up against a demonic force of religious proportions. Starbuck knew that long ago, but now it is too late for him. He says to himself, “All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death,” which symbolizes the futility of human educational experience against the overwhelming odds of natural forces of universal evil.
The whale surfaces and causes mayhem, sinking all the boats. The captain is dragged down in its bloody jaws, and an evil color shines in the clouds overhead, representing the supremacy of evil over the rational Christian mind.
Only Ishmael, the narrator, survives to tell the story, a clever narrative device used by Melville and other best-selling authors, which adds drama to everything preceding.
Readers and scholars continue to analyze this profoundly deep and complex story which offers endless speculation as to its true meaning. This essay, it is hoped, has selected an appropriate aspect of the book and illuminated some relevant insights to explain it.
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