Video appunto: Melville, Moby-Dick

Herman Melville

Melville was born in New York in 1819 from a Calvinist family and he had to leave school very soon, at the age of 12 because of some economic problems in the family and the death of the father.
In 1838 he joined the crew of an English merchant ship and, in 1841, he joined another ship: the crew of the American Whaler.

This crew of the American Whaler sailed on the Pacific but Melville deserted the ship on a Polynesian Island and there he had the opportunity to get in touch with the population of the place: the Typees. Afterwards he escaped to Hawaii where he joined another ship and returned home.
He also had many different experiences in France, Polynesia and he really hunted the sperm whale.
His experience had influenced his works and the metaphor he uses.
In 1850 he was already a very famous writer, he had written five books and they were all inspired by his experience at sea. In 1851 he settled on a farm and there he wrote Moby Dick: his masterpiece.
Unfortunately his fame faded rapidly and it's revive in the 20s when his books were reinterpreted from a modernist point of view. In fact there are themes and also techniques in his works which are very interesting from a modernist perspective.
His mature works are full of allegories, so reality and symbols and metaphors are absolutely mixed up and intertwining so everything he writes is symbolic.
He was against colonialism and the work of missionaries, in fact he satirized the belief of the civilized European and North American society. They felt superior and based their colonialism on the superiority.



The story takes place in the 1830s or 2840s aboard the whaling ship Pequod. The captain of this ship is Ahab, whose only purpose in his life is revenge against a sperm whale that had taken one of his legs. Ishmael, the narrator, joins them before the sails of the ship. The story is based on the hunt of the whale, which is finally seen and hunted for three days. At the end of the battle, Moby-Dick, destroys the ship and noone, except Ishmael, survives.


In Moby-Dick, Melville, uses both a first-person narrator and a third-person narrator (an omniscient narrator), and for this reason also his techniques change a lot: he uses soliloquy which is typical of the modernist literature, on the other side he also uses a dramatic dialogue. The language shifts from a very high and poetic language to very colloquial, low, plain language.


Moby-Dick is a work written in a first-person narrator, and the narrator is Ishmael. Ishmael sails on the ship together with his friend and different men from different countries, with different races and religions. For this reason the crew form a sort of microcosm. The captain of the ship is Ahab, a man with just one leg because the other leg had been taken by a sperm whale. So for this reason Ahab’s aim in life is revenge against this sperm whale Moby-Dick.
When Moby-Dick is sighted the fight begins, for three days the crew and the captain fought but, at the end, the sperm whale destroyed the ship and all of them died with one exception: the protagonist Ishmael, who survived.
Ishmael looks very educated to us especially compared to the others, so he can be the only possible narrator of the work. His point of view is also our point of view even if there are also other perspectives especially because of the dramatic dialogues among the man and an Ahab soliloquy. Ishmael has also an interesting name because this name is taken from the Bible and it means outcast.
Ishamel represents the limits of knowledge in fact he claims that he hadn't received a good education even if we considered him well-educated.

Some critics considered captain Ahab as an anti-hero but on the other side he also behaves like God, and his major sin is to challenge nature. We have already found this theme in The rime of the Ancient mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge Coleridge. The Ancient mariner and captain Ahab both challenge nature, the divine force that was nature and the consequence was destructive, was death. We can also find this theme in Prometheus that decided to steal the fire from goods.
Ahab is also the voice of the spirituality of the New world, which rejects the tyranny of nature over man.
Ahab’s quest reminds us of the wandering of Ulysses, and there are parallels with the biblical history of Jonah.


Moby-Dick, the sperm whale, is the personification of evil under the point of view of Ahab. It could also represent a sort of mirror in which Ahab and his crew look for their own image, the embodiment of mankind’s quest for a reason for existence. It also could represent nature and its destructive force.

The whale is obviously evil, because it’s cruel, but, on the other side there are elements that support that the whale is also god, for example the colour white, that is obviously a symbol of purity but it is also presentation of death because it is the the colour of the shroud that's is obviously a representation of God, so there is a strong dualism in the colour of the whale.
The whale also represents the limit of human knowledge.


One of the most important themes is the quest of the man’s place in the universe, a universe where God is absent; God is absent because of the fact that evil exists. So, man is searching for his place in the world because religion failed. For this reason there is no faith to provide an universal code of an ethical behaviour and so the human response to life, to the difficulties of life, to the faith, is subjective. It is interesting to analyse that response especially when we’re talking about tormented personalities as Ahab.
Melville also does a strong satire especially on belief and values of the western society of the time and, especially, on colonialism. He thinks that every tradition, every man, must be respected because it expresses his own way of thinking. So, there is no right way of thinking but every costume, every tradition, every way of thinking and each of them has to be respected.
The main theme is all about the conflict between the human being on one side and the universe on the other side. Man is represented by the captain Ahab and Universe by Moby-Dick.
There is also the theme of limit. Ignorance is a condition of human life. The hunt of the whale symbolizes the hunt of humankind for complete knowledge. But, for humans, it is impossible to have complete knowledge and the limit is represented by the whale.
Moby-Dick is a study of the conflict between men and supernatural forces.