MOBY DICK – A POLITICAL NOVEL

Herman Melville

Nobody thinks Moby Dick is a book about politics flowing from the economic and sociological forces of its times. But it is. Heretofore, the focus of the novel is directed to make it seem more daunting, embedded within the Nineteenth Century. WRONG! Its style is pure Nineteenth Century; characters, descriptions and advancement of the theme reek of that century’s style and is long – L-O-N-G – how many more words can be used to say what should be said in five words 

It is easier if the reader approaches the novel knowing what it is about. Read for that and sense all else, which is frequently covered in Cliff Notes.Those summaries and analyses overlook the significance of Melville’s story. And overall, Joseph Conrad puts forth better stories of the sea than Herman.

The nineteenth century is not a reason not to read Moby Dick. It is invaluable today because it is very current. Readers can determinate that if they know what metaphors and allegories are. Aids may be found. Copious amounts of liquor help the mind. Any native strong drink from sea-faring nations – Dutch, British, Japanese and American  – can produce the will and courage to get through the next chapter.

Without some comprehension, understanding and knowledge of this novel, every American writer experiences a hole, a gap, and something major missing. It was published a year before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which as a political sweep was also that author’s best book. Both authors wrote other books later but none was as good. Few reviewers look at the primary political theme of Moby Dick, but they ponder literary devices to interpret part of the gross writing. There is nothing metaphysical about this book, not abiding the predominant hodge-podge prized by Emerson, Hawthorne and others from New England, pursuing philosophies of reveries leading to nothing. Disregard all that. None of that is in Melville’s mind or writing.

In its Nineteenth Century style a bit of dialogue tells what the writing is about. In the last chapter (135), Captain Ahab says about his ship, having been rammed and sunk by the whale: “The ship! A hearse! – the second hearse!” cried Ahab from the boat, “it’s wood could only be American.” Truer words were never spoken (only to the reader because other characters in the story could not hear them). Most reviewers like Howard Mumford Jones, reportedly an American intellectual, did not notice this line. He asked wandering questions about Ahab’s personality traits, his psyche, his psychosis, his moods, behaviors and outrages. Arab did this; Ahab did that. Write a 20 page analysis. Or perhaps Harman Melville, himself, never wrote a novel.

Moby Dick is a novel, an allegory, about what? The United States of America. Melville was writing while observing what was happening within the country: Contentious, divisive times when men were trying to attract other men to their points of view by parsing ideas and demanding agreement: There were upcoming and different rules of civility. Next came the election which brought the Southern Whig, Zachary Taylor to the White House, the admission of California as a state with the Compromise of 1850, and a tougher Fugitive Slave Law. All unsettled and divided the nation. 

In the story of the novel, who is who? What is what? The ship is the American nation. The crew is the South – Ahab may as well be a high-strung, fire-eating, slave-owning Southerner like John C. Calhoun. Sperm whales including the white whale are the North.

Reading the novel from this viewpoint makes it accessible and understandable. It removes from the process much that Cliff Notes has to add. I am not wholly critical of Cliff Notes. They’ve done their best, considering it appears written by know-all academians, who don’t explain much. That’s how academians earn their money and demonstrate their value: Tell of obscure references to Greek mythology, unconnected passages from the Bible, but omit and overlook analyses to pertinent facts and sources and neglect structure, characters and setting.

The ship is a small place. Few pages tell its size for 30 plus men. There is no hope, except that Ahab spews, mostly about greed, money to be made for finding and killing the white whale.

How is the society on the ship? A novelist who puts 30-35 men on  a ship does more than describe a little society, offer a few comments and show little interaction except as a gross group. So there is no crew eating dinner together, socializing, boasting, bantering, moping, complaining about the food, the weather or anything, There seems no camaraderie in a book of 300,000 words. Social and economic rules seem set, and those personages, despite their race (harpooners are men of color, irony anticipated because they are invaluable members of the crew). This is a strict feudal society where every person has his place and can not shift his status. Down, is the usual way toward death.

None of that is important to Melville. WHY? It is irrelevant to the story as it reflects American society in the South.

The crew is a mixed-raced society, a favorite plaything like Pip, to be protected by Ahab, and offensive – the death of Parsee by the whale. But why should Queequeg, Ismael’s best friend, disappear for chapters. And Ahab only realizes what is at stake in the last pages of the novel. 

Sperm whales are the most dangerous creatures in the ocean. (Chapters 32) Whale lore reenforces this impression (Chapter 41, 45) Yet sperm whales are intelligent, mystical (Chapter 80) and silent (Chapter 79).  

The whales are like the force and influence of the North, a fact that Starbuck cries to Ahab on the Third Day of the chase (for readers only, not character to character); “Oh Ahab,” cried Starbuck, “not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou that madly seekest him.” (chapter 135)

Ahab is the captain with noone to challenge him, save Starbuck. (Chapter 36, 123) Ahab derives authority from the owners and their “practical world.” “This world pays dividends.” (Chapter 109) regardless of Ahab’s state of mind. (Chapter 41)

Ahab maneuvers and works the crew and officers (Chapter 41, 46: Ahab managing the men, “every minute atmospheric influence…for his crew to be subject to.”) Demanding an oath to hunt the White Whale (Chapter 119) Ahab eventually tells the crew the whale will return on the third day, like a resurrection when the whale will be killed. (Let us kill Jesus Christ): “Aye men he’ll rise once more – but only to spout his last.” (Chapter 134) Payment is promised early on in the novel with the doubloon (Chapter 36) and later for a larger prize for one man, and for all the men.(Chapter 134)  

What is Ahab’s mind? Ahab “never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels; that’s tingling enough for mortal man! to think’s audacity. …Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness and our poor hearts throb, and our poor brains beat too much for that.”(Chapter 135) Ahab believes himself acting for powers beyond himself: “What  is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing it is; what cozening, middle lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings; I so keep pushing, and crowding and jamming myself on all the time; reckless making me read to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who that lifts this arm? But it the great to move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single start can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does the beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.”…”Where do murderers go man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?” (Chapter 132)  Indeed, Ahab knows he is demented and is leading the weak: “Nor is the history of fanatics half so striking in respect to the measureless self-deception of the fanatic himself, as his measureless power of deceiving and bedeviling so man others.” (Chapter 71)

And who are the men? What is the crew? “…the meanest mariners, renegades and castaways” (Chapter 26). “The savage crew…all sailors…are…capricious and unreliable – they live in varying outer weather, and they inhale its fickleness.”(Chapter 46) “I stood at the helm…and I better saw the redness, the madness, the ghastliness of others. The continued sight of the fiend shapes before me…” (Chapter 96)

And who are the officers? “the incompetence of men unaired virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him [Ahab] to his monomaniac revenge.” (Chapter 41)

Madness does not stop Ahab from one precaution, leaving Starbuck on the ship during the final hunts (Chapters 130, 132) Indeed, having gone too far, Ahab is in a boat, and he realizes the ship is in jeopardy. He sings, “…I see: the ship! Dash on, my men! Will ye not save my ship?”

(Chapter 135; note reference to wood for a coffin being American, Chapter 117.) The crew looks – each has been described – and fears all is lost: “For an instant, the tranced boat’s crew stood still; then turned. “This ship? Great God, where is the ship?” (Chapter 135)

The ship is a small place. Few pages tell of it, but there is no hope except those fomenting from the spews of Ahab. The presence of charity is absent. Faith comes from Ahab.

Being a mixed society brings forward playthings, a favorite like Pip who is killed; the death of Parsee, the weapon maker and a fawner over Ahab and his quest during the hunt for the white whale. But why does Queequeg disappear for chapters?

When he was young and at sea, Melville in his life led or joined a mutiny against the ship’s captain. He was well-versed in ship’s rules of discipline and the authority of the officers. He knew of the independence of sailors and their edginess. In Moby Dick, the allegory, Melville avoided freewheeling ways of New England sailors, many of whom had educations. In the novel the sailors are ignorant and followers; they came from somewhere else. It is unlike the Rachel (ship in the novel) whose Captain has taken two sons on his voyage; it is assumed sailors had  educations. Moby Dick describes the sorts of sailors, but they were unusual. In the allegory, it could be expected. Southern society was narrow and hierarchical. Every person, every job, each presented status and every man was set apart in relation to other employments, reputation and status. Rabble never mixed with yeomen, or higher ups, persons in professions or wealthy. Likewise aboard ship, the “crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him [Ahab] to his monomaniac revenge.” (Chapter 41)

It was a Northern view of Southern society and culture. Hierarchy of planation owners, the wealthy and well-positioned plus resort to any invention from history, fantasy or myth – medieval ways, customs and traditions. Accordingly, Melville freely employs words of status indicating medieval rules and actions: Knights and Squires (Chapters 26, 27) The special Captain’s Table (like Arthur’s) for preferred and valuable shipmates (Chapter 34) Glories of whaling “the knightly days of our professional” (Chapter 82) Noble harpooners. St. George. (Chapter 82) The final chapter against the white whale: noble, heroic, joust, tilting, run it through.

Southerners were looking to medieval times, accepting cues from past deeds and behaviors, It made living life easier with a predictable, structured society. Likewise, having a whale boat crew be compliant to the Captain is easily understood. The Captain’ status was knowledge and authority, not insanity: Follow and trust him! A generation later Mark Twain observed that Sir Walter Scott and his novels highlighting medieval traditions had caused the American Civil War. While not completely agreeing, Clement Eaton, The Old South. devoted an Appendix to analyze Twain’s comment: The influence of Scott’s writing about medieval times and tales on Southern society. Clement Eaton might also have also included Herman Melville and other northern authors.

The sense of looking at every aspect of the whale is a disassembling of the North, and that is not good for the crew [or the South]. In many ways Southerners disliked and were disgusted by Northern Culture and Society – they did not mind a Northerner writing Dixie in 1857. But Southerners clung to their ways and fantasies to the end. In February 1865 Abraham Lincoln met three Commissioners from the Confederacy. Having nearly won the Civil War militarily, Lincoln asked what they could all do to make peace immediately. No deal – the Southerner Commissioners  offered: Two countries, or let the South be as before the fighting, and preservation of slavery. Within the confines of Southern society Southerners had to make a way out of custom and tradition superimposed by medieval examples. Southerners never did. If hierarchy did not keep persons to their place and status, then violence would. Southerners knew no other way to live but to promote a fantastical world and pursue its life. 

So it was with Ahab and the whale. “Ahab had 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 his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations… Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them [devils}; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale; he pitted himself; all mutilated against it. All that most maddens and torments; 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 demonizes of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.” (Chapter 41)

Like Ahab who had transferred his focus from himself to the whale, the South lost its ability for self-reflection and analysis. It focused on the North in incomprehensible hatred. This stubbornness, an unwillingness to look at reality and go forward, the preference for the past, whatever it may be. Whales, Ahab, the South, Southerners – all had forsaken the lesson of Jonah (Chapter 9) “…on what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet!…” What was that  “bidding….To preach the Truth in the face of Falsehood! That was it!”

Ahab and the crew are impervious to Truth. They cannot observe and see. If they hear, they do not listen. If they touch, they don’t feel. If they smell, they do not detect. Moby Dick  is a fantastical story based upon an actual whaling event. But as an author, Melville had observed, had listened, had felt and had sensed what was happening in the South: Use a whaling ship – whaling was primarily an American occupation (Chapter 101). Melville reported what was present and advanced all the facts, using the ship, crew, officers and whales as metaphors in a grand allegory. Moby Dick a story of sociology and politics. Melville’s conclusion is the general theme of the novel, the consummate power of hate, blind and unaware and irrationally inhuman. The situation of Moby Dick was not present on most whaling ships, but it was rampant in the Ante-bellum South. Melville concluded that hate would destroy the United States. 

Indeed, a final paragraph of the novel has the sinking of the ship, with a sea hawk [like an eagle] inadvertently nailed to the top mast: “…Ahab…like Satan, would not sink to hell till she [the ship] had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.” (Chapter 135)

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s