The work I have selected to explore is Moby Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville. Moby Dick is regarded as a highly symbolic work that interweaves many themes and philosophical phenomenon together. All the major characters of the novel incarnate some thematic expressions that Melville wants to convey to his readers. Moby Dick contains various connotations pertaining to religion and nature and mostly these are embodied in the personality and actions of its major characters.
All the crew-members of the Pequod are depiction of direct biblical references. “Many of whom are significantly named after Old Testament prophets and kings, for these, too, are mighty men…” (Kazin, 1956. p.2). Ishmael is the major character of the novel that embodies the inquisitive and contemplative spirit of modern man who is afflicted with profound isolation. The name Ishmael also originates from Bible where he is referred as first son of Abraham. The whole biblical story narrates events that result in the pathos and miseries for Ishmael and his exile. So this name epitomizes orphanage and social outcasts.
Alfred Kazin (1956 p.3) sums up the character of Ishmael in this way; “All that can be meditated and summed up and hinted at, as the reflective essence of the story itself, is given us by Ishmael”. White Whale also incarnates something that is out of sight, out of control and unattainable. All these characteristics of her are often attributed to divinity. “As Ishmael is all rumination, so Ahab is all will. Both are thinkers, the difference being that Ishmael thinks as a bystander, has identified his own state with man’s utter unimportance in nature. Ahab, by contrast, actively seeks the whale in order to assert man’s supremacy over what swims before him as ‘the monomaniac incarnation’ of a superior power”. (Kazin, 1956 p.3).
Throughout the novel, dissident religious suppositions are common within the text. (Mansfield, 1962) The example of these religious references is Ishmael’s description of capture of whale by his shipmates and its utilization for various industrial purposes. He further establishes a link between Church and atrocities on whales by describing that whale oil is used to “illuminates the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.” So church sermons about non-violence and compassion are awfully deceitful as ecclesia itself is involved in practices of violence and aggression against the living beings.
In chapter 86, The Tail, Ishmael narrates the anatomy of Whale and while describing its external and internal features, Melville refers to Hebrew Scriptures as well as to Biblical inferences. In the same chapter, he provides the most apt and subtle symbol when he says that in the tail “the confluent measureless force of the whole whale seems concentrated to a point.”(Melville p. 315) So here Melville attributes a quality to a whale that is reserved for God. There are several other religious references that Melville mock in great depth. He looks toward the triviality of religious rituals and attributes masculine and feminine qualities to God and Christ respectively. Sometimes Melville using Ishmael as his mouth piece raises profound questions on Christianity in particular and on religion in general. For example, he says;
“I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth- pagans and all included-can be possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible!”
Nature is represented as inaccessible cruel force that agonizes the human life. Ahab’s intention in chasing Moby Dick is not motivated by any financial profit or other interests but it is the pleasure that a capture brings. Major conflict is between man and nature and it is aggravated by the human attempt to unveil certain phenomenon of nature and to get a hold over nature. Ahab “seeks to dominate nature, to impose and to inflict his will on the outside world—whether it be the crew that must jump to his orders or the great white whale that is essentially indifferent to him.” (Kazin, 1956). So his ultimate desire personifies the absolute human craving for conquering nature. But nature like Moby Dick is unachievable. One is unable to understand its mysteries. At the end man suffers in his pursuit to hunt down the nature as the crew-members of the ship suffer. Nature prevails; Moby Dick destroys Pequod with all its hunting paraphernalia and the abilities of its crewmembers.
Gleim (1938) has analyzed the story in this way, “Really two stories: an ostensible story that treats of material things and another story, hidden in parables, allegories, and symbolism, which treats of abstract things. And these two stories are parallel and analogous to each other.” (p.2) Themes of religion and nature is pervasive in Moby-Dick and all the characters, in one way or the other, depicts various manifestations of these themes. So religion and nature is illustrated through the form and thought of the novel.
Gleim, William S. The meaning of Moby-Dick. New York. The Brick Row Book
Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford, ed. Moby Dick / Herman Melville.
Norton Critical Edition. 2002.
Kazin, Alfred. ISHMAEL AND AHAB: An Introduction to Moby Dick in Herman
Melville. Moby Dick. Houghton Mifflin Company. 1956.
Mansfield, Luther S. “Symbolism and Biblical Allusion in Moby Dick.” Emerson
Society Q 28 (1962): 20-23.
Myers, Henry Alonzo. “Captain Ahab’s Discovery: The Tragic Meaning of Moby
Dick.” The New England Quarterly 15 (Mar. 1942): 15-34.
Taylor, Mark Lloyd. Ishmael’s (m)Other: Gender, Jesus, and God in Melville’s
“Moby-Dick”. The Journal of Religion, Vol. 72, No. 3. (Jul., 1992), pp. 325-
Thompson, Lawrance Roger. Melville’s Quarrel With God. Princeton,: Princeton
University Press, 1952.
Wright, Nathalia. Melville’s Use Of The Bible. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1949.
 Initiually it was published as “The Whale” by Richard Bentley in 1851.