About the author
Herman Melville (1819-1891), the author of Moby Dick, is recognized today as one of America’s greatest writers, although there was a time when critics as well as readers rejected his writings. He wrote more than ten major novels, based on experiences that he had gone through himself. Some of his adventures in real life were more exciting than the ones he describes in his novels, but none was as strange and thrilling as the story he tells in Moby Dick.
Melville was born in 1819 in New York City. His parents, like many other Americans, were of mixed nationality, being partly English and partly Dutch. The Melville family was a well known one, but had become poor at the time of Herman’s birth. He was forced to give up school at the age of fifteen in order to earn his living. He tried his hand at various jobs: farming, teaching at schools, working in offices-in fact, any work that he could find. Finally, in 1839, he went to sea as a common sailor. His first voyage took him to the port of Liverpool, in England. He found life at sea so attractive that he decided to remain in this profession.
In December 1840, Melville joined the crew of a whaling-ship, the Acushnet, and went on a long voyage to the Pacific. After sixteen months on board, he and a shipmate ran away from the ship when it stopped at Nukhera, an island in the group of islands in the Pacific known as the Marquesas. They spent several weeks on this island, where they were in danger of being killed and eaten by cannibal tribes, before returning to America on another ship. Melville described these adventures in two of his novels which became instant hits-Typee and Omoo.
Between 1840 and 1843, Melville worked on two other whaling ships, the Lucy Ann, and the Charles and Henry. His experiences on these ships were used by him in writing Moby Dick. He gave up his sea-going life in 1844 and devoted himself completely to writing. In 1850, he met the great American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who encouraged him to write Moby Dick, and to whom this novel was dedicated.
About the book
Moby Dick is a book with several layers of meaning and can be read at different levels. At one level, it is an exciting tale of adventure. There are many other well known stories of adventures at sea, but what makes Moby Dick special is the fact that it provides a rare glimpse into a particular kind of life-life on a whaling-ship, or whaler, which Melville knew at first hand.
This is the story of Captain Ahab, the captain of a whaling-ship, the Pequod, and his unending battle against a white whale, to which sailors had given the name Moby Dick. Because of its unusual colour and its great size, Moby Dick had become a valued prize for all whale-hunters. But in the case of Captain Ahab, there was an element of personal enmity and a desire for revenge as well. In an earlier meeting with Moby Dick, Ahab had lost one of his legs, which was bitten off by the whale. Thereafter, he had only one goal in life-to kill the white whale. After months of pursuit through the oceans, the man and the whale came together at last; the battle is resumed.
The story is narrated by a sailor called Ishmael, who becomes a witness to the battle between Ahab and Moby Dick.
MOBY DICK as an Allegory
It becomes clear from the beginning that the author wants us to read his story as an allegory-a story with hidden spiritual meaning. Almost everything in the book has symbolic value and represents something abstract. The names of the major characters in the story are taken from the Bible, which was a source of inspiration for Puritans, a religious group.
Moby Dick can be read, at one level, as a tale of adventure. However, the fame of this book rests chiefly on the complex spiritual and religious elements that Melville wove into the story. Moby Dick is regarded as an epic, like our own Mahabharat or Ramayan, or the Iliad and the Odyssey, which were written by the Greek poet Homer, thousands of years ago.
An epic is a long tale which presents before us a vast, many-sided picture of human life and nature. Everything in an epic is on a grand scale there may be hundreds of characters, engaged over a long period of time in numerous exciting adventures. Most epics are stories of great battles, in which human beings perform heroic, almost superhuman deeds. These battles often represent wars between the forces of good and those of evil, with the former becoming victorious in the end.
Moby Dick is also an allegory in which ordinary objects, characters and events become ‘symbols’, representing abstract qualities or emotions. In poetry, for example, the rose is often used as a symbol to represent beauty and love, both of which are abstract things. Another common example of a symbol is the national flag of a country-though only a piece of cloth, it can give rise to the powerful but abstract emotion of patriotism. Many men and women have sacrificed their lives to protect the honor of their national flag.
The early American writers were mostly Puritans from New England. The Puritans, who became powerful in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, belonged to a Christian group which believed that God had created man only to serve and obey Him and that it was the duty of every human being to lead a pure and strict life, avoiding all forms of temptation. For a Puritan, life was a constant struggle against Evil. They believed that they were the only true Christians. In the sixteenth century, a group of Puritans left England and sailed to America, because they felt they did not have the freedom to lead the kind of religious life which they wanted. The part of America where they settled was known as New England.
Herman Melville was brought up as a Puritan and was deeply influenced by other Puritan writers. It was natural for him, therefore, to see life as a struggle between the forces of good and evil.
Moby Dick is a powerful expression of this Puritan view of life, although there are other elements in it as well, taken from other cultures and religions that Melville became interested in.
When we read Moby Dick as an allegory, symbolizing the battle between good and evil, it is not always easy to decide which qualities a character represents. Is Ahab a symbol of Goodness, and does Moby Dick symbolize Evil? This is what one might think at the beginning of the novel, since Ahab is shown as a heroic character, possessing superhuman courage and determination, while Moby Dick, the whale, is described as a killer. But gradually, we begin to see that there are many sides to both Ahab and Moby Dick. The whale turns into a mysterious supernatural power, which is beyond human understanding, while Ahab appears to become inhuman in the way he ignores the pain and suffering of others in his thirst for revenge. The line separating good from evil is not clear; both good and evil are seen to be parts of a larger design, balancing each other. Here, Melville seems to move away from a Puritan view of life and may have been influenced by other religions such as Zoroastrianism (the religion of the Parsis) as well as Buddhism and Hinduism.