Last Updated 02 Jul 2020

Herman Melville’s’ Moby Dick

Category Moby Dick
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Moby Dick has secured the author’s reputation in the first rank of all American writers. Firstly, the novel was published in the expurgated form and was called The Whale. It was published in 1851 (Bryant 37). “Moby Dick” is an encyclopedia of the American romanticism. Here there are thousands of private observations, concerning the developments of the American bourgeois democracy and the American public consciousness. These observations were made by writers and poets, the predecessors of Melville. Here we can see the united protest of the American romantic idea against bourgeois and capitalistic progress in its national American forms.

Meaning of cannibalism

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In the present paper we will discuss the meaning of cannibalism in the novel (Delbanco 26). The famous citation of the chapter 65 contains deep sense that deserves thorough analysis: “Cannibals? who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy pate-de-foie-gras” (Melville 242). Moby dick is also educational and true, because Romanticism believed that fiction had to be the only vehicle to describe the history of the past.

The intention was to make the story interesting (Bryant 14). To understand the original meaning of cannibalism in the novel it is important to establish principles which Melville has built the narration on. The attitude towards cannibals is described better in the story “Typee”. The connection with this story helps us understand the meaning of the abovementioned citation from “Moby Dick”.  Pictures of savages’ life drawn by writer bear all features of "an ideal life ". Melville admired the life of the tribe, but we can’t but notice, however, that he was not going to offer the reader a happy life of savages as the sample for imitation. The poetic pictures drawn by the writer have another meaning. They are created for comparison with contemporary bourgeois civilization (Delbanco 26).

According to Melville, Bourgeois civilization, in the kind it existed at the beginning of XIX century, had no future. "Ideality" of savages in has two aspects: natural and public (Bryant 37). In natural aspect the savage is ideal because it is fine, and it is fine because has kept the features of the physical shape lost by the civilized person (Bryant 15).

Melville adhered the same principle when he spoke about "ideality" of cannibals’ social existence. A savage does not have property, and it does not know what money is. It is relieved by that of two harms of a civilization. They cannot have a desire to act in defiance of truth and validity (Bryant 15). There is no stimulus for that. The savage is not spoiled by a civilization, but it has the defects: cannibalism and heathenism. However, what do they mean in comparison with more severe, realized crimes of the civilized person?

In Moby Dick Melville is rather laconic describing savages life elements, but narrates in detail about the bourgeois state and the legislation, police, crimes against society, about power of money, about religious prosecutions, noxious influence of the society on a person - all that precedes eschatological accidents (i.e. infringement of the right and morals, conflicts, the crimes of people demanding punishment of gods) (Bryant 36).

Melville does not dismiss cannibalism, backwardness of intelligence and public consciousness, primitiveness of a life and many other negative phenomena in a life of "happy" savages. Speaking about some wild or even brutal customs of savages, he finds parallels in a life of a civilized society: cannibalism is a devil art which we find out in the invention of every possible retaliatory machines; retaliatory wars are poverty and destructions; the most furious animal in the word is the white civilized person (Delbanco 25).

Symbolism as a trait of romanticism in the novel

It is not the only symbolic trait in the Moby Dick. For example, all crew members are given descriptive, biblical-sounding names and Melville avoids the exact time of all events and very details. It is the evidence of allegorical mode. It is necessary to mention the mix of pragmatism and idealism (Bryant 14).

For example, Ahab desires to pursue the whale and Starbuck desires to arrange a normal commercial ship dealing with whaling business. Moby Dick can be considered as the symbolical example of good and evil (Delbanco 25). Moby Dick is like a metaphor for “elements of life that are out of people’s control”. The Pequod’s desire to kill the white whale is allegorical, because the whale represents the main life goals of Ahab. What is more important is that Ahab’s revenge against Moby is analogous to people’s struggling against the fate (Bryant 14).


In conclusion it is necessary to admit that Melville thought people needed to have something to reach for in their life and the desirable goal might destroy the life of a person. Moby Dick is a real obsession which affected the life of ship crew (Bryant 37). Thus, the system of images in "Moby Dick" makes us understand the basic ideas of the novel of Melville. Eschatological accidents often are preceded with infringement of the right and morals, conflicts and crimes of people, and the world perishes from fire, flood, cold, heat, famine. We can see this in the novel «Moby Dick" which shows a life of the American society of the beginning of XIX century (Delbanco 15).

Works cited

Levine, Robert S., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville. Cambridge, UK & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Delbanco, Andrew. Melville: His World and Work. New York: Knopf, 2005

Melville, Herman: Redburn, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick (G. Thomas Tanselle, ed.) (Library of America, 1983)

Bryant, John, ed. A Companion to Melville Studies. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986 Bryant, John. Melville and Repose: The Rhetoric of Humor in the American Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001

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