Reflections on Two Hundred Years of Herman Melville: Part II: Questing Souls at Sea by Leonard Engel

This is the second in a planned three-part series on the spiritual, metaphysical, and moral questions of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, offered on the occasion of Melville’s bicentennial in 2019. Part I ran in our December 2019 issue, and Part III is scheduled to appear in our March 2020 issue—Ed.

There are numerous ways to read and interpret Moby Dick; witness the many books and articles that have appeared since the beginning of the Melville revival, around 1920. I will focus strictly on the metaphysical quest and suggest that Melville sets the tone for this approach by immediately delving into his protagonist Ishmael’s conflicted soul. The casual, almost whimsical beginning, “Call me Ishmael,” belies the violent and suicidal tendencies Ishmael soon reveals:

[W]henever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

“The ship,” in this case, is the Pequod, commanded by that “grand ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab.” Thus begins Ishmael’s complicated, ambiguous quest. While indicating apathy and anger with his life on land, there is no suggestion about direction, purpose, or what he hopes to find at sea. His soul is figuratively at sea, so he decides to literally put his body on the sea, hoping his mind will latch on to something meaningful. One of the great beauties of the book is that it involves the quests of at least five other characters: Father Mapple, the preacher at the New Bedford Whaleman’s Chapel whom Ishmael encounters at the beginning of his journey; Queequeg, a tattooed Polynesian shipmate; Bulkington, the Pequod’s steering-man; Starbuck, the first mate; Pip, the cabin boy; and, of course, Captain Ahab. If Ishmael finds “nothing particular to interest [him] on shore,” Melville provides a lot to interest him at sea. In fact, these characters enliven his curiosity, and he doesn’t hesitate to dissect their inner lives.

At the outset, he claims, he’s an avowed Christian, but not rigidly so (perhaps Melville’s defiance of his mother’s strict Calvinism). When Ishmael learns he must share a bed at the Spouter-Inn with Queequeg, who is out selling shrunken heads when Ishmael arrives, he says, “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” Interestingly, we learn that Queequeg began his quest when he heard about the attributes of Christianity, so he stowed away on a whaleship to gain greater access to the wider world and learn for himself if what he heard was true. Finding mostly lies and hypocrisy among the Christians he meets, he has decided to return to his island home and resume the royal position he left earlier. Repeatedly, Melville satirizes religious practices of so-called Christians, and Ishmael, through his companionship with Queequeg, gradually reveals an openness to different belief systems. For example, he decides to worship Queequeg’s idol with him, claiming “what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my . . . Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator.”

Time and space do not permit examination of all the characters’ quests, so I will focus on the most important one: Ahab’s, which is dynamic, volatile, and the most complete. Following the traditional Gothic novel, where there are mysterious hints of the evil main character long before he appears, Melville delays the appearance of Ahab until well into the book. We hear about him, and we hear him literally stomping on the deck with his whalebone leg, but he doesn’t appear until chapter 28. Ishmael describes his reaction upon first seeing Ahab: “foreboding shivers ran over me. Reality outran apprehension.” Ahab “looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them.”

This otherworldly description is further enhanced in chapter 36, “The Quarter-Deck,” when Ahab addresses the crew, firing them up with what might be called his mission statement: to hunt Moby Dick “round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of the earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.”

Notice the progression of images, from the real and tangible to the mythic and otherworldly. Except for first mate Starbuck, everyone, including Ishmael, readily consents to this perverted mission. Ahab seals their commitment with a religious ceremony resembling the Eucharist, calling for grog and singling out the three “pagan” harponeers, who “now stood with the detached iron part of their harpoons . . . held, barbs up, before him.” Ahab “brimmed the harpoon sockets with the fiery waters from the pewter.” He exhorts his crew: “Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow—Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!” Ahab, with God’s approval—so he thinks—has harnessed the crew to this evil quest.

For his part, Starbuck argues the wrongness of the hunt: first, by claiming it defies the mandate of the ship owners—to fill the hold with barrels of whale oil. When that doesn’t work, he cries, “Vengeance on a dumb brute . . . that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.” This religious argument fails miserably, too, as Ahab launches into a philosophical rant that goes far beyond blasphemy:

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event . . . some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.

Quailed by this outburst, Starbuck is speechless, and Ahab knows he has tamed him. Ishmael’s voice resounds with those of the crew, at least for the time being. Is Melville suggesting here that if one doesn’t have a fixed purpose in life, a solid goal, he or she may be easily swayed by a powerful voice that touches the vulnerabilities of its listeners and almost coerces them to accept a particular mission?

At one point, Ishmael reflects on what he calls Starbuck’s “fall of valor in the soul.” In praising Starbuck’s courage and leadership, Ishmael convincingly argues that Starbuck’s whaleboat is the safest one to be in, concluding that Starbuck, while extremely brave in “the ordinary irrational horrors of the world . . . cannot withstand those more terrific, because more spiritual terrors, which sometimes menace you from the concentrating brow of an enraged and mighty man”—who, of course, is Ahab. As the first mate, with the legal responsibility and obligation to command the ship if the captain is mentally or physically incapacitated, Starbuck feels he has to stand up to Ahab. And though he makes gestures of resistance, he is ultimately unable to fulfill this responsibility.

Leonard Engel, Professor Emeritus of English at Quinnipiac University, lives in Hamden, Connecticut, with his wife Moira McCloskey. He can be reached at

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