by Herman Melville
Tools of Characterization
Melville loves to tell us exactly what characters are like; it’s like showing us what makes them tick before he winds them up and sets them all into motion so that we can watch as they bounce off one another.
In the back-to-back chapters (26 and 27) titled "Knights and Squires," for example, he gives us short character sketches of all the mates and the two harpooneers we haven’t met yet. Instead of just letting us hear Starbuck’s opinions or watch what Tashtego does or think about what Stubb’s name might mean, he spells it out for us. For example, here’s one of the first things we learn about Starbuck:
Starbuck was no crusader after perils; in him courage was not a sentiment; but a thing simply useful to him, and always at hand upon all mortally practical occasions. (26.3)
The important thing to notice about the way that Melville uses direct characterization is that it’s nuanced. Melville doesn’t just say that Starbuck is or isn’t brave; instead, he explains the complicated way that courage works in the first mate’s psychological makeup. This makes the characters in Moby-Dick seem more rounded and natural, even though the tools being used to characterize them aren’t always especially fancy.
Thoughts and Opinions
Of course, if Moby-Dick did nothing other than tell us what its characters are like, we’d get bored pretty fast. Luckily, we learn quite a bit about the characters from their reactions to a central, stressful, and morally complex situation: how should they respond to Captain Ahab’s insane quest for revenge on the White Whale?
As first mate, one of the dilemmas Starbuck faces is whether or not to relieve Captain Ahab of command, or possibly even assassinate him. In his I’m-like-Hamlet-trying-to-decide-whether-or-not-to-kill-Claudius moment (check out Hamlet if you want to know more about that), Starbuck stands outside Ahab’s stateroom with a loaded musket, indulging in some internal monologuing:
But shall this crazed old man be suffered to drag a whole ship’s company down to doom with him? – Yes, it would make him the wilful murder of thirty men and more, if this ship come to any deadly harm; and come to deadly harm, my soul swears this ship will, if Ahab have his way. If, then, he were this instant – put aside, that crime would not be his. [. . .] is heaven a murderer when its lightning strikes a would-be murderer in his bed, tindering sheets and skin together? (123.8)
Of course, Starbuck is characterized here simply by his thoughts and opinions, not by his actions, because (like Hamlet at a similar moment) he can’t bring himself to go through with the murder, even though he thinks it might be for the best.
A dude named Ahab, a narrator who starts with "call me Ishmael," a ship named the Rachel—Moby-Dick is as chock full of symbolic names (especially Biblical names) as anything the Coen Brothers could produce.
Sometimes Melville’s naming is just silly, as when the whaling ship Rose-bud turns up stinking of sick, rotten whale carcass. Sometimes it’s prophetic, as when Ishmael, like his biblical namesake, becomes an abandoned wanderer who must be rescued or protected by God. (We’ve got more on Ishmael’s name in his character sketch).
Sometimes, though, the names aren’t as straightforward: what about names like Starbuck, Queequeg, or Pip, which seem to tell us a lot about the characters without being direct puns or allegories?
"Starbuck," an old Nantucket whaling family name, establishes the first mate as having extensive connections to the industry, but it also makes us want to say that he bucks the stars, that is, that he’s trying to resist fate. Even if you think that’s a stretch, but it’s certainly no accident that "star" is in his name... since he continually considers the ways in which the sun symbolizes God, hoping Ahab will awaken to its light.
The harpooneers, Queequeg, Daggoo, and Tashtego, receive names that emphasize their racial difference from the others, but which also show how similar the three are to one another (Notice that there are double consonant sounds in all three: Queequeg, Daggoo, and Tashtego, and that all of them contain g sounds and long vowels).
And poor little Pip, who loses his own identity when he jumps out of a whaling boat in fear, reinterprets himself as the "pip, pip" sound of the ship’s bell, turning himself into an onomatopoeia (a word that imitates the sound it represents, like "bang," "moo," or "cluck.")