by Herman Melville
Moby-Dick Theme of Race
The first thing the reader notices about race in Moby-Dick is the diversity of the cast of characters, which includes among its principals a South Sea Islander, a Native American, and an African tribesman. The protagonist and narrator express attitudes of racial tolerance that are surprising for a nineteenth century text. Overt racism, when it occurs, is usually condemned by the tone of the novel. Still, the racial dynamics here are far from perfect: all the non-white characters are subordinate to the whites and tend to function as caricatures of their cultures. Most importantly, there are hardly any African-American slaves or freedmen (freed slaves) in the novel at all, with one notable but relatively minor exception (Pip). Considering that Moby-Dick was published in 1851 and heavily engages race as a theme, it’s significant that Melville mostly avoids commenting on slavery, one of the most important issues of the period. (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published only months later, in 1852.)
Questions About Race
- Were you surprised by the racial attitudes of Moby-Dick’s characters? Were there specific scenes when you saw characters being especially racist or broad-minded? What seemed to make them behave that way?
- Why are there representatives of so many different racial, national, and tribal groups aboard the Pequod? (See Chapter 40 for a great example.) Does this diversity affect how you read the book or which character(s) you identified with?
- Consider the way Moby-Dick presents blackness, especially with respect to the African harpooneer Daggoo and the African-American boy Pip. How does Pip, as the only major African-American character in the novel, provide a commentary on contemporary issues? (You might want to head over to Shmoop History and check out what Shmoop has to say about "Causes of the Civil War.")
- What difference does Fedallah’s race make to his characterization, and to the reactions of the other characters to him?
Chew on This
Moby-Dick presents a vision of America as a racially diverse nation that is both enriched and endangered by cultural variety.
Although Moby-Dick works to undermine many typical nineteenth-century racial stereotypes, in the end it reinforces such stereotypes by repeatedly subordinating nonwhite characters to whites.