Study Guide

Moby-Dick Man and the Natural World

By Herman Melville

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Man and the Natural World

Chapter 6: The Street

Still New Bedford is a queer place. Had it not been for us whalemen, that tract of land would this day perhaps have been in as howling condition as the coast of Labrador. As it is, parts of her back country are enough to frighten one, they look so bony. The town itself is perhaps the dearest place to live in, in all New England. It is a land of oil, true enough; but not like Canaan; a land, also, of corn and wine. The streets do not run with milk; nor in the spring-time do they pave them with fresh eggs. Yet, in spite of this, nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. Whence came they? how planted upon this once scraggy scoria of a country?

Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion, and your question will be answered. Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea. (6.5-6)

Moby-Dick is all about the way that men redistribute the riches of the natural world to suit themselves. In order to make the barren landscape of New Bedford habitable and comfortable, whalemen go out and slaughter the giants of the sea. It’s important to notice that the whalemen, and men in general, aren’t able to create new wealth out of nothing. All they can do is take nature’s bounty from one place and harvest it in order to transform life somewhere else.

Chapter 26: Knights and Squires

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. Besides, he thought, perhaps, that in this business of whaling, courage was one of the great staple outfits of the ship, like her beef and her bread, and not to be foolishly wasted. Wherefore he had no fancy for lowering for whales after sun-down; nor for persisting in fighting a fish that too much persisted in fighting him. For, thought Starbuck, I am here in this critical ocean to kill whales for my living, and not to be killed by them for theirs; and that hundreds of men had been so killed Starbuck well knew. (26.3)

Melville shows us a variety of ways that men situate themselves in relation to the natural world by describing the way that each of the mates on the Pequod thinks about whaling. Starbuck, the first mate and moral touchstone of the crew, considers whaling something that you do in order to make a living.

He’s brave when he needs to be to get his work done, but he doesn’t cherish any special vendetta against the whales. He doesn’t take pleasure in killing, but he also doesn’t make any fuss about killing when he needs to. Whaling is "just a job" for Starbuck. "Moderate" is the word that best describes his attitude.

Chapter 27: Knights and Squires

Good-humored, easy, and careless, he [Stubb] presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests. He was as particular about the comfortable arrangement of his part of the boat, as an old stage-driver is about the snugness of his box. When close to the whale, in the very death-lock of the fight, he handled his unpitying lance coolly and off-handedly, as a whistling tinker his hammer. He would hum over his old rigadig tunes while flank and flank with the most exasperated monster. Long usage had, for this Stubb, converted the jaws of death into an easy chair. (27.1)

Unlike Starbuck, who sees whaling as just a job to get done, Stubb responds to the dangers of whaling by behaving with a bizarre level of calm and self-assurance at all times. Even when it looks like he might die at any moment—especially then!—Stubb is humming little tunes and chilling out, as if he were slouched on the couch hanging out at home. This is partly because he’s used to the dangers that the natural world presents, but it’s also because he has to act brave to cover up his deep fears. (We’re not imagining that—he admits it later to Starbuck.)

The third mate was Flask, a native of Tisbury, in Martha’s Vineyard. A short, stout, ruddy young fellow, very pugnacious concerning whales, who somehow seemed to think that the great leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honour with him, to destroy them whenever encountered. So utterly lost was he to all sense of reverence for the many marvels of their majestic bulk and mystic ways; and so dead to anything like an apprehension of any possible danger from encountering them; that in his poor opinion, the wondrous whale was but a species of magnified mouse, or at least water-rat, requiring only a little circumvention and some small application of time and trouble in order to kill and boil. (27.4)

Flask responds to the dangers of the whaling voyage in a different manner than either of the other two mates, Starbuck and Stubb. For Flask, whaling is something he takes personally and gets "all het up" about on a regular basis.

Being driven by a violent grudge against whales keeps him on edge—but it also prevents him from really understanding how glorious and magnificent whales can be. Flask’s good at his job, but not very good at seeing what’s in front of him or relating himself to the natural world.

Chapter 28: Ahab

Nevertheless, ere long, the warm, warbling persuasiveness of the pleasant, holiday weather we came to, seemed gradually to charm him from his mood. For, as when the red-cheeked, dancing girls, April and May, trip home to the wintry, misanthropic woods; even the barest, ruggedest, most thunder-cloven old oak will at least send forth some few green sprouts, to welcome such glad-hearted visitants; so Ahab did, in the end, a little respond to the playful allurings of that girlish air. More than once did he put forth the faint blossom of a look, which, in any other man, would have soon flowered out in a smile. (28.7)

For the first time in Moby-Dick, but certainly not the last, Ahab’s harsh exterior is softened a little bit by the influence of something as basic as the weather. Even though he’s verging on completely crazy, he can still feel the subtle, beautiful powers of nature in simple things like the breeze and the sunlight.

This is what makes Ahab different from Flask: both of them are prone to take the whale-hunt personally and get a little obsessed with vengeance, but for Flask, this aggressive attitude dulls his other senses, while Ahab remains perceptive and alive to small details. Unfortunately, even though Ahab can perceive beauty in the natural world, he’ll eventually stop being able to take pleasure in it.

Chapter 35: The Mast-Head

[L]ulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Wickliff’s sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over. (35.10)

In this mystical scene, Ishmael feels himself dissolving into the natural world, losing track of the boundary between the self and the world in a very "Zen" way. The key word here, which Melville uses in the passage, is "Pantheistic." Pantheism is the belief that God and the world are the same thing. God’s not just in the world, but absolutely equivalent to it, and everything that exists is divine.

This means that the individual believer, who is also a part of the world, is a divine part of God, as well. It’s interesting to contrast the ways Ishmael feels himself to be united to all of creation and to God at this transcendent moment. It reminds us of the central tenets of American Romanticism and Transcendentalism in the mid-nineteenth century—especially of the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It also reminds us how different Ishmael is from Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask.

Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale

But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul; and more strange and far more portentous – why, as we have seen, it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian’s Deity; and yet should be as it is, the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind.

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour; and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink? (42.25-26)

Ishmael (or the third-person narrator) reminds us once again of the many different possible reactions to the natural world. Even something as simple as the color white can inspire every possible reaction in men, from awe to fear.

Chapter 56: Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes

The natural aptitude of the French for seizing the picturesqueness of things seems to be peculiarly evinced in what paintings and engravings they have of their whaling scenes. With not one tenth of England’s experience in the fishery, and not the thousandth part of that of the Americans, they have nevertheless furnished both nations with the only finished sketches at all capable of conveying the real spirit of the whale hunt. For the most part, the English and American whale draughtsmen seem entirely content with presenting the mechanical outline of things, such as the vacant profile of the whale; which, so far as picturesqueness of effect is concerned, is about tantamount to sketching the profile of a pyramid. (56.7)

This passage might seem like an odd choice at first; after all, the chapters on different depictions of whales in various artistic media are basically just a brief aside in the enormous novel that is Moby-Dick.

But, if you think about it, the bias that Melville betrays in this passage tells us something about the entire novel. The narrator (possibly Ishmael) claims that the best pictures of whales are the ones that aren’t just of whales: they contain action and show the dynamic between human hunters on whaling ships and the whales themselves. In this novel, the most realistic depiction of Nature is one that shows the relationship between Nature and man.

Chapter 68: The Blanket

It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own. (68.7)

Here the narrator envies the whale’s capacity to keep itself separate from its environment; its insides are, in a way, impenetrable, hardly affected by the outside world. This relates to some of the arguments made in the New Testament about what Christians should be: even though they are "in the world" they shouldn’t be "of the world" or "be conformed" to it. (We’d cite specific passages, but these phrases recur again and again in different books.) Even if you don’t interpret the whale as an allegory for the Christian believer, it’s clear that the novel depicts whales as both part of the world and intriguingly separate from it.

Chapter 104: The Fossil Whale

When I stand among these mighty Leviathan skeletons, skulls, tusks, jaws, ribs, and vertebrae, all characterized by partial resemblances to the existing breeds of sea-monsters; but at the same time bearing on the other hand similar affinities to the annihilated antichronical Leviathans, their incalculable seniors; I am, by a flood, borne back to that wondrous period, ere time itself can be said to have begun; for time began with man. Here Saturn’s grey chaos rolls over me, and I obtain dim, shuddering glimpses into those Polar eternities; when wedged bastions of ice pressed hard upon what are now the Tropics; and in all the 25,000 miles of this world’s circumference, not an inhabitable hand's breadth of land was visible. Then the whole world was the whale’s; and, king of creation, he left his wake along the present lines of the Andes and the Himmalehs. Who can show a pedigree like Leviathan? Ahab’s harpoon had shed older blood than the Pharaoh’s. Methuselah seems a school-boy. I look round to shake hands with Shem. I am horror-struck at this antemosaic, unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale, which, having been before all time, must needs exist after all humane ages are over. (104.11)

In this section, Ishmael goes from being awestruck by the whale’s ancientness to being alarmed by its ubiquity. Like the geologic record that it’s part of, the whale seems to exist in time in a completely different way than human beings do—and that’s creepy! (Of course, our perception of whales today is radically different, since they’re endangered and might actually disappear before mankind does. In Melville’s time, whales seemed more securely established.)

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