The Multilevel Image of Isolation in Moby Dick as a Drama of American Nation
The 1840s were the years of growing contradictions between the North and the South of the United States. Melville, being the unconditional supporter of slavery abolition, could not ignore the threat of the boiling social passions to the nation’s life. The writer feared that inspired by the noble intent to destroy the evil but blinded by fanaticism, the abolitionists could destroy America. He also observed the personal crisis of Americans in the world of rapid changes and separation from Christianity. Therefore, after hearing of Owen Chase’s story about the shipwreck of Essex in 1820 and albinos whale Mocha Dick killing, Melville embodied his ideas, popular stories, and philosophical meditations in the multilevel novel Moby Dick. All the layers of this book are united by the common theme of isolation from the specific perception of the heroes to the global level of national solitude, thus depicting the drama of the American nation.
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On the first level of text interpretation, Melville described the problem of isolation on the examples of separate individuals. The writer was inspired by the theme of man, alienated from society from Hawthorne’s tales (Watters, 1945, p. 1138). However, Melville made a synthesis of actual tendencies of his time and Biblical motives. The main characters of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Captain Ahab, and Ishmael have their prototypes in the Bible. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Ahab was one of the cruelest Israeli kings, who was doomed for disobeying God (Paliwoda, 2010, p. 113). Similarly, Melville portrayed Captain Ahab as an arrogant solitary, who has one target in his life to satisfy his pride and kill Moby Dick, the whale that ate his leg and destroyed the ship (Watters, 1945, p. 1141). The Captain lost interest in his work, in social interaction, and followed the only target need for revenge by killing Moby-Dick. Therefore, Ahab was in emotional isolation from society and spiritual remoteness from God. Henry Melville (1922) dramatized the image of profound solitude by global comparison: Ahab stands alone among all the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbors! (n.d.). The evil nature of humans is despised in the Bible. Therefore, Captain Ahab died, being killed by a whale as an embodiment of God’s power. Another hero, a simple sailor Ishmael, represented Abrahams’s exiled son from the Old Testament (Herd, 2007, p. 57). The name Ishmael means God hears. Therefore, the Melvilles hero had a connection with God and considered Moby-Dick to be the incarnation of divine will (Halverson, 1963, p. 439). Apart from the whale, there was the image of the ocean as the immense uncontrolled power. Ishmael understood that he was helpless in the horrors of the night and in-depth waves. He felt like an orphan in the hostile environment: Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in the grave, and we must there to learn it (Melville, 1922, n.d.). Ishmael came to the conclusion that the only answer to his doubts and fears was death (Schreiber, 2001, p. 17). The only thing that kept him alive was the longing for knowledge, which, in the end, sent him in exile of survival. The faith in a higher power helped Ishmael to outlive the shipwreck and continue the suffering life.
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On the second level, the writer portrayed the inner problems of society. Melville depicted its barbarization due to the isolation from the Christian values. Because of the struggle for survival, whalers were far away from the spiritual unity with God. They lived with the idea of killing the whale and coming back home with some earnings. The author made an analogy with slavery and blinded with a thirst for profit and power people. The image of Pequod, which was carried away to death by the fanatical madness of the captain with the Biblical name Ahab, had both a timeless and quite concrete social and political meaning (Halverson, 1963, p. 441). The Ahabs obsession with revenge depicted slave-owning desire to preserve power. As a result, there was isolation inside society: the nation was divided into two parts that were ready to kill each other.
On the third level, Melville described the isolation between humankind and nature. Industrialization made people more self-assured, but in the ocean, they remained helpless. The white whale Moby-Dick embodied the powerful forces of nature, with which people had to interact going out to hunt in the ocean. Once in that symbolic dimension, the whaler Pequod with his team also acquired the special significance. The multinational crew of the Pequod signified the humanity wandering through the ocean of life. At the same time, the international crew was the symbolic embodiment of America (Herd, 2007, p. 61). At the global level, the ship represented the image of the world which is helpless in the chaos of the universe and the depth of the darkness. Melville tried to show that despite evolution, mankind would never be able to tame nature. Moreover, every person is a creation of God and nature. As a result, only the balance with the external forces may provide peace and save from the solitude (Watters, 1945, p. 1145). Therefore, at the end of the novel, in complete calm, under the rays of the bright midday sun, the star-striped flag plunged into the abyss. Melville warned about the punishment of the higher powers: Look, Americans, and freeze from horror (Melville, 1922, n.d.). The author warned humanity that it should not violate the laws of nature. People could not isolate themselves from nature, but the environment could absorb them in solitude. A vivid example of isolation is Ishmael’s rescue due to floating on the Queequeg’s coffin until he was found by another ship.
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On the last level, the writer provided the image of the writer’s isolation. According to Schreiber (2001), solitude was a fundamental condition of writers’ work (p. 23). There was a constant interaction between the author in exile from work and the author in isolation from society because of lack of acceptance. In the novel Moby-Dick, Ishmael is the narrator and, at the same time, an ideological representative of Henry Melville. From time to time, the protagonist pointed to the process of book writing: But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, … explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught (Melville, 1922, n.d.). At the beginning of the novel, Ishmael sought the beauty of the whale, but with time, he went under the influence of the crew and became more depressive and scared of an inevitable fate (Schreiber, 2001, p. 14). Similarly, Melville suffered from the criticism of his works and was isolated from society because of the differences in the outlook.
To conclude, Henry Melville managed to create a multilevel image of isolation of both the individual and the American nation in general on the basis of the simple story about the whaler and the white whale. The novel did not focus on the philosophical systems popular in the nineteenth century, but on striving to comprehend the world, penetrate into the essence of such cardinal issues as Good and Evil, Life and Death, and the eternal conflict between them. When an individual struggled to survive in the world, he found himself lonely both among people and nature. There was solitude in anger, in the urge to get revenge, in the effort to survive, in search of God, and in the exploration of the sense of life.