Contained in the text of Moby Dick, Herman Melville uses many widely cultural symbols, stories and actions to tell the tale of a whaling ship bent on the desires of its captains abhorrence for a real, and also symbolic, creature in the form of an albino sperm whale named Moby Dick. The time is 1851 and civil unrest is looming just over the horizon: slavery is the main point of interest in American politics, the last major novel released was The Scarlet Letter, Millard Fillmore becomes the 13th president following the untimely death of then president Zachary Taylor; the Fugitive Slave Act legally mandates all runaway slaves to be returned to their owners (regardless of what state in the union they were found); and religion is a driving force that defines both social and political actions. These among other things effected and determined the cultural climate of the United States found in Moby Dick. Herman Melville uses an isolated boat analogously to create and explore a microcosm of American culture and civilization. The story of Moby Dick is more than one of revenge, but an allegory of American culture and political unrest.
In American culture during 1851, slavery was the major topic. The lines were drawn in the proverbial sand, as the Civil War was just a decade away from breaking out. The Fugitive Slave Act was passed just the year prior making all slaves in the union prisoners no matter what soil they stood on. Running did no good and hiding was the only option if they were to escape the cruel hand yielding the whip. Melville tried to create in the text of Moby Dick an allegorical story that taught tolerance in many forms. Culturally speaking, slavery would have been on the forefront of everyone's mind. The topic of slavery forced questions and thoughts of equality. How should men be judged? Can a man be generalized merely by the color of his skin? By the amount of money he had? By the power he wielded? Melville addressed these questions though his portrayal of characters in Moby Dick.
As the story opens, Ishmael explains that he sails because he wants adventure. "Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses
I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." (Melville, 1), though we also understand that he considers sailing as a whaler to be like committing suicide to him. We recognize little of the character Ishmael; though he is the narrator of the text he is merely an observer at most times, rather than a central part of the action. Though this seems largely in keeping to the biblical tale of Ishmael.
America's culture at this time relied heavily on religion, more precisely Christianity, to determine much of how they acted politically and socially. Melville knowing this must have given thought to the biblical names he used, knowing they would be referred to, and compared to his own fictional versions. Ishmael biblically was a son of Abraham, and his name translates roughly to "God hears". Born of the servant Hagar, Ishmael is not widely recognized by Christians as a man of much worth. (Though the Muslims claim him as the beginning of their people.) Americans in this time would not have seen him as a great man, or great father, but more of a lesser son of a greater man. (Since later Abraham, who is considered biblically to be the father of all nations, would have a son by his wife Sarah, and name him Isaac.) Judging from Ishmael's vernacular and knowledge of people, places, even sailing, we surmise he is well educated. Though again he admits most of what he knows he learned from whaling. Ishmael becomes a vessel for the reader to observe and live vicariously through. Since his lack of interaction in the plot provides a great window in which the reader can view the actions of the boat and its crew. This was undoubtedly a device created by Melville for...
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