Desire in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick
Moby-Dick describes the metamorphosis of character resulting from the archetypal night sea journey, a harrowing account of a withdrawal and a return. Thus Ishmael, the lone survivor of the Pequod disaster, requires three decades of voracious reading, spiritual meditation, and philosophical reflection before recounting his adventures aboard the ill-fated ship.1 His tale is astounding. With Lewis Mumford’s seminal study Herman Melville: A Critical Biography (1929) marking the advent of the “Melville industry,” attentive readers—amateur and professional alike—have reached consensus respecting the text’s massive and heterogeneous structure. Moby Dick, for all its undeniable heuristic treasures, remains a taxonomist’s nightmare. For Melville’s complex narrative is an embarrassment of riches variously described as a novel, a romance, and an epic, as a comedy and a tragedy. Indeed, the text is an anatomy of the adventure story in the tradition of world classic accounts of the epic hero from Gilgamesh to the Arabian Nights, from the 0dyssey to Beowulf.
Although from a formalist perspective Ishmael is clearly the sole narrator, the tale remains markedly divided in expression; that is, the tone, diction, register, and underlying psychology of the account describe two radically different modes of experience. Ishmael in his own voice is empirical, democratic, sane, philosophical, comedic; while Ahab’s discourse is transcendental, autocratic, mad, rhetorical, tragic. Still, like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (whose class, values, and mind set are separate and discrete) Ishmael, the common sailor before the mast, and Ahab, the demonic ship captain, finally emerge as disjoined fragments of the 0ne. In fact their shared characteristics prove more important than the apparent differences.
The first portion of the text, which functions as extensive exposition, belongs to Ishmael alone—with no mention of Captain Ahab until several pages into Chapter 16, “The Ship.” Thus, the retrospective unfolding narrative presents Ishmael’s consciousness as first person participatory narrator, who, although unreliable in certain respects, 2 earnestly describes both the material and psychological preparation for his great adventure. Shortly before his departure he is delivered from a life-in-death existence, if not suicide itself, by the 0ther: a dark-skinned, heavily-tattooed, cannibal prince named Queequeg, who later serves as First Mate Starbuck’s harpooner aboard the Pequod. Doubtless, Ishmael’s willingness to withdraw his culturally determined projections and to integrate his shadow self earns him two crucial passages: 1) as crewmember of the doomed Pequod; 2) as designated survivor aboard Queequeg’s life-saving coffin.
Thus, Leslie Fiedler’s thesis as outlined in Love & Death in the American Novel is confirmed: the canonical American romantic hero fulfills an adolescent fantasy by escaping...