History of Literature

Herman Melville

"Moby Dick or The Whale"


Illustrated by Rockwell Kent 


Herman Melville


Herman Melville

American author

born Aug. 1, 1819, New York City
died Sept. 28, 1891, New York City

American novelist, short-story writer, and poet, best known for his novels of the sea, including his masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851).

Heritage and youth
Melville’s heritage and youthful experiences were perhaps crucial in forming the conflicts underlying his artistic vision. He was the third child of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill, in a family that was to grow to four boys and four girls. His forebears had been among the Scottish and Dutch settlers of New York and had taken leading roles in the American Revolution and in the fiercely competitive commercial and political life of the new country. One grandfather, Maj. Thomas Melvill, was a member of the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and was subsequently a New York importer. The other, Gen. Peter Gansevoort, was a friend of James Fenimore Cooper and famous for leading the defense of Ft. Stanwix, in upstate New York, against the British.

In 1826 Allan Melvill wrote of his son as being “backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension . . . of a docile and amiable disposition.” In that same year, scarlet fever left the boy with permanently weakened eyesight, but he attended Male High School. When the family import business collapsed in 1830, the family returned to Albany, where Herman enrolled briefly in Albany Academy. Allan Melvill died in 1832, leaving his family in desperate straits. The eldest son, Gansevoort, assumed responsibility for the family and took over his father’s felt and fur business. Herman joined him after two years as a bank clerk and some months working on the farm of his uncle, Thomas Melvill, in Pittsfield, Mass. About this time, Herman’s branch of the family altered the spelling of its name. Though finances were precarious, Herman attended Albany Classical School in 1835 and became an active member of a local debating society. A teaching job in Pittsfield made him unhappy, however, and after three months he returned to Albany.

Wanderings and voyages
Young Melville had already begun writing, but the remainder of his youth became a quest for security. A comparable pursuit in the spiritual realm was to characterize much of his writing. The crisis that started Herman on his wanderings came in 1837, when Gansevoort went bankrupt and the family moved to nearby Lansingburgh (later Troy). In what was to be a final attempt at orthodox employment, Herman studied surveying at Lansingburgh Academy to equip himself for a post with the Erie Canal project. When the job did not materialize, Gansevoort arranged for Herman to ship out as cabin boy on the “St. Lawrence,” a merchant ship sailing in June 1839 from New York City for Liverpool. The summer voyage did not dedicate Melville to the sea, and on his return his family was dependent still on the charity of relatives. After a grinding search for work, he taught briefly in a school that closed without paying him. His uncle Thomas, who had left Pittsfield for Illinois, apparently had no help to offer when the young man followed him west. In January 1841 Melville sailed on the whaler “Acushnet,” from New Bedford, Mass., on a voyage to the South Seas.

In June 1842 the “Acushnet” anchored in the Marquesas Islands in present-day French Polynesia. Melville’s adventures here, somewhat romanticized, became the subject of his first novel, Typee (1846). In July Melville and a companion jumped ship and, according to Typee, spent about four months as guest-captives of the reputedly cannibalistic Typee people. Actually, in August he was registered in the crew of the Australian whaler “Lucy Ann.” Whatever its precise correspondence with fact, however, Typee was faithful to the imaginative impact of the experience on Melville. Despite intimations of danger, Melville represented the exotic valley of the Typees as an idyllic sanctuary from a hustling, aggressive civilization.

Although Melville was down for a 120th share of the whaler’s proceeds, the voyage had been unproductive. He joined a mutiny that landed the mutineers in a Tahitian jail, from which he escaped without difficulty. On these events and their sequel, Melville based his second book, Omoo (1847). Lighthearted in tone, with the mutiny shown as something of a farce, it describes Melville’s travels through the islands, accompanied by Long Ghost, formerly the ship’s doctor, now turned drifter. The carefree roving confirmed Melville’s bitterness against colonial and, especially, missionary debasement of the native Tahitian peoples.

These travels, in fact, occupied less than a month. In November he signed as a harpooner on his last whaler, the “Charles & Henry,” out of Nantucket, Mass. Six months later he disembarked at Lahaina, in the Hawaiian Islands. Somehow he supported himself for more than three months; then in August 1843 he signed as an ordinary seaman on the frigate “United States,” which in October 1844 discharged him in Boston.

The years of acclaim
Melville rejoined a family whose prospects had much improved. Gansevoort, who after James K. Polk’s victory in the 1844 presidential elections had been appointed secretary to the U.S. legation in London, was gaining political renown. Encouraged by his family’s enthusiastic reception of his tales of the South Seas, Melville wrote them down. The years of acclaim were about to begin for Melville.

Typee provoked immediate enthusiasm and outrage, and then a year later Omoo had an identical response. Gansevoort, dead of a brain disease, never saw his brother’s career consolidated, but the bereavement left Melville head of the family and the more committed to writing to support it. Another responsibility came with his marriage in August 1847 to Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of the chief justice of Massachusetts. He tried unsuccessfully for a job in the U.S. Treasury Department, the first of many abortive efforts to secure a government post.

In 1847 Melville began a third book, Mardi (1849), and became a regular contributor of reviews and other pieces to a literary journal. To his new literary acquaintances in New York City he appeared the character of his own books—extravert, vigorous, “with his cigar and his Spanish eyes,” as one writer described him. Melville resented this somewhat patronizing stereotype, and in her reminiscences his wife recalled him in a different aspect, writing in a bitterly cold, fireless room in winter. He enjoined his publisher not to call him “the author of Typee and Omoo,” for his third book was to be different. When it appeared, public and critics alike found its wild, allegorical fantasy and medley of styles incomprehensible. It began as another Polynesian adventure but quickly set its hero in pursuit of the mysterious Yillah, “all beauty and innocence,” a symbolic quest that ends in anguish and disaster. Concealing his disappointment at the book’s reception, Melville quickly wrote Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850) in the manner expected of him. In October 1849 Melville sailed to England to resolve his London publisher’s doubts about White-Jacket. He also visited the Continent, kept a journal, and arrived back in America in February 1850. The critics acclaimed White-Jacket, and its powerful criticism of abuses in the U.S. Navy won it strong political support. But both novels, however much they seemed to revive the Melville of Typee, had passages of profoundly questioning melancholy. It was not the same Melville who wrote them. He had been reading Shakespeare with “eyes which are as tender as young sparrows,” particularly noting sombre passages in Measure for Measure and King Lear. This reading struck deeply sympathetic responses in Melville, counterbalancing the Transcendental doctrines of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose general optimism about human goodness he had heard in lectures. A fresh imaginative influence was supplied by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, a novel deeply exploring good and evil in the human being, which Melville read in the spring of 1850. That summer, Melville bought a farm, which he christened “Arrowhead,” near Hawthorne’s home at Pittsfield, and the two men became neighbours physically as well as in sympathies.

Melville had promised his publishers for the autumn of 1850 the novel first entitled The Whale, finally Moby Dick. His delay in submitting it was caused less by his early-morning chores as a farmer than by his explorations into the unsuspected vistas opened for him by Hawthorne. Their relationship reanimated Melville’s creative energies. On his side, it was dependent, almost mystically intense—“an infinite fraternity of feeling,” he called it. To the cooler, withdrawn Hawthorne, such depth of feeling so persistently and openly declared was uncongenial. The two men gradually drew apart. They met for the last time, almost as strangers, in 1856, when Melville visited Liverpool, where Hawthorne was American consul.

Moby Dick was published in London in October 1851 and a month later in America. It brought its author neither acclaim nor reward. Basically its story is simple. Captain Ahab pursues the white whale, Moby Dick, which finally kills him. At that level, it is an intense, superbly authentic narrative of whaling. In the perverted grandeur of Captain Ahab and in the beauties and terrors of the voyage of the “Pequod,” however, Melville dramatized his deeper concerns: the equivocal defeats and triumphs of the human spirit and its fusion of creative and murderous urges. In his private afflictions, Melville had found universal metaphors.

Increasingly a recluse to the point that some friends feared for his sanity, Melville embarked almost at once on Pierre (1852). It was an intensely personal work, revealing the sombre mythology of his private life framed in terms of a story of an artist alienated from his society. In it can be found the humiliated responses to poverty that his youth supplied him plentifully and the hypocrisy he found beneath his father’s claims to purity and faithfulness. His mother he had idolized; yet he found the spirituality of her love betrayed by sexual love. The novel, a slightly veiled allegory of Melville’s own dark imaginings, was rooted in these relations. When published, it was another critical and financial disaster. Only 33 years old, Melville saw his career in ruins. Near breakdown, and having to face in 1853 the disaster of a fire at his New York publishers that destroyed most of his books, Melville persevered with writing.

Israel Potter, plotted before his introduction to Hawthorne and his work, was published in 1855, but its modest success, clarity of style, and apparent simplicity of subject did not indicate a decision by Melville to write down to public taste. His contributions to Putnam’s Monthly Magazine—“Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853), “The Encantadas” (1854), and “Benito Cereno” (1855)—reflected the despair and the contempt for human hypocrisy and materialism that possessed him increasingly.

In 1856 Melville set out on a tour of Europe and the Levant to renew his spirits. The most powerful passages of the journal he kept are in harmony with The Confidence-Man (1857), a despairing satire on an America corrupted by the shabby dreams of commerce. This was the last of his novels to be published in his lifetime. Three American lecture tours were followed by his final sea journey, in 1860, when he joined his brother Thomas, captain of the clipper “Meteor,” for a voyage around Cape Horn. He abandoned the trip in San Francisco.

The years of withdrawal
Melville abandoned the novel for poetry, but the prospects for publication were not favourable. With two sons and daughters to support, Melville sought government patronage. A consular post he sought in 1861 went elsewhere. On the outbreak of the Civil War, he volunteered for the Navy, but was again rejected. He had apparently returned full cycle to the insecurity of his youth, but an inheritance from his father-in-law brought some relief and “Arrowhead,” increasingly a burden, was sold. By the end of 1863, the family was living in New York City. The war was much on his mind and furnished the subject of his first volume of verse, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), published privately. Four months after it appeared, an appointment as a customs inspector on the New York docks finally brought him a secure income.

Despite poor health, Melville began a pattern of writing evenings, weekends, and on vacations. In 1867 his son Malcolm shot himself, accidentally the jury decided, though it appeared that he had quarrelled with his father the night before his death. His second son, Stanwix, who had gone to sea in 1869, died in a San Francisco hospital in 1886 after a long illness. Throughout these griefs, and for the whole of his 19 years in the customs house, Melville’s creative pace was understandably slowed.

His second collection of verse, John Marr, and Other Sailors; With Some Sea-Pieces, appeared in 1888, again privately published. By then he had been in retirement for three years, assisted by legacies from friends and relatives. His new leisure he devoted, he wrote in 1889, to “certain matters as yet incomplete.” Among them was Timoleon (1891), a final verse collection. More significant was the return to prose that culminated in his last work, the novel Billy Budd, which remained unpublished until 1924. Provoked by a false charge, the sailor Billy Budd accidentally kills the satanic master-at-arms. In a time of threatened mutiny he is hanged, going willingly to his fate. Evil has not wholly triumphed, and Billy’s memory lives on as an emblem of good. Here there is, if not a statement of being reconciled fully to life, at least the peace of resignation. The manuscript ends with the date April 19, 1891. Five months later Melville died. His life was neither happy nor, by material standards, successful. By the end of the 1840s he was among the most celebrated of American writers, yet his death evoked but a single obituary notice.

In the internal tensions that put him in conflict with his age lay a strangely 20th-century awareness of the deceptiveness of realities and of the instability of personal identity. Yet his writings never lost sight of reality. His symbols grew from such visible facts, made intensely present, as the dying whales, the mess of blubber, and the wood of the ship, in Moby Dick. For Melville, as for Shakespeare, man was ape and essence, inextricably compounded; and the world, like the “Pequod,” was subject to “two antagonistic influences . . . one to mount direct to heaven, the other to drive yawingly to some horizontal goal.” It was Melville’s triumph that he endured, recording his vision to the end. After the years of neglect, modern criticism has secured his reputation with that of the great American writers.

D.E.S. Maxwell




 Type of work: Novella
Author: Herman Melville (1819-1891)
Type of plot: Adventure romance
Time of plot: 1799
Locale: The harbor of St. Maria, off the coast of Chile, and Lima, Peru
First published: 1856


Superficially, this is a story of slavery and mutiny on the high seas, but beneath the adventure-charged plot lies Melville's examination of that subject which so fascinated him: the confrontation of extreme forces of good and evil in the universe. The irony of the tale is that goodhearted, naive Delano is only victorious in rescuing the victimized Benito because he is too innocent to comprehend the horror and depravity into which he wanders.


Principal Characters

Ainasa Delano (a-ma'sa del'э-no), an American sea captain. Off the coast of Chile he sees a ship in distress and sets out with food and water for her company. He finds a Spanish merchantman carrying slaves. Ship and crew are in deplorable condition, and their captain suffers from what appear to be severe mental disorders. A series of strange and sinister events lead Captain Delano to the knowledge that the Spanish captain is a prisoner of the slaves. He is able to rescue the captive and take him ashore.
Don Benito Cereno (don bane'to thara'no), the captain of a Spanish slave ship. His human cargo mutinies and makes him a prisoner, and he is forced to witness horrible atrocities on and murders of the Spanish crew. After his rescue by Captain Delano, he gives testimony concerning the mutiny and dies broken in mind and spirit.
Babo (ba'bo), a mutinous slave. He poses as the devoted servant of Captain Cereno and attempts to deceive Captain Delano concerning his master's true condition. Failing in this attempt, he is captured and hanged on Captain Cereno's testimony.
Don Alexandro Aranda (don a-la-ksan'dro aran'da), owner of the cargo of the Spanish slave ship. He is murdered and mutilated by the mutinous slaves.
Raneds (ra'nadz), the slave ship's mate, murdered by the mutinous slaves.


The Story

Captain Amasa Delano was commander of an American sealer called Bachelor's Delight, which was anchored in the harbor of St. Maria, on an island off the coast of southern Chile. While there, he saw a ship apparently in distress, and thinking it carried a party of monks, he sent out in a whaleboat to board the vessel and supply it with food and water. When he came aboard, he found that the ship, the San Dominick, was a Spanish merchant ship carrying slaves. The crew was parched and moaning; the ship itself was filthy; the sails were rotten. Most deplorable of all, the captain, the young Don Benito Cereno, seemed barely able to stand or to talk coherently. Aloof and indifferent, the Captain seemed ill both physically (he coughed constantly) and mentally. The Captain was attended by Babo, his devoted slave.
Delano sent the whaleboat back to his ship to get additional water, food, and extra sails for the San Dominick, while he remained aboard the desolate ship. He tried to talk to Cereno, but the Captain's fainting fits kept interrupting the conversation. The Spaniard seemed reserved and sour, in spite of Delano's attempts to assure the man that he was now out of danger. Delano finally assumed that Cereno was suffering from a severe mental disorder. The Captain did, with great difficulty and after frequent private talks with Babo, manage to explain that the San Dominick had been at sea for 190 days. They had, Cereno explained, started out as a well-manned and smart vessel sailing from Buenos Aires to Lima but had encountered several gales around Cape Horn, lost many officers and men, and then had run into dreadful calms and the ravages of plagues and scurvy. Most of the Spanish officers and all the passengers, including the slave owner, Don Alexandro Aranda, had died of fever. Delano, who knew that the weather in recent months had not been as extreme as Cereno described it, simply concluded that the Spanish officers had been incompetent and had not taken the proper precautions against disease. Cereno continually repeated that only the devotion of his slave, Babo, had kept him alive.
Numerous other circumstances on the San Dominick began to make the innocent Delano more suspicious. Although everything was in disorder and Cereno was obviously ill, he was dressed perfectly in a clean uniform. Six black men were sitting in the rigging holding hatchets, although Cereno said they were only cleaning them. Two were beating up a Spanish boy, but Cereno explained that this deed was simply a form of sport. The slaves were not in chains; Cereno claimed they were so docile that they did not require chains. This notion pleased the humane Delano, although it also surprised him.
Every two hours, as they awaited the expected wind and the arrival of Delano's whaleboat, a large black in chains was brought before Cereno, who would ask him if he, the Captain, could be forgiven. The man would answer, "No," and be led away. At one point, Delano began to fear that Cereno and Babo were plotting against him, for they moved away from him and whispered together. Cereno then asked Delano about his ship, requesting the number of men and the strength of arms aboard the Bachelor's Delight. Delano thought they might be pirates.
Nevertheless, Delano joined Cereno and Babo in Cereno's cabin for dinner. Throughout the meal, Delano alternately gained and lost confidence in Cereno's story. He tried, while discussing a means of getting Cereno new sails, to get Babo to leave the room, but the man and master were apparently inseparable. After dinner Babo, while shaving his master, cut his cheek slightly despite the warning that had been given. Babo left the room for a second and returned with his own cheek cut in a curious imitation of his master's. Delano thought this episode curious and sinister, but he finally decided that the man was so devoted to Cereno that he had punished himself for inadvertently cutting his master.
At last, Delano's whaleboat returned with more supplies. Delano, about to leave the San Dominick, promised to return with new sails the next day. When he invited Cereno to his own boat, he was surprised at the Captain's curt refusal and his failure to escort the visitor to the rail. Delano was offended at the Spaniard's apparent lack of gratitude. As the whaleboat was about to leave, Cereno appeared suddenly at the rail. He expressed his gratitude profusely and then, hastily, jumped into the whaleboat. At first Delano thought that Cereno was about to kill him; then he saw Babo at the rail brandishing a knife. In a flash, he realized that Babo and the other slaves had been holding Cereno a captive. Delano took Cereno back to the Bachelor's Delight. Later they pursued the fleeing slaves. The slaves, having no guns, were easily captured by the American ship and brought back to shore.
Cereno later explained that the slaves, having mutinied shortly after the ship set out, had committed horrible atrocities and killed most of the Spaniards. They had murdered the mate, Raneds, for a trifling offense and had committed atrocities on the dead body of Don Alexandra Aranda, whose skeleton they placed on the masthead.
On his arrival in Lima, Don Benito Cereno submitted a long testimony, recounting all the cruelties the slaves had committed. Babo was tried and hanged. Cereno felt enormously grateful to Delano, recalling the strange innocence that had somehow kept the slaves from harming him, when they had the chance, aboard the San Dominick.
Don Benito Cereno planned to enter a monastery; however, broken in body and spirit, he died three months after he completed his testimony.


Critical Evaluation

Originally serialized in Putnam's Monthly in 1855, Benito Cereno first appeared, slightly revised, in book form as the first story in Herman Melville's Piazza Tales in 1856. It was not reprinted until 1924, when interest was being revived in Melville's writings. Since then it has often been praised as not only one of Melville's best fictional works but also one of the finest short novels in American literature. In 1964, Robert Lowell adapted Benito Cereno into verse-drama as the third act of his play The Old Glory.
Benito Cereno is Melville's version of a true story he had read in Amasa Delano's Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817). Melville freely adapted Delano's account to his own fictional purposes. The court depositions, which make up a considerable part of the latter half of Benito Cereno, have been shown to be close to those in Delano's account, though Melville omitted some of the court material. In contrast, the creation of atmosphere, the building of suspense, the development of the three main charactersDelano, Cereno, and Babo—and the extended use of symbolism are among Melville's chief contributions to the original story. Also, the thematically important conversation between Delano and Cereno at the end of Benito Cereno was added by Melville.
The remarkable third paragraph of Benito Cereno illustrates Melville's careful combining of atmospheric detail, color symbolism, and both dramatic and thematic foreshadowing.

The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute and calm; everything grey. The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter's mould. The sky seemed a grey surtout. Flights of troubled grey vapours among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.

The description, with its repeated use of grey and seemed, is important in setting the scene for a story the action of which will be, as seen through Delano's eyes, ambiguous and deceptive until the light of truth suddenly blazes upon the American captain's mind. Until that time, he will be seeing both action and character through a mist. The grey is symbolically significant also because Delano's clouded vision will cause him to misjudge both the whites and blacks aboard the San Dominick. In the light of the final revelations of the story, the grey has a moral symbolism too, perhaps for Melville and surely for the modern reader, since Cereno and Delano are not morally pure white or good, nor is Babo all black or bad. The Spaniard is a slaver and the American appears to condone the trade though he is not a part of it; the slave is certainly justified in seeking an escape from captivity for himself and his fellow blacks, though one cannot justify some of the atrocities consciously committed by Babo and his followers. The closing sentence of this mist-shrouded paragraph—"Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come"—not only looks forward to the mystery that so long remains veiled but also anticipates the final words of the two captains, words that partly suggest the great difference in their characters. Delano says, "You are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?" Cereno replies, "The negro."
In reading Benito Cereno, one is caught up in the same mystery that Captain Delano cannot penetrate, and one longs for a final release of the suspense, a solution to the strange puzzle. Melville's hold upon the reader until the flash of illumination in the climax is maintained by his use of Delano's consciousness as the lens through which scene, character, and action are viewed. The revelation is so long delayed because of Delano's being the kind of man he is: "a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man." His heart is benevolent, but his mind is slow to perceive through the dragging hours from his boarding the San Dominick until he is finally shocked into recognition of the truth when Babo prepares to stab Don Benito with the dagger he had concealed in his hair. At one moment Delano is repelled by Don Benito's manner and suspicious of his intentions; at the next he is inclined to acquit Cereno of seeming rudeness because of his frail health and condemn himself for his suspicions with the excuse that "the poor invalid scarcely knew what he was about."
Just as Melville may have intended to portray Delano as representing a type of American—good-hearted, friendly, and helpful but rather slow-witted and naive— so he may have delineated Don Benito as emblematic of eighteenth century Spanish aristocracy—proud, enfeebled, and, finally, troubled in conscience over such moral crimes as slave trading. To Delano, he first appears as "a gentlemanly, reserved-looking, and rather young man . . . dressed with singular richness, but bearing plain traces of recent sleepless cares and disquietudes." Later, Don Benito's manner "conveyed a sort of sour and gloomy disdain [which] the American in charity ascribed to the harassing effects of sickness." Further observation leads Delano to conclude that Don Benito's "singular alternations of courtesy and ill-breeding" are the result of either "innocent lunacy, or wicked imposture." He is finally undeceived and apologizes for having suspected villainy in Don Benito toward the end of the danger-filled encounter with the slaves. Delano is lighthearted and eager to dismiss the affair when the danger is over and his suspicions have been erased. Don Benito's mind, however, is of a different cast. He broods on the results in human experience of the confusing of appearance and reality: "You were with me all day," he says to Delano, "stood with me, sat with me, looked at me, ate with me, drank with me, and yet, your last act was to clutch for a monster, not only an innocent man, but the most pitiable of all men. To such degree may malign machinations and deceptions impose. So far may ever the best man err, in judging the conduct of one with the recesses of whose condition he is not acquainted."
The horrors resulting from the slave mutiny and the tensions and terror that follow Delano's kind offer to aid a ship in apparent distress, leave an already ill man a dejected and broken one. The shadow of "the negro" has been cast forever upon him. He retires to the monastery on the symbolically named Mount Agonia and, three months later, is released from his sufferings.
Babo, the third major character in Benito Cereno, is unforgettable, one of the first important black characters in American fiction (Mrs. Stowe's Uncle Tom had preceded him by only four years). He is one of the most striking of the "masked" characters who appear in Melville's work from beginning to end, hiding their true selves behind the semblance they present to the world. Captain Delano is completely deceived in his first sight of Babo with Don Benito: "By his side stood a black of small stature, in whose rude face, as occasionally, like a shepherd's dog, he mutely turned it up into the Spaniard's, sorrow and affection were equally blended." His atten-tiveness makes him seem "less a servant than a devoted companion" to Don Benito. Though he speaks little, his few brief speeches suggest the intelligence that enables him to lead the revolt on the San Dominick. He is capable of irony, as is clear when Benito explains that it is to Babo he owes his preservation and that Babo pacified "his more ignorant brethren, when at intervals tempted to murmurings." "Ah, master," he sighs, ". . .whatBabo has done was but duty." The remark is as masked as Babo's bowed face, and the American is so completely taken in that, "As master and man stood before him, the black upholding the white, Captain Delano could not but bethink him of the beauty of that relationship which could present such a spectacle of fidelity on the one hand and confidence on the other."
With its many ironies—an aristocratic Spanish slaver captured by his slaves, a murderous black posing as a faithful servant, a naive American protected from violent death through his own innocence and uncovering villainy by accident—Benito Cereno may be read as a magnificently contrived parable of limited, rational, well-ordered man struggling against evil in the social and natural universe and achieving at least a partial victory.




Type of work: Novel
Author: Herman Melville (1819-1891)
Type of plot: Symbolic tragedy
Time of plot: 1797
Locale: Aboard a British man-of-war
First published: 1924


In this last of Melville's works, published posthumously, the author dramatized the clash between natural goodness and innocence as personified by Billy Budd, and unprovoked evil as embodied in Claggart. Captain Vere, as his name suggests, is the upholder of truth and right in the story. When Billy inadvertently kills his antagonizer in a fight, Vere is caught between his love for Billy and his duty to uphold the law and maintain order; he opts for justice over mercy, and decides that he must hang the boy.


Principal Characters

Billy Budd, a youthful member of the crew of the merchantman Rights-of-Man, who is impressed into service aboard H.M.S. Indomitable during the last decade of the eighteenth century. Billy is twenty-one, "welkin-eyed," and possessed of great masculine beauty; he has no idea who his father and mother were, having been left a foundling in a basket on the doorstep of a "good man" in Bristol, England. Billy was a cheerful, stabilizing influence on the rough crew of the merchantman; when he is taken aboard the Indomitable, he is popular with all the officers and crew except John Claggart, the mas-ter-at-arms, who is envious of Billy's almost perfect physique and personality. Claggart falsely accuses Billy of fomenting a mutiny aboard the ship. When he repeats the charges in the Captain's quarters while Billy is present, the young man (who stutters under stress and sometimes suffers a total speech block) can say nothing in his own defense and hits Claggart on the forehead with his fist. Claggart falls and dies. In the subsequent trial at which the Captain is the sole witness, there can be no leniency because of the recent Great Mutiny in the fleet. Billy is sentenced to hang. At the execution his last words are, "God bless Captain Vere!" Honest, refreshing, ingenuous, uncomplaining—these adjectives may be applied to Billy Budd, who represents an innocent youth trapped by the brutality of fleet regulations or, perhaps, who represents truth and beauty trapped by the wickedness of the world.
Captain the Honourable Edward Fairfax Vere, of the Indomitable. He is known in the fleet as "Starry" Vere to distinguish him from a kinsman and officer of like rank in the navy. The nickname is a misnomer, however, for Captain Vere, a bachelor of about forty, is a quiet, brooding intellectual who reads a great deal. He is also a fine commander, but he lacks the flamboyance of the more famous Nelson. He suffers greatly at having to testify before the three-man court against Billy Budd, whom he recognizes as an efficient, attractive, impulsive seaman. He, too, seems trapped by regulations (tightened during the Great Mutiny) which state that striking an officer is a capital offense. When Claggart comes to Captain Vere with his foggy, unsubstantiated charges that Billy is mutinous, the Captain summons Billy to his quarters only to prove that Claggart is a false witness.
John Claggart, the master-at-arms of the ship. Since guns have replaced the many small arms used in naval fighting, his duties are mainly to oversee the crew and its work. When Claggart observes Billy Budd, he quickly becomes envious of the personal beauty of the young man. In this respect he is like Iago in "Othello"; Iago hates Cassio partly because he is an open, honest, handsome man. So with the Claggart-Budd relationship. The only basis for the charges Claggart makes against Billy is that an afterguardsman, a troublemaker, tries to be friendly and confidential with the foretopman. Because he joined the navy for no apparent reason and because he never makes any reference to his previous life ashore, Claggart is a man of mystery about whom many rumors are circulated on the ship.
The Dansker, an old veteran who serves as mainmast-man in his watch. He likes Billy from the start and is the one who nicknames him "Baby." When Billy comes to him for counsel and to ask why his petty mistakes are getting him into trouble, the Dansker astutely remarks that "Jimmy Legs" (meaning the master-at-arms) is down on him.
The Afterguardsman, a troublemaking sailor. He approaches Billy and tries to tempt him to join an incipient mutiny. Billy angrily rebuffs him but does not report the incident to any officer.
Lieutenant Ratcliffe, the officer who goes aboard the Rights-of-Man and selects Billy to be impressed into his majesty's service.


The Story

In 1797, the British merchant shipRights-of-Man, named after the famous reply of Thomas Paine to Edmund Burke's criticism of the French Revolution, was close to home after a long voyage. As it neared England, the merchant vessel was stopped by a man-of-war, H.M.S. Indomitable, and an officer from the warship went aboard the Rights-of-Man to impress sailors for military service. This practice was necessary at the time to provide men to work the large number of ships that Britain had at sea for protection against the French.
The captain of the Rights-of-Man was relieved to have only one sailor taken from his ship, but he was unhappy because the man was his best sailor, Billy Budd. Billy was what his captain called a peacemaker; because of his strength and good looks, he was a natural leader among the other sailors, and he used his influence to keep them contented and hard at work. Billy Budd seemed utterly without guile, a man who tried to promote the welfare of the merchant ship because he liked peace and was willing to work hard to please his superiors. When informed that he was not to return to England but was to head for duty with the fleet in the Mediterranean Sea, he did not appear disturbed; he liked the sea, and he had no family ties. He was an orphan who had been left as a tiny baby in a basket on the doorstep of a family in Bristol.
As the boat from the warship took him away from the merchant ship, Billy called farewell to the Rights-of-Man by name, a deed that greatly embarrassed the naval officer who had impressed him. The remark was unwittingly satirical of the treatment to which Billy was being subjected by the navy.
Once aboard the Indomitable, Billy quickly made himself at home with the ship and the men with whom he served in the foretop. Because of his good personality and his willingness to work, he soon made a place for himself with his messmates and also won the regard of the officers under whom he served.
At first, the master-at-arms, a petty officer named Claggart, seemed particularly friendly to Billy, a fortunate circumstance, Billy thought, for the master-at-arms was the equivalent of the chief of police aboard the warship. The young sailor was rather surprised, therefore, when he received reprimands for slight breaches of conduct which were normally overlooked. The reprimands came from the ship's corporals who were Claggart's underlings. Since the reprimands indicated that something was wrong, Billy grew perturbed; he had a deadly fear of being the recipient of a flogging in public. He thought he could never stand such treatment.
Anxious to discover what was wrong, Billy consulted an old sailor, who told him that Claggart was filled with animosity for the young man. The reason for the animosity was not known, and because the old man could give him no reason, Billy refused to believe that the master-at-arms was his enemy. Claggart had taken a deep dislike to Billy Budd on sight, however, and for no reason except a personal antipathy that the young man's appearance had generated. Sly as he was, Claggart kept, or tried to keep, his feelings to himself. He operated through underlings against Billy.
Not long after he had been warned by the old sailor, Billy spilled a bowl of soup in the path of Claggart as he was inspecting the mess. Even then, Claggart smiled and pretended to treat the incident as a joke, for Billy had done the deed accidentally. A few nights later, however, someone awakened Billy and told him to go to a secluded spot in the ship. Billy went and met a sailor who tried to tempt him into joining a mutiny. The incident bothered Billy, who could not understand why anyone had approached him as a possible conspirator. Such activity was not a part of his personality, and he was disgusted to find it in other men.
A few days later, the master-at-arms approached the captain of the ship and reported that he and his men had discovered that a mutiny was being fomented by Billy Budd. Captain Vere, a very fair officer, reminded Claggart of the seriousness of the charge and warned the master-at-arms that bearing false witness in such a case called for the death penalty. Because Claggart persisted in his accusations, Captain Vere ended the interview on deck, a place he thought too public, and ordered the master-at-arms and Billy Budd to his cabin. There Captain Vere commanded Claggart to repeat his accusations. When he did, Billy became emotionally so upset that he was tongue-tied. In utter frustration at being unable to reply to the infamous charges, Billy hit the master-at-arms. The petty officer was killed when he fell heavily to the floor.
Captain Vere was filled with consternation, for he, like everyone except the master-at-arms, liked Billy Budd. After the surgeon had pronounced the petty officer dead, the captain immediately convened a court-martial to try Billy for assaulting and murdering a superior officer. Because England was at war, and because two mutinies had already occurred in the British navy that year, action had to be taken immediately. The captain could not afford to overlook the offense.
The court-martial, acting under regulations, found Billy Budd guilty and sentenced him to be hanged from a yard-arm the following morning. Even under the circumstances of Claggart's death, there was no alternative. The only person who could have testified that the charge of mutiny was false was the man who had been killed.
All the ship's company were dismayed when informed of the sentence. But Billy bore no animosity for the captain or for the officers who had sentenced him to die. When he was placed beneath the yardarm the following morning, he called out a blessing on Captain Vere, who, he realized, had no other choice in the matter but to hang him. It was quite strange, too, that Billy Budd's calm seemed even to control his corpse. Unlike most hanged men, he never twitched when hauled aloft by the neck. The surgeon's mate, when queried by his messmates, had no answer for this unique behavior.

Some months later, Captain Vere was wounded in action. In the last hours before his death, he was heard to murmur Billy Budd's name over and over again. Nor did the common sailors forget the hanged man. For many years, the yardarm from which he had been hanged was kept track of by sailors, who regarded it almost as reverently as Christians might revere the cross.


Critical Evaluation

According to Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, the editors of Billy Budd, Sailor, Herman Melville began the novel in 1886, developed and revised it through several stages, and then left it unpublished when he died in 1891. The Hayford-Sealts text, published in 1962, differs considerably from earlier ones published in 1924 and 1948. Among the noteworthy differences is the change of name for the ship on which the action occurs, from Indomitable to Bellipotent. The symbolism of the latter name relates it to the emphasis that Melville places in the novel on war, man's involvement in it, and the effects of war on the individual.
That Melville did not wish his readers to mistake the nature or the general intent of his novel is clear in his early warning that Billy "is not presented as a conventional hero" and "that the story in which he is the main figure is no romance." The story itself is extremely simple. A young sailor on a British merchant ship is impressed for service on a British warship. He offers no resistance but accepts his new assignment with good will and attempts to be an ideal sailor. The ship's master-at-arms takes an immediate and unwarranted dislike to the sailor, plots to cause him trouble, and then accuses him to the captain of having plotted mutiny. The captain summons the sailor, asks him to defend himself, and sees him strike and accidentally kill his accuser. The captain imprisons him, convenes a court-martial, condemns him to death, and has him hanged. This plot is the vehicle for Melville's extended use of moral symbolism throughout the novel.
Billy Budd, Claggart, and Captain Vere are all clearly symbolic characters, and Melville brings out the symbolism through information supplied about their backgrounds, language used to describe them, and authorial comment of moral, theological, and philosophical import.
Melville employs a double symbolism for Billy: He is both a Christ-figure and a representation of innocent or Adamic man. Before Billy is removed from the merchant ship, the Captain explains to the lieutenant from the warship that Billy has been most useful in quieting the "rat-pit of quarrels" that formerly infested his forecastle. "Not that he preached to them or said or did anything in particular; but a virtue went out of him, sugaring the sour ones." The captain's words echo Luke 6:19: "And the whole multitude sought to touch him: for there went virtue out of him, and healed them all." When the lieutenant is adamant about Billy's impressment, the captain's last words to him are: "You are going to take away my peacemaker." Again, there is no mistaking the reference to the Prince of Peace. In describing Billy as he appears to the men and officers on the warship, Melville mentions "something in the mobile expression, and every chance attitude and movement, something suggestive of a mother eminently favored by Love and the Graces." An officer asks, "Who was your father?" and Billy answers, "God knows, sir." Though Billy explains that he was told he was a foundling, the hint has already been given of a divine paternity. Melville drops the Christ symbolism of Billy until the confrontation with Claggart when Billy, unable to reply to Captain Vere's request that he defend himself, shows in his face "an expression which was as a crucifixion to behold." At the hanging, Billy's last words are, "God bless Captain Vere!" and the reader recalls Christ's words on the Cross, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." The symbolism continues with the hanging itself. Captain Vere gives a silent signal and "At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low in the East was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn." In the final chapter, Melville adds that

The spar from which the foretopman was suspended was for some few years kept trace of by the bluejackets. . . . To them a chip from it was as a piece of the Cross. . . . They recalled a fresh young image of the Handsome Sailor, that face never deformed by a sneer or subtler vile freak of the heart within. This impression of him was doubtless deepened by the fact that he was gone, and in a measure mysteriously gone.

Even in the verses which close the novel, with Billy's words, "They'll give me a nibble—bit o" biscuit ere 1 go./ Sure a messmate will reach me the last parting cup." one cannot miss the Last Supper reference.
Yet, though Billy is Christlike, he belongs to the race of man, and Melville repeatedly employs him as an archetype. His complete innocence is first suggested in Melville's comment that "Billy in many respects was little more than a sort of upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company." Later, Captain Vere thinks of the handsome sailor as one "who in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall." But innocence will not protect Billy. As Adam's human imperfection led to his fall, so an imperfection in Billy leads to his destruction. In times of stress, Billy stutters or is even speechless and, says Melville, "In this particular Billy was a striking instance that the arch interferer, the envious marplot of Eden, still has more or less to do with every human consignment to this planet of Earth."
The innocence that is his "blinder" causes Billy (or "Baby," as he is called) to fail to see and be on guard against the evil in Claggart, and his "vocal defect" deprives him of speech when he faces his false accuser. He strikes out as instinctively as a cornered animal, and his enemy dies. Billy did not intend to commit murder but, as Captain Vere tells his officers, "The prisoner's deed—with that alone we have to do." Billy does not live in an animal's instinctive world of nature. His life is bound by social law and particularly by naval law in a time of war. As Captain Vere explains, innocent Billy will be acquitted by God at "the last Assizes," but "We proceed under the law of the Mutiny Act." That act demands death for Billy's deed, and he dies in order that discipline may be maintained in the great navy which must protect Britain against her enemies.
As Billy symbolizes innocent man, Claggart represents the spirit of evil, the foe of innocence. There is a mystery in Claggart's enmity toward harmless Billy. For, says Melville, "what can more partake of the mysterious than an antipathy spontaneous and profound such as is evoked in certain exceptional mortals by the mere aspect of some other mortal, however harmless he may be, if not called forth by this very harmlessness itself?" Claggart's evil nature was not acquired, "not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate." He can recognize the good but is "powerless to be it." His energies are self-destructive; his nature is doomed to "act out to the end the part allotted to it." Although he destroys an innocent man, he must himself be destroyed as well.
As Billy at one extreme is Christlike and childishly innocent and Claggart at the other is Satanic, Captain Vere represents the kind of officer needed to preserve such an institution as the navy he serves. He is a man of balance, "mindful of the welfare of his men, but never tolerating an infraction of discipline; thoroughly versed in the science of his profession, and intrepid to the verge of temerity, though never injudiciously so." His reading tastes incline toward "books treating of actual men and events . . . history, biography, and unconventional writers like Montaigne, who, free from cant and convention, honestly and in the spirit of common sense philosophize upon realities." More intellectual than his fellow officers, he seems somewhat "pedantic" to them, and Melville hints that, in reporting Vere's long speech to his junior officers of the drumhead court, he has simplified the phrasing of the argument. Yet elsewhere Captain Vere's speech is simple, brief, and direct.
Although Captain Vere is a thoughtful, reserved man, he is not without feeling. Quickly recognizing Billy's inability to speak when he has been ordered to defend himself, he soothingly says, "There is no hurry, my boy. Take your time, take your time." He is even capable of momentary vehemence as when he surprises the surgeon with the outburst, "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!"But he quickly regains control. Melville does not report what Captain Vere says to Billy when he informs him privately of the death sentence, though he suggests that Vere may have shown compassion by catching Billy "to his heart, even as Abraham may have caught young Isaac on the brink of resolutely offering him up." Vere is seemingly overcome after Billy's last words, "God bless Captain Vere!" and the echo from the crew, since "either through stoic self-control or a sort of momentary paralysis induced by emotional shock," he stands "rigidly erect as a musket." The final view of a man whose heart balanced his mind is given in the report of Captain Vere's dying words, "Billy Budd, Billy Budd," spoken not in "the accents of remorse." Though capable of fatherly feeling toward an unfortunate young man, he had caused to be carried out a sentence he believed was needed if the strength of order was to be maintained in the turmoil of war.
Although Billy Budd has occasionally been read as a veiled attack on the unjust treatment of a hapless man by an impersonal, authoritarian state, a close reading of the novel makes it seem more likely that Melville's intent was to show, especially through Captain Vere, that the protection of a state during a time of war must inevitably involve on occasion the sacrifice of an individual. Melville does include scattered satiric comments on the imperfections of both men and organizations, but his overwhelmingly favorable portrait of Captain Vere as a high-principled and dedicated representative of the state leaves the reader with the final impression that Melville had at last become sadly resigned to the fact that imperfect man living in an imperfect world has no guarantee against suffering an unjust fate. That Billy uncomplainingly accepts his end, even asking God's blessing upon the man who is sending him to death, suggests that Melville too had become reconciled to the eternal coexistence of good and evil in the world.




Herman Melville

Moby-Dick is often cited as the Great American Novel, the high watermark of the nineteenth-century imagination. A huge, monstrous, and yet exquisitely refined creation, it continues to confound, enthrall (and often defeat) generations of readers around the world. Narrated by Ishmael, a Massachusetts schoolteacher who has forsaken his old life for the romance of the high seas, the novel chronicles the fong sea voyage of the Pequod, a whaling ship led by the demonic Captain Ahab. Ahab is in search of the white whale that has robbed him of one of his legs. All other considerations (including the safety of his crew) become secondary to his monomaniacal quest. However, no summary can do justice to the breadth and complexity of Melville's novel. One can almost feel the book fighting with itself—balancing the urge to propel the narrative forward with the urge to linger, explore, and philosophize. Moby-Dick is a turbulent ocean of ideas, one of the great meditations on the shape and status of America— on democracy, leadership, power, industrialism, labor, expansion, and nature. The Pequod and its diverse crew become a microcosm of American society. This revolutionary novel borrowed from a myriad of literary styles and traditions, switching with astonishing ease between different bodies of knowledge. No one in American literature had written with such intensity and such ambition before. In Moby-Dick, one can find abstruse metaphysics, notes on the technicalities of dissecting a whale's foreskin, and searing passages of brine-soaked drama. Moby-Dick is an elegy, a political critique, an encyclopedia, and a ripping yarn. Just reading the novel constitutes an experience every bit as wondrous and exhausting as the journey it recounts.


MOBY DICK: Or, The Whale

Type of work: Novel
Author: Herman Melville (1819-1891)
Type of plot: Symbolic allegory
Time of plot: Early nineteenth century
Locale: High seas
First published: 1851


Herman Melville brought many disparate elements together in Moby Dick: Or, The Whale, a realistic picture of the whaling industry, an adventure-romance of the sea, an epic quest, a Faustian bargain, and metaphysical speculation. Although it is unlikely that any one interpretation of Ahab's obsessive pursuit of the white whale will ever be generally accepted, the depth, sweep, and power of the author's vision guarantees the novel's stature as one of the world's proven masterpieces.


Principal Characters

Ishmael, a philosophical young schoolmaster and sometime sailor who seeks the sea when he becomes restless, gloomy, and soured on the world. With a newfound friend Queequeg, a harpooner from the South Seas, he signs aboard the whaler Pequod as a seaman. Queequeg is the only person on the ship to whom he is emotionally and spiritually close, and this closeness is, after the initial establishment of their friendship, implied rather than described. Otherwise Ishmael does a seaman's work, observes and listens to his shipmates, and keeps his own counsel. Having been reared a Presbyterian (as was Melville), he reflects in much of his thinking the Calvinism out of which Presbyterianism grew; but his thought is also influenced by his knowledge of literature and philosophy. He is a student of cetology. Regarding Ahab's pursuit of Moby Dick, the legendary white whale, and the parts played by himself and others involved, Ishmael dwells on such subjects as free will, predestination, necessity, and damnation. After the destruction of the Pequod by Moby Dick, Ishmael, the lone survivor, clings to Queequeg's floating coffin for almost a day and a night before being rescued by the crew of another whaling vessel, the Rachel.
Queequeg, Starbuck's veteran harpooner, a tattooed cannibal from Kokovoko, an uncharted South Seas island. Formerly a zealous student of Christianity, he has become disillusioned after living among so-called Christians and, having reverted to paganism, he worships a little black idol, Yojo, that he keeps with him. Although he appears at ease among his Christian shipmates, he keeps himself at the same time apart from them, his only close friend being Ishmael. In pursuit of whales he is skilled and fearless. When he nearly dies of a fever he has the ship's carpenter build him a canoe-shaped coffin which he tries out for size and comfort; then, recovering, he saves it for future use. Ironically it is this coffin on which Ishmael floats after the sinking of the Pequod and the drowning of Queequeg.
Captain Ahab, the proud, defiant, megalomaniacal captain of the "Pequod." He is a grim, bitter, brooding, vengeful madman who has only one goal in life: the killing of the white whale that had deprived him of a leg in an earlier encounter. His most prominent physical peculiarity is a livid scar that begins under the hair of his head and, according to one crewman, extends the entire length of his body. The scar symbolizes the spiritual flaw in the man himself. His missing leg has been replaced by one of whalebone for which a small hole has been bored in the deck. When he stands erect looking out to sea, his face shows the indomitable willfulness of his spirit, and to Ishmael he seems a crucifixion of a "regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe." Ahab is in complete, strict command of his ship, though he permits Starbuck occasionally to disagree with him. Ahab dies caught, like Fedallah the Parsee in a fouled harpoon line that loops about his neck and pulls him from a whaleboat.
Starbuck, the first mate, tall, thin, weathered, staid, steadfast, conscientious, and superstitious, a symbol of "mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness." He dares to criticize Ahab's desire for vengeance, but he is as ineffectual as a seaman trying to halt a storm. Ahab once takes his advice about repairing some leaking oil casks; but when Starbuck, during a typhoon off Japan, suggests turning home, Ahab scorns him. Starbuck even thinks of killing or imprisoning Ahab while the captain is asleep, but he cannot. Having failed to dissuade Ahab from the pursuing of Moby Dick, Starbuck submits on the third day to Ahab's will, though feeling that in obeying Ahab he is disobeying God. When he makes one final effort to stop the doomed Ahab, the captain shouts to his boatmen, "Lower away!"
Stubb, the second mate, happy-go-lucky, indifferent to danger, good-humored, easy; he is a constant pipe-smoker and a fatalist.
Flask (King-Post), the young third mate, short, stout, ruddy. He relishes whaling and kills the monsters for the fun of it or as one might get rid of giant rats. In his shipboard actions, Flask is sometimes playful out of Ahab's sight but always abjectly respectful in his presence.
Fedallah, Ahab's tall, diabolical, white-turbaned Par-see servant. He is like the shadow of Ahab or the two are like opposite sides of a single character and Ahab seems finally to become Fedallah, though retaining his own appearance. The Parsee prophesies that Ahab will nave ne/trier nearse nor coffin when he dies. Fedallah dies caught in a fouled harpoon line which is wrapped around Moby Dick.
Moby Dick, a giant albino sperm whale that has become a legend among whalers. He has often been attacked and he has crippled or destroyed many men and boats. He is both a real whale and a symbol with many possible meanings. He may represent the universal spirit of evil, God the indestructible, or indifferent Nature; or perhaps he may encompass an ambiguity of meaning adaptable to the individual reader. Whatever his meaning, he is one of the most memorable nonhuman characters in all fiction.
Pip, the bright, jolly, genial little Negro cabin boy who, after falling from a boat during a whale chase, is abandoned in midocean by Stubb, who supposes that a following boat will pick him up. When finally taken aboard the Pequod, he has become demented from fright.
Tashtego, an American Indian, Stubb's harpooner. As the Pequod sinks, he nails the flag still higher on the mast and drags a giant seabird, caught between the hammer and the mast, to a watery grave.
Daggoo, a giant African, Flask's harpooner.
Father Mapple, a former whaler, now the minister at the Whaleman's Chapel in New Bedford. He preaches a Calvinistic sermon on Job filled with seafaring terms.
Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad, fighting, materialistic Quakers, who are the principal owners of the Pequod.
Elijah, a madman who warns Ishmael and Queequeg against shipping with Captain Ahab.
Dough-Boy, the pale, bread-faced, dull-witted steward who deathly afraid of Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo does his best to satisfy their enormous appetites.
Fleece, the ship's cook. At Stubb's request he preaches a sermon to the voracious sharks and ends with a hope that their greed will kill them. He is disgusted also by Stubb's craving for whale meat.
Bulkington, the powerfully built, deeply tanned, sober-minded helmsman of the Pequod.
Perth, the ship's elderly blacksmith, who took up whaling after losing his home and family. He makes for Ahab the harpoon intended to be Moby Dick's death dart, which the captain baptizes in the devil's name.
Captain Gardiner, the skipper of Rachel for whose lost son Captain Ahab refuses to search.


The Story

Ishmael was a schoolmaster who often felt that he must leave his quiet existence and go to sea. Much of his life had been spent as a sailor, and his voyages were a means for ridding himself of the restlessness which frequently seized him. One day, he decided that he would sign on a whaling ship, and packing his carpetbag, he left Manhattan and set out, bound for Cape Horn and the Pacific.
On his arrival in New Bedford, he went to the Spouter Inn near the waterfront to spend the night. There he found he could have a bed only if he consented to share it with a harpooner. His strange bedfellow frightened him when he entered the room, for Ishmael was certain that the stranger was a savage cannibal. After a few moments, however, it became evident that the native, whose name was Queequeg, was a friendly person, for he presented Ishmael with an embalmed head and offered to share his fortune of thirty dollars. The two men quickly became friends and decided to sign on the same ship.
Eventually they signed on the Pequod, a whaler out of Nantucket, Ishmael as a seaman, Queequeg as a harpooner. Although several people seemed dubious about the success of a voyage on a vessel such as the Pequod, which was reported to be under so strange a man as Captain Ahab, neither Ishmael nor Queequeg had any intention of giving up their plans. They were, however, curious to see Captain Ahab.
For several days after the vessel had sailed, there was no sign of the captain, as he remained hidden in his cabin. The running of the ship was left to Starbuck and Stubb, two of the mates, and though Ishmael became friendly with them, he learned very little about Ahab. One day, as the ship was sailing southward, the captain strode out on deck. Ishmael was struck by his stern, relentless expression. In particular, he noticed that the captain had lost a leg and that instead of a wooden leg, he now wore one cut from the bone of the jaw of a whale. A livid white scar ran down one side of his face and was lost beneath his collar, so that it seemed as though he were scarred from head to foot.
For several days, the ship continued south looking for the whaling schools. The sailors began to take turns on masthead watches to give the sign when a whale was sighted. Ahab appeared on deck and summoned all his men around him. He pulled out an ounce gold piece, nailed it to the mast, and declared that the first man to sight the great white whale, known to the sailors as Moby Dick, would have the gold. Everyone expressed enthusiasm for the quest except Starbuck and Stubb, Starbuck especially deploring the madness with which Ahab had directed all his energies to this one end. He told the captain that he was like a man possessed, for the white whale was a menace to those who would attempt to kill him. Ahab had lost his leg in his last encounter with Moby Dick; he might lose his life in the next meeting; but the captain would not listen to the mate's warning. Liquor was brought out, and at the captain's orders, the crew drank to the destruction of Moby Dick.
Ahab, from what he knew of the last reported sighting of the whale, plotted a course for the ship that would bring it into the area where Moby Dick was most likely to be. Near the Cape of Good Hope, the ship came across a school of sperm whales, and the men busied themselves harpooning, stripping, melting, and storing as many as they were able to catch.
When they encountered another whaling vessel at sea, Captain Ahab asked for news about the white whale. The captain of the ship warned him not to attempt to chase Moby Dick, but it was clear by now that nothing could deflect Ahab from the course he had chosen.
Another vessel stopped them, and the captain of the ship boarded the Pequod to buy some oil for his vessel. Captain Ahab again demanded news of the whale, but the captain knew nothing of the monster. As the captain was returning to his ship, he and his men spotted a school of six whales and started after them in their rowboats. While Starbuck and Stubb rallied their men into the Pequod's boats, their rivals were already far ahead of them. The two mates, however, urged their crew until they outstripped their rivals in the race, and Queequeg harpooned the largest whale.
Killing the whale was only the beginning of a long and arduous job. After the carcass was dragged to the side of the boat and lashed to it by ropes, the men descended the side and slashed off the blubber. Much of the body was usually eaten by sharks, who swarm around it snapping at the flesh of the whale and at each other. The head of the whale was removed and suspended several feet in the air, above the deck of the ship. After the blubber was cleaned, it was melted in tremendous try-pots and then stored in vats below deck.
The men were kept busy, but their excitement increased as their ship neared the Indian Ocean and the probable sporting grounds of the white whale. Before long, they crossed the path of an English whaling vessel, and Captain Ahab again demanded news of Moby Dick. In answer, the captain of the English ship held out his arm, which from the elbow down consisted of sperm whalebone. Ahab demanded that his boat be lowered at once, and he quickly boarded the deck of the other ship. The captain told him of his encounter and warned Captain Ahab that it was foolhardy to try to pursue Moby Dick. When he told Ahab where he had seen the white whale last, the captain of the Pequod waited for no civilities but returned to his own ship to order the course changed to carry him to Moby Dick's new feeding ground.
Starbuck tried to reason with the mad captain, to persuade him to give up this insane pursuit, but Ahab seized a rifle and in his fury ordered the mate out of his cabin.
Meanwhile, Queequeg had fallen ill with a fever. When it seemed almost certain he would die, he requested that the carpenter make him a coffin in the shape of a canoe, according to the custom of his tribe. The coffin was then placed in the cabin with the sick man, but as yet there was no real need for it. Not long afterward Queequeg recovered from his illness and rejoined his shipmates. He used his coffin as a sea chest and carved many strange designs upon it.
The sailors had been puzzled by the appearance early in the voyage of the Parsee, Fedallah. His relationship to the captain could not be determined, but that he was highly regarded was evident. Fedallah had prophesied that the captain would die only after he had seen two strange hearses for carrying the dead upon the sea, one not constructed by mortal hands and the other made of wood grown in America. He also said that the captain himself would have neither hearse nor coffin for his burial.
A terrible storm arose one night. Lightning struck the masts so that all three flamed against the blackness of the night, and the men were frightened by this omen. It seemed to them that the hand of God was motioning them to turn from the course to which they had set themselves and return to their homes. Only Captain Ahab was undaunted by the sight. He planted himself at the foot of the mast and challenged the god of evil which the fire symbolized for him. He vowed once again his determination to find and kill the white whale.
A few days later, a cry rang through the ship. Moby Dick had been spotted. The voice was Captain Ahab's, for none of the sailors, alert as they had been, had been able to sight him before their captain. Then boats were lowered and the chase began, with Captain Ahab's boat in the lead. As he was about to dash his harpoon into the mountain of white, the whale suddenly turned on the boat, dived under it, and split it into pieces. The men were thrown into the sea, and for some time the churning of the whale prevented rescue. At length, Ahab ordered the rescuers to ride into the whale and frighten him away, so he and his men might be picked up. The rest of that day was spent chasing the whale, but to no avail.
The second day, the men started out again. They caught up with the whale and buried three harpoons in his white flanks, but he so turned and churned that the lines became twisted, and the boats were pulled every which way, with no control over their direction. Two of them were splintered, and the men had to be hauled out of the sea, but Ahab's boat had not as yet been touched. Suddenly, Ahab's boat was lifted from the water and thrown high into the air. The captain and the men were quickly picked up, but Fedallah was nowhere to be found.
When the third day of the chase began, Moby Dick seemed tired, and the Pequod's boats soon overtook him. bound to the whale's back by the coils of rope from the harpoon poles, they saw the body of Fedallah. The first part of his prophecy had been fulfilled. Moby Dick, enraged by his pain, turned on the boats and splintered them. On the Pequod, Starbuck watched and turned the ship toward the whale in the hope of saving the captain and some of the crew. The infuriated monster swam directly into the Pequod, shattering the ship's timbers. Ahab, seeing the ship founder, cried out that the Pequod—made of wood grown in America—was the second hearse of Fedallah's prophecy. The third prophecy, Ahab's death by hemp, was fulfilled when rope from Ahab's harpoon coiled around his neck and snatched him from his boat. All except Ishmael perished. He was rescued by a passing ship after clinging for hours to Queequeg's canoe coffin, which had bobbed to the surface as the Pequod sank.


Critical Evaluation

Although his early adventure novels—Typee (1846), Omoo (lW),Redburn (1849), and White Jacket (1850)— brought Herman Melville a notable amount of popularity and financial success during his lifetime, it was not until nearly fifty years after his death—in the 1920s and 1930s— that he received universal critical recognition as one of the greatest nineteenth century American authors. Melville took part in the first great period of American literature—the period that included Рое, Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Thoreau. For complexity, originality, psychological penetration, breadth, and symbolic richness, Melville achieved his greatest artistic expression with the book he wrote when he was thirty, Moby Dick: Or, The Whale. Between the time of his birth in New York City and his return there to research and write his masterpiece, Melville had circled the globe of experience—working as a bank messenger, salesman, farmhand, schoolteacher (like his narrator, Ishmael), engineer and surveyor, bowling alley attendant, cabin boy, and whaleman in the Pacific on the Acushnet. His involvement in a mutinous Pacific voyage, combined with J. N. Reynolds' accounts of a notorious whale called "Mocha Dick" (in the Knickerbocker Magazine, 1839), certainly influenced the creation of Moby Dick.
The intertangled themes of this mighty novel express the artistic genius of a mind that, according to Hawthorne, "could neither believe nor be comfortable in unbelief." Many of those themes are characteristic of American Romanticism: the "isolated self and the pain of self-discovery, the insufficiency of conventional practical knowledge in the face of the "power of blackness," the demonic center of the world, the confrontation of evil and innocence, the fundamental imperfection of man coupled with his Faustian heroism, the search for the ultimate truth, and the inadequacy of human perception. The conflict between faith and doubt was one of the major issues of the century, and Moby Dick, as Eric Mottram points out, is part of "a huge exploration of the historical and psychological origins and development of self, society and the desire to create and destroy gods and heroes." Moby Dick is, moreover, a work that eludes classification, combining elements of the psychological and picaresque novel; sea story and allegory; the epic of "literal and metaphorical quest"; the satire of social and religious events; the emotional intensity of the lyric genre, both in diction and metaphor; Cervantian romance; Dantesque mysticism; Rabelaisian humor; Shakespearean drama (both tragedy and comedy), complete with stage directions; journalistic travel book; and scientific treatise on cetol-ogy. Melville was inspired by Hawthorne's example to give his story the unifying quality of a moral parable, although his own particular genius refused to allow that parable an unequivocal, single rendering. Both in style and theme, Melville was also influenced by Spenser, Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas Carlyle, and vastly miscellaneous reading in the New York Public Library (as witnessed by the two "Etymologies" and the marvelous "Extracts" that precede the text itself, items from the writer's notes and files that he could not bear to discard). It was because they did not know how to respond to its complexities of form and style that the book was "broiled in hell fire" by contemporary readers and critics. Even today, the rich mixture of its verbal texture—an almost euphuistic flamboyance balanced by dry, analytical expository prose—requires a correspondingly receptive range on the part of the reader.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the plot of the novel is that Moby Dick does not appear physically until after five hundred pages and is not even mentioned by name until nearly two hundred pages into the novel. Yet whether it be the knowledge of reality, an embodiment of the primitive forces of nature, the deep subconscious energies of mankind, fate or destiny inevitably victorious over illusory free will, or simply the unknown in experience, it is the question of what Moby Dick stands for that tantalizes the reader through the greater part of the novel. In many ways, the great white whale may be compared to Spenser's "blatant beast" (who, in The Faerie Queene, also represents the indeterminable elusive quarry, and also escapes at the end to continue haunting the world).
It is not surprising that Moby Dick is often considered to be "the American epic." The novel is replete with the elements characteristic of that genre: the piling up of classical, biblical, historical allusions to provide innumerable parallels and tangents that have the effect of universalizing the scope of action; the narrator's strong sense of the fatefulness of the events he recounts, and his corresponding awareness of his own singular importance as the narrator of momentous, otherwise unrecorded, events; Queequeg as IshmaePs "heroic companion"; the "folk" flavor provided by countless proverbial statements; the leisurely pace of the narrative, with its frequent digressions and parentheses; the epic confrontation of life and death on a suitably grand stage (the sea), with its consequences for the human city (the Pequod)\ the employment of microcosms to explicate the whole (for example, the painting in the Spouter Inn, the Nan-tucket pulpit, the crow's nest); epithetical characterization; a cyclic notion of time and events; an epic race of heroes, the Nantucket whalers with their biblical and exotic names; the mystical power of objects like Ahab's chair, the doubloon, or the Pequod itself; the alienated, sulking hero (Ahab); the use of lists to enhance the impression of an all-inclusive compass. Finally, Moby Dick shares the usually didactic purpose of the epic; on one level, its purpose is to teach the reader about whales; on another level, it is to inspire the reader to become, himself, a heroic whaleman.
All this richness of purpose and presentation is somehow made enticing by Melville's masterly invention of his narrator. Ishmael immediately establishes a comfortable rapport with the reader in the unforgettable opening lines of the novel. He is both an objective observer of and a participant in the events recounted, both spectator and narrator. Yet he is much more than the conventional wanderer/witness. As a schoolmaster and sometime voyager, he combines book learning with firsthand experience, making him an informed observer and a convincing, moving reporter. Simply by surviving, he transcends the Byronic heroism of Ahab, as the wholesome overcomes the sinister.



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