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Herman Melville And His Novel Moby Dick In The American Literature

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Herman Melville (1819-1891) was born in New York. He was the son of a prosperous importer who went bankrupt and died young. He worked in a bank, as an elementary school teacher, and contributed to the local newspaper. He sailed as ship’s boy to Liverpool, and then joined in a whaling voyage to the South Pacific. He deserted his ship in the Marquesas, lived with a cannibal tribe, reached Tahiti and returned home aboard the frigate United States three years later. He suffered from blue cholera and moved to England in 1851.

Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) is a sample of narrative using his sea experience as basis. Melville was exploiting the South Seas topic, which had proved to be very popular. He added much information about sailing from his experience.

Omoo, though a bit inferior to Typee, was also a very successful novel of Pacific adventures. Return was a novel of exciting adventures, though it devotes too much energy to sociological satire.

Mardi (1849) has no unified narrative. It is a mixture of allegory, fiction and adventure stories. His personal experience is also present in the narrative, but this time it combines with a satiric digression. Some islands represent human follies.

Redburn: His First Voyage (1849) is based on his first voyage. It contains more fiction than facts and it was a literary achievement.

White Jacket (1849) is also based on his naval experience. It narrates some historical moments in the navy. It is a more elaborated work than earlier stories, as it keeps an analogy between fiction and reality and the crew is seen as a social microcosm.

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Moby Dick (1851) represents a new attempt to incorporate a greater load of significance to the narrative. However, the book had a disappointing reception. The main character is Ahab, who is the traditional Romantic protagonist: half hero, half villain. As Ahab is unable to change the course of his life, he dooms himself and the whole crew to a fatal destiny. There is a narrator that sometimes becomes confused with the author. Ishmael’s personality changes along the story, as he is an outsider who gradually comes to a close sense of fellowship with his companions on the ship. He relates the story for 28 chapters, then he disappears as a narrator for some chapters, and the story reverts to his narration again. The main topics are death, sin and expiation, predestination and free will. It is also the story of a voyage of revenge, a crusade against evil. Everybody is destroyed, only the narrator is left alive to tell the story. Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852) is a satiric and perverse variation of the Moby Dick fable and was a complete commercial failure.

In Moby Dick he makes a factual description of the types of whales, the way of hunting them and life at sea. But soon metaphysical inquiry and symbolic reference comes out of physical facts, and he focuses on the white whale, especially on the obsessive hatred of Moby Dick felt by Captain Ahab. Captain Ahab in his mad hunting of the white whale is doomed, there are signs from the beginning. Ahab hates the white whale, it is his obsession, his monomania and no one can stop his destiny, though it is bringing destruction for everybody. He sees Moby Dick as the incarnation of evil and wants to know the secret of human suffering.

The novel has a lot of symbols as well as biblical names for all the characters. There are dull passages mixed with others of incredibly vigour and strength. The book combines facts and fiction. Yet Moby Dick is an epic of the sea of profound significance and stands as the greatest American novel.

He only published one more important volume of fiction The Piazza Tales (1856), a collection of smaller masterpieces as Benito Cereno, Bartleby the Scrivener and The Encantadas. But as readers in general were puzzled by his writings and did not understand the symbolic significance of his work, his popularity suddenly decreased and sales were unsatisfactory.

Billy Budd, Sailor (1891) was his last work and was left unfinished. It also has a historical background. As to the story, Billy Budd becomes a handsome sailor and a favourite of the crew aboard HMS Bellipotent. The envious master-at-arms accused him of a supposed mutiny before the ship’s commander and the rest of the crew. The innocent sailor, unable to answer with words, strikes the master and kills him. Captain Vere feels his duty to call a drumhead court and Billy is executed. Vere also dies. The style is a mixture of hierarchical discipline and poetic overtones. The narrative is overloaded with double-meanings, allegories and allusions. There is a triangle formed by three psychological and moral contrasts: Billy Budd is the handsome sailor of sailors’ folklore, he is described as pink and white, is illiterate, but high spirited, athletic, represents the noble savage, has a Christ-like nature and although he is innocent, in a fallen world he’s guilty and must die; Claggart is the master-at-arms, literate, pale, evil, represents Milton’s ruined archangel, and does not insinuate himself with Budd, but he burns secretly with a subterranean fire; Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere is a sailor of distinction with a marked leaning toward everything intellectual who never went to sea without a newly replenished library, and who possesses the Father’s attributes, has a strong sense of social justice, loves Budd in privacy and executes him in public.

Melville presents a dilemma between the individual conscience and the social responsibility. Preserving discipline in the British float was a requisite to the preservation of freedom during that tense period of naval war between England and France. The solution seems to be on the side of social responsibility. Social behaviour must be put above individual beliefs, although this leads to the agony of the private conscience.

Melville took his inspiration mostly from the many years spent at sea, and the sea has a special meaning in his work, being a rich metaphor as well as the real means by which men earn their living.

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Herman Melville And His Novel Moby Dick In The American Literature. (2021, September 14). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 4, 2023, from
“Herman Melville And His Novel Moby Dick In The American Literature.” Edubirdie, 14 Sept. 2021,
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