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Cutting A Classic Down to Size

ISSUE:  Winter 1993

That Moby-Dick is an adventure story with a meaning was as apparent to reviewers in 1851 as to the academics who have studied it from a spectrum of points of view in the course of the 20th century. Melville, as scholarship has amply shown, was a lifelong metaphysical questioner and quester. And both Captain Ahab and his crew member/narrator, Ishmael, are interested in the particular whale, Moby-Dick, as much for his meaning as for his actuality. On the other hand, Melville distrusted settled answers to the profound questions of life. It would be a mistake, he has Ishmael write, to regard Moby-Dick as “a hideous, intolerable allegory.”

The remark is typical of the book’s humorously riddling complexity. The reader addressed is one who may mistakenly regard the descriptions of whaling in general and the particular whale, Moby-Dick, as fantastic. “So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world,” sententiously explains Ishmael, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby-Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.

Clearly comic here are Ishmael’s standard tall-tale protestation that Moby-Dick is no tall tale, and his tongue-in-cheek explanation that its hundreds of pages of cetology—the science of whales—had to be inserted strictly in order to set landsmen straight. When he himself soon proceeds to moralize and allegorize the cetological details, the warning against allegory is given yet another comic turn. One is left with the conclusion that Moby-Dick is most certainly allegorical, yet that attempts to nail down its meanings are not likely to succeed.

By “allegory” Melville no doubt meant first of all religious allegory. And manifestly Ahab’s refusal to accept the loss of his leg to Moby-Dick as a random event stems from the question of whether the universe is directed by the Christian god or some other principle (or non-principle). The action of Moby-Dick is driven by this religious question, and by the iconoclasm with which Ahab is determined to answer it. At the same time, Ahab’s determination is a cultural phenomenon. His lonely lucubrations on his wound are directly linked to the peculiarly American Calvinist tradition of obsessive speculation and searching for meaning.

Ahab’s search thereby helps portray an entire people in accordance with Melville’s evident purpose to write an American epic. This purpose is signaled by numerous extended similes in the manner of the Iliad and the Aeneid, many of which have to do with the American landscape and American domestic ways. The multinational crew of Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, furthermore, represents the American mixture of peoples. And Melville treats these peoples in epic fashion in his famous chapters on “Knights and Squires.” Here he celebrates the “kingly commons”—the low-born but heroic crew of the whaling ship—as the equals of any aristocratic, heroic figures sung by previous epic authors.

On the other hand, Ahab is an authoritarian. As Starbuck exclaims, “he would be a democrat to all above; look how he lords it over all below!” This is to say that if Ahab’s challenge to the heavens expresses a democratic/religious heritage, his control over and humiliations of the common people as represented by the crew are decidely antidemocratic. Obviously Melville means to bring to mind the ancient wisdom that democracy is the form most susceptible to the demagogic leader. In this context, as critics have long noted, Moby-Dick may be said to have broadly social and political meaning. In the 1980’s, though, this meaning came be reduced to precisely the settled answers of allegory that Melville had warned against. To understand how this came about, it is necessary to go back to the formative period of American academic criticism.

In 1941, in American Renaissance, F. O. Matthiessen described the famous “kingly commons” peroration in Moby-Dick as a “fusion of Christianity and democracy.” Here and elsewhere, Melville located the source of the divine spirit of equality among men in the spiritual equality offered by Christianity. This meant that, like much else in Moby-Dick, the democratic element was spiritual before it was political. The nature of the democratic element was further complicated by its inherent imperfections. From the beginning of his writing career, as Matthiessen showed, Melville “did not sentimentalize the sailor.” On the contrary, in the scene of “needless cruelty” to a dying whale on the part of Flask, the third Mate, Melville took a harshly critical view of the common man. (Matthiessen regarded Flask’s cruelty as representative not of the officer class but of common humanity.) “Though whaling is necessary to civilization,” Matthiessen concluded, “still this crew may deserve something of the retribution that overtakes it.” Finally, though it was important to assess Melville’s attitudes toward social class, Matthiessen concluded that, after all, “Melville’s tragedies are more concerned with spiritual and metaphysical issues even than with the economic and social.”

In 1951 Henry Nash Smith explored “The Image of Society in Moby-Dick” to determine Melville’s social-political point of view or tendency. Smith found, somewhat incidentally, that Ahab is “endowed with menacing and irresistible force through being associated with the machines of the Industrial Revolution.” Evidently with Matthiessen in mind, Smith observed that, this imagery has seemed to support the interpretation of Ahab as an embodiment of the inhuman will-to-power which Melville discerned in developing American capitalism. Yet I do not think that the industrial imagery, taken as a whole, provides, or was meant to provide, a coherent image of American society.

Matthiessen, alluding to the so-called robber barons of American industry, had suggested that Ahab’s “career is prophetic of many others in the history of later nineteenth-century America.” But if Melville had been “prophetic” of what was to come, Matthiessen added, it was “without deliberately intending it.”

In addition, Matthiessen wrote of Melville that even where he confronted nascent industrial capitalism directly, his “main concern was not with studying the factory system, but with human suffering wherever he found it.” Matthiessen and Smith therefore agreed that Melville’s social and political attitudes were secondary. But they differed in their estimates of these attitudes. What Matthiessen took as prophetic of capitalist excesses struck Smith as vague and intellectually dubious. Smith wrote, for example, that Melville delivered a “radical accusation of unjust force” against governments in the famous “Fast-Fish, Loose-Fish” chapter. (Loose-Fish are slain whales that have drifted to where they can be seized by anyone.) Here Melville had philosophized on other seizures of unsecured property such as that of the Mexican territory taken by the United States, and the seizure of persons into slavery. Smith was hard on the passage, in which, he charged, the denial of any moral basis for political institutions is finally carried to the utmost extremity: “What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish?” I do not see how [the passage] can be described as anything except philosophical anarchy, with the strong overtones of primitivism that philosophical anarchy usually has.

Smith made two points about the social and political in Moby-Dick. First, though the “democratic dignity” celebrated in the “Knights and Squires” chapter “is the central affirmation of the novel,” it is on the other hand “not primarily a social value at all. The democracy which Melville has in mind is not a political system or even a social system, it is independent of institutions.” Richard Chase, among others, would make the same point in the course of the 1950’s. Second, Smith judged Melville’s social and political ideas to be not only philosophically irresponsible but also confused. For example, the alternative to Ahab’s destructive nihilism is Ishmael’s discovery of brotherhood. This discovery is affirmed through Ishmael’s surviving the wreck of the Pequod, his miraculous immunity from the sharks as he floats in the sea, and his almost equally miraculous delivery by the ship Rachel. But Smith observes that “in a universe without God [such as one finds in Moby-Dick}, such a miracle is hard to account for.” Nor, in Smith’s opinion, is Ishmael’s discovery of brotherhood “sufficiently specified.” Instead, “at the end of the book, we are convinced it has occurred, but we are not fully able to say how or why.”

Smith’s and Matthiessen’s readings are admirable for their willingness to question the literary status of Melville’s fervid declarations of egalitarianism, as well as his recurrent gestures toward a radical criticism of society. After all, Matthiessen was a political radical dedicated to egalitarianism, and Smith apparently a left-leaning liberal. Matthiessen, furthermore, had declared the common element among the writers discussed in his American Renaissance to be “their devotion to the possibilities of democracy.” Yet Matthiessen, Smith, and most other critics through the 1950’s refused to make too much of Melville’s explicit devotion to these possibilities. Regarding those passages in Moby-Dick where social criticism or preaching the democratic doctrine became undeniably prominent, Smith in particular emphasized Melville’s literary failure to integrate them coherently.


Beginning in the 1960’s, the primacy of literary judgment exemplified by Matthiessen and Smith was to suffer an erosion and then a reversal. The social and political element in Moby-Dick was first deemed more extensive, then more central, then more coherent than critics through the 1950’s had maintained. Eventually, the social and political were deemed worthy to stand on their own, divorced from the metaphysical element of the book. Critics now arrived at a broad agreement that the social and political element was far more politically radical than had been thought. Not only this, but they agreed that the fundamental meaning of Moby-Dick was political.

The groundwork for cutting Moby-Dick down to political size was laid by two highly informative but potentially misleading scholarly articles that appeared at the turn of the 1960’s. In these, Charles Foster and Alan Heimert uncovered a rich web of allusion by Melville to the political controversies of his day. Charles Foster found echoes from antislavery sermons of the 1840’s in Father Mapple’s sermon on Jonah early in the book. Alan Heimert demonstrated that political speeches in the 1840’s frequently employed the ship of state metaphor implicit in Moby-Dick to warn against the Mexican War and the threat of civil war over slavery. The question raised by both articles was how and to what extent Melville’s use of contemporary rhetoric indicated a taking of political positions in Moby-Dick.

Foster theorized that the events of the early 1850’s, particularly the Compromise of 1850 (permitting the extension of slavery into some of the territories being settled in the West), had turned a politically cautious Melville into a fierce opponent of slavery. As a result, “in the spring and summer of 1851,” with “great energy and skill” he inserted into his nearly complete manuscript “radical passages and sometimes chapters” that amounted to a buried, nearly imperceptible “antislavery fable.” The fable had gone undetected because “with almost equal energy and skill,” Melville had “covered his tracks, withdrawing into ambiguities and symbols difficult even yet to decipher.”

For Alan Heimert, Moby-Dick particularly reflected contemporary rhetoric critical of American expansionism. His findings overlapped with Foster’s insofar as opposition to territorial expansion had been based on objections to the extension of slavery. If “as one suspects,” Heimert agreed with Foster, Melville invites the reader

to approach Moby-Dick as something of a political “fable,” then Ishmael’s point of view has been clearly identified with the “Barnburners,” or “Free Soilers,” as their opposition to the extension of slavery led them to be called.

But if Melville flirted with outright abolitionism, Heimert continues, he ended, contrary to Foster’s analysis, as its critic.


Melville supported the Compromise of 1850, as abolitionists decidedly did not, and in the end rested in “the democratic faith” that the slavery issue would yet be solved peacefully. Heimert did insist that Melville incorporated in Moby-Dick some of the strains of expansion, slavery, and succession. And that both before and after Moby-Dick, “ he continued to question the imperialist ambitions of American Democracy.” But Heimert also found that Melville’s antiexpansionism reflected not radicalism but the current Whig, prudential dislike of adventurism. The same dislike, even though Melville “detested” slavery, kept him firmly opposed to antislavery extremism.

Heimert and Foster’s rival interpretations provided an object lesson in the risks of attempting to assign a fixed political meaning to Moby-Dick. But the two critics did uncover numerous contemporary references to highly charged public issues. Once one recognizes these as a contemporary reader would have, a good deal of bite is added to the famous evocations of democratic equality. In one of its moods at least, Moby-Dick does indeed display a “visceral democracy” (Heimert), or even a “commitment to radical democracy” (Foster). But to say this is still not to impose any specific political allegory on Moby-Dick.

Soon after Foster and Heimert’s essays appeared in the early 1960’s, there took place a revival of 1930’s-style interest in Matthiessen’s “possibilities of democracy.” In the second radical decade of the 20th century, though, the emphasis shifted from celebration of these possibilities to condemnation of the American historical record. The critic Leo Marx showed the way by seizing on a single element in his teacher Henry Nash Smith’s essay on Moby-Dick: the malevolent images of machines. By omitting both Smith’s literary analysis of these images, and his contention that they never added up to a coherent image of American society, Marx was able to politicize them.

Smith had put it that Melville chiefly exploited “the ominous character of the machine. . .to express Ahab’s inhuman determination to use the crew of the Pequod as mere tools.” Leo Marx now asserted that the point of the machine comparisons was not so much to expose Ahab’s inhumanity as to illustrate that, as Karl Marx also believed, “the Age of Machinery transforms men into objects.” Following Leo Marx, other critics of the 1960’s, without necessarily bringing Karl Marx into the picture, began to isolate Matthiessen’s “economic and social” element.

Responding to the heightened social consciousness of the decade, critics gradually assumed the coherent social picture of America said by Smith not to exist. For a time they were apologetic. Milton Stern, for example, in his 1969 essay, “Moby-Dick, Millenial Attitudes, and Politics,” called his own isolating of “the political level of the book” a “distortion.” But his distortion actually had to do less with isolating than with moralizing politics. He emphasized in the traditional way the temperamental and metaphysical contrast between Ahab and Ishmael. With justice he described Ahab’s manipulation of the crew as dictatorial, and Ishmael’s contrasting “marriage to the world of actual men” as an “accommodating democracy.” This much fell squarely in the tradition of Matthiessen’s treating Ishmael as a representative of democratic brotherhood.

Where Stern went astray was in his treatment of Ahab’s “totalitarian” tendency. This term, too, went back respectably to Matthiessen, for whom the totalitarian dictators of the 1930’s provided a contemporary angle on Ahab. Leo Marx, though, had once again escalated the insight, asserting that “Melville anticipates the twentieth century’s discovery that prudential, rationalistic cultures are peculiarly vulnerable to leaders of mad purpose.” In the 1960’s, of course, parallels between American Presidents and the totalitarian Hitler— though not often the totalitarian Stalin—became the common coin of political radicalism. Taking up the rhetoric of the day along with Leo Marx, Stern made reference to the Congressional resolution that permitted President Lyndon Johnson to send troops to Vietnam. The scene in which Ahab swears the crew to the pursuit of Moby-Dick became for Stern a “Gulf of Tonkin mandate,” that is, a deception to make possible an illegal aggression. The American President’s actions regarding Vietnam were, in Stern’s view, Hitlerian, totalitarian manipulations like Ahab’s. He therefore concluded, with a touch of melodrama of his own, that such political actions were precisely what Melville had warned against: “The rhetoric and the causes of the fuhrers and commissars and “democratic” demagogues will kill you, [Melville] says to the millions of the peopled earth.”

Stern would have been on surer ground if he had in mind an already accomplished abuse of power by an American demagogue. As it stood, his argument that Melville accurately prophesied such an abuse depended on his personal worries of the moment about the ambitions of Lyndon Johnson—a man actually about to surrender the Presidency. That Ahab evokes fears of demagogy is undeniable. But so is the historical record, in which eccentrics of his stripe have always remained marginal in America. Their existence therefore not only points up some of the darker impulses in the democracy, as the critics have it, but also the immunity rather than susceptibility of “rationalistic cultures” to totalitarians. More characteristic of such cultures, it develops, has it been to produce grave warnings against totalitarianism by critics like Stern and Marx. After the 1960’s, when the warnings might have been expected to abate, the critics’ fears instead increased, until their growing preoccupations with American evil came to dominate critical writing on Moby-Dick.


Recently, a University of Kansas professor traced this escalation in the course of an essay on how current events and changing academic ideologies influenced her teaching. Elizabeth Schultz’s remarkably frank account of how she presented Moby-Dick to students over the years begins in 1967. She recalls that at that time she emphasized Ishmael’s pregnant observation that it is impossible to see the whale in its entirety. As she analyzed it, this observation could be interpreted as

Ishmael’s attempt to communicate to us, to convince us that life is good though we cannot know it absolutely, though we can only continue to try to know it. It is a commitment to process rather than to progress.

In 1967 this interpretation represented a rather unpolitical version of Matthiessen’s opposition between Ahab’s moral absolutism and Ishmael’s genial acceptance of uncertainty. Schultz, though, appears to be investing her recollection of how she taught with a dose of 1980’s moralism when she represents Ishmael as attempting to “communicate to us.” It seems more likely that she adopted the objective teaching manner of the day, restricting herself to presenting Ishmael’s compromise with life as his own rather than as a vulgar attempt to proselytize. But she has otherwise captured the academic approach to Moby-Dick that prevailed through the 1960’s.

“In the spring of 1971,” though, Schultz continues her account,

America is in conflict in Viet Nam, and in conflict with itself. . . . At the University of Kansas, the Union has burned; the military science building and the computer science center have been bombed. . .new courses and new degrees are being created—they must be “relevant.”

This summary is in no way meant to be either ironic or critical of the way events intruded on college instruction. On the contrary, promptly enough, in Schultz’ own class “Melville and Moby-Dick resounded with “relevency.”” For her the book was transformed: “Before this class in 1971, I’d not realized how fully Moby-Dick resonates with the strengths and weaknesses of our culture.” It now emerged that “both Ahab and Ishmael are rebels,” and that they share “anti-authoritarianism.”

In the remaining account of 1971 that follows, Schultz, very much in the spirit of the period, represents her interpretation as coming from the students. Presumably they just happen to have “perceived” the radical politicizations then being introduced into classrooms under the guise of literary analysis. But it is obvious that her reference to the “extinct” Pequot Indians after whom Melville’s whaleship is named can hardly have come from the students. Had any of them knowledge of this New England tribe from their history books, it would not have included the accusation, just then being leveled by radical revisionist historians, that the Puritans exterminated the Pequots. (The accusation was eventually refuted.)

In Professor Schultz’s account the students of 1971 “perceived quite rightly” that

Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, was, among other things, a ship of state and a factory ship, that is, a representation of the democratic system, with its industrial underpinnings. They saw that Melville had mixed feelings about both democracy and capitalism, that indeed he regarded both America’s political and economic system with equal eye. Seeing their strengths, he also saw them veering toward imperialism. Given my students’ awareness of racial tensions in and military aggression by the United States in 1971, they appreciated Melville’s irony in naming his ship after an extinct tribe of Massachusetts Indians. They applauded Ishmael’s antipathy toward whiteness as a color associated with imperialism, and they deprecated Stubb’s bullying attitude toward the black cook and the black cabin boy.

The capitalistic system, imperialism, race. . . these were what Moby-Dick was supposed to be about as of 1971—along with “exploitation of natural resources” (mentioned a bit further on in Schultz’ account).

“Through the seventies and into the eighties,” Professor Schultz continues her account, certain feelings—strictly on the students’ parts of course—entered her classroom. The sinking of the Pequod now suggested a prophecy of nuclear “Armageddon.” By 1988, the date of Professor Schultz’ article, Moby-Dick conveyed the political homily that “it remains possible for us as individuals to choose to work to curtail” the production of nuclear weapons. And personally, “Moby-Dick convinces me,” adds Professor Schultz, “to work to prevent ecological, economic, or political catastrophe.” Nor is this all. For “I have also been teaching women’s literature courses,” writes Professor Schultz. Moby-Dick, it now develops, reflects “our patriarchal society.” And Ahab’s “single-minded vision,” as it turns out, “is anti-feminist.”

The sources of Professor Schultz’s conversion in the spring of 1971 are traced further back by Carolyn Karcher in her Shadow Over the Promised Land: Slavery, Race and Violence in Melville’s America (1980). She “discovered a side of Melville I had always overlooked,” she reports, thanks to “the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.” They made her realize that in the course of his career Melville

had written impassioned indictments of American and European imperialism. . .slavery. . .pauperism and mistreatment of emigrants. . . flogging and militarism. . . the betrayal of American Revolutionary ideals. . .the complacency of the rich and the exploitation of the working class.

Melville had also—though this insight appears to derive from somewhat later than the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War periods—”paid eloquent homage to the courageous endurance of a woman victimized by the greed and lust of men.”

Karcher and Schultz establish that by 1971 the politicization of Moby-Dick that would be typical of criticism in the 1980’s was virtually complete. All that remained was to add homosexuals and American Indians to the ranks of the exploited, to add the note of bitterness to that of outrage, and to claim exclusivity for the politicized view. By 1983 Robert Milder could observe (in the annual, American Literary Scholarship) that: “by chance or not, all of the year’s longer writings dealt in one way or another with Melville and politics.” It was not necessary to specify that “politics” here referred to the imposition on Moby-Dick of contemporary political issues deemed important to academics on the left.

Despite the exaggerations produced by the politicizing of Moby-Dick, it is not wrong to say that Melville had American capitalism much in mind as he wrote. That the voyage of the Pequod is a capitalist venture cannot be doubted. Nor is it possible to miss the implication that Ahab is a captain of industry, inasmuch as he directs a full-scale factory ship. For his American epic, Melville appropriately chose a characteristically American, entrepreneurial, industrial undertaking for the central action. Richard Chase spoke for most critics of the 1950’s when he termed Ahab an “epic transmutation of the free enterpriser.”

Yet if in Moby-Dick “ the myth is capitalism,” as Chase put it, capitalism never became an analytic category for Melville. Ahab is a heroic figure who happens to be cast in a capitalist mode. He would have been a heroic warrior for an epic of archaic Greece, or a slayer of dragons rather than whales for an epic of the Anglo-Saxons, or an explorer for an epic of Renaissance Portugal (to name three periods in which epics that influenced Melville were created).

To be sure, some critics have always given greater weight than others to the capitalist-American element. But as Philip Gleason observed in 1963, prior to that date “no one, except perhaps an occasional Marxist,” had given Moby-Dick an “out and out political interpretation.” Before the 1960’s, moreover, not even Marxists claimed that capitalism told the whole story. The Marxist James B. Hall, for example, in “Moby-Dick: Parable of a Dying System” (1950), predictably treated Ahab as driven “by the spirit of free enterprise,” and as representing industrialism “in the very image of himself: ruthless, cunning, and fatal.” But Hall concluded that “the implications of the economic aspects—Moby-Dick as Industrial Saga—do not, it seems to me, present the most relevant meaning of the book.”

Despite this disclaimer, after the 1960’s Hall’s kind of Marxist anticapitalism came to be accepted without reservations. In 1964, the year following Philip Gleason’s relegation of the political interpretation to the occasional Marxist, Leo Marx published his The Machine in the Garden, with its transformation of Henry Nash Smith’s observations about industrial imagery into a putatively out-and-out attack by Melville on capitalism. In a few years—following the political and cultural upheavals between 1965 and 1970—critics began taking it as an undisputed fact that Melville was an author concerned about “the fate of the poor,” and bent on “exposing the essence of capitalist society.” At the very least Melville, if not yet at a conscious level, was moving toward the “outright condemnation” of “the capitalist mode of economy” that would (supposedly) characterize his later works.


By the 1980’s the previously marginal Marxist view had become the common coin of criticism. The action of Moby-Dick was now seen as grounded in “capitalist expansion and possession,” or in “industrial capitalism.” Ahab is obsessed with the white whale because “capitalist appropriation has failed him”; he is “like a disappointed fetishizer of commodities.” Moby-Dick is once again an “industrial saga” and a demonstration of “class conflict” in which Ahab exploits his “proletarian crew.” If anything, Hall’s language in 1950, though avowedly Marxist, was more nuanced than this. “The death of the Pequod,” he had written,

is the ultimate destiny of a culture which holds values that are contradictory to human welfare. If Ahab is a product, in a sense, of the culture and of the machine, he extends the implication to the point of destruction for all.

The kind of argumentation represented by Hall’s phrase “in a sense” was no longer in evidence in the 1970’s and 1980’s; instead the unabashed return of the word “proletarian” signaled a revival of the didactic spirit of the 1930’s.


If Melville set out primarily to criticize capitalism, as all these critics assumed, it followed that the Pequod goes to the bottom of the sea because it is the ship of the American capitalist state. With capitalism in the picture, long-discussed questions about how to interpret the whale’s sinking of the ship dropped from sight. Seemingly forgotten was the observation by earlier critics that even if one narrows the symbolic meanings of the Pequod to its ship of state aspect, the sinking still has ambiguous implications. Was Melville issuing a prophecy or a warning? What is the meaning of Ishmael’s survival?

In 1964 Alan Heimert had concluded that Ishmael’s survival expressed Melville’s “undying democratic faith,” and that the American ship Rachel that takes him aboard “points to an American future that is not without charity and not, perhaps most importantly, without hope.” Even Leo Marx similarly if more darkly wrote that “Ishmael is saved. . .in order that he may deliver to us a warning of disasters to come.” But in the 1970’s and 1980’s the issue was solved flatly and unequivocally. Ishmael’s survival notwithstanding, the American ship of state deserved (and deserves) to sink, and so Melville sank it.

The critics had different ideas about exactly which American sins Melville was punishing. For one critic the spectacle is simply the satisfying one of an “industrial world sailing to annihilation.” Richard Slotkin specifies that the Pequod goes down because of “our devotion to material progress.” Michael Rogin spreads his net wider. “Capitalism, imperialism, and slavery were, at the origins of capitalism, symbiotically intertwined,” he believes. The American ship of state accordingly goes down in retribution for its “greed,” as a result of its fetishization of commodities, because it “engrossed half of Mexico,” and finally because of slavery and Indian killing: “those who killed the red man and enslaved the black met their manifest destiny in Moby-Dick.” By “rooting Ahab’s freedom in the enslavement of his crew,” Rogin further explains, Melville showed that in the American “so-called free society,” freedom was based on slavery. Therefore even “if the end of Moby-Dick imagines the end of slavery, then the price is the destruction of the ship of state.”

Robert K. Martin puts it that the catastrophe has to do with slavery conceived as “the blood guilt at the center of American experience.” Still, for him as for Rogin, capitalism (a matter of “profits and war”) also plays its role. Carolyn Karcher sees Melville as pronouncing a just possibly evadable “apocalyptic judgment that threatens America for her continued enslavement of the Negro.” It is more common, though, for critics to regard the coming apocalypse as inevitable.

On the other hand, slavery is usually regarded as merely a part of Melville’s wider indictment of America. Expressing evident satisfaction, one critic broadly puts it that “the kingdom which raises its Ahabs to command will come to grief smartly.” Another has it that Ishmael envisions the coming fate of an “unrepentant republic.” (The former critic explains that Melville was showing that the whole idea of America as a “free republic” is a “tragic illusion.”) Still another critic, positing that Melville was disillusioned because America had “deserted its principles,” concludes that in Moby-Dick “ the dreaded judgment” eventually “befalls America. . .because the redeemer nation has become indistinguishable from Babylon.”

Other critics believe that Moby-Dick is a still wider “critique of Western civilization in its latest destructive incarnation.” Here again, Leo Marx showed the way. “Thoughout Moby-Dick,” he had written, “Melville uses machine imagery to relate the undisguised killing and butchery of whaling to the concealed violence of “civilized” Western society.” Melville is asking us, one critic of the 1980’s concludes, “if we can survive the free [Western] world Ishmael has handed down to us.” Putting this view in the most up-to-date terms so far, still another critic explains that “Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of the White Whale is ultimately motivated by a will to power” characteristic of. . .”Western logocentric man.”

In these interpretations, Matthiessen’s democratic possibilities have devolved into an unremitting vision of American evil. In the process, the possible wreck of the ship of state is reduced from a way of raising questions about an entire nation and its culture to a way of denouncing that nation’s (or the West’s) production system and its putative excesses. The ship’s sinking can only be a punishment for these, the critics of the 1970’s and 1980’s believe, despite its having been pointed out, among other obvious objections, that such catastrophes are traditional in the epic and tragic writings to which Melville encourages the reader to compare Moby-Dick.

In small matters as in large, a uniform rhetoric of stolid denunciation has come to prevail in discussions of Moby-Dick. Take the richly allusive doubloon nailed to the mast by Ahab and variously interpreted by him and the members of his crew as they successively step forward to inspect it. In 1970, in recognition that nothing better characterizes Melville’s masterpiece than its profusion of multiple significations, an anthology of commentaries was titled “Moby-Dick” As Doubloon. But to Leo Marx, money simply implied capitalism. Ahab uses the doubloon, Marx had it, because he “concludes” that “his best hope is to exploit the simple, quantitative, acquisitive system of value honored by a capitalist society.” Once again critics took up the refrain. Ahab’s “offering the doubloon as reward for the first sighting” of the white whale was an attempt “to integrate Moby-Dick into. . . the money system.” Or, making the anticapitalist argument in an opposite way, because the doubloon is decidely not “ part of the system of capital that commissioned the ship,” it deflects attention away from capitalism, thereby demonstrating that Melville was not yet as politically radical as he should have been.

With the doubloon, as with other elements of Moby-Dick, the critics are likely to offer conflicting interpretations, but to refrain from arguing about these inasmuch as they agree fundamentally that, one way or another, some kind of aspersion on America, and particularly on capitalism, is involved. So has it been with the “railroad image” called attention to by Henry Nash Smith. Intones Ahab:

The path to my fixed purpose is laid over with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!

Despite the easy assumptions of some critics, Smith showed these iron rails, like Moby-Dick’s other industrial images with “malign” implication, are not employed as part of any anti-industrial or anti-capitalist critique. But Leo Marx had nevertheless gone on to pronounce that the iron rails represent “heedless, unbridled, nineteeth-century American capitalism.” And so Ahab came to be seen as a hard, industrial or industrial-capitalist “iron” man.


One critic finds that by employing “the language of territorial conquest and expansion, Ahab’s speech”illustrates the connection between the capitalist search for wealth and the partriarchal search for power. “Another critic similarly has it that we recognize and deplore “Ahab’s expansionist voyage.” A third critic offers the opposite finding that Ahab “is in the power of the machine.” Melville means to convey, this critic believes, “the negative of American hopes that technology would empower free men.” The first of these critics well expresses current thinking when he writes that,

seeing Ahab’s soul as a railroad train may indeed convince us of his determination, but it must also convince us of Ahab’s identification with the [malevolent] forces that built the railroad, conquering a continent and subduing nature.

It is evident that virtually any mention of industry, or as in the case of the doubloon, any mention of money will set some people to thinking about capitalism. It does not matter that neither industry nor money are exclusive to capitalism. Forgotten is that Judas was lured by thirty pieces of silver and that greed, rapacity, and economic exploitation all predate capitalism. Nor does it seem to matter to politicizing interpreters that capitalism is not, to say the least, universally regarded as an evil. Finally, it does not seem to matter that there has as yet been no response to Henry Nash Smith’s contention that Melville alluded to capitalism and industry in a haphazard rather than a coherent way.


The same historical amnesia regarding previous criticism prevails in discussions of Moby-Dick’s main characters and themes. Starbuck, the First Mate who tries to dissuade Ahab from his mad quest, went from being regarded as “the most admirable” crew member (though some thought they detected weakness in his eventual submission), to being called an “accessory to Ahab’s evil purpose.” The word “buck” in his name came to suggest “the cash-minded manufactured man.” He now exemplified the “sorrowing liberalism” that got America into Vietnam. And his “tragedy is the tragedy of American democracy itself.”

In contrast, Queequeg has been elevated from the convenient object of Ishmael’s musings on the essential brotherhood of all races and religions, to Starbuck’s former “most admirable” status. Although, as a harpooner, Queequeg has nothing whatever to do with Captain Ahab, one critic believes that “among all the characters only one, Queequeg, is placed by Melville in effective opposition to Ahab.” Even though he is a South Sea islander and the son of a king, Queequeg is assumed without question to represent subjugated American blacks, and to make Moby-Dick a work dedicated to the abolition of slavery. Queequeg anchors book-length interpretations in which Moby-Dick is variously made out to be a pacifist tract, a celebration of homosexuality, and if not primarily so at least in part a protest against the treatment of American Indians and the lot of the working class.

One could go on and on with examples of widely-accepted, politicized readings, each of which has its modicum of truth, yet just as surely acts to flatten out and cut down to narrow political use a work that heretofore shot out richly suggestive sparks of meaning in all directions. “Who aint a slave? Tell me that,” asks Ishmael in reflecting on how as a common seaman he was callously ordered, pushed about, and even thumped from behind. “Everybody else,” he argues, “is one way or other served in much the same way—either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is.” His contention prompts one to reflect on all kinds of human coercion. But the critics, convinced as they are that Ishmael has in mind economic exploitation exclusively, stop at the employer-employee relationship. And, rather than seeing this relationship as a two-way street, they assume it to be modeled exclusively on master-slave oppression.

Without question, Melville had in mind the economic exploitation of American workers, just as with his references to iron rails and the doubloon he meant to evoke first the terrifying power of industrial machines, and then the lure of money in a commercial society. This society, moreover, is surely implicated in the looming perils toward which the American ship of state is metaphorically sailing. As for the crime of American slavery, this surely is not absent from Moby-Dick. There is even warrant for the claim that at one point a connection is made in the book between homoerotic brotherhood and democracy. Yet taken all together Melville’s radical critiques of American capitalism and American democracy convey only a small part of his imaginative construct.

As it happens, privately Melville was by no means the critic of the status quo that his critics assume. He was not politically radicalized while writing Moby-Dick, as it has come to be accepted. Just as he distrusted radical abolitionism and supported the Compromise of 1850, so, too, did he disapprove of the European revolutions of 1848 that are supposed to have honed his allegiance to the working class. Once one recognizes “Melville’s conservative response to the French revolution” of 1848, writes Larry J. Reynolds, one realizes that in Moby-Dick he “provides a damning appraisal of the workingman, at least as he exists on the Pequod.” Indeed, it emerges that Melville has “imbedded the allegory of a group of workingmen incited to violence and revolt by a political radical [Ahab] who plays upon their fear and greed and inspires them to destroy themselves.”

Reynolds demonstrates a “tension” in Melville between concern for the humble and attraction to the exceptional among human beings. “Throughout his works,” Reynolds concludes,

his democracy expresses itself explicitly in a humanitarian concern for Polynesian natives, Negro slaves, Irish immigrants, common sailors, and the poor and outcast in general, while his elitism implicitly informs the attributes, attitudes, and actions of his main characters, who are socially and intellectually superior to the mass of ordinary men.

Reynolds observes that “recognition of this tension in Melville’s thought is not prevalent among his major biographers and critics, and, over the years, only a handful of commentators have pointed it out.”

It is no wonder that American criticism should be biased toward the egalitarian side of an author who, like Melville, contains opposing impulses. Such a bias flowed naturally from F. O. Matthiessen’s emphasis on the possibilities of democracy in the American classics. But in favoring the democratic Ishmael over the authoritarian Ahab, which was certainly Melville’s intention, American critics have tended to neglect the attraction in Ahab’s sinister, Napoleonic majesty. Post-1960’s critics have gone a step further, remaining entirely caught up in Ishmael’s passing concerns with particular issues: economic exploitation, slavery, imperialism, and warfare. They ignore that these problems are only the ideational reflections of another kind of questioning in Moby-Dick,

Running far deeper than Melville’s own moderate politics, this questioning has to do with more than politics. For Melville’s ultimate challenge was to things as they are: to social and personal relations, to the Christian world view, to the patriarchal gods and the place in the universe to which they assign mankind, to the relationship between the sexes. Not the inequities of any particular regime or national culture were Melville’s urgent concern, but the fundamental inequities of being. He was, after all, writing an epic.

An epic is a work that at once celebrates a culture and explores its deepest contradictions. In Beowulf the land and the court of the Danish chieftan, Hrothgar, rest secure from danger thanks to the bravery of his nobles. But every night a monster snatches and kills one of the heroes from the court. Something is wrong, after all. In Moby-Dick the nation represented by the Pequod rests secure thanks to its intrepidity and resourcefulness. Its heroes subdue nature’s most fearsome monster in the farthest reaches of the Pacific. But one of the monsters thwarts them all, killing many and leaving one of their best, Ahab, maimed in body and spirit. Something is wrong here, too. The epic writer suggests that this something is that which lies beyond the aims that his culture has been satisfied to pursue. And he hints at the costs of ignoring or denying this something.

Needless to say, all of the guilts that radical critics would heap upon America can come to mind when the question of the culture’s limitations is raised, as it is by Moby-Dick. But Melville’s ultimate cause of discontent with his civilization is no simple addition of all its crimes, however distressing these may be. Instead, the discontent has to do with the ultimate inadequacy of the culture’s celebrated achievements. In the America of Moby-Dick these are represented by the subduing and transforming of raw nature in the form of the whale to yield light for the lamps of civilized life.

The existential inadequacy of each culture’s achievements is symbolized in epic not only by the monster, but also by the ultimate fate of the hero who pursues it. As Christopher Clausen observes,

Gilgamesh will conquer the monster but fail to capture the secret of eternal life. Hector will lose his final battle. Troy will fall. Achilles will die young. Beowulf will overcome Grendel, but when he grows old the dragon will defeat him and doom his people to extinction.

In Moby-Dick the catastrophe at the end is not something having to do with the unequal arrangement of cabins aboard the Pequod. It is not, that is to say, about class any more than it is about capitalism. Insofar as the Pequod represents the American ship of state, class and capitalism are of course part of the picture. But the central meanings lie elsewhere. As Jeremy Ingalls has written, the epic “begins and ends with a selection of events deployed as emblems for the maximum dilemmas of the human soul.” The ending of Moby-Dick is deployed to suggest that democratic/commercial civilization has not resolved the dilemmas of human existence as well as it thinks. Despite this culture’s successes, despite its ability to bring light, it remains metaphysically inadequate before the irreducible savagery of apparently subdued nature.

In any culture, the dilemma posed by epic constitutes a challenge. To face the challenge by admitting that some higher purpose may continue to elude the culture can be to take a step in the evolution of a higher consciousness. To ignore the challenge, or to conceptualize it in a narrow manner, may be to forgo the opportunity of taking such a step forward. As the Iliad challenged the ancients, and the Bible Christian cultures, so later works, not all of them epics strictly speaking, have challenged particular national cultures. Shakespeare provided the English and Don Quixote the Spanish similar opportunities for centuries-long examinations of the national spirit.

The English were in effect presented by German scholars with the works of Shakespeare as objects of the highest kind of contemplation. Similarly, the Americans, who ignored Melville for three quarters of a century, were presented by the Englishman, D. H. Lawrence, with Moby-Dick as a worthy object of their attention. Both the English and the Americans redeemed their neglect by making their own the works that had been presented to them in a new light. For some 40 years after D. H. Lawrence’s revelation, American criticism of Moby-Dick was conducted as an act of cultural self-criticism, and hence took its place alongside the most serious critical dialogues of other cultures. After the 1960’s, the higher criticism of Moby-Dick withered, having been replaced by political sniping.

In the process, Moby-Dick did indeed become an intolerable allegory. Where readers and critics had sensed a criticism of the culture for its having missed some ineffable part of human existence, critics came to regard the problem posed by Moby-Dick as something palpable and external. Nothing could have been more inappropriate to the epic ambition of Herman Melville. His vast work in effect fell into the hands of Lilliputians, to be cut down to their own size. As for American literary culture, serious discussion about its single uncontested masterwork was interrupted. This meant that whatever contribution the literary community can make to the evolving national consciousness was severely interfered with. Surely no other literary development could have been more unfortunate for American culture.


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