Metaphysical Overtones in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" by munaaz


									Moby Dick is an epic-novel with epic-dimensions to it. Moby Dick, as simple as it is on
the superficial level has multifarious dimensions to it. A reason for the richness of the
novel is the different layers of meaning that can be ferreted out from the novel. The
metaphysical overtones contribute to this aspect. We may consider the different
metaphysical aspects.
1. Ahab’s Transcendentalism
   Ahab’s monomaniacal ambition has transcendental overtones. He does not check his
ambitions on the basis whether they are good or evil, but only on the ground that they are
entirely his. His monomaniacal tendencies are elevated by Melville who asserts that it is
“a crucifixion on his face” and “the nameless overbearing of some mighty woe.”
However, the novel can be an indictment of Transcendentalism as well in that it is an
indictment of individualism as Ahab’s towering efforts are crushed towards the end.

Apart from making him a transcendentalist, he also makes his protagonist defy the
symbolic perception that transmutes the instinctive violence of the white whale to
existential frustration. Ahab’s tendency to symbolic thinking leads him to seeing his
adversary “that intangible malignity that has been from the beginning. But this tendency
also betrays in him in an inflated sense of obligation to give an outlet to “all the general
hate and rage felt by his whole race from Adam down.”

At another level, it also symbolizes man’s quest for truth, the ultimate way to reach God.
In this way, Ishmael’s metaphysical leanings point to a more liberal religion that gives
heathens also a place. The religion turns out to be quite a humanistic one where in spite
being a Christian, he poses to worship an idol for Quegeg’s sake. The very fact that there
are Egyptian, Hindu, Persian, Greek and Christian myths utilized in the book, proves that
it is the making of a more liberal religion.

Ishmael’s Metaphysical Leanings
He raises a number of metaphysical questions and is baffled by the mystery of the
Universe. Ishmael knows his tendency to think in the metaphysical terms when in the
course of his work on one occasion, he feels that the various parts of the apparatus before
him symbolize Chance, Free will and Necessity. He feels that he himself is a “shuttle
mechanically weaving and waving away at the Fates. Ishmael‘s metaphysical meditation
also finds expression when he explains what might have been visualized. For instance,
the sea was probably carrying Pip’s soul alive to wondrous depths,where strange shapes
of the primitive floated before his eyes. His references to various stories of the Bible
point to the metaphysical pre-occupation. In the chapter “The Hyena“ he deals with the
comic impersonality of the Universe with a naturalistic vision. A hyena is a dog-like
animal whose howl is like laughter. Thus we have he phrase “the laughing Hyena”. In the
chapter, the universe is regarded as a joker laughing at the plight of human beings. The
chapter “The Try Walks” is a highly technical chapter giving off philosophical

Conflict between Science and Nature
At another level, it appears to be a conflict between science and religion. Ahab is
essentially the man of science, his ambition is one based on reason; and reason devoid of
moral principles is everything to him. Thus Ahab’s pursing the whale symbolizes man’s
scientific explorations against Nature. Nature in the form of the white whale appears
noble and pure indeed. However it does revolt against the injustices of man. The attack of
the whale against man can be taken as a sum total of all natural disasters and calamities
and, indeed nature at the same time is innocent too. Please note that Ahab’s was
swallowed by the white whale when he was chasing and provoking Moby Dick.

Conflict between Man and Religion
The struggle of man against God is also perceived in the novel. Moby Dick may be taken
as the miniature form of all the nobility, grandeur omnipotence, etc right from when
Moby Dick is mentioned, we can feel his presence till the end-thus also the omnipresence
of God. The novel thus exemplifies how insignificant man’s pursuits are in the face of
God’s opulence. Ahab’s two cardinal defects are egocentric self-importance and egoistic
malice that are destroyed in the end with Ahab himself.

The Attempt to Create A Myth
According to certain critics, Herman Melville was better informed and more deeply
interested in problems of myth than any American writer of his time. Since America is
said not to possess genuine tradition and myth, Melville tries to create one through his
myth of the whale, its hunter and so on. Mardi is another book in which Melville creates
myth and goes from story to myth, instead of coming from myth to story.

Conflict between Eastern and Western Ideology.
Since Ahab has an Eastern name, and Moby Dick a Western one like Uncle Sam. Eastern
ideology that strives for its existence, is crushed by the physical strength of Western

Conflict between the Colonizer and Colonized
 We can also reinterpret the novel as the reenactment of the American War of
Independence, in the enterprising spirit of Ahab, his craftsmanship and entrepreneurship.
Even though Ahab succumbs at the end his victory is achieved in his struggle like
Santiago in “The Old man and the Sea; and thus illustrates that man can be destroyed but
never defeated. This is significant as Transcendentalism originated from New England

Spiritual Aspects
 As for the spiritual aspects, in Christianity, it can represent the reenactment of the
crucifixion of Christ.(throwing of the harpoons)According to Hinduism, it can be taken as
the endeavour of the Jeevatma and Paramaatma. According to Islam, it can refer to
pilgrimage: the stone-throwing at the devil in the ritual of Hajj.

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