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A critical analysis of herman melville

A Critical Analysis of Herman Melville's Moby Dick

"Moby Dick is biographic of Melville in the sense that it discloses

every nook and cranny of his imagination." (Humford 41) This paper is a

psychological study of Moby Dick. Moby Dick was written out of Melville's

person experiences.

Moby Dick is a story of the adventures a person named Ishmael. Ishmael

is a lonely, alienated individual who wants to see the "watery part of the

world." Moby Dick begins with the main character, Ishmael, introducing himself

with the line "Call Me Ishmael." (Melville 1) Ishmael tells the reader about

his background and creates a depressed mood for the reader. Call me Ishmael.

"Some years ago-nevermind how long precisely- having little or no money in my

purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail

about a little and see the watery part of the world." (Melville 1) Ishmael

tells the reader about his journeys through various towns such as New Bedford,

Nankantuket. Eventually while in Nankantuket, Ishmael signed up for a whaling

voyage on the Pequod. The Pequod was the whaling boat Ishmael sailed on where

such characters as Queequeq, Starbuck, and the captain of the ship, Ahab, all

journeyed together.

Not long once at sea, the captain of the ship, Ahab reveals his plan to

hunt down a white whale named Moby Dick. Ahab was veteran sailor, a man that had

a heart of stone. Ahab had a personal grudge against Moby Dick. Moby Dick was

responsible for taking off Ahab's leg in a previous voyage. Ahab's plan was

essentially an unauthorized takeover, what the whaling company had not in mind.

Ahab was very irrational and ludicrous; his plan seals the fate for himself and

the crew of the Pequod. In the tragic ending of Moby Dick, all of the

characters die except for Ishmael. Ishmael survived Moby Dick's attack of the

ship with the help of a coffin that his close friend Queequeq built. Ishmael of

Moby Dick was a special character because he closely relates to the author's

own life. There are many symbolism's between Ishmael of Moby Dick and Herman

Melville's own life. The name Ishmael can be traced back to the Bible. The

Biblical story of Ishamel is one of a rejected outcast. This "rejected outcast"

can be linked to Ishmael of Moby Dick and Herman Melville's own life. In Herman

Melville's Moby Dick, Ishmael is symbolic of the author's own life.

Herman Melville's childhood played an important part in his life.

Herman Melville's childhood is evident throughout his writings. Herman

Melville's childhood was an unconventional one. There were many twists and

turns that Herman experienced. Melville was born on August 1, 1819, in New York

City, the third of eight children. His mother's family the Gansevoorts of

Albany were Dutch brewers who settled in Albany in the seventeenth century

achieving the status of landed gentry. "The Gansevoorts were solid, stable,

eminent, prosperous people; the (Herman's Father's side) Melvilles were somewhat

less successful materially, possessing an unpredictable. erratic, mercurial

strain." (Edinger 6) This difference between the Melville's and Gansevoorts was

the beginning of the trouble for the Melville family. Herman's mother tried to

work her way up the social ladder by moving into bigger and better homes. While

borrowing money from the bank, her husband was spending more than he was earning.

"It is my conclusion that Maria Melville never committed herself emotionally to

her husband, but remained primarily attached to the well off Gansevoort family."

(Humford 23) Allan Melville was also attached financially to the Gansevoorts for

support. There is a lot of evidence concerning Melville's relation to his

mother Maria Melville. "Apparently the older son Gansevoort who carried the

mother's maiden name was distinctly her favorite." (Edinger 7) This was a sense

of alienation the Herman Melville felt from his mother. This was one of the

first symbolists to the Biblical Ishamel. The following are a few excerpts from

some of Melville's works that show evidence of his childhood. A passage from

Melville's Redburn shows that Melville was attached to his mother, "The name of

the mother was the centre of all my hearts finest feelings." (Melville 33) The

following poem that Melville wrote shows his unreciprocated love for his mother.

I made the junior feel his place

Subserve the senior, love him too;

And soothe he does, and that is his saving grace

But me the meek one never can serve,

Hot he, he lacks quality keen

To make the mother through the soon

An envied dame of power a social queen. (Melville 211)

Herman's father's side originally Scots with connections in the peerage,

were Boston merchants. Herman's father, Allan Melville, was a merchant and

importer dealing with French goods.

Allan Melville's family was not as high on the social ladder as the

Gansevoorts were. "Allan Melville seems to have been socially charming and

sensitive, but basically weak, with a long standing dependence on his father,

and more especially on his wife's bother Peter Gansevoort." (Humford 33) "Allan

Melville's sons may have found a more substantial father experience with their

maternal uncle Peter Gansevoort." (Edinger 8) Hermans father was to busy with

business causing his children to find their uncle as the father figure. This was

the start for the financial collapse that later happened Allan Melville was

unrealistic and had a lot of wishful optimism. "He seems to have been a man who

constantly lived beyond his means, continually expecting a great windfall to be

around the corner." (Humford 35) When Allan Melville was borrowing money for his

business, he was trying to fulfill his wife's social ambitions by moving into

larger homes. Eventually that bubble burst and Allan Melville had fallen into a

total financial and psychological collapse. Although Allan Melville meant well,

he was not managing his money properly and all of this stress took a toll on his


The masculine figure in the family was the uncle, Peter Gansevoort. Not

long after Allan Mellville's financial collapse he died. Herman's father's

death and his father's dependence on Peter Gansevoort probably had an effect on

Herman's early psychological development. Its effects would show up in his

later writings. Herman's relatives helped the struggling family in any way they

could, but they had their own interests too. At the age of twelve Herman

Melville was forced to stop his education and go to work.

Herman's older brother Gansevoort who was conventionally the successful

one owned a hat store. After a few months of job hunting with no luck Herman

decided to work at his brother's hat store. Gansevoort eventually opened a law

office and later became prominent in politics. Working at his brother's hat

store Herman felt, "This is not the way Herman doubtless felt that one's

adolescence should open." (Humford 40) All of Melville's ambitions to go to

college, become an orator, and travel were stopped. "Herman was as unambitious

as a man of sixty. Such careers do not begin at a hat shop." (Humford 41) This

lost and aimless feeling was similar to the feelings that the Biblical Ishamel


Unable to get his bearings, not knowing what to do at the age of twenty,

Herman signed up as a common sailor on a merchant vessel sailing for Liverpool.

(Edinger 22) After four months Herman was back from his voyage still lost and

aimless. At the age of twenty one he signed up for a four year voyage on a

whaling ship. (Edinger 22) While people his age were in college Melville wrote

in Moby Dick, "A whaling ship was my Yale College and Harvard." "From a

cultivated, genteel environment, Melville was suddenly plunged, unprepared into

the coarse life of the sea." (Rosenberry 31)

"Moby Dick begins with the striking sentence, ‘Call me Ishmael,' we are

immediately confronted with the figure of the rejected outcast, the alienated

man." (Porter 15) At the beginning of Judaic mythical history stands the figure

of Abraham, the progenitor of the Jews. Abraham had two sons, Isaac, the

legitimate, the accepted one, and Ishmael, the illegitimate, the rejected one.

In the Bible (Gen:16) an angel speaks to Ishmael's mother Hagar saying;

Behold, you are with a child and shall bear a son; you shall call him

Ishmael; because the Lord has given heed to your affliction. He shall be

a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every mans' hand

against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsman. (Gen:16)

Ishamel and his mother Hagar were cast into the wilderness to die. God saved

Ishmael who lead the Muslims. Issac, Ishmael's brother was a follower of

Christianity. From a Christian viewpoint Ishmael was the enemy, and one who

must be repressed and rejected. "To himself, Ishmael is the rejected orphan who

through no fault of his own has been cruelly cast out and condemned to wander

beyond the pale." (McSwenny 25) This sense of rejection can be connected

Melville's life by his mother's favoritism toward her other son and Herman's

father's untimely death. Herman's journeys at sea can also be interpreted as

alienation and rejection.

Melville's writings show that he was preoccupied throughout his life

with figure of Ishmael. In Mardi he writes, "sailors are mostly foundlings and

castaways and carry their kith and kin in their arms and legs." (Melville 21) In

Redburn Melville writes "at last I have found myself a sort of Ishmael on the

ship, without a single friend or companion." (60) In Pierre Melville writes "so

that once more he might not feed himself driven out an Ishmael into the desert,

with no maternal Haggard to accompany and comfort him." (125)

"Melville had what might be called an ‘Ishmael complex.'" It had two

sources; personal life experience and identification with an archetypal image."

(Edinger 16) The personal cause would be the insanity and death of his father

and the following hardships. Melville was twelve and a half at the time when

his father died, close to the Biblical Ishmael who was thirteen. In addition,

he was rejected by his mother, who favored her first son, "...acceptance and

rejection are properly alternating phases in the developmental

become identified with only one these opposites leads to an arrested

development." Herman Melville's lack of acceptance in his life caused himself to

identify with the Biblical figure of Ishmael.

(Humford 25) "Most of the action is seen through the eyes of Ishmael. He will

thus represent the author's ego..." (Edinger 10) Melville was the rejected

sibling much like the Biblical Ishmael.

If Melville was personally identified with the figure of Ishmael, it has

more than a personal meaning, it represents the opposing attitude. "To speak as

Ishmael means to speak from a position outside the orthodox an conventional."

(Glien 89) If there is any doubt that the name Ishmael symbolizes a state of

alienation and despair, this doubt can not survive the first paragraph of Moby


Call me Ishmael. Some years ago-nevermind how long precisely- having

little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to

interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little

and see the watery part of the world....whenever it is a

damp, drizzly November in my soul... (Melville 1) Numerous literary critics have

pointed out the first line of Moby Dick "Call Me Ishmael." (Melville 1) "What

does the opening sentence of Moby Dick mean? Ishmael is trying to say never mind

what my real name is but think of me as a rejected outcast." (Dickinson 23) The

mood of a "damp, drizzly November in the soul," sets the whole mood for the

whole novel. "It is a state of depression, emptiness, and alienation from life

values." (Glien 60)

Herman Melville experienced many hardships in his life; Beginning with

his unstable childhood and the slight rejection by his mother, more of a

favoritism toward another sibling. The father was not the center male figure in

the family, it was the maternal uncle. His father was a weak willed individual

who lived beyond his means and had a dependence on his brother in law for

financial support. Melville's father also went bankrupt, had a mental collapse,

and then died. These experiences had a psychological impact on him that lasted

his whole life. These hardships are evident throughout his writings and

symbolized in Moby Dick by the character Ishmael. The name Ishmael can be

traced back to the Biblical story of Ishmael, who was alienated child. The

story of Ishmael closely relates to Melville's life. There is a vast amount of

evidence proving that Melville knew of the Biblical story of Ishmael and

purposely named Ishmael of Moby Dick, Ishmael.

Works Cited

The Bible. Revised Standard Version.

Edinger, Edward. Melville's Moby Dick: A Jungian Commentary. New York: New

Directions Books, 1978.

Glein, William. The Meaning of Moby Dick. NewYork: Russel & Russel, 1962.

Humford, Lewis. Herman Melville. New York: Quinn & Borden Comany Inc, 1929.

McSweeny, Kerry. Moby Dick, Ishmael's Mighty Book. Boston: Twayne Publishers,


Melville, Herman. Mardi. New York: New American Library, 1964.

Melvillle, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Hendricks House, 1962.

Melville, Herman. Pierre. New York: Hendricks House, 1962.

Melville, Herman. Redburn. Garden City: Doubleday & Co, 1957.

Melville, Herman. "Timolean," Collected Poems. Chicago: Packard & Co, 1947.

Porter, Carolyn. "Call Me Ishmael or How to Make Double Talk Speak." New Essays

on Moby Dick. Ed. Richard Brodhead. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Rosenberry, Edward. Melville. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1979.

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