Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne are two of the most influential authors in American Literature. Both men wrote about similar themes, creating great admiration between them. The relationship that had grown between them was a source of critic and interpretation that would ultimately influence each of their works. Melville in particular was moved by Hawthorne's intellectual stimulation and inspired him to write Moby-Dick, a dramatic novel that has proved to be one of the greatest in American Literature. Moby-Dick explores the element of tragedy and how one must pursue dreams relentlessly without letting obstacles get in the way. Hawthorne wrote in The Scarlet Letter of a woman who had to face reality and accept it, Melville takes a different approach demonstrating the potential disasters of one who refuse to accept it. Melville was influenced by the individualism represented in Hester and tried to express its importance through Ishmael. Finally, the conflict between good and evil was displayed between Melville's characters, Ishmael and Ahab, as it had been between Hester and society.
Hawthorne gave numerous suggestions to Melville concerning subject matter and themes for him to write. However, the most important impact on Moby-Dick was the correspondence between the two writers. Hawthorne's influence proved to be a factor in Melville's decision to write a novel exploring the "meaning of life." The experiences of both writers helped them realize that individuals have to figure out their purpose in life for themselves and that individuality is implicit for a meaningful and successful one.
Hawthorne wrote in The Scarlet Letter of a tragic "phase of humanity," the idea that reality must not be ignored but rather accepted in order to pursue happiness. Hester was a woman who acted on her own, not following the crowd and Melville carried over the same theme in his novel. In Moby-Dick, Ahab and Ishmael were a response to the hardship's one might endure in pursuing a dream. Melville is a tragic dramatist who uncovers these revelations. He addresses these potential dangers saying, "But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. And perhaps at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise forever." Both writers shared this idea of individuality and the "vitality of the tragic vision." In The Scarlet Letter, these unfortunate realities are clearly seen through Hester Prynne. Hester was a decent woman who never warranted the maltreatment she received. She was an independent woman, and through her willingness to accept the ignorance and lack of understanding of society, she was able to successfully avoid the obstacles she faced. Hester had a dream to find love with Dimmesdale and to raise her daughter Pearl in a safe and normal environment. Hawthorne proved through Hester's ultimate success that these obstacles can be overcome.
Hester lived out the struggles that she faced, without a satisfying resolution, but through it all she was able to accept and humble herself rather than fighting a lost battle. Melville respected Hawthorne's view of Hester, and through Ahab he decided to explore the opposite side. Ahab refused to accept his destiny, feeling the world had wronged and wanted to defy his fate. Ahab rejects the guilt he feels of dragging the crew of the Pequod down with him, and tries to resist it by appointing himself a master of destiny. "No longer will I guide my earthly way by thee; the ship's compass and the level dead-reckoning; these shall conduct me; thus I trample on thee, thou paltry thing; thus I split thee and destroy thee. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me...Who's over me?" (Herman Melville, Moby-Dick: Norton, New York, 1952, p.412) Due to Ahab's unwillingness to accept humility, he took upon himself what he thought was the struggle of humanity. He recognized his own misfortunes and attempted to fight back. As a result he ultimately suffers from his denial and unwillingness to accept his fate, as is seen when he and the crew are dragged under by Moby-Dick.
Melville often times speaks through his characters, sharing his personal feelings and opinions. Ishmael in particular, was a fictional narrator who often times transformed into Melville, commenting on the importance of being an individual and not allowing others to dictate the future. Ishmael served as an outlet for him so that this point of view could be heard. Melville believes in individuality, the idea that one must act on their free will to pursue a dream relentlessly, and that one must be aware not to let obstacles get in the way. Through Ishmael he explores this idea, he learns that he is not the "Catskill eagle," who can dive down into the "blackest gorges" and rise again. "Give not thyself up, then, to fire lest it invert thee; as for the time it did me." (Melville, Moby-Dick, p.355) Melville attempts to convey the idea that a successful life must be free of distraction from the exterior. Just as Hester was able to ignore and accept the public ignominy cast out to her, Ishmael must accept Ahab and his monomaniacal ways. Ishmael is reminded of the interdependence of human beings, and that one might suffer through the dreams of someone else.
Melville and Hawthorne incorporate two themes in their novels, the idea of good versus evil. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester was faced with ridicule and relentless reminders of her sin of adultery. In Hawthorne's novel, society served as the evil and Hester the victim. Melville tries to balance the evil with good, as is seen in Ishmael and his experiences, as well as in Ahab and his understanding of his actions. Ahab knows that his monomaniacal ways are detrimental to not only him, but his crew. However, Ahab does not believe he can turn back and as a result evil will prevail. He says, "I am damned in the midst of Paradise. So far gone am I in the dark side of earth, that its other side, the theoretical bright one, seems but uncertain twilight to me." (Melville, Moby-Dick, p.433) Melville does not claim him to be good or evil any more than The Scarlet Letter calls Hester Prynne good or evil. Melville does however prove through his fatal battle with Moby-Dick that Ahab, for the first time, takes a good look at his life. "Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ahab felt he was a victim of destiny, "O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right." (Melville, moby-Dick, p.468) Ahab never came to as full an understanding of the meaning in suffering as he did in the final conflict.
Herman Melville created Moby-Dick as a response to the work of Hawthorne. Hawthorne uncovered the importance of individuality and the extreme importance of keeping focus on dreams and ambitions. Melville explored these themes as a response, demonstrating the possible tragedy that awaits if obstacles get in the way. Melville demonstrates the conflict between good and evil and proves that unless individuality is achieved evil will prevail. Hawthorne explored this through Hester's success story and Melville proved it through Ahab's failure. Both writers wrote about similar themes, but in different fashions. However, they ultimately arose at the same conclusion; be your own person acting only by free will and one will be successful and the good will prevail.
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