Melville Essay, Research Paper
Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville focused their writings on how man was affected by nature. They translated their philosophies though both the portrayal of their protagonist and their own self exploration. In Moby Dick, Melville writes about Ahab’s physical and metaphysical struggle over the great white whale, Moby Dick, symbolic of man’s struggle against the overwhelming forces of nature. Ahab’s quest is reported and experienced through the eyes of Ishmael. Melville’s use of the third person’s biographical standpoint exposes conflicting viewpoints that were both in agreement and disagreement with Ahab’s quest, creatively allowing Melville to transcend the story line and expostulate his own philosophies. In contrast, Thoreau, wrote from an autobiographical standpoint revealing his own internal conflicts with mans struggle against nature. In, Walden – A life in the Woods, Thoreau reveals his mental and spiritual beliefs through a personal journey in which he strives to become in tune with nature, working not to be victorious over these universal forces, but rather to participate in harmony with nature, in tern exposing love and truth.
Both authors attempt to analyze all aspects of nature and its relevance to human life. They explore the powers and influences of nature over mankind. However, Melville centers his point of view upon mankind in conflict with nature’s forces, while Thoreau believes that if mankind experiences nature, we will envelope ideas which will teach mankind to live harmoniously in our natural environment; in turn, allowing individuals to reach the highest levels of achievement synergistically with nature.
In Moby Dick, Herman Melville illustrates man’s quest to attain the supreme power of God through the monomaniacal Captain Ahab. Captain Ahab is obsessed with the desire to destroy Moby Dick, his nemesis, which is truly symbolic of man’s overwhelming quest to control and conquer nature. Melville depicts Ahab as an evil, egotistical human whose willingness to combat the forces of nature represents man’s failure to understand his place in the universe. Melville uses Ishmael to voice his philosophies which portray Ahab as a crazy captain who fails to realize that he’s up an unconquerable force. Melville utilizes Ishmael further voice his life philosophies through grossly symbolic statements like, “No, when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor? I have the satisfaction that all is right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way – either in a physical or metaphysical point of view.” (pg. 14 – 15). Through, Ishmael, Melville expresses his longing, for beauty and nature, and at the same time he contrasts his desires against mankind’s/Ahab’s tendencies for the controlling darkside of human nature which can’t and won’t interact with nature and consequently leads to its own ultimate destruction. “Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself. Such a pretentious and mysterious monster caused all my curiosity? the undeliverable, nameless perils of the whale.”(pg. 16).
Ishmael sees Ahab as a man possessed, almost demonic in a belief that he could overcome death and evil. For example, Ishmael sees Ahab for the first time: “He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has over runningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them? His whole thigh, broad from seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mold, like Celoni’s cast Perseus.” (Pg. 111 – 112). Thus, we see a formidable figure affected by a plague on his soul venturing through the water’s of hell to reach a deadly quest. Ishmael even finds him almost as crucified as the God Ahab thinks he could become as stated here: “And no only that, but Moby stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe. “(Pg 111). Consequently, Melville’s Ahab will attempt to transcend his crew and himself into a conflict with nature. This conflict becomes the warped and demonic idea of a man willing to take on the powers of Moby Dick which is the epitome of the greatest force in nature. Regardless of the onslaught, predestined for Ahab, he will be doomed to failure because of his monomaniacal spirited quest; “As he shouted with a terrific, land, animal sob, like that of a heart stricken moose; “Aye, aye! It was that accused white whale that raged me; made a pon pegging lumber of me forever and a day!? “Aye, aye! And I’ll chase him normal Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up”.
Henry David Thoreau when writing about his experiences at Walden Pond indicated that mankind cannot be persuaded by the materialism of the world and must aspire to the highest goals of truth, virtue and independence for his existence. Thoreau would find this transcendental experience through the finest qualities existing in nature. He states that, “most men, even in this comparatively free country through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labor of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them “(p. 790). Thoreau points out the weakening of man’s original calling by the results of the industrial revolution, division of labor, the robotics of factory life and materialistic vision of life. The end result is self-destruction and depression of ones independence, spirit and development of mental and spiritual heights as described here, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats “(P.791).
Thoreau advocates the devotion to a basic agrarian lifestyle. His experience at Walden Pond was an experience both into the wilderness, it’s mysteries, its knowledge and wisdom and its being a place to live and review one’s life. It would be an opportunity to cast away the blind belief about conventional ways, tradition, accepted values almost dehumanizing and to plunge into the unknown rarness of nature to discover life’s meaning for oneself.” He sums up this transcendental philosophy through the mysticism of nature, “We need the tonic of wilderness, – to wade sometimes in marshes where the bitter and the meadow – hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to small the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and un explorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
Thoreau, on the other hand, cannot believe man was created to be troubled and experience the anxiety created by society. When we are odds with nature, rebel against it, question it’s powers and rules we become ourselves. Godlike in conflict with what was here before humanity existed. Thoreau himself would sing in the woods the following song, (”p. 809) – “Men say they know many things; But lo! They have taken wings, The arts and sciences, and a thousand appliances the wind that blows Is all that anybody knows”
Again we see the focus on nature and a determination to meet the basic facts of life, to reduce life to its lowest terms, and to find its essence. Thoreau strove to follow his inner feelings, thus, having faced life and reduce it to the essentials, he would then been able to set his own standards and hold on to them. Thoreau believed that he had to go on his own voyage to Walden Pond and go alone to experience freedom, free himself first then, and see the freedom of all nature. as he would say, “Make haste and set the captive free Are ye so free that cry? The lowest depths of slaver Leave freedom for a sigh – (P. 807)
The acquaintance with nature by man has always resulted in either conflict or acceptance resulting in tragedy or revelation for the humans dealing with nature. Melville portrays a man thoroughly involved with the natural powers of the sea continually seeking his fame and economic success in the whaling business. In contrast, Thoreau believed in complete independence striving for freedom to reach a goal. However, Thoreau, following his inner feelings, needed to experience life reducing it to its bare essentials and learn from what nature could teach him. Thoreau was a lover and needed to go on a voyage by himself, live in seclusion and become close with his natural surroundings. He encountered the pond with its great fish and looked at them as a beauty of creation, catching them only to survive but honoring them for their
existence alongside his own. Melville’s Ahab dealt with the killing of fish (Whales) for monetary gain and when this creation of nature rebelled and crippled him, he sought revenge and destruction of this creature and nature. Ahab’s voyage also was a single lonely Quest to destroy and conquer nature for his own selfish reasons regardless of the safety of his crew. Thoreau understood that his Quest was to share the fortunes of nature, its knowledge and benefits to better your self, which inter for him was achieving his greatest success as seen in his words, “I am monarch of all I survey, my right there is none to dispute” (p. 830) . In the end of their Quests Melville’s conclusion about Ahab’s encounter with nature results in death and a total lack of knowledge about what life, living and truth is all about. Thoreau on the other hand sees everything worth living for in his Quest and results at walden pond. Both authors realize that nature is a powerful and its forces definitely control man’s existence on earth. However, Melville appears to show man as the loser in this conflict with nature and Thoreau finds man a winner not because man can become one with nature and rise beyond the materialism and greed of mankind.