A Tale of a Whale (P-B) or A Whale of a Tale (P-A)

Moby Dick (1851)
by Herman Melville (1819-1891)

We cannot love for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected
by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers,
our actions run as causes and return to us as results.
–Herman Melville

Unlike his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville was unable to make a living as a writer. Fortunately, he found a government job to pay the bills. It took 70 years for Moby Dick to be appreciated for the great novel that it was. In this essay we will deepen our appreciation of Herman Melville for his profound insights that help distinguish illusion from reality. “How is it, we may ask, that a book which has been likened to a compendium of the whaling industry has emerged as one of the great poetic epics of world literature?”[i]  Let’s find out!

Moby Dick was first published in 1851 and the plot is known as a symbolic allegory. “Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the white whale will ever be generally accepted, the depth, sweep, and power of the author’s vision guarantees the novel’s stature as one of the world’s proven masterpieces.”[ii]  And as we shall see, Melville also reveals some of the more poisonous beliefs in the P-B of the 19th century, which in the world of literature has been called “American Romanticism.”


All stories, including each of our personal stories, involves an archetypal quest to distinguish truth from illusion. Much about Melville’s life and writing reveals a deep curiosity common to those who have profound insights into the nature of reality. “Melville (like Ishmael the narrator of Moby Dick) had circled the globe of experience—working as a bank messenger, salesman, farmhand, schoolteacher, engineer and surveyor, bowling alley attendant, cabin boy, and whaleman in the Pacific on the Acushnet.”[iii]

It is in speaking through Ishmael that Melville reveals what it felt like to have insightful “intuitions.” “And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with heavenly ray.”[iv]  Neither Melville nor Ishmael are able to escape the fog of P-B but perhaps their “peak experiences” will help us do so.

Religion (P-B) and Nature (P-A)

What was all this “seeking” about in the context of American Romanticism? “The conflict between faith and doubt was one of the major issues of the century, and Moby Dick, as British author and poet Eric Mottram points out, is part of ‘a huge exploration of the historical and psychological origins and development of self, society and the desire to create and destroy gods and heroes.’”[v]  Melville was caught up as we are today in trying to make sense of a paradigm which is fundamentally nonsensical. No matter how we explain P-B, no matter how we dice it and slice it and analyze and rationalize it—we come up empty and anxious.

Queequeg the harpooner was the son of a pagan king and thought that he would leave his island, learn about Christianity and return with knowledge that would benefit his people. Instead, he found a civilization with beliefs, attitudes and values that were decidedly unhealthy. “Melville is attempting to suggest that a person’s values do not depend on the type of religion he professes.”[vi]

“Queequeg, a savage, and Ishmael, a Christian in search of the meaning of life, find a broader faith, a brotherhood, that exists between all men.”[vii]  Today, 150 years later in America and the global village, we have yet to realize that all people are fundamentally the same, despite religious, ethnic and cultural differences.

Identifying with his body, mind and emotions is something Ishmael (Melville) understands is not a good idea. He struggles to find a healthier identity throughout his whaling voyage but is trapped in the dominant narrative of his culture. “He knows that the body is not as important as the reality of the spirit, and throughout the novel, he will try to measure all things in terms of their relative importance to some spiritual meaning.”[viii]

A dominant motif in Moby Dick has to do with understanding the origin of Creation, what we call the Implicate Order. For Herman Melville, not surprisingly, it was the sea. “The first chapter also introduces the idea of the ocean as the source of life. It is only by returning periodically to it that man can keep in contact with things of ultimate value.”[ix]

Melville seems to intuitively understand at times that meditation or choosing present moment awareness in a natural setting is a healthy response to life. “Ishmael, the narrator of the story, tells the reader that when he or any person becomes bored or depressed, he will seek to buoy his spirits by visiting an ocean, or if he is an inlander, a lake or stream. One can often see men sitting on the shore of some water gazing pensively at the water and trying to restore peace to their troubled minds.”[x]

Recognizing the unhealthy context of his American community, Ishmael escapes to the sea much as Thoreau did to Walden Pond. “The ship also will be a type of withdrawal from the world of land. Ishmael wishes to go to sea partly so as to escape from worldly affairs and so as to contemplate the essential meaning of the universe without the hindrance of everyday living as seen on the land.”[xi]

Madness and Equanimity

Nisargadatta Maharaj in his book I Am That emphasizes the futility of constantly striving to attain satisfaction in life. Melville reveals a similar insight by observing in Moby Dick that when “one most perilous and long voyage ended, only begins a second; and a second ended, only begins a third, and so on forever and for aye. Such is the endlessness, yea, the intolerableness of all earthly effort.”[xii]

The pursuit of the whale Moby Dick by a man gone mad is a metaphor for humanity in general engaging in self-destructive pursuits. The ultimate energy behind this behavior is fear which in Captain Ahab’s case is transmuted into anger and hatred. The ultimate “split” in this case is humanity alienated from nature which leads to fear of and destruction of the very natural environment on which we depend. Melville found this behavior in which humanity sees nature as “unfriendly” puzzling and disturbing and we should also find it so today.

Ahab projects his shadow onto the whale, a behavior which many of us engage in in projecting our fear onto the Other. In this way the Pequod and the human community at large become violent environments incapable of sustaining life; hostile to humanity and nature alike.

“Ahab’s monomania is seen then in his determination to view the White Whale as the symbol of all the evil of the universe. His is not allowing for the multiplicity of meaning to be found throughout the world. This determination then leads him into his fatal error.”[xiii]

At the last moments before his self-destruction, the first mate Starbuck attempts to save Ahab from himself. “‘Oh! Ahab, not too late is it, even now, the third day, seekest him!’ This emphasizes again that the White Whale is not seeking Ahab, but the evil that Ahab sees in the White Whale is actually in the beholder and not in the object.”[xiv]

Ishmael senses that the equanimity found in the present moment is illusive but possible. “So, Ishmael tells us, when you find a place of peace and joy in your soul, God keep thee! Push not off that isle!”[xv]

False Self/True Self

Late in the novel, Ahab begins to feel compassion for the young boy Pip whom he has taken into his cabin after the child was pulled from the sea and saved from drowning. “Ahab’s hate and egoism is momentarily in danger of being overwhelmed by Pip’s love and anguish.”[xvi]  But compassion and vengeful desire to kill Moby Dick are incompatible experiences and he chooses to shut down his True self in favor of his false self. “Ahab fears his own feelings and thus climbs into the mast head in order to watch for the whales.”[xvii]

Intuitively Ahab knows he is making the wrong choice as many of us do when choosing a false-self reaction. “What is it, what nameless inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare.”[xviii]  How many of us sense we are making a bad choice in life but do it any way.

Ahab has been at sea for forty years and admits to Starbuck that he realizes he has made a bad choice in giving in to the illusion of his dark side. “This is an amazing admission from the prideful, fierce old man. And now, for all his madness, he feels ‘deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since paradise.’”[xix]

Ahab literally embodies the false self bent on self destruction. Melville’s description of Ahab is haunting. “He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all limbs without consuming them or taking away from their compacted aged robustness.”[xx]  It’s as if he has lashed himself to the stake of self-immolation and we watch as he fails to step out of the flames of the blazing faggots,[1] a male witch refusing to be consumed by the flames until he completes one last gruesome task; not a haunting witch but a haunted witch.

The struggle between the false self and the True self on board the Pequod mirrors the universal suffering in the human community at large. Melville sees this in the context of the Puritan religion which was still a dominant influence in the New England of the mid-19th century. In a church service Ishmael hears Father Mapple unwittingly phrase the human dilemma in a nutshell: “If we obey God [our True self], we must disobey ourselves [our false self].”[xxi]

Starbuck can be seen as an embodiment of the True self, but his compassion and reason are overwhelmed by the false-self driven frenzy that engulfs the Pequod. “My soul is more than matched; she’s overmanned; and by a madman!”[xxii]  Nevertheless, he tries to reason with Ahab. “Vengeance on a dumb brute that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”[xxiii]

Nevertheless, despite all this, Melville believed every person had a True self which would be revealed to them in a peak experience. “This he describes to the wondrous ways of a great democratic God who enables men to stand, if only for a fleeting moment, in the spotlight of glory!”[xxiv]

Reaction and Response

The so-called “Great Choice” looms large on the decks of the Pequod as it does on the universal “Ship of Fools.” The obsessed Ahab glimpses the healthier

choice (response) but seems doomed by his uncontrolled emotions to choose the self-destructive choice (reaction). “Ahab’s comments suggest that he would like to believe in the supremacy of light, hence good, but he has made the other choice. As he says, ‘Yet dost thou, darker half, rock me with a prouder, if darker faith.’”[xxv]  Indeed, “pride goeth before the fall.”

Ahab chooses the almost universal behavior which has blocked humankind’s creation of a sustainable community, he projects his fear onto the Other.  “For Ahab, Moby Dick is not only the living whale which removed from him his leg, but a symbol of evil and the scapegoat for Ahab’s miserable existence.”[xxvi]  This particular type of reaction, is an example of what Buddha called aversive behavior which coupled with craving explains virtually all human suffering.

Caroming from a dualistic worldview to the more inclusive Oneness, from an unconscious writer to one with profound insights, quickly becomes Melville’s pattern in Moby Dick. His many symbols are never welded together into a coherent whole but remain fragments of an inscrutable Creation. “Metaphorically, this suggests the impossibility of man never understanding life. All man can do is to know and respond to some small aspect of life.”[xxvii]  And right there Melville has stumbled onto a truth more profound than he knows. All we have to do to enter the present moment that Melville was occasionally able to catch glimpses of is to “respond” to the experience of the moment-to-moment “small aspects of life.”

Duality and Oneness

“Melville believes that the concept of Good can only exist in terms of Evil.”[xxviii]  And yet we find the author having intimations of Oneness. “Ahab wonders just how interrelated all the forces of the universe are. ‘O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! Not the smallest atom stirs or lives in matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.’”[xxix]

The Pequod is a microcosm of the global village and the crew has to work together to accomplish their goal. Disharmony caused by false-self projections and reactions to the Other would be disastrous. “The mixed or varied nationalities aboard the ship are used by Melville to suggest that the Pequod, as a ship, is symbolic of the world.”[xxx]

“Another general idea found in the novel is the comradeship between men. Ahab functions as an isolated man. Ishmael, however, welcomes the comradeship of all human beings.”[xxxi]  In other words, Ahab is destroyed in part because he refuses to make friends with those around him and Ishmael is saved from drowning because he accepts all people despite their religious or cultural differences.

Another principle revealed in Melville’s work is the search for truth frustrated by “the inadequacy of human perception and the insufficiency of conventional practical knowledge.”[xxxii]  It is quite amazing that Melville intuited what few people realize even today which is that human knowledge and the intellect along with the senses are not capable of apprehending a profound paradigm. He was often responding to his intuition which is what we must all learn to do today.


[1]  The term “blazing faggots” means a bundle of sticks or twigs used as fuel.


A Tale of a Whale (P-B) or A Whale of a Tale (P-A)

[i]     Roberts, James L. Moby Dick. Lincoln: Cliffs Notes, 1990, page 89.

[ii]     Magill, Frank N. [ed.]. Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper, 1989, page 546.

[iii]    Ibid., page 549.

[iv]    Roberts, op. cit., page 93.

[v]     Magill, op. cit., page 549.

[vi]    Roberts, op. cit., page 24.

[vii]   Ibid., page 88.

[viii]   Ibid., page 21.

[ix]    Ibid., page 15.

[x]     Ibid., page 14.

[xi]    Ibid., page 22.

[xii]   Ibid., page 27.

[xiii]   Ibid., page 9.

[xiv]   Ibid., page 87.

[xv]   Ibid., page 53.

[xvi]   Ibid., page 85.

[xvii]  Ibid.

[xviii]  Ibid.

[xix]   Ibid.

[xx]   Ibid., page 89.

[xxi]   Ibid., page 93.

[xxii]  Ibid.

[xxiii]   Ibid.

[xxiv]  Ibid., page 33.

[xxv]  Ibid., page 78.

[xxvi]  Ibid., page 95.

[xxvii]  Ibid., page 64.

[xxviii]  Ibid., page 25.

[xxix]  Ibid., page 57.

[xxx]  Ibid., page 35.

[xxxi]  Ibid., page 9.

[xxxii]  Magill, op. cit., page 549.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.

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