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The major setting of Moby-Dick is Ahab's ship, the Pequod, and it is as vividly described a ship as there is anywhere in literature. You'll probably find Ishmael's first description of the Pequod unforgettable-the ship is old-fashioned, weather-beaten, strangely decked out with whale bones. It is noble and, in Ishmael's romantic view, a little melancholy.
But just as Moby-Dick is both a sea adventure and, on a deeper level, a story of man's relationship with the universe, the Pequod is both a simple ship and a symbol of something much greater. "The world's a ship on its passage out," says Ishmael as he listens to Father Mapple's sermon. Melville is asking you to consider the Pequod as a microcosm (Greek for little universe), a small world that stands for the world at large. This is one reason the Pequod has such a varied crew-Africans, Polynesians, French, Chinese. Melville wants these sailors to stand for all humanity.
The Pequod represents the entire world, but on another level it is also a symbol for one particular area of the world, the United States. Metaphors linking countries to ships ("ship of state," for example) were even more common in Melville's day than in ours, and Melville wants you to remember that the Pequod is undeniably American. Its business, whaling, is an American business; its officers are Americans. The ship carries a crew of 30- the number of states in the union when Melville was writing. Perhaps the most powerful reminder of the Pequod's origins comes at the book's very end, when Ahab, about to die, realizes the Pequod is the hearse made of American wood mentioned in Fedallah's prophecy.
Melville dwelled at length on the ship's American links because he wanted Moby-Dick to communicate his mixed feelings about the United States. Americans of his day placed great faith in territorial expansion, in democracy, in the self-reliance of the individual American. But Melville uses his story in part to show the dark side of these strengths. One people's expansion can mean the destruction of another people, such as the Massachusetts Indians for whom the Pequod is named. Individualism can be warped by a man like Captain Ahab. Too much faith in self-reliance can lead to the belief that one is the equal of God and of nature.Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version