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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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THEMES

Here are major themes of Moby-Dick. We'll look at them again in the chapter-by-chapter discussion of the novel. Some of these themes may be contradictory-as you read, you'll have to decide which best apply to the book. And as you gather evidence, you may come up with other important themes.

1. WHALING AS A METAPHOR FOR LIFE

Central to Moby-Dick is the idea that the Pequod's passage through the world's seas is in many ways like mankind's passage through life. "The world's a ship on its passage out," Melville says.

2. ALIENATION

Ishmael, whose name links him with a biblical outcast, begins the book alienated from the society of man. Most whalemen (and by implication most people) are cut-off, lonely, isolated. Ishmael finds friendship with Queequeg and occasionally feels brotherhood with the other crew members. But the book's final word is "orphan," suggesting that Ishmael may be just as alone at the book's end as he was at its beginning.

3. FRIENDSHIP

Ishmael's friendship with Queequeg gives warmth and meaning to Ishmael's life; in fact Queequeg (through his coffin) quite literally saves Ishmael from the fate suffered by the rest of the crew. This is balanced against the theme of alienation.

4. MAN'S SEARCH FOR KNOWLEDGE

Ishmael wants to know things; for him the hunt for whales becomes a hunt for knowledge, and the lengthy discussions of whales and whaling an attempt to know a confusing universe.

5. MAN'S SEARCH FOR CONTROL OVER NATURE

Ahab represents the human desire to control the universe. It's a desire that has been around since people built the first fire or speared the first animal, but in Melville's view it is a particularly American desire, as Americans seek to tame a continent, the oceans, and even Fate.

6. THE NATURE OF THE UNIVERSE

There is evidence in Moby-Dick for several interpretations of the nature of the universe.



a. THE UNIVERSE AS UNFRIENDLY

In Ahab's view, noble, intelligent people must do all they can to fight against the universe's cruelty, even if they know the fight will be futile. Just as God plagued the biblical job with illness and destruction, so god plagues Ahab with Moby-Dick: the whale is the greatest but not the only symbol of the evil God sends down on people.

b. THE UNIVERSE AS INDIFFERENT

Moby-Dick represents the power of nature, a great blind force that dwarfs man and his aspirations.

c. THE UNIVERSE AS FRIENDLY

Moby-Dick represents God's power, not God's hatred of mankind. Only Ahab's madness makes him see malice in the whale; the ultimate destruction of the Pequod and its crew is the punishment for Ahab's pride, arrogance, and disobedience. In chapters like "The Grand Armada," we see nature's profound beauty; it's a sign of nature's goodness that at the book's end, as Ishmael floats on Queequeg's coffin, the sharks swim by without attacking him.

d. THE UNIVERSE AS UNKNOWABLE

People will never know if the universe is good or bad; it is beyond their understanding. Ishmael's search for complete knowledge is as doomed as Ahab's search for complete control. Moby-Dick is a symbol of all that people can never grasp.

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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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