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Free Study Guide-Moby Dick by Herman Melville-Free Booknotes Summary
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LITERARY INFORMATION

The ideas conveyed in the novel about the whaling industry, its views on religion and immigrants in 19th century America are partly influenced by the philosophy known as Transcendentalism. It was based on the idea that knowledge is not limited to and acquired from practical experience and observation as the empiricists believed.

Transcendentalists believed that reality or the truth exists only in the ‘spirit’ and what people observe in the physical world is not permanent. The physical world is an ever-changing reflection of the world of the spirit. Thus, we can learn about the physical world through our senses. But to learn the supreme truth, or about the world of the spirit, we require something else besides reason.

Transcendentalists also believed that the answer to human problems lies in the unhindered development of individual will and feelings. These Transcendentalists opposed slavery and other institutions including the church, which they considered to be getting in the way of individual and collection progress.

Furthermore, they believed that combining manual and mental work would help in the overall development and enrichment of the individual’s soul.

Several American literary giants such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and reformers like Margaret Fuller believed in Transcendentalism. The great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was also a Transcendentalist. Hawthorne had a profound influence on Melville while he was writing his book: Moby Dick. It is obvious that Hawthorne’s ideas influenced Melville’s writing.


If one keeps the ideas propounded by Transcendentalists in mind while reading the novel, several motifs fall into place. For instance, that Ishmael the narrator in the book goes to the sea not as a passenger, not as an officer, but as a common sailor. This is because Transcendentalists believed that manual and mental work together helped in overall spiritual development and enriched the individual’s soul.

HISTORICAL INFORMATION

Moby Dick is set in the mid-19th century America during a period of great transition. Thus, the book reflects the socio- economic conditions of this time period. At the time, the United States was witnessing rapid industrialization. Factories and railroads were springing up everywhere. New land in the west was being acquired. Young Americans were migrating to the west seeking land and adventure. The spirit of adventure is reflected in Ishmael who leaves his job as a teacher and joins a whaling ship for the adventure that the vast wild oceans offer.

Besides, migrants from not just Europe but also distant lands like the Fiji, Tahiti and the East Indies flocked to the U.S., during this period. It was these immigrants who formed nearly half of the labor in the factories and farms of the new nation. In the novel, the Pequod with its crewmembers from distant foreign lands represented a microcosm of America as the melting pot of people from diverse cultures who were engaged in building a new country in the 1800s. Also, this period saw a new religious revivalism with several evangelists rejecting the Calvinist philosophy. New religious societies like the Shakers, Mormons, the Adventists and the Methodists became very popular among the people. This religious revival is known as the Second Great Awakening. This religious resurgence was a reflection of the American values and tradition during the 1830s and the ‘40s. For its message stressed individual free will and immediate salvation rather than waiting for a life after death.

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