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Hermanís Melvilleís Moby Dick is by far his best literary work as it is not just another sea adventure. In the story, the author has a message for his readers. But he suggests his message through a fascinating array of symbols and imagery.
The moral message comes across through the biblical story of Jonah and the whale. In the biblical story (Old Testament) Jonah does not heed the word of God and consequently, he has to face Godís wrath and go on a ship to Tarshish where he is stopped by a terrible storm at sea. Finally when the crewmembers find out that it is because of the sinner Jonah that this storm had been engineered he is thrown into the sea. Realizing his mistake, Jonah prays for forgiveness. The result is that God forgives Jonah and asks the whale to release him. The story as part of the Chaplainís Sunday Sermon gives the reader an inkling of the events to occur later in the book, namely the journey on the Pequod and its tragic end. Just as in the story, Jonah strays away from the path of God, so does the evil Captain Ahab in his single mindedness try to avenge the whale, Moby Dick. But while Jonah repents for his sins and is forgiven, Ahab does not pay heed to the warning signal given out by the terrible storm that damages the Pequodís sails. And he dies while trying to strike a harpoon into Moby Dick.
The author deliberately makes a veiled reference to the novelís message, for it is something that goes against the tenets of Christian philosophy that says that "manís life is but a shadow on earth." Though man suffers on earth he attains heavenly bliss after death. But Melville does not agree with this and instead states through symbolism and the journey of the Pequod that there is only one life., and man pays for his deeds during his lifetime and not after death. This view seems to agree with the religious revivalism in the 1830s, which spoke of instant or immediate salvation.
Though the book has a lot of depth and symbols for the reader to unearth, the one striking theme which appears again and again is about manís struggle against the forces of nature. It is evident in Captain Ahab in his pursuit of Moby Dick. It is also evident in all the crewmembers as they strive to conquer the hardships both physical and psychological that are faced on their journey to the Pacific. The author definitely sees something positive in this struggle. For mankind has progressed through its struggle against and conquest of its physical environment. Just as Ahab brings about his and his shipís destruction in his mad pursuit of Moby Dick, today we are destroying the delicate balance of the earth by trying to gain mastery over it, and we all are aware where it will lead us - a major ecological disaster.
In the context of man and the environment, time and again in the story, the author uses various symbols of the sea to give his views on manís life vis-a-vis the vast, complex universe around him. Through various symbols of the whale and the oceans, the author reflects on manís position, his role in the Universe as well as his lack of understanding the complex world he is living in. Rather than seeing the world in black and white, one must see it in shades of gray as Ishmael does.
Melville uses the world of the whale to reveal this theme. Using the whale as an example, the writer makes profound observations such as how whaleís eyes are placed on both sides of his head so he can see more than one object. However, while the whale can see several aspects in life, man can see one and understand only one because both of his eyes see ahead of him only.
Moby Dick: A critique of the whaling industry.
The whaling industry in the U.S. during the 1900s was both an essential as well as a profitable industry. Its products such as the sperm oil, made from the upper layer (just below the skin of the whale) of fat in the sperm whale was used to light lamps in the nineteenth century.
In the book, Melville provides a lot of factual information on the types of whales, their size and anatomy. Besides, he also informs us of the size of the industry - which employed 18,000 men and 700 vessels and the profits that this industry brought to the country - $20,000,000 per annum. Yet, the whaling profession is considered to be a lowly one and was scorned by people in general. In other words, the book reflects the ideas that 19th century society in America held: that the whaling profession had Ďno dignityí. The author counters all these ideas in the book.
But while he extols the whaling industry, he also reveals its darker side. Although there were lots of profits and adventure, there was also high risk involved. For sailors have lost their lives in innumerable accidents that occur on the sea.
Further, he also makes several suggestions that could improve working conditions of the sailors - especially the harpooner--in reducing the chances of accidents on the boats. In doing so, the author not only reveals his expertise on the subject of whaling, but also his skill in putting difficult and technical subjects in a simple and interesting manner.
After reading the novel, the reader is left with nothing less than awe and admiration for ordinary courage and strength in whalemen and their struggle against the vast and perilous seas. Melville gives a new dignity to the labor and sweat of the whaling ships.
Thus, Moby Dickis a vivid descriptive commentary on blood, sweat and hard physical labor that went into the profit-making whaling industry that it was in 19th century America.