Social Critique of Herman Melville’s "Moby Dick"

Categories: Moby Dick

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: or the Whale, follows the omniscient accounts of Ishmael who recounts the fatality of the Pequod on the hunt for Moby Dick, the white whale. In a hate-filled and all-consuming desire of conquering the white whale, captain Ahab takes his crew on a destructive journey to restore his “immaculate manliness”. It is a revenge plot of hatred and underlying sentiments of affection towards his whale opponent that are driven by ingrained ideals of the male-centric, exploitative society he is a part of.

Melville manages to subvert the ideal perception of the hyper-male identity and build a critique of 19th Century western society by ultimately demonstrating the self-destructive potential it holds by following Ahab’s maddened and dysfunctional pursuance of Moby Dick and using Ahab as a cautionary tale for man in a marketplace society.

To first understand the social critique of a male ideal, I need to set the terms of what this ideal is. Ishmael as a voice of Melville, defines man in the ideal as being “so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes” (Melville Ch.

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26, p.126). He creates an image of a shining and brave fellow who is unblemished, without a conceivable fault by his fellows or else they, his social circle, will reject him as a man. He must remain robed and hide what could be faults such as perceived weakness by other.

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This is an ideal that is subverted in the finale by Melville in defiance of societal norms of male gender by depicting the ultimate destruction of the Pequod that is brought on by Ahab’s chase of Moby Dick. Also, as with any social system, there has always been a hierarchical order engrained into society’s fibre, whether during the times of ancient Egypt, Feudalism, or a modern democracy, and just so, there is one on the Pequod with Ahab at the top of this ladder of prowess. With this position, he carries a self-image that is based on the societal norms and ideals that have shaped him by which he measures his own self-worth. His self-definition is not really based in external perception that his crew particularly holds of him, but an internal one that can’t let go of his failure that was not killing the whale. It should be understood that before he lost his leg to the white whale, his self-image was whole and of “immaculate manliness”(Ch.26, p. 126) and he was known as a venerable whale hunter and King of the Sea without any blemish by which his authority and dominance could be called into question, by himself, in the industry or society as a whole. He was the perfect alpha leading the rest of men. This can be a fleeting status though, as by Ishmael’s- Melville’s definition there is an inexplicit unforgiveness by others upon conception of any “ignominious blemish”. So, it is of grave importance to Ahab to mitigate his loss by killing the whale and never becoming uncloaked to maintain his full prowess in front of his men, society, and himself. This whole ideal is a competition of holding the absolute power and asserting one’s masculine dominance over others, no matter if human or mammalian, as well as instilling the shining image of a courageous hero of the whaling industry. “[W]ith the mad secret of his unabated rage bolted up and keyed in him, Ahab had purposely sailed upon the present voyage with the one only and all-engrossing object of hunting the White Whale” (Ch. 41, p.202) He deceives his men and goes after his egotistical pursuit in encumbering rage from having been uncloaked by the whale upon their first encounter, not even taking the loss of his fellows’ lives into account. He has no semblance of value for them as humans and their own motivations are meaningless to him as they are under his rank and thus at his disposition. The whale is the only focus he has, Moby Dick is his world and other pole, as in the voyage he is the only thing and only one who holds a higher status of prowess to Ahab’s conception.

Even though he is all-engrossed with the whale who overpowered him, Ahab still holds position as alpha and captain on the Pequod, he is the dictator of terms and the one who selfishly makes his own megalomaniacal pursuit that of the other crew members, as he chases after his own redemption of male identity and domination for power. He also has an inflated sense of self which he derives from his seniority in the whaling industry; in that he puts himself and his diction above the prophecy of a metaphysical power and even challenges this greater force that had prophesised the loss of his leg:

What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do! They think me mad—Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself! The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and—Aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. Now, then, be the prophet and the fulfiller one. That’s more than ye, ye great gods, ever were. I laugh and hoot at ye, ye cricket-players, ye pugilists, ye deaf Burkes and blinded Bendigoes! I will not say as schoolboys do to bullies—Take some one of your own size; don’t pommel ME! No, ye’ve knocked me down, and I am up again; but YE have run and hidden. Come forth from behind your cotton bags!(Ch. 37, p. 183)

He is delusional in thinking he could beat the higher power of “the gods”, which are as much also a part of the strength of nature and the unforgiving conditions on sea by which the whale operates. He believes himself to be the ultimate conqueror and is making great claims to compensate for insecurity of having lost a leg and the weakness it opens him up to. I want to describe this insecurity as a sense of being uncloaked that leads him to such vocal overcompensation. It is again him seeking a redemption of power, which is part of why he thirsts after this whale so ardently. He wants to conquer the whale in a battle for his honour and maleness after the whale overmanned him in their first encounter. Not only did he overpower Captain Ahab and blemish his masculinity, or rather the self-image that Ahab has of his masculinity, but he took his leg. With this, Moby Dick took a physical and psychological piece of Ahab that the captain is trying to regain by either killing the whale or ultimately being killed by the whale. This is exactly the display of self-destructive, toxic masculinity that Melville is defying that not only took down Ahab, but 99% of his crew in the end.

Ahab’s “immaculate manliness” was derided and soiled when the whale took off his leg and he is now bleeding “with the keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valour-ruined man”(Ch. 26, p.126). He, or rather his manliness, is bleeding due to the disgrace of having lost some of his absolute power as a piece of his male identity to an animal he attacked and wanted to conquer by killing it. When that attempt of killing Moby Dick failed, he made it his life’s mission to regain that power and piece that completes his manliness and restores its self-perceived immaculacy. Ahab is the embodiment of the society that Melville is rejecting. Part of that is a constant battle and warfare for dominance of top post, to assert one’s power and ownership of the title of Captain who slays the great beasts of the sea, the whales. In fact, this pursuit of power and fear of being perceived as weak due to his loss to the whale, drive him to insanity and delusionary exclamations such as in the previous paragraph. “If such a furious trope may stand, his special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it, and turned all its concentred cannon upon its own mad mark; so that far from having lost his strength, Ahab, to that one end, did now possess a thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon any one reasonable object.” (Ch.41, p.201). His rage has turned into insanity driven by obsession from losing his physical strength, out of a fear of being seen as weak, his mind is driven into a toxic and dangerous over-compensatory potency of determination to subordinate the whale. This war can only end in two ways, his opponent’s or his own death, and so he brings on, not only his destruction but that of everyone below him on the social hierarchical pyramid.

The previous paragraph goes to show that the destruction doesn’t just come from Moby Dick, who is a sort of tool and vessel for the self-destruction of Ahab as a figure of dangerous and damaging male dominant society as oppressor and aggressor. Ahab projects short comings and losses onto the white whale, who becomes a reflection of the captain, his woes, but also desires. Ahab is the only one to be faulted with bringing on his physical weakness, as he is the one who attacked the whale in the first place through overconfidence that he could own and conquer nature’s wildest beast, which only naturally reacted to this assault with a counter-attack. It should be noted that even though Ahab has a strong hatred for his emasculator, he is also deeply attracted to him and his prowess. This attraction is expressed by phallic descriptions of the whale, that are especially prominent in the ending chapters, before his ultimate destruction, which I will get to later on. But first I want to extend the dynamic we looked at before between Ahab and the whale, this time not from the side of hatred and aggressions, but one of desire and attraction. “Hence, males internalize a dysfunctional romanticism while striving to achieve manhood in a real world” (Baurecht, p. 58). This is an apt wording that expresses the dynamic of Ahab and Moby Dick’s relationship within a social context. Their relationship is very much representative of a dysfunction with Ahab’s need to conquer the whale in a power move that asserts his position at the top of the social ladder, but that also leads the Captain into a maddened state that he seems to secretly find strength and self-satisfaction in. “They think me mad — Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself!” (Melville Ch.37, p.183). He has learned to make sense of the world through madness and dysfunction on his sea travels, during which he has suffered immense emotional trauma, especially that left from the first encounter with Moby Dick that resulted in a long period of debilitating physical weakness due to which he was unable to show himself in the beginning of the journey. It is through the madness that he sustains himself every day on the sea and the longer he is on the sea the more he feels this internal strength.

I struck my first whale- a boy-harpooneer of eighteen! Forty- forty- forty years ago!- ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! […], out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore. […] how for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare- fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul!(Ch.132, p.590)

The white whale is also the only thing that can give purpose to his life and justification for the 40 years of whaling experience and industry he devoted himself to. By leaving for the voyage to sail for Cape Horn he “[left] but one dent in [his] marriage pillow” (Ch.132, p.591). He left behind his wife and children and he confesses to a guilt of “widow[ing] that poor girl when [he] married her” with a husband who is alive. He left his family behind for “the strife of the chase” as a victim of the industrial machine he is a part of. This adds to Ahab’s vengeance narrative of chasing the whale that has plagues him and mocks Ahab by its simple existence. The chase is all he has left as an old man and captain who has devoted most of his time on earth to the sea and the whaling industry of the 19th century. Without conquering the whale or at least ‘challenging’ him to a final, all determining battle his life’s work will have been futile and invalidated. I can say with some certainty that he wold not be able to live with himself without having killed or been killed by the whale. He is overall proud of his work and position for him to have been a hunter of whales for 40 years, if it weren’t for the taunting of Moby Dick’s existence, his unconquerable Everest he is compelled to mount. He needs to take on Moby Dick as his final warfare, which his long and arduous career has led up to, starting as a “boy-harpooneer” at 18.

On further examination of the complex relation Ahab has to the whale, there is more to be said of the attraction Ahab feels towards the whale. It is most noticeable in the sexual implications and similes made by Melville in the final 3 chapters of the chase before it all ends with the destruction of the Pequod. The whale is described in a manner that brings images of a sexual act to mind, but more blatantly, the sexual nature of Moby Dick’s symbolism is in the fact that his name itself contains the word “Dick” and the choice of using the great “sperm” whale in this naval narrative with him “vertically thrusting his oblong white head up and down’ in chase of the boat (Ch. 133, p. 599). The use of such vernacular instills violent images of motions pertaining to a primal sexual act, especially when considering the plenitude of descriptions in the 3-day chase, as can be seen in the next few passages:

Moby Dick now lay at a little distance, vertically thrusting his oblong white head up and down in the billows; and at the same time slowly revolving his whole spindled body; so that when his vast wrinkled forehead rose- some twenty feet out of the water- the now rising swells, with all their confluent waves, dazzlingly broke against it; vindictively tossing their shivered spray still higher into the air (Ch. 133, p.599).

The use of this coital imagery builds a thick tension for the reader but also the characters in the scene that is being portrayed. It shows almost a teasing from the whale’s side, that Ahab is naturally responsive to, as a harpooneer and sailor who has devoted his life to the whale hunt, and this time a whale that betrayed him, no less. ‘The whale dallied with the doomed craft in a devilish way’ (Ch. 133, p. 598) is a scene in which Moby Dick trifles with the ship before he takes on its surefire destruction in chapter 135. It holds an anticipation for me as a reader to see where and how much higher this play of the scene will go, even though I know the Pequod will suffer utter destruction in the end.

Part of the anticipation lies in game that is finally taking place between Ahab and Moby Dick, which the majority of the book was spent on developing by building a relationship between them that would conclude in annihilation. It is a climactic 3-day event in which one hunts the other and vice versa. ‘Rising with his utmost velocity from the furthest depths, the Sperm Whale thus booms his entire bulk into the pure element of air, and piling up a mountain of dazzling foam, shows his place to the distance of seven miles and more. In those moments, the torn, enraged waves he shakes off, seem his mane; in some cases, this breaching is his act of defiance”(Ch.134, p.607). This defiance that Ishmael-Melville talks of in rejecting the social perception of the male identity and ideal is also part of the reason why Melville is using such sexualized language in their reciprocal chase. He attaches eroticism to it, especially for Ahab who has a pent-up sexual deviance he hasn’t been able to fully express during his time on sea, unless on the killing of a whale as there are no women anywhere in the substance of the narrative and homosexuality was rejected by his hierarchically motivated society of industry and hyper-masculinity. In a last blow, the whale ‘crushed [the Pequod] thirty feet upwards, the waters flashed for an instant like heaps of fountains, then brokenly sank in a shower of flakes, leaving the circling surface creamed like new milk round the marble trunk of the whale”(Ch. 135, p.618) In a swift motion Moby Dick annihilates the Pequod thirty feet up, obliterating it, leaving only a surface that “creamed like new milk round the marble trunk” as a mark of his destructive force that the boat brought onto itself by following the pursuit of Ahab and his need to fulfil an ideal of dominant hyper-masculinity that exploits and hunts other beings to simply cloak his personal short comings and losses.

In the end, even though Ahab wanted to conquer the whale, he was violated by his strength that annihilated him and basically all of his crew. The whale Moby Dick is ultimately a testament to Ahab’s devotion to the industry of whaling and also his losses due this faith. In a male society of an industrial age that values whaling with all of its exploits, his work is his prime meaning and by what he is measured in society and himself. Whaling is anything but an easy and pleasant profession, it is all consuming of the worker and it is the same for Ahab and his crew as they are obliterated by their choices of violence and hunting through which they measure their special dominance and worth.

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Social Critique of Herman Melville’s "Moby Dick". (2021, Mar 22). Retrieved from

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