Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as an Epic
Richard Chase describes Moby Dick as “the most startling and the most characteristic product of the American imagination.” Melville’s literary reputation remained dormant till 1920’s and he was known mainly as a teller of south sea stories. Then suddenly critics discovered that Moby Dick was an extraordinary work. Since then critics have never tired of interpreting and discussing this work.
American fictions as distinguished from British fictions are romances rather than novels. But once in a while a fictional work of epic proportions appears with a large theme and a wide sweep like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and, more recently, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, and John Barth’s Giles, The Goat Boy. But Moby Dick, written more than a century and a half ago, could very well be described as a strange, multidimensional and extraordinary work of fiction.
Like Homer’s Iliad, which is more than the story of a ten-year war between the Greeks and the Trojans or Odyssey, which is more than the story of Ulysses’s adventures on the sea, or Milton’s Paradise Lost which is a lot more than the story of the fall of man, or the great Hindu Epic, The Mahabharata, which is much more than the story of the fight between cousins, Moby Dick is more than the story of a white whale. It means many things to many people and, in particular, to a discerning critic. The point about an epic is its encyclopaedic scope. There is more to it than meets the eye and, in this respect, Moby Dick is like an epic. In its poetic power, rhetoric, dramatization and characterization it is like a Shakespearean tragedy.
Let us now look at its epic characteristics. Like any epic of any culture, Moby Dick is a complex work, which combines in itself philosophy, psychology, cetology, theology, and morality in addition to a tale of adventure involving whales in general and an invincible white whale in particular. The protagonist of this work of fiction is a whaling expert of great reputation and he has to contend against a mighty white whale with a supernatural halo about it.
The book grows out of a single word. ‘I’ (“call me Ishmael’) and expands until it includes the whole sea and its denizens, the whole external world as well as the internal world of the human psyche and the whole universe with its ambiguities and contradictions. Everything that the narrator sees or every experience he has makes him launch on a voyage of reflections involving life and the soul.
If the narrator is thus extraordinary, the main characters who are engaged in a life and death struggle- Captain Ahab and the great white whale are more extraordinary, worthy of the epic struggle in which they are involved. The main characters in an epic are larger than life and out of the ordinary even as the subject is expansive and multidimensional. Thus Moby Dick satisfies these two main requirements.
Ahab, with his monumental ego and indefatigable spirit, is pitted against the largest and the most powerful creature in the world, who has the fierce reputation of wrecking many ships and destroying many whale-hunters. As a man, Ahab has superhuman strength, indomitable courage and an unconquerable will.
As a whale, Moby Dick is not only huge and mighty but also mysterious and invincible. These qualities of Moby Dick are amply demonstrated when he sails away majestically after working havoc on the Pequod and its crew and carrying away the dead body of poor Ahab even as the mighty Achilles drags away the dead body of the once heroic Hector tied to his chariot
The scene in which Ahab makes the sailors swear undying loyalty to him and hatred and revenge against the white whale and the one in which Ahab nails the doubloon on the main mast have the flavour of scenes in an epic. There are many scenes with an epic flavour in this novel.
An important characteristic of an epic is the long simile known as the Homeric simile or the Miltonic simile or the epic simile. Melville’s imagery of lances, harpoons, shields and breast plates, and the performance of obligatory rites is characteristic of an epic in nature and content. He makes use of the long, sustained simile, known as the epic simile, which enhances the effect of the epic. An interesting example is the simile in which a school of right whales, sluggishly moving through a field, is compared to a group of mowers slowly advancing their scythes through the wet grass of a marshy meadow. Look at the following simile, which looks like a prose version of a passage in verse from an epic:
“As marching armies approaching an unfriendly defile in the mountains accelerate their march, all eagerness to place that perilous passage in their rear, and once more expand in comparative security upon the plain; even so did this vast fleet of whales now seen hurrying forward through the straits, gradually contracting the wings of their semicircle, and swimming on, in one solid, but still crescentic centre.” (Moby Dick p.366-367)
An epic is narrated in a ceremonial and elevated style. This is called the grand style in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Generally, in an epic poem, the narrator begins by stating his argument or theme. In Moby Dick, the theme is stated in Father Mapple’s sermon in the form of the story of Jonah and the whale.
An epic poem opens abruptly or in medias res. In Moby Dick, Ishmael tells us abruptly “Call me Ishmael“, which is the opening sentence.
In an epic poem, there are catalogues of some of the principal characters, introduced in formal details, as in Milton’s description of the fallen angels in Book 1 of Paradise Lost. These characters are given set speeches which reveal their diverse temperaments as in Book II of Paradise lost. In Moby Dick also the characters are introduced in a kind of roll call in chapters 26 and 27 appropriately titled “Knights and Squires”, and in chapter 40 titled “Harpooners and Sailors”.
The forging of Ahab’s harpoon resembles the forging of Achilles’ shield in Iliad. The libations offered to the gods in Homer resemble the hectic activities like the weaving of nets, climbing on mast heads, and the rigging of masts in Melville.