Throughout Moby Dick, Herman Melville offers his reader a mélange of foreign curiosities and exotic points of interest that add both depth and texture to the narrative. The abundance of such exotica, however, can prove overwhelming, and many of the novel's briefly noted yet remarkably important cultural signposts get lost in the mix. Often overlooked, Melville's use of Hindu imagery not only lends a sense of mysticism to the novel, but also helps to define the dynamic that operates between Ishmael, Ahab, and Moby Dick. Understanding this dynamic offers insight into Melville's efforts at defining the novel as an art form as well as his attempts at casting the roles of author, reader, and novel in relationship to each other.i
The reader's initiation into Hindu culture begins sublimely, and in the most Christian of settings, in a chapel. Deeply moved by the cold, stone tablets commemorating those who have died at sea, Ishmael goes on to invoke the foreign religion:
Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say--here, here lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these. What bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes! What despair in those immovable inscriptions! What deadly voids and unbidden infidelities in the lines that seem to gnaw upon all Faith, and refuse resurrections to the beings who have placelessly perished without a grave. As well might those tablets stand in the cave of Elephanta as here. (64)
As well might those tablets stand in the cave? As well might we! Here, the power of the written word is such that Ishmael can transport the reader from the domestic tranquillity ...
... middle of paper ...
...al Sources for the Study of Hinduism. New Jersey: Barnes and Noble, 1988.
Organ, Troy Wilson. The Hindu Quest for the Perfection of Man. Ohio: Ohio UP, 1980.
Sharma, Brijendra Nath. Iconography of Sadasiva. New Delhi: Abhinav, 1976.
i Although H. Bruce Franklin argues against Melville's use of Hindu mythology in Moby Dick, favoring instead Egyptian mythology, H.B. Kulkarni thoroughly answers each of Franklin's objections, suggesting that "Moby Dick has room enough not only for Hindu and Egyptian myths, but many more" (Kulkarni 6).
ii That is, Ishmael shapes the course of the drama as it exists on the page. To suggest that Ishmael shapes events as they occur on the ship would cast doubt on his veracity as a narrator.
iii Indeed, "Call me Ishmael" invites the reader to engage in a fairly intimate relationship with the narrator.