Primitive Beginnings in Herman Melville's Moby Dick

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Primitive Beginnings in Herman Melville's Moby Dick

Among the numerous themes and ideas that author Herman Melville expresses in Moby Dick, one of the less examined is the superiority of the primitive man to the modern man. As an undertone running through the entire book, one can see in Moby Dick the same admiration of the "noble savage" that is so prevalent in Melville's earlier tales of the simple and idyllic life of the cannibals, even though the focus has been shifted to the dangers of seeing things from only one point of view and to the struggle between good and evil.

Before proceeding to a discussion of how Melville glorifies "primitive man" in Moby Dick, a working definition for the term must be agreed upon. In her illuminating essay, "The Concept of the Primitive," Ashley Montagu points out the fallacy of using the term "primitive" in a scientific context because it is so ambiguous and has so many different connotations attached to it. He shows that so-called "primitive" peoples are neither as undeveloped, uncivilized, or simple as the term implies. However, here I will use the term subjectively, with all its implications, because when Melville idolized primitive man, he did not have a specific, scientific definition in mind. He had an ideal, the ideal of man before the corrupting influences of civilization had taken their toll.

On one level of thought, Queequeg offers a prime example of the superiority of a truly "primitive" man. This "native of Kokovo" is the romanticized picture of the peoples Melville encountered in his sojourns on the tropical isles, whose innocence and virtue so impressed him. He displays his selflessness and strength when he dives after and rescu...

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In Moby Dick, that feeling of reverence and admiration toward man's primitive beginnings is still there in the noble persona of Queequeg, in the whalers and whaling that he glorifies to such an extent, and in the primeval ocean itself, which teaches its wisdom to Ishmael.

Works Cited and Consulted.

Brodhead, Richard H. "Trying All Things: An Introduction to Moby-Dick. New Essays on Moby-Dick or, The Whale. ed. Richard H. Brodhead. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Duban, James. Melville's Major Fiction: Politics, Theology, and Imagination. Dekalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1983.

McIntosh, James. "The Mariner's Multiple Quest." New Essays on Moby-Dick or, the Whale. ed. Richard H. Brodhead. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc., 1964.

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