Reading Moby-Dick as Ethnic Allegory

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Reading Moby-Dick as Ethnic Allegory

At a time when images of the white settler conquering the "savage" frontier were prevalent in antebellum America, depictions of racial polarization and, alternately, co-existence among different ethnic groups had already begun to find expression in various artistic mediums, from painting to literature. Today more than ever, such works continue to elicit critical re-examinations where race relations, colonization, and literary representation are concerned. While many literary and cultural critics have proposed allegorical readings of political and religious natures, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick can also be read relatedly as an ethnic allegory, where particular scenes and images representing death or destruction illustrate Melville's uneasiness with how white expansionist attitudes are enacted often in tension with or at the expense of different ethnic peoples living within America's geographic borders. For these purposes, I would like specifically to examine Melville's rather unconventional portrayal of a non-white character such as Queequeg. The correlation between his anticipated and ultimate death and the calamitous demise of the Pequod , as a space which rearranges traditional structures of hierarchy and accomodates ethnic diversity, in the end, demonstrates Melville's indecisive anxiety between an imagined fantasy of an alternative social reality and the historical reality of American westward expansionism.

First, allow me to be clear: At a simplified level, I call this an ethnic allegory because Moby-Dick both illustrates and confronts the ways in which "white" America expresses a desire for hegemonic control, symbolized in Ahab's ruthless quest for the white whale, at the same ti...

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Works Cited

Berkhofer, Robert F. The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

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.

Yarborough, Richard. "Strategies of Black Characterization in Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Early Afro-American Novel." New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin. ed. Eric Sundquist. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

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