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Surface: the Key to Understanding Moby-dick

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Surface: The Key to Understanding Moby-Dick

There are many key themes and words in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. One of the more interesting words found repeatedly is the word surface. There are several ways to interpret this word; it is the veil under which the unknown resides, it is the dividing line between the limits of human knowledge and that which is unknowable, it is the barrier that protects the soul from falling below, and it is a finite form . The first and most easily recognized is the repeated use of the word, appearing twenty-one times in the text from chapter thirty-two to one hundred thirty-five. In each of these instances the word is used in the physical sense, the surface of the water or the substantive surface of an object. Another way that surface can be read is as the idea of surface. The word surface lends itself to many interpretations; psychologically, philosophically, and theologically. The idea of surface also has a key role in understanding the depth of Moby-Dick such as in phrenology where the study of the surface becomes a search for truth, which then returns to the physical surface and its many uses.

In the chapter titled The Nut, Ishmael, the narrator observes, "If the Sperm Whale be physiognomically a sphinx, to the phrenologist his brain seems that geometrical circle which it is impossible to square" (Moby-Dick, 408). Phrenology is the study of the surface of the head, judging ones personality or fate based on the lumps found on their head. This study of the surface of the whales head then becomes an analogy for the remaining uses of the word surface. According to Ishmael, the phrenological study of the sperm whale's head is more difficult than solving the riddle of the sphinx an...

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