The Quest for Meaning in Moby Dick

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The Quest for Meaning in Moby Dick "To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it" states the narrating character Ishmael as he attempts to justify his reasoning on writing such a lengthy novel. Indeed, the whale may be the most complex and grandiose mammal on earth, yet one may still question the ulterior motive of Melville for explicating every detail of a whaling journey in Moby Dick. In fact, Melville develops many themes throughout the text that lead the reader to believe that his "mighty theme" is the meaning of life. Thus, the adventure of hunting the Great White Whale, Moby Dick, can be seen as a giant analogy to seeking the meaning of life. Through this journey, Ishmael describes the different members of the crew and their interpretation of the whale. Yet, Ishmael refrains from assigning one particular meaning to the whale and, in the end, is the only crewmember to survive the journey. Symbolically, Melville believes that an individual must be able to see many meanings in life in order to survive the trap of intolerance of different beliefs and lifestyles. To evidence this hypothesis, Melville presents a number of ironic contrasts in the text including religious hypocrisy, the false appearance of the sea, the relationship of Good and Evil, the coffin as a dual symbol of both life and death, the interpretations of the whiteness of the whale, and the life/death issue of the whaling industry. Through these contrasts, Melville strives to awaken the reader to the many meanings of life and to avoid limiting one’s mind to one, fixed meaning. The first contrast that Melville develops revolves around the irony o... ... middle of paper ... ...ted by Captain Ahab’s quest to destroy Evil. Just as Ishmael humbly admits his ignorance at the true meaning of life, "Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not and never will. But if I know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head?" (367), the strength in Melville’s novel rests in the lack of one, singular answer to the question that has haunted mankind since the beginning of time. Identifying and accepting many meanings of life, by highlighting a contrast that lies in each interpretation, saves the soul from fooling itself into believing that the complexity of the universe is humanly intelligible. Works Cited Kirby, David. Herman Melville. New York: Continuum, 1993. McSweeney, Kerry. Moby-Dick: Ishmael's Mighty Book. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick or, The Whale. NYC: Penquin Books, 1992.
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