Good and Evil in Moby Dick

Good and Evil in Moby Dick

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Good and Evil in a Morally Indifferent Universe in Moby Dick

The moral ambiguity of the universe is prevalent throughout Melville's Moby
Dick. None of the characters represent pure evil or pure goodness. Even
Melville's description of Ahab, whom he repeatedly refers to "monomaniacal,"
suggesting an amorality or psychosis, is given a chance to be seen as a
frail, sympathetic character. When Ahab's "monomaniac" fate is juxtaposed
with that of Ishmael, that moral ambiguity deepens, leaving the reader with
an ultimate unclarity of principle.
The final moments of Moby Dick bring the novel to a terse, abrupt climax.
The mutual destruction of the Pequod and the White Whale, followed by
Ishmael's epilogue occupies approximately half a dozen pages. Despite
Melville's previous tendency to methodically detail every aspect of whaling
life, he assumes a concise, almost journalistic approach in the climax.
Note that in these few pages, he makes little attempt to assign value
judgements to the events taking place. Stylistically, his narration is
reduced to brusque, factual phrases using a greater number of semicolons.
By ending the book so curtly, Melville makes a virtually negligible attempt
at denouement, leaving what value judgements exist to the reader.
Ultimately, it is the dichotomy between the respective fortunes of Ishmael
and Ahab that the reader is left with. Herein lies a greater moral
ambiguity than is previously suggested. Although Ishmael is the sole
survivor of the Pequod, it is notable that in his own way, Ahab fulfills his
desire for revenge by ensuring the destruction of the White Whale alongside
his own end. Despite the seeming superiority of Ishmael's destiny, Melville
does not explicitly indicate so. On the contrary, he subtly suggests that
Ishmael's survival is lonely and empty upon being rescued: "It was the
devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing
children, only found another orphan." (724) That single instance of the
appellation "orphan" as applied to Ishmael speaks volumes when taken in
light of the destruction of the Pequod and her crew. Melville's inclusion
of Ishmael's survival as an epilogue, a suffix attached to the dramatic
destruction of the Pequod, suggests that Ishmael's survival is an
afterthought to the fate of Ahab and the rest of his crew. Ishmael's quiet
words at the beginning of the chapter, "Why then here does any one step
forth? —Because one did survive the wreck," (723) indicate a deep humility

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on Ishmael's part.
The question is then raised of why Ishmael is the sole survivor. It is
clear that Ishmael significantly differs with Ahab concerning their
respective perspectives of the White Whale. Ishmael clearly indicates in
the chapter "The Try Works" how disagreeable he finds the mission and
mentality of those around him: "…the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages,
and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness
of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's
soul." (540) Here, Ishmael breaks his usual detached observancy and boldly
divorces himself from Ahab's mission and those whom Ahab has recruited to
aid him.
Ishmael further distinguishes himself from the rest of the crew by being
the sole non-exploiter of whales in general. Melville makes it clear early
on that Ishmael initially chooses to ship on the Pequod for the experiential
value of whaling. It has been indicated that his outlook on the whale is
the only significantly benign one. Whereas Ishmael is terrified by the
"whiteness of the whale," Stubb sees economic gain in the valuable whale
oil, subtly hinted at by his overbearing gloating upon his first kill. In
the harpooneers, we see a violent savageness, even in Queequeg's otherwise
loving nature. To Ahab, the whale is a emblem of pure evil. Even prudent,
rational Starbuck looks on the whale as a dumb animal, which it is his duty
to exploit.
The terror that Ishmael perceives is a consequence of his own vague fear of
the whale's "nothingness." What Ishmael fears is the mystical, terrifying
manifestation of white in the natural world, coupled with its subversion of
the sense of purity attached to whiteness in the human world. Ishmael is
distinguished from the rest of the crew in his ability to consider the
perspectives of the others. In his role as narrator, Ishmael's ability to
detachedly analyze the viewpoints of those around him may be what saves him.
Note also, that in his narration, Ishmael is the one character to cast any
reverence upon the grand scale of the whale. Unlike the values the others
place on the whale, Ishmael is capable of viewing the whale solely for its
being, as one of the many viewpoints that he considers through the course of
the novel.
In contrast, Ahab's views of the whale are singular and focused. Melville
describes it as a "monomaniacal" obsession, but it is clear in Ahab's
complexity that there are other factors at work. Ahab remains virtually
unidimensional until the chapter "The Symphony," where he freely shares his
feelings with Starbuck. In allowing us to see the subtle complexities of
Ahab's obsession, Melville makes it clear that Ahab is not an inhuman
machine of revenge. Ahab's questioning of "what nameless, inscrutable,
unearthly thing is it; what cozzening, hidden lord and master, and cruel,
remorseless emperor commands me?" (685) replaces his previous portrait as
the depraved lunatic. The reader is now left to question whether Ahab is
indeed maddened by his obsessive hatred, or simply overwhelmingly
determined, but blinded by his anger.
Note though, that despite whatever end comes of him, Ahab succeeds in
avenging himself upon the whale. Although he is swallowed up by the sea
before he can be fully aware of his success, he does expend his last moments
fulfilling his mission. At the last, he proclaims, "from hell's heart I
stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee." Whatever
Ahab's motivations, it cannot be discounted that this objective of is his
being realized even with his dying breath.
With the characters of Ishmael and Ahab structured into their respective
places, the stage is set for the novel's finale. The ambiguous
circumstances of the last chapter "The Chase —Third Day," are further
complicated by the portrait of the whale that Melville himself composes.
Melville portrays whales methodically throughout the novel, approaching them
from a scientific, sociologic, philosophic and even poetic points of view.
Despite the relative benignness of the novel's previous leviathans, Melville
makes the White Whale markedly different: "Moby Dick seemed combinedly
possessed by all the angels that fell from heaven." (715) Despite the
seemingly lunacy implied by Ahab's insistence that the White Whale is an
evil force, the ruthless efficacy with which Moby Dick defends himself seems
to vindicate Ahab in the end. It is this mutual malevolency that is the
impetus for the downward spiral of violence begetting violence that
culminates in the mutual destruction of Ahab and Moby Dick.
In being left to valuate the respective fates of Ishmael and Ahab, the
reader is forced to examine what each character has accomplished or lost in
his choice of actions. Ishmael is fortunate enough to be the sole survivor
of the Pequod, but it is left unclear to what traumas he faces. Ahab
ultimately succeeds in his goal, but does so at the expense of his life, his
ship and his crew. Melville makes no attempt to delineate for the reader a
moral hierarchy, and in doing so, completes the ambiguity.
The reader is then left with the possibility of assigning symbolic relations
between the characters. If looked at from the grandest scale, it is
possible to see the whale and the sea as a morally ambivalent cosmos. If
so, then the fault of Ahab and the crew of the Pequod is their futile
attempt to master a force of nature far beyond their comprehension, and are
destroyed for it. The image of Ishmael floating helplessly upon the ocean,
without even the wreckage of the Pequod then becomes a strikingly lonely
image of humanity adrift in a universe neither good nor evil.

-another imperative from your friendly local interplanetary Imperial regime.
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