Negotiating Identity: The Frontier in Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

Negotiating Identity: The Frontier in Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

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Written during a period of American history characterized by great expansionism, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick may be read as a reflection upon both the rapidly changing geographical frontiers of America, and the accompanying shift of social, political, religious and cultural boundaries. The Pequod's world is governed by laws other than those of the American mainland. Figuratively situated at the frontier of the New World, the ship evokes the mythic American pioneer with the independent spirit, aggression and courage to wrench a nation from the wilderness. Melville lays out a version of the frontier myth that sees redefinition of national identity in terms of man confronting his other, reaffirming the self, and - through Ishmael's survival and narration - returning to civilization having defined what he is not.. Captain Ahab and his obsessive quest for the white whale symbolize in its most extreme form, an American desire to face the wild unknown and to promote national ascendancy through the confrontation.

This paper will examine the seductive but limited conditions under which claims to define American-ness are able to be made in Moby-Dick, through interrogating the way in which the crew's desires are subsumed into Ahab's private vendetta. The notion of the frontier as a place of infinite possibility, where power relations are renegotiated, even as are geographical limits, goes some way towards explaining why, despite Ahab's disregard for his men's well-being, they agree to follow him down his tragic path. Both the license that Ahab's position gives him to compel them into action, and his ability to tap the crew's own belief in the power of the mythical American capacity for self-reinvention, indicate the potential for unbridled violence in the search for the self. Crucially, this highlights the discrepancy between America's claims of its own democracy, liberty and equality, and its national enthusiasm for imperialist conquest and its tolerance of slavery.

The pervasiveness of the mythological connection between American self-invention and aggression, is underlined by Slotkin in his claim that

the first colonists saw in America an opportunity to regenerate their fortunes, their spirits, and the power of their church and nation; but the means to that regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience. (Slotkin, 5)

Renowned for the risk it involved, and for the physical demands it made on the sailors, whaling invites many comparisons with both the pioneer's intrepid conquest of the western wilderness, and the march of soldiers into war.

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Ishmael himself claims that "for many years past the whale-ship has been the pioneer in ferreting out the remotest and least known parts of the earth." (99) and that "many a veteran who has freely marched up to a battery, would quickly recoil at the apparition of the sperm whale's vast tail" (99) The implication here is that the ocean as much as the untamed wilderness terrain, served to animate the spirit of Americans, and was responsible for building the individualism and self-reliance of the national character, (Joshua Johns) However, as illustrated by the disastrous climax of the Pequod's journey towards confrontation with the whale, this focus on the individual has dubious implications if the need to reaffirm boundaries between oneself and another is prompted by a fear of annihilation of the self.

Ahab's craving for conquest achieves extra resonance when placed against the historical backdrop of the mid-nineteenth century. In his characterization of the "mad" captain, Melville questions the goals of a politically willful nation, and alludes to the danger inherent in America's expansionist drive. The fear and hatred propelling Ahab toward confrontation with the "inscrutable malice" (144) of the whale, are apparent in his claim,

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event--in the living act, the undoubted deed--there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But `tis enough. (144)

This need to "strike through the mask," to assert his individual identity for fear of absorption into the wider unknown is illuminated by the context of the recently concluded Mexican war of 1848, the subsequent controversy that arose surrounding the balance of fres and slave states, and Henry Clay's Compromise of 1850. Ahab's "mortal indomitableness" (130) and "monomania" suggest the westward thrusts of domestic policy spearheaded by such presidents as James K. Polk and Andrew Jackson.

Moreover, the captain's fixation with the whiteness of the whale evokes a predilection with an "imagined community" of a monolithic white America, (Benedict Anderson.) Ishmael explains the fascination of going to sea in terms of man's longing after his own image. He declares "the key to it all" to be "that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life..." (14) Melville's metaphors defy neat categorization, and there are multiple interpretations of the significance of the whale, as Ahab himself concedes in his uncertainty over its role as "agent" or "principle" of the inscrutable malice he is sworn against. (144) One persuasive reading, however, is that Ahab represents an inability to accept the possibility of this whiteness being diluted by such developments as the incorporation of Mexicans into the union after the cession of Utah and New Mexico, or the spread of abolition.

This setting encourages a view of the Pequod as an example of the oft-used "ship-of-state" metaphor, with the captain as the national figurehead, and facilitates an understanding of Ahab's abuse of his position of authority as a bitter parody of the wayward course taken by American democracy. The puritan legacy of Americans as the chosen people of the "city on the hill," shining a light back to the corrupted Old World to set an example of how to live with God's blessing, is depicted to have imperialist implications. Ahab's cry, as he views his ship lit up by the morning sun, of "Ha, ha, my ship! thou mightest well be taken now for the sea-chariot of the sun. Ho, ho! all ye nations before my prow, I bring the sun to me," (425) highlights a vision of the earth as belonging to the chosen elite who have the initiative and courage to mold it to their will. A similar sentiment is evident in Ahab's conversion of one of the ship's needles into a new compass needle, crying "look ye, for yourselves, if Ahab be not lord of the level loadstone! The sun is East, and that compass swears it!" followed by the narrator's note that "in his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride."(425)

In many respects, the Pequod's fateful trajectory is pictured as a result of Ahab's misuse of power, in disregarding considerations of the safety and profitability of the voyage in order to avenge himself on the whale who robbed him of his leg. Incidents such as Ahab's concealment of the stowaways below deck to facilitate his hunt for the whale, stress conflict between Ahab's ambitions and that of his crew, as Ishmael addresses,

though of all men the moody captain of the Pequod was the least given to that sort of shallowest assumption; and though the only homage he ever exacted, was implicit, instantaneous obedience... yet even Captain Ahab was by no means unobservant of the paramount forms and usages of the sea... Nor, perhaps, will it fail to be eventually perceived, that behind those forms and usages, as it were, he sometimes masked himself; incidentally making use of them for other and more private ends than they were legitimately intended to subserve. (129)

The double standard implicit in the ship's power relations emerge similarly in Starbuck's bitter cry, "horrible old man! Who's over him, he cries;--aye, he would be a democrat to all above; look, how he lords it over all below!" (148)

The rigid hierarchical structure of the crew, as illustrated by such examples of unwritten ship law as Flask's inability to help himself to butter, (132) is portrayed as facilitating the control of inappropriate rulers, in a manner that unavoidably suggests comment upon the condition of American leadership. Ishmael declares that

be a man's intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men, without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always, in themselves, more or less paltry and base. This it is, that for ever keeps God's true princes of the Empire from the world's hustings; and leaves the highest honors that this air can give, to those men who become famous more through their infinite inferiority to the choice hidden handful of the Divine Inert, than through their undoubted superiority over the dead level of the mass. (129)

The exercise of practical influence over others relies on a willing appropriation of "external arts and entrenchments" or force, ensuring that the exercise of political power is inextricable from the denial of individuals' freedoms to them, and that political authority must be recognised as being open to abuse. This complicates acceptance of the fundamental premises of liberty on which the New World democracy was founded, and raises questions not only about the intentions of individual leaders, but also about the overarching goal of expanding through conquest the borders of a nation with a theoretical ideological opposition to imperialism.

The concept of a discrepancy between the rhetoric and practice of American policy is similarly evoked in Moby-Dick through allusions to slavery. The mixture of bribery and brutality that Ahab uses to elicit cooperation from his crew for the hunt for the white whale, is reminiscent of the lack of agreement between slavery's reputation in some circles as a benevolent, humane institution, and the reality of the slave's dependence on his master's whim, and his subsequent vulnerability to immense cruelty. Bringing to mind Frederick Douglass' observations on the use of alcohol for pacifying slaves, Ahab's exuberant exhortations to the men to drink up the alcohol he has given them, are juxtaposed with asides of a very different tone, (Douglass, 85.) We see how a structure of near-inflexible authority, combined with the rhetoric and token concessions of a "benevolent" leader, serve to render any challenge to the status quo difficult. As Ahab says of his reproach to Starbuck, "something shot from my dilated nostrils, he has inhaled it in his lungs. Starbuck now is mine; cannot oppose me now, without rebellion." (144) The implication is of the difficulty of defining American-ness without talking in aggressive terms of superiority over foreign "others"; patriotism is equated in some respects with conquest.

Ahab's hold over his crew should not, however, be attributed solely to force. He declares, "I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve. (147) The crew of the Pequod, although uncomfortably aware of the madness of Ahab's quest, are nonetheless, relatively swiftly persuaded to acquiesce. If America's history is shaped by those who "rewrite" the physical contours of the nation, then confronting the white whale provides an unparalleled opportunity to transcend the socially prescriptive and reductive roles of the mainland. There is an equalizing aspect to the myth of the American frontier as a place in which to assure Americans of their superiority over those they define themselves as being other than. The status of "American" is available, in Moby-Dick, to anyone willing to participate in the violent conquest of that perceived as un-American, (hence the participation in war by marginalized groups throughout history, as a means to proclaim themselves Americans and therefore as equally deserving of rights as any other.)

The contingency in Moby-Dick of American identity-formation upon definition of self in opposition to certain uncivilized others, through aggressive confrontation, is affirmed by the "exceptions" to this that Pip and Ishmael represent. The counterpart to Ahab's insanity, the "mad" Pip is terrorized by the indifference of Stubb (and God?) to his plight upon falling out of the whale boat, as the mate forges ahead regardless in pursuit of the whale. Pip ceases, henceforth, to participate in the ship's business, and comments from a certain remove, upon the obsessive hunt for the whale shared by the rest of the crew,

strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the misermerman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyless, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw... God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it, (347)

Pip's transcendence of the "ever-juvenile eternities" may be understood as his rejection of the narrow conquest-oriented vision of American identity. He is driven to inhabit a half-life of dislocation, as he cries over the side of the ship, "who's seen Pip the coward?" (427) Pip's veiled warning to Ahab of the danger of the final chase for Moby-Dick, is a chilling reminder of the perils of his infatuation with such a narrow vision of national identity, "they tell me sir, that Stubb did once desert poor little Pip, whose drowned bones now show white, for all the blackness of his living skin. But I will never desert ye, sir, as Stubb did him. Sir, I must go with ye." (436) Pip's fate is intrically bound to that of Ahab; he must "deny" his name because scant room exists within American ideology for a way to envisage American-ness outside of a lionized violent heroism.

The one place that a critique of the national preoccupation with violent opposition to the unknown can emerge is through the narration of Ishmael. In a dichotomy similar to that observed in Pip, the reader is presented with both a younger participatory Ishmael, unable to resist the pull of Ahab's will, and with the retrospective narrative of the same character, now older and wiser. His declaration in the epilogue, "and I only am escaped alone to tell thee," (470) and, indeed, the presence of his voice throughout the book, represent the return journey from the frontier. His standpoint is that of civilized society, a concept that exists through its difference from the "savage" frontier. The allusion to the messengers giving the news of the destruction of Job's family, in the context of the bloody demise of the Pequod that he relates, suggests that Ishmael the narrator's role is to challenge the myth of the rejuvenation of national identity through frontier conquest. His tone, as the sole "orphan" (470) after the shipwreck would seem to deplore the monomania that sweeps the crew of the Pequod. However, this cautionary tone must be balanced against the location of the younger Ishmael's voice within the central story. His question to the reader "wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?" (170) and his attempted explanations of the appeal of hunting Moby-Dick persuade because as a young sailor, Ishmael was one of the "various wheels" fitting Ahab's "one cogged circle." The lack of active dissent in Ishmael's or any of the characters' actions, of the sort, for example, that's described in the mutiny of the Town-ho, (208) leaves a lasting impression of the allure of violent confrontation.

It might therefore be concluded that the Pequod exists on the margins of civilization, as a space outside the conventions of mainland America. Here, the submission of many to the commands of one more powerful (a hierarchical structure of authority that Ahab is able to exploit,) replaces the customs of a society which theoretically emphasize the liberty and equality of each individual. Melville uses the ship, however, as a metaphor of state, to expose the hypocrisy of generally accepted notions of what America stands for. The strands of the particular frontier myth evoked in the novel, direct the reader back to both the conception of America held by the original settlers, and to the turbulent history of the mid-nineteenth century. The dual narrative and participatory voices of Ishmael are emblematic ultimately of the attraction and the hazard of seeking to validate and confirm national identity through violent confrontation with the wild unknown. The ill-fated end of the Pequod's voyage to the literal and symbolic frontier, highlights the rigidity of the terms in which Americanism is couched - forever in opposition to a mysterious, inferior, malevolent other. Moby-Dick points to the creation of a dichotomy that leaves little opportunity to relax the definition of "American."


Melville, Herman, Moby-Dick (New York: W. W. Norton) 1967

Slotkin, Richard, Regeneration Through Violence (Middletown, Conn., Wesleyan University Press) c1963

Anderson, Benedict, R. O' G. Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso) 1983

Douglass, Frederick, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Ed. Benjamin Quarles (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press) 1960

Duban, James, "Nationalism and Providence in Ishmael's White World" in Melville's Major Fiction: Politics, Theology, and Imagination. (Northern Illinois University Press: Dekalb) 1983
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