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Literary analysis of Moby Dick - Essay Example

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Although Melville was not deeply read in science, Moby-Dick (1851) prophetically details the great scientific upheaval of 1859: the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. A primary subtext of Melville's novel is the passing of pre-Darwinian, anthropocentric thought, espoused by Ahab, and the inauguration of a version of Darwin's more ecological evolution, proffered by Ishmael (Buchholz 50)…
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Literary analysis of Moby Dick
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Download file to see previous pages The rise of Ishmael at the novel's close points to an alternative world, one controlled more by the forces of nature than by humans, one in which the civilized is not fundamentally different from the savage and the animal, one guided not by a linear plan but, to use Darwin's famous phrase, by an "inextricable web of affinities" (Buchholz 50). Indeed, Moby-Dick itself exhibits the principle of natural selection, for it suggests that species like Ahab are not adapted for survival and therefore face extinction while variations like Ishmael are well suited to thrive and flourish.
This essay treats Moby-Dick as an allegory signifying the rise of Darwin and the consequent dethroning of man, the victory of evolution over essentialism. The novel constitutes a prophetic parable of what Freud called the second great blow to man's sense of domination (after the astronomy of Copernicus and before Freud's own psychoanalysis): the emergence of the evolutionary theory that "put an end to this presumption on the part of man" by showing that "man is not a being different from the animals or superior to them; he is himself of animal descent, being more closely related to some species and more distantly to others" (cited in Ancona 17). Certainly Ahab instances a tension between both versions of the pre-Darwinian chain: the spatial and the temporal. On the one hand, he yearns for a static scale of nature, in which hierarchically grouped animals and men are utterly fated to be what they are, moving with the regularity of machines. On the other, he wishes for himself to progress, to evolve, to the very top of the chain, from which place he will hold the other species below him. From either position, he maintains, violently, the shared assumptions of both pre-Darwinian chains of being: anthropocentrism, hierarchy, design (Ancona 16). Ahab's ship is a pre-Darwinian world in miniature; it is ordered by a chain of being, seemingly static and spatial. Ahab maintains firm control of his ship's hierarchy, reaching from the bottom, the lowly crew, to the savage harpooners, to the third, second, and first mates, to Ahab himself at the top. In the "Knights and Squires" chapters, Melville details a hierarchy of men ordered by degrees of consciousness, the ability for reflection (Ancona 15). Closest to the hyper-reflective Ahab is the first mate Starbuck, pious, speculative, prudent; next is Stubb, the second mate, utterly carefree, with no interest in abstract thought; under him is Flask, the third mate, ignorant, virtually unconscious, utterly indifferent to the mysteries of whaling. Beneath these mates are the harpooners, likewise divided into hierarchy (Buchholz 51). Ahab is well aware of this hierarchy and sees his job as keeping it in place. Indeed, his first words in the novel work to reinforce the hierarchy he heads. After Stubb has hinted to Ahab that he would like him to tread more softly around the deck while others are trying to sleep, Ahab responds by forcefully reminding Stubb of his place: "Down, dog, and kennel" (127). The Captain knows that he is "above the common," having been in colleges and among cannibals (79), that his command ranges from the institutions of civilization to the habitats of the uncivilized. At the same time, he intimates a more temporal chain of ...Download file to see next pagesRead More
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