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“Moby Dick” Analysis

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    In the novel Moby-Dick Captain Ahab represents aspects of capitalism in many ways. One of the most prominent ways is through his single-minded quest to kill Moby Dick and his methods of convincing the crew to go along with his plan. It is true that by going on this quest of revenge the Pequod would actually be losing money, which is against the interest of the business. However this quest would be serving only Captain Ahab’s selfish purpose that only profits him, disregarding all the members of the crew and they would not gain from it. The more whales the crew would be able to catch and kill the more profit they would make. Going after a single whale is against their best interest. Captain Ahab is aware of this so in order to persuade the crew to change courses of the mission he uses capitalistic tactics. In chapter 36 “The Quarter-Deck” Ahab presents a doubloon, a gold coin as a monetary incentive for whomever sees the whale first. By presenting this monetary incentive Ahab achieves several things. The first of which is preventing a mutiny by giving providing the crew with a “reward” for finding the white whale. The communal nature of the crew has now turned individualistic. With this incentive Ahab is able to make the crew work harder and compete with another. This incentive exemplifies the capitalist ideology. Melville shows how capitalism is an “isolato culture: a culture in which norms and circumstances conspire to isolate individuals from one another” (McWilliam, 237). By isolating his workers, Ahab hides the crews’ common desires and what would be best for everyone, which would be to form a mutiny and not follow this plan. This isolato culture “overemphasis independence and deemphasizes interdependence”(McWilliam, 238) Instead they now only see an individual goal which in actuality is worth far less, which in return benefits Captain Ahab. Melville’s critique of capitalism in this chapter comes in the form and structure of it. The first line in the chapter is “(Enter Ahab: Then, all)”(Melville, 157). By setting this chapter up as a scene from a play Melville suggests the artificiality and deception of capitalism. Melville shows how Capitalist owners deceive workers into thinking they are benefiting when in actuality the only one who benefits from this system is the ones on top. These methods of incentive and competition are used to ensure that it stays that way.

    Throughout the novel Ahab is described in mechanical terms. By resembling a machine Ahab represents the industrial revolution. This language of machinery is seen in chapter 37 “Sunset” after he has convinced the crew to hunt Moby Dick. Melville writes that Ahab’s purpose is “fived with iron rails…”(Melville, 162). Ahab also states that he has a “steel skull” and his “one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve” (Melville, 162). Not only is Ahab himself a sort of machine but is also a capitalist owner who has turned the men who work for him into subordinate machines as well. In chapter 46 “Surmises” Melville once again describes the men as tools. Ahab is the “magnet” who controls the crews’ brains. In chapter 135 “The Chase’ Third Day” The crew is described as being one whole man instead of thirty. Ahab says to his crew “you are not other men…but my arms and legs” (Melville 493). Through these images Melville conveys how “Ahab embodies contemporary American hopes that technology would empower free men, and …to master nature which characterized industrial capitalism “. (Armstrong, 1042). Ahab sees himself as this invincible human machine that will master nature through the defeat of the whale. He also turns his crew into sorts of machine to help him with that plan However Melville critiques industrialization and capitalism for the different types of dehumanization that occurs in this society. On one hand there is the capitalist owner who is dehumanized in the sense that they choose their own profit over the well being of his workers. On the other hand Melville also shows how the workers are dehumanized as well. He shows how industrialization homogenizes their workers. This loss of identity and uniformity is exemplified through all the men being Ahab’s arms and legs. The workers themselves are now only part of the machine.

    The battle between Ahab and Moby Dick is a battle between machine and capitalism and the natural and organic. “The distinctly mechanistic aspects of Ahab contrast sharply with the profusion of organic imagery applied to Moby Dick. A whale, as Ishmael reminds us again and again” (Ausband, 207). The novel shows how the mechanistic man can never understand the organic wale. Throughout the novel Ishmael goes into great detail into the whale’s history, representation, and classification amongst other things. In Chapter 32 “Cetology” Ishmael attempts to classify the whale scientifically. However Ishmael shows how it is difficult to do exactly that despite the knowledge that has been gained. Similarly chapters like chapter 55 “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whale,” and Chapter 57 “Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in stone; in Mountains; in Stars,” and chapter 104 “The Fossil Whale” all attempt to understand the whale. These chapters shows that no matter how advanced man’s knowledge and technology maybe it impossible to completely understand the whale, nature, and the world itself. Melville also contrasts Ahab and the whale through sexuality. The loss of Ahab’s leg suggests a castration has taken place. The fact that Moby Dick was able to castrate Ahab suggests its dominance over him. “Ishmael contrasts the antagonist effectively and dramatically with Ahab. Ahab is set apart from other men not only by his lack of humanity but also by his lack of sexuality” (Ausband 208). In contrast the whale is repeatedly paired with both masculine sexual imagery such as sperm and phallus, along with feminine sexuality such as birth and deliverance. These sexual images and the lack there have once again suggested the whale’s dominance over man. Chapters like chapter 104 “The Fossil” is a reminder that whales have been in the world far longer than human and perhaps suggest that they will be here far longer as well despite human’s efforts of conquering them. In Chapter 56 “ Of the Less Erroneous” Ishmael says that the greatest pictures of whales are not the ones that are of the whale by itself. Ishmael states that the best pictures of whales are of those that have both man and whale. These pictures contain some sort of action that demonstrates man’s relationship with the natural world in which he lives in.

    One of the most prominent critiques about capitalism in this novel is that the relationship between man and nature along with the labor needed to make a commodity is often forgotten about. The whaling industry was looked down upon in society during this time as stated in chapter 24 “The Advocate.” Like that chapter this entire novel is an effort to convey the profession as a respectable one and expose their importance to the blind consumers. In Chapter 6 “The Street” Ishmael states that if it were not for the whalemen the streets of Bedford would have not been opulent if it were not for the whalemen. In fact all of New England’s wealth is from the labors of these whalemen. However that labor is forgotten about through capitalism and industrialization. People forget the time and work put into making a commodity and forgets that commodity’s true value. In chapter 45 “The Affidavit” Ishmael says, “Thought most men have some vague flitting ideas of the general perils of the grand fishery, yet they have nothing like a fixed, vivid conception of those perils, and the frequency with which they recur.” (1Melville, 94). Ishmael states that blood goes into making spermaceti candles. However when that candle is bought the consumer does not recognize that. The consumer attributes the “real cost” of that candle to its monetary value. However its true value is the danger, skill, hard work along with travels at sea and experiencing the entire world. However through capitalism its true cost is lost and instead money becomes a commodity fetish and is seen as the commodity’s real cost. The commodity fetish in this novel becomes the doubloon. Each character takes a look at the doubloon and sees something different. Ahab sees himself in the coin. This coin also represents the incentive used for persuading the crew. The coin also represents aspects of capitalism such as wage labor. When Flask sees the coin he imagines cigars, which convey the ideas of exchange value. Furthermore he specifically states it is worth 960 cigars assuming that the value is fixed, thus taking part in the act of fetishism. Queequeg sees no value to the coin at all, which critiques the capitalist’s obsession with attaining more and more money. Only Ishmael sees the labor put behind making the coin and the true value of the coin. He describes how the doubloon got to the ship and what work was put into it for it to make there. Here Melville once again shows how capitalism has erased the true value of a commodity.

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