Myth and Superstition in Moby Dick

The white whale Moby Dick can be looked at as a metaphor or an illusion.  It is true that Ahab’s pursuit of it is real and the whale’s sightings by other ships equally honest.  But the highly exceptional skin colour for a whale is a deliberate literary device employed by the author. What Melville is trying to convey is the ultimate futility and folly of Ahab’s stated mission.  Though Moby Dick the white whale is real and its history well documented within the fiction, its very existence is highly improbable.  Zoological knowledge concurs that white whales are very rare and elusive.  This fact of nature throws light on the precarious and absurd mission of Ahab’s revenge. Not only is he hunting a dangerous beast of the wild oceans, but spotting and getting near it is highly dicey.  Just as ancient myths are events that are plausible yet never true, Ahab’s mission is theoretically possible but is never likely to succeed.  It is in this respect that myth is expressed in the narrative of Moby Dick.

The following quote indicates the troubled mindset of the sailors as their long voyage induces a sense of frustration. A troubled mind is a ripe host for superstition to thrive.  As the desperation increases, Ahab and his crew cry out for divine intervention: “..and Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” The juxtaposition of Presbyterians and Pagans is very deliberate on part of Melville.  It reveals a crucial breach in the distinction between Christian and pre-Christian beliefs. The Christian doctrine has its share of dogma, but it has rich commentary on social ethics.  To this extent it lends itself to theological study.  On the other hand, the ancient Pagan beliefs were steeped in myth and superstition.  The sailors on board were so removed from their socio-geographic base that they are malleable to the working of myth and superstition.  Ahab benefits through this weakening of their minds.  This is reflected in how even those who were initially sceptical of his project of revenge eventually assent and participate.  The loosening of reason under the pressure of Ahab’s insane obsession is representative of the supremacy of myth and superstition on the ill-fated ship.

Where myth takes centre stage, superstition follows. Melville’s attempts at circumscribing the main narrative with references to religious superstition are more obvious.  The most pronounced marker of this connection is the choice of names for various main characters in the novel.  Ahab, Ishmael, Elijah, etc are real characters that appear in the Bible and the Gospels.  Moreover, their characterization is synchronous with their namesakes on board Pequod.  Ishmael is a benign character and a believer in the Christian discourse.  His parallel on board the ship is equally observant of his faith and is of good morals. The same analogy can be applied to Ishmael and Elijah. Even the events and conditions en route the voyage are tinted with the moral dilemmas that are reminiscent of the Bible.  The perennial struggle between good and evil, which is at the centre of religious and philosophical enquiry, is also the focus of Moby Dick.  To the extent that myth and superstition are inherent to any religion, Moby Dick contains plenty of examples of this feature.

Work Cited:

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, first published in 1851 by Harper & Brothers.