III.4.Herman Melville (1819-1891) Focus of Study Life Experience Literary Career Major works Point of View Writing Style Significance
Life Experience Herman Melville was born in New York City into an established merchant family. The death of his father (Primary school education) In 1837, as a cabin boy on a merchant ship for Liverpool. He shipped out in 1839 and 1841 on Acushnet to the Atlantic and the South Seas. He later said, “A whale ship was my Harvard and Yale."
Literary Career He returned in 1844 to his mother's house and spent the rest of his life writing. He married in 1847 and in 1850 he became the friend of Hawthorne who exerts great influence on his writing and his philosophical attitudes. As masterpiece, Moby Dick was a commercial and critical failure in its author's time. Melville endured immense family strife and tragedy, including the deaths of two sons. His death on September 28, 1891, prompted little notice.
Typee (1846) Ommo (1847) Redburn ( 1849 ) Moby Dick (1851) The Confidence Man (1857) Billy Budd (1924) Redburn, His First Voyage
Major works Typee, an account of his stay with the cannibals. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life
OMOO, the sequel of Typee, and gained a huge success as the first novel. OMOO
The story is set in 1797 during the war between England and France. Billy Budd: a foretopman John Claggart ： Master-at-Arms Edward Fairfax Vere: Captain Theme: 1. whether law is maintained on the basis of moral justice. 2. Man in dilemma. Billy Budd (1924)
Focus Study on Moby Dick 1. Plot Study 2. Thematic Concern: a. Whaling as a metaphor for life b. Alienation VS Friendship c. Man's search for knowledge and for control over Nature d. The nature of the Universe both as friendly and unfriendly; different and unconquerable.
3. Character Analysis Ahab: a portrait of an Emersonian self-reliant individual, the type of self-absorption which leads to isolation, madness, and suicide. He resembles his monstrous enemy Moby Dick. He hates the mysterious and hostile force of nature. He challenges it with all might and main. The novel shows both his greatness and folly.
Ishmael: a wanderer and outcast, is roving to find his spiritual home. He represents general humanity for his sympathy with all human possibilities and actions. He shows no respect for conventions and authorities, and he is a believer of the insights in the secrets of human life and man's dignity. He learns life, love and brotherhood from association with Queequeg, the Polynesian savage in the novel.
symbolic meanings Pequod: a miniature society by individualizing a train of characters. (an extinct Indian tribe) Moby Dick: paradoxically benign and malevolent, nourishing and destructive; massive, brutal, monolithic, but at the same time protean, erotically beautiful, infinitely variable. It represents the final mystery of the universe which man will do well to desist from pursuing. Its whiteness: also a paradoxical color, signifying as it does death and corruption as well as purity, innocence, and youth.
Point of View 1. His novels, wide-ranging in content, are both realistic accounts of his experience at sea and allegorical presentations of the man's unceasing quest in a world of perplexity and boredom. 2. Two strains dominate in American literature beginning from 1836: optimistic and pessimistic. Melville's view of life is that of tragedy. He commits himself to a pessimistic, morbid and devilish view that dominates the world.
3. His frequent themes are the tensions between innocence and experience, good and evil, noble- savage and civilization, authority and rebellion, isolation and sociality, morality and law, etc. 4. His novels and tales are always open-ended with a moral uncertainty left for his reader. He was a noble and lost quester, as Hawthorne once said, a man who could “neither believe nor be comfortable in his unbelief and a man who was of very high and noble nature, and better immortality than most of us.”
Writing Style 1. His writing is consciously literary. His rich rhythmical prose and poetic power show his high craftsmanship. His grammatical structure is radically complex and long, but full of poetic rhythms. 2. His style is highly symbolic and metaphorical.
3. There is a threefold quality in his writing: the style of fact, the style of oratory celebrating the fact, and the style of meditation. 4. Moby Dick has many non-narrative chapters, this is how Melville changed an adventure story into a philosophical novel. The maritime jargon which gives his novels a flavor of the sea. 5. He used the technique of multiple views to achieve the effect of ambiguity.
Significance The rediscovery and reexamination of the writer in 20 th century: 1. Freudian psychology became very popular and Melville's work was easy to analyze according to Freudian principles. 2. The writers of the 1920s were trying to achieve the breadth, penetration, symbolic richness, irony, and vicious satire in Melville’s works in their own literature.
3. His themes of alienation, loneliness, suicidal individualism, confrontation of innocence and evil, morbidity and demonism of the world, agonies of self-discovery, mistrust of the idea of unrestrained liberty, man as radically imperfect and a world filled with lost innocence and betrayed hope, etc. became the focus of people’s attention. 4. The loss of faith and the sense of futility and meaninglessness, which characterized modern life of the West, were already expressed in his work. 5. His reputation rests on his rich, poetic prose, on his philosophy, and on his effective use of symbolism.
Students Activities: Discussion Class Suggested Essay Topics: 1. Why does the novel's narrator begin his story with "Call me Ishmael"? What would the narrative have been like if Ahab were the narrator? 2.How does Ishmael's relationship to Queequeg change from the time they meet to the sailing of the Pequod? 3. Why does Ahab pursue Moby Dick so single-mindedly?
4. Why does Starbuck decide against killing Ahab, despite believing that it is the only way to "survive to hug his wife and child again"? (p. 559) Why does Starbuck fail to convince Ahab to give up his pursuit of Moby Dick? 5. Why does Ishmael digress from his story to meditate on the meaning of whiteness ("The Whiteness of the Whale")? 6. Why does the coffin prepared for Queequeg become Ishmael's life buoy as Pequod sinks? 7. Who or what is primarily responsible for the destruction of the Pequod and her crew? 8. How has his experience aboard the Pequod affected Ishmael?
For Further Reflection 1. On what basis should we determine the point at which ambition turns into obsession? 2. Is knowledge always at least partly harmful, either in its application or the cost of acquiring it?
References Reading of 'Moby-Dick' by Milton Oswin Percival (1950) New Perspectives on Melville, ed. by Faith Pullin (1978) Melville by Edward H. Rosenberry (1979) Herman Melville, ed. by A. Robert Lee (1984) Empire for Liberty: Melville and the Poetics of Individualism by Wai-chee Dimock (1991)
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