Last time, I promised we would explore some of the themes I discovered in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I hope you enjoy this next phase of our journey. Remember this was research for my master’s thesis, so if it sounds a bit academic, stick with me. It will lighten up soon. Now, back to themes.
According to CliffsNotes: “In a work of literature, a theme is a recurring, unifying subject or idea, a motif that helps us understand a work of art better. With a novel as richly ambiguous as Moby-Dick, we look at themes as guides, but it is important to be flexible while we do so. A good deal is left to individual interpretation so that one reader might disagree with another without necessarily being ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ about what the novel is saying.” Well, if CliffsNotes gives us “permission” to come up with our own ideas, it can’t be wrong. Right? (I took the fuzzy picture on the left.)
Anyway, while many people list themes by single words—revenge, religion, defiance, I consider these to be subjects. For me, a theme is a complete idea expressed in a strong, declarative sentence. For instance, one subject found in the pages of Moby Dick is revenge. The theme would be: The man bent on revenge will ultimately destroy himself and all he holds dear. With revenge as the subject of Melville’s greatest tome, the destruction of Captain Ahab and all he values becomes the inevitable end of his quest, hence the playing out of the theme. And yet there are other themes that can be considered even deeper. (Picture by I. W. Taber – Moby Dick – edition: Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, Public Domain.)
Religion and Defiance
Although Moby Dick is a multi-layered masterpiece with far too many themes to count, most scholars agree that religious themes predominate. For many literary critics, both academic and religious, the central theme of Moby Dick is Ahab’s struggle against God, whom he considers cruel and unjust and whom he sees personified in the White Whale.
So then, one must ask: Who is God? What does He require of a mankind? What should be our response to Him?
To Captain Ahab, God is an unjust Creator who capriciously wounded him by sending a great white whale to bite off his leg. A proud, successful man, Ahab cannot accept this assault on his person as others might accept adversity. Rather, seeing the whale as a “pasteboard mask” behind which hid this cruel Being, Ahab sets himself above God and defies Him. He sets out to avenge himself, seeking actually to kill God by destroying His instrument. In his monomaniacal quest, he instead destroys his ship, his crew, and himself, crying out in defiance with his last breath: “…thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” Moby Dick, Ch. 135. And so ends the tale, as told by Ishmael, the ship’s only survivor. Ahab is dead. He died defiantly cursing God. (Picture at left is from Wiki Commons and is in the public domain.)
In the most basic terms, this theme may be summed up thus: If we fail to understand God’s love and grace in the midst of our adversities, our lives can become a tangle of bitterness, destruction, and death. Maybe you can come up with something stronger, but that will serve my purpose today.
Moby Dick is one of America’s greatest novels of all time, yet many readers are put off by both its length and its ambiguity. Countless articles and even entire volumes of formal criticism have been written explicating its themes from every conceivable literary viewpoint. Each interpretation has merit if honestly based on a valid ideological construct. My Bible-based Christian faith provides the “valid ideological construct” by which I interpret this novel.
Because imaginative literature has the power to affect our lives, we should never hesitate to read those novels that cause us to think about our own lives and, maybe more important, beyond ourselves. I believe well-written fiction can impact each of us in ways too numerous to list.
Next time, I’ll tell you how I developed Ahab’s Bride as a companion story to the original novel, with the aim of interpreting some of its themes from a Christian viewpoint.