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The real subject of Moby Dick is...

The real subject of Moby Dick is...

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by aisling geraghty. Originally submitted for English at Mater Dei Institute of Education, with lecturer Dr. Michael Hinds in the category of English Language & Literature
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by aisling geraghty. Originally submitted for English at Mater Dei Institute of Education, with lecturer Dr. Michael Hinds in the category of English Language & Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
Essay Competition
‘The real subject of Moby-Dick is…’
In the following essay I intend to demonstrate that the original essence of MobyDick is Melville’s need to call the doubloon.
‘Can’t ye see the world from where you stand.’
1
Melville saw the world clearly from where he stood and expressed a sense of inner cleansing having completed this particular book. In compiling Moby Dick he useselevated prose in an outstanding narrative for what was primarily a very simple story.The story of a family; his family.Though not overtly autobiographical, it begins with a young Melville in the mostinfluential years of his life aged twelve, the precise age of 
The Rachel’s
missing son ‘ alittle lad, but twelve years old’
2
, this is the only exact age mentioned in the book so let us presume for now, it is by design. Despite this simple beginning, it gathers a cacophony of universal discoveries, which somehow triumphantly land us back where we started.Of Course, it would be naive to assume that this observation is the sum total of Moby-Dick. The book meanders through a labyrinth of observations about religion,civilisation and gender imbalance. Later in the essay we will discuss some of these major themes, but first let us turn our attention to the original sketch for this grand design; my belief here is that his relationship with his father was present at the inception of this book.During the summer of 1891, Maria and Allan Melvill became parents to their third child, a boy called Herman, not a family name like that of his older brotheGansevoort (a maternal name of honour) or that of his younger brother Allan junior, justa name for a middle child. Curiously some years later he gave the name Stanwix to his
1
Herman Melville,
 Moby Dick 
, (New York: Penguin, 2003), p.81.
2
Melville,
 Moby Dick 
, chapter 128.
 
second son, perhaps his familial equivalent. The name Stanwix came from
 Fort Stanwix.
His maternal grandfather Peter Gansevoort was hailed a hero for two events, the SaratogaCampaign, and for leading the defense at
 Fort Stanwix;
middle child approved.‘To his socialite parents, from his youth Herman did not seem to fit their notion of a good, God-fearing, noble and refined child.’
3
In 1826 Allan Melvill wrote of his son as being ‘backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension…of a docile andamiable disposition.’
4
 Perhaps Melville speaks in his defense when he defends Queequeg,the most idealised character in the book ‘its only his outside; a man can be honest in anysort of skin’
5
 it is possible that Melville needed to replay his relationship with his family,his father in particular.To suggest that there is no coincidence between the date of his father’s death, andthe fact that Melville’s writing became prolific in the aftermath of that death, could only be that of a cheerless partisan. One thing we can all agree on; Melville was passionateabout an America corrupted by the insalubrious life of commerce, an America his familywas deeply embroiled in.In the middle of the night, during the year 1930, Allan Melville and his young sonfled New York, to avoid detection by Allan’s creditors. The family had already removedto Albany under the care of Allan’s eldest son Gansevoort. Herman and Herman alonemade this escape with his father. This however, was not to become indicative of hisstanding within the family. His father’s death was quickly followed with an officialsurname change instigated by his mother, from Melvill to Melville and so the untidy trailthat his father had created ‘there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is notinfinitely outdone by the madness of men’
6
 was swiftly dealt with. Maria and Gansevoorthad the family’s survival in their mind’s eye. Gansevoort had like most eldest childreninherited something of a poison chalice ‘all men live enveloped in whale lines, all are
3
xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/bb/hm_bio.
4
xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/bb/hm_bio.
5
Melville,
 Moby Dick,
p.380.
6
Melville,
 Moby Dick 
, p.420.
 
 born with halters around their necks.’
7
He had Herman work for him at the family business for a short time, saw him off to their uncle’s farm for a further period, andfinally set him afloat the Atlantic as a cabin boy on the St. Laurence. Doubtless thesewere all well intentioned actions, but it was his brother Allan whom Herman chose to livewith when he finally settled back in his native New York, an address he stayed at until hisdeath in 1886.The time line concerned here is as follows:1830 – Herman (aged ten) and his father Allan fled New York in the night.1831 – Herman (aged eleven) watched his father descend into alcohol & insanity.1832 – Herman (aged twelve) experienced his father’s death.1851 - Moby Dick, (aged twelve) the missing son
The Rachel 
is looking for.The word coward is used a lot in the book, and not always in conventional ways.‘An utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward’
8
If Allan wasunimpressed with his docile but amiable son, it is possible that Melville was equallyunimpressed with his father’s reckless pursuit of capitalism. In the couple of yearsfollowing their flight from New York, Herman watched his father’s demise and this can be paralleled closely with a statement made of Ahab ‘in his inclement, howling old age…shut up in the caved trunk of his body, there fed upon the sullen paws of its gloom’
9
Several references are made throughout the text which appear to indicate a first hand andquite frightening knowledge of insanity, for example, ‘Human madness is oftentimes acunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but becometransfigured into some still subtler form’
it may be a common observation, or first handexperience veiled as a common observation.Two chapters of absolute searing relevance stand out here,
The Whiteness of theWhale
and
The Rachel 
. I believe that Melville presented the Rachel as his father’sconscience coming back again to ask him was he not going to help his desperate child?
7
Melville,
 Moby Dick 
,p.306.
8
Melville,
 Moby Dick 
,p.125.
9
Melville,
 Moby Dick 
, p.106.
10
Melville,
 Moby Dick 
, p.166.

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