Subject: English - Melville: Moby Dick

Good and Evil in a Morally Indifferent Universe in Moby Dick

The moral ambiguity of the universe is prevalent throughout Melville’s Moby

Dick. None of the characters represent pure evil or pure goodness. Even

Melville’s description of Ahab, whom he repeatedly refers to "monomaniacal,"
suggesting an amorality or psychosis, is given a chance to be seen as a
frail, sympathetic character. When Ahab’s "monomaniac" fate is juxtaposed
with that of Ishmael, that moral ambiguity deepens, leaving the reader with
an ultimate unclarity of principle.

The final moments of Moby Dick bring the novel to a terse, abrupt climax.

The mutual destruction of the Pequod and the White Whale, followed by

Ishmael’s epilogue occupies approximately half a dozen pages. Despite

Melville’s previous tendency to methodically detail every aspect of whaling
life, he assumes a concise, almost journalistic approach in the climax.

Note that in these few pages, he makes little attempt to assign value
judgements to the events taking place. Stylistically, his narration is
reduced to brusque, factual phrases using a greater number of semicolons.

By ending the book so curtly, Melville makes a virtually negligible attempt
at denouement, leaving what value judgements exist to the reader.

Ultimately, it is the dichotomy between the respective fortunes of Ishmael
and Ahab that the reader is left with. Herein lies a greater moral
ambiguity than is previously suggested. Although Ishmael is the sole
survivor of the Pequod, it is notable that in his own way, Ahab fulfills his
desire for revenge by ensuring the destruction of the White Whale alongside
his own end. Despite the seeming superiority of Ishmael’s destiny, Melville
does not explicitly indicate so. On the contrary, he subtly suggests that

Ishmael’s survival is lonely and empty upon being rescued: "It was the
devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing
children, only found another orphan." (724) That single instance of the
appellation "orphan" as applied to Ishmael speaks volumes when taken in
light of the destruction of the Pequod and her crew. Melville’s inclusion
of Ishmael’s survival as an epilogue, a suffix attached to the dramatic
destruction of the Pequod, suggests that Ishmael’s survival is an
afterthought to the fate of Ahab and the rest of his crew. Ishmael’s quiet
words at the beginning of the chapter, "Why then here does any one step
forth? —Because one did survive the wreck," (723) indicate a deep humility
on Ishmael’s part.

The question is then raised of why Ishmael is the sole survivor. It is
clear that Ishmael significantly differs with Ahab concerning their
respective perspectives of the White Whale. Ishmael clearly indicates in
the chapter "The Try Works" how disagreeable he finds the mission and
mentality of those around him: "...the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages,
and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness
of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s
soul." (540) Here, Ishmael breaks his usual detached observancy and boldly
divorces himself from Ahab’s mission and those whom Ahab has recruited to
aid him.

Ishmael further distinguishes himself from the rest of the crew by being
the sole non-exploiter of whales in general. Melville makes it clear early
on that Ishmael initially chooses to ship on the Pequod for the experiential
value of whaling. It has been indicated that his outlook on the whale is
the only significantly benign one. Whereas Ishmael is terrified by the"whiteness of the whale," Stubb sees economic gain in the valuable whale
oil, subtly hinted at by his overbearing gloating upon his first kill. In
the harpooneers, we see a violent savageness, even in Queequeg’s otherwise
loving nature. To Ahab, the whale is a emblem of pure evil. Even prudent,
rational Starbuck looks on the whale as a dumb animal, which it is his duty
to exploit.

The terror that Ishmael perceives is a consequence of his own vague fear of
the whale’s "nothingness." What Ishmael fears is the mystical, terrifying
manifestation of white in the natural world, coupled with its subversion of
the sense of purity attached to whiteness in the human world. Ishmael is
distinguished from the rest of the crew in his ability to consider the
perspectives of the others. In his role as narrator, Ishmael’s ability to
detachedly analyze the viewpoints of those around him may be what saves him.

Note also, that in his narration, Ishmael is the one character to cast any
reverence upon the grand scale of the whale. Unlike the values the others
place on the whale, Ishmael is capable of viewing the whale solely for its
being, as one of the many viewpoints that he considers through the course