Melville was born in New York in 1819, into a merchant family. At the age of twelve he was compelled to leave school by he’s father’s death and the difficult financial conditions of his family. He took various job and in 1841 he sailed on his first voyage as a member of the crew of the whaling ship Acushnet.
His experience at sea between the age of twenty and twenty-five provided the material for almost all his novels and stories, which made him a successful author. He began to attend the literary circle in New York, and made friends with the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who greatly influenced his endeavour towards a more complex and symbolical narrative form.
In 1851 he published Moby Dick, his masterpiece. The novel met with cool reception and marked the beginning of the decline of Melville’s popularity. When he died, in 1891, Melville had been almost completely forgotten by the American and British readers. His literary reputation revived in 1920s when the manuscript “Billy Budd, Foretopman” was found among his possession and successfully published in 1924. Since then he as been regarded as one of the most important literary voices of American Literature.
Ahab, the captain of the whaler “Pequod”, has devoted his life to hunt and kill a white sperm-whale, called Moby Dick, which had bitten off his leg during a previous whaling expedition. The crew consist of human types of mixed races and religions like the wise and cautious first mate, Starbuck; the superstitious Queequeg, a Maori, whom Ahab has hired because of his skill with the harpoon, and the cabin boy, Pib. Ishmael, the narrator, joins them in Nantucket before the departure of the ship. The story is based on the hunt for the whale, which is eventually seen and then chased for three days. Finally, Ahab wounds Moby Dick. In its rage the animal destroys the “Pequod” and its crew. Only the good Ishmael is not caught in the vortex of the sinking ship and manages to float upon a coffin. He survives to tell the story.
The white whale as a symbol
Melville had also read <<Narrative of the most extraordinary and distressing shipwreck of the whaleship Essex>> by Owen Chase, which told how such a ferocious whale as Moby Dick had sunk the “Essex” just south equator. Ahab’s white whale is more than a natural creature; Ahab hates him as “the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung”. Moby Dick could be the personification of the evil in the world. It could also represent a sort of mirror in which Ahab and his crew look for their own image, the embodiment of mankind’s quest for a reason for existence. But the white whale is also a symbol of the hidden and mysterious forces of nature, a wonderful and powerful nature, capable of sudden and incredible feats of destruction. Therefore the chase stands for the archetypal conflict between man and nature in age in which nature was seen as “commodity” that is to say a source of sustenance, according to Ralph W. Emerson’s definition, and whales were considered a source of oil, meat, whalebone.
Though full of literary and religious echoes, Moby Dick is also very American in so far as its reflects some of the features of the new nation. A mixture of races united by the search for an ideal: pioneering the mystery of the sea; emphasis on the strength and experience of the American whale hunters and Democratic sympathy with the dignity of their work. Melville’s work lacks the optimistic, patriotic tone of Whitman’s poetry, and is rather marked by an underlying pessimism, springing from the destruction of illusion, the clash between the ideal and the real.
Language and Style
Melville enriched the traditional structure of the novel, based on main plot and one or more subplots with a wide variety of techniques. So, the language of the novel ranges from everyday, colloquial speech to a highly symbolical and figurative style. In the first pages of this novel there are even some dictionary definitions of the whale, together with what the animal is called in thirteen different languages, then there are about eighty quotations, taken from various sources, referring to whales. The book contains a detailed description of the anatomy of the whale, and of the tools needed to hunt, kill, and cut it, Melville’s reading and appreciation of Shakespeare can be seen in the dramatic techniques of some scenes where he uses soliloquy, dialogue, asides, and “stage directions” to convey the setting and action. The first-person narrative is thus complemented by the omniscient impersonal narrative.