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Published in 1851, Melvilles Moby-Dick remained largely ignored until the 1920s, when literary historians rediscovered it and promoted it due to an accentuating interest in constructing or reconstructing an American literary tradition. Moby-Dick narrates the adventures of a sailor, Ishmael, and his voyage on the Pequod, (a whaleship) controlled by Captain Ahab. Ishmael soon discovers that Ahab has one resolve on this voyage: to seek out Moby Dick and kill it as a means of seeking revenge for his lost leg in a previous encounter with the whale. In this essay I will try to reflect on the politics of individualism of the characters on board of Pequod. Eventually I will try to demonstrate how, on a broader scale, this individualism reflects communality and also I will try to show how the question of race is raised from the concept of individualism. The main argument of this paper is that despite the fact that the characters' (especially Ahab, Ishmael or even Melville) quest for self-reliance and independence on the Pequod is seen as rather an individual pursuit, the issue of communality and the question of race are elicited on a deeper scale.
Before engaging in any further discussion, it would be interesting to ponder about the setting of the plot of Moby Dick. The whale ship, on which the plot revolves, is actually a microcosm of the Unites States of America itself. The first thing the reader probably notices in Moby-Dick is the diversity of the cast of characters, which includes among its principals a South Sea Islander, a Native American, and an African tribesman. The protagonist expresses attitudes of racial tolerance that are surprising for a 19th century text. Overt racism is usually condemned by the tone of the novel. Still, the racial dynamics here are far from perfect: all the non-white characters are subordinate to the whites and tend to function as caricatures of their cultures. Most importantly, there are hardly any African-American slaves or freedmen (freed slaves) in the novel at all, with one notable but relatively minor exception (Pip). Considering that Moby-Dick was published in 1851 and heavily engages race as a theme, it is significant that Melville mostly avoids commenting on slavery, one of the most important issues of the period. (Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was published only months later, in 1852.) Thus setting the action on this ship with this diversity of characters was allegorical and a successful attempt on the part of Melville.
Having set the tone our first argument would be about Ahab thirst for revenge on the White sperm Whale, Moby Dick. Ahab demonstrates temperamental behaviours from the very beginning and his eccentricities keep on increasing as the novel unfolds. For him, killing the whale is what only matters. When Ishmael boarded the ship, he thought he would be going on a normal whaling expedition until Ahab comes on the surface. The reason why Ahab wants to quench his thirst by killing the whale is because the latter chopped off Ahab's one leg in a previous nautical encounter. The very fact that Ahab did not appear before Ishmael at first can be said to be ego-centered motif. He knows that if his aim of this voyage was revealed to the crew, no one would be agreeing to accompany him on this journey as most whalers revere Moby Dick's notoriety as being the killer whale. Ahab followed his spirit selfishly in quest for revenge.
However, Ahab's individualism, according to recent criticism can be seen as an attempt to create awareness on the supremacy and dictatorship of the white Americans on the minority Black African American community. Melville's choice of the 'white' whale is actually a condemnation of the segregation and marginalization of the Black Americans. In a time where the question of race was delicate, Melville concealed her opinions in her story. The white were ruling America and the Blacks were being ruled. The search for Moby Dick and the thirst for revenge was actually Melville's attempt to fight against any form of racism. Though the Declaration of Independence states that "all men are equal" (1776), reality was far from being perfect. Disguising and concealing the views against racism, Melville's Moby Dick allegorically refutes the White rule.
Moreover, having placed a minor character such as Pip on board of the Pequod is another proof to show Melville's views on the question of racial discrimination. Pip, the little Black cabin boy, though apparently happy at sight, his psychology reveals something other. He is basically a black and as most Blacks of African descent. He is scared of the Whites. Pip's first soliloquy reveals his inner fears:
"Hold on hard! Jimmini, what a squall! But those chaps there are worse yet-they are your white squalls, they. White squalls? white whale, shirr! shirr! Here have I heard all their chat just now, and the white whale-shirr! shirr!- but spoken of once! and only this evening-it makes me jingle all over like my tambourine-that anaconda of an old man swore 'em in to hunt him! Oh, thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear! (chapter 40)."
Pip's first soliloquy makes us aware of all the dangers that face him as a young African-American man on board of the ship. He is afraid of the storm, but even more afraid of the actions of the white sailors around him. In addition, he has been so indoctrinated in the religious customs of white Americans that he doesn't see himself as made in God's image anymore. He imagines that his racial difference affects, not only his relationships with men, but his relationship with God.
On a broader scale, Pip's state of mind reflects the general fear that the African Americans have for the white dominant powers. There is always this constant fear of the white force. As we have seen in the previous texts studies, this question of fear for the white is constantly present throughout the American history. Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Hariet Jacobs' "Incidents in the life of a slave girl" are all examples where this racial fear is depicted. The blacks, though physically strong, still fear the intellectually strong whites. Thus Pip's role in the novel, though minor, reflects Melville individualism and thereby, communality.