|Atheists and Agnostics Compendium|
There is evidence
that this greatest of American novels has hidden anti-theistic elements.
Melville greatly admired the writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne and said of him that he took great delight in hoodwinking at least some of his readers. Melville dedicated the book to him. In a letter to Hawthorne Melville wrote "A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb."
Hawthorne wrote in his diary, "He (Melville) can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief."
In Pierre, a
novel written after Moby Dick, that Melville called "his spiritual
autobiography," his writer hero is made to resort to satire and irony
and Melville says of him "Now he gave jeer for jeer
soul of an Atheist, he wrote down the godliest things; with the feeling
of misery and death in him, he created forms of gladness and life."
of the name Ahab for the main character in Moby Dick, is revealing.
Ahab in bible is a king who "did evil in the sight of Lord"
(1 Kings) and is led to his death by a lying spirit sent by God. God is
shown as a malicious deceiver as he is with Adam and Eve and as he is
when he allows Satan to torture Job.
From the writings
It was a curious and remarkable book; and from
the many fond associations connected with it, I should like to immortalize
it, if I could... Let me get it down from its shrine...
In Moby Dick Ishmael insinuates that Christians do not practice what they preach. The two orchard thieves refer to Adam and Eve and he ridicules the concept that ever since the Garden of Eden mankind has been making installment payments on the debt that they incurred.
I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of. On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay. And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paidwhat will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvelous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!"
Ishmael is befriended by a savage harpooner named Queequeg who is an idol worshiper. He gives Queequeg a brief course in comparative religions. He concludes that the source of the religious idea of hell was a childish complaint a stomachache and, by implication, all religious ideas are the result of human complaints.
Now, as I before hinted, I have no objection to
any persons religion, be it what it may, so long as that person
does not kill or insult any other person
But when a mans religion
becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; then I think
it high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him.
Ishmael returns from a church service and finds Queequeg performing a ritual of worship before his own wooden idol-god. Melville permits Ishmael to join Queequeg in his pagan ritual by sarcastically pretending to find in the Golden Rule a sanction for his actions. He inverts the Bible quotation and ridicules the Christian concept.
"I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart
and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing
savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indifference speaking a
nature in which there lurked no civilised hypocrisies and bland deceits.
Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself
mysteriously drawn toward him. And those same things that would have repelled
most others, they were the very magnets that thus drew me. Ill try
a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow
Ishmael finds Queequeg sitting like a statue in rapt worship. In this passage Ishmael is equating Christianity with pagan belief.
"I did not choose to disturb him [Queequeg] till
towards night-fall; for I cherish the greatest respect towards everybodys
religious obligations, never mind how comical, and could not find it in
my heart to undervalue even a congregation of ants worshipping a toad-stool
There is a chapter of just three pages that is titled "Queen Mab." In the chapter the second mate, Stubb, relates a dream that he had in which he is insulted by Captain Ahab. There is no reference to Queen Mab in the chapter and no obvious reason for the title. However, Queen Mab is the title of a poem by Shelly in which the theme is the scheme of the universe. In his notes to the poem Shelly wrote: "If god is the author of all good, he is also the author of evil: that if he is entitled to gratitude for the one, he is entitled to our hatred for the other God made man such as he is, and then dammed him for being so."
As captain of the ship does Ahab stand in for God in Stubb's dream and do him evil?
Another chapter title is "The Hyena." There is no mention of the animal in the chapter but God is portrayed as "the unseen and unaccountable old joker." Perhaps the chapter title links the Joker with a scavenger that picks over the bones of dead bodies and seems to laugh when nothing is funny.
There are certain queer times and occasions in this
strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe
for a vast practical joke, though the wit [understanding] thereof he but
dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobodys
expense but his own
He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs,
and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how
knobby; as an ostrich of gobbles down bullets and gun flints
as for peril of sudden disaster and death itself they seem to only sly,
good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen
and unaccountable old joker
Melville breaks the action to have Ishmael narrate his brush with savages on a subsequent voyage. Ishmael is on an island where the natives are using the skeleton of a whale as a house of worship. He wants to measure the whale's bones. The priests end up fighting with each other about the measure of their god.
Cutting me a green measuring rod, I dived within
the skeleton. From their arrow-slit in the skull, the priests perceived
me taking the altitude of the final rib. How now! they shouted;
Darst thou measure this our god! Thats for us.
In a previous encounter
Ahab lost his leg to Moby Dick. Starbuck, the first mate, tries to dissuade
Ahab's mad attempt at revenge. Ahab explains that to him Moby Dick represents
either a mask of God or God himself. The White Whale is either sent by
God to bring evil into the world or the inscrutable one is powerful and
evil himself and is deserving of man's hate.
Vengeance on a dumb brute! cried Starbuck, that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing , Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.
Ahab answers, Hark ye yet again, the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the White Whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think theres naught beyond. But tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the White Whale agent, or be the White Whale principle, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; Id strike the sun if it insulted me."
Herman Melville (1819-1891) was raised by devout parents of the Dutch Reformed Church in the faith as decreed by Calvin. He was taught that God created him and all humans innately depraved and predestined for hell. He might possibly be saved through divine grace, if he threw himself submissively on the mercy of God.
Until 18 he was deep rooted in this belief. Then he went to sea. His life experiences caused him to reject the Calvinistic God. Melville blamed God for evil in the world and personified the deity as Moby Dick, the huge white whale.
Most of the ideas presented here were taken from the book Herman Melville's Quarrel With God by Lawrance Thompson