ThesisPDF Available

The Sublime in Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick"



The sublime exists in nature, human nature and the supernatural. It forms a cross-section between the subjective-internal and the objective-external, which for a character results in transcendence of their earthly and, above all, eccentric being. Herman Melville’s 'Moby-Dick' is indubitably a masterpiece that causes the reader to ponder in awe the sublime meaning of life whilst not providing finite elucidation, since “[w]onderfullest things are ever the unmentionable” (Melville 2003).
Bachelorarbeit im Kernfach Anglistik und Amerikanistik
zur Erlangung
des Grades Bachelor of Arts (B.A.)
der Philosophischen Fakultät
der Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf
Jelena Filipovic
1. Gutachter: OStR i. H. Klaus Uellenberg
2. Gutachter: Prof. Dr. Susan Winnett
November 2015
Matrikelnummer: 2096753
The Sublime in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick
Table of Contents
Introduction ..................................................................................................... 3
Section I: The Sublime in Literature and Philosophy
1. Edmund Burke’s ‘Terrifying’ Sublime ....................................................... 5
2. Immanuel Kant’s Moral Sublime ................................................................ 8
3. The Romantic Sublime ............................................................................. 11
3.1. Coleridge and Imagination ................................................................... 12
3.2. Schopenhauer‟s Will ............................................................................ 13
Section II: The Sublime in Moby-Dick
4. Ishmael’s Transcendence ........................................................................ 16
5. Ahab vs. the Sublime ................................................................................ 22
6. Symbols of the Sublime: The Sea and the White Whale........................ 28
6.1. The Sea ............................................................................................... 28
6.2. The White Whale ................................................................................. 31
Conclusion .................................................................................................... 37
References...................................................................................................... 40
Declaration ...................................................................................................... 44
Capable of evoking the strongest of contradicting sensations in the beholder, its
grandeur defies not so much any potential comparison as it does concrete
measurement or formalisation; assuming both physical and metaphysical form,
it can be as concrete as a mountain or abstract as an expression (Shaw 2006);
it is inherent in various fields of humanities such as literature, art, and
philosophy, whilst also being inherent, if not having its origin, in nature; it
creates the impulse for desiring yet never attaining the infinite (Rosengarten
2012). It is what has been called the sublime.
Herman Melville‟s enthralling
deep sea narrative from 1851, Moby-Dick, is a novel that epitomises the
sublime in more than one way. In its essence, Moby-Dick is “a deep
psychological commentary” (Washington 2015) on nature, human nature, and
the supernatural. The objective of this paper is to analyse the notion of the
sublime in Herman Melville‟s Moby-Dick. I consider Ishmael, Ahab, and Moby
Dick to be the three main characters that are involved in or are the sublime.
Moby Dick is primarily the epitome of the sublime present in nature, that is, the
physical dimension. However, the sublime is furthermore a state of
transcendence which plays an essential role in Ishmael‟s and Ahab‟s respective
character dispositions. I will put forth the claims that the sublime is of dynamic
nature and that it is not part of a complementary pairing, thus being a quality or
object in itself without an antithesis.
In the first section of my paper I shall provide a theoretical background to
the notion of the sublime by examining it from a philosophical and literary point
of view. I will begin by focusing on Edmund Burke‟s philosophical treatise which
laid the foundation for future presentation of the sublime through the arts. Burke
represents the sublime chiefly through images of natural phenomena. He
elaborates that the sublime is any quality or object that is able to arouse the
idea of terror and fear.
Sublimity, as an aesthetic term, was at the centre of hefty debates
throughout the late 18
century, which continued well into the Romantic period
(Ciseri 2003). In the second chapter I will consider Immanuel Kant‟s
transcendental idealist philosophy where the emphasis shifts from Burke‟s
Emphasis is mine.
empiricist-naturalistic account of the sublime towards being understood as a
mode of consciousness (Shaw 2006). In turn, it was a shift from the physical
towards the metaphysical of the sublime, a term which Kant coined as the
„moral sublime‟.
In the third chapter, I will provide the main implications of the sublime
during Romantic period when Moby-Dick was written. During this time the
sublime was understood as a merger of both nature and mind (Ciseri 2003). In
addition, I will give a brief account of Samuel T. Coleridge‟s account of the role
of imagination in regards to the sublime and Arthur Schopenhauer‟s pessimistic
philosophy which is essential in explaining the nature of Ahab.
In the second section of the paper I will address the notion of the sublime as it is
portrayed in Herman Melville‟s Moby-Dick. I will begin by analysing the nature of
Ishmael‟s character in regards to his perception of the sublime. Ishmael is the
voice of the world of Moby-Dick, who is impelled by his fascination towards the
sea and the white whale to embark on a journey of self-transcendence. Ishmael
is proof that the sublime is also a state of transcendence. Furthermore, his
narrative style mirrors how the sublime functions as a dynamic concept that is
best rendered by means of language.
The fifth chapter focuses on the second main character of the novel,
Ahab. Ahab represents the conflict between the will and the sublime. By
scrutinising this conflict, I aim to provide sufficient argumentation as to why
Ahab should not be stigmatised as a „monomaniacal madman‟. Ahab is a
pessimist whose world is governed by order and meaning. There is no room in
his life for the unknown, that is, the sublime, which is why he strives to destroy
Moby Dick who is for Ahab the manifestation of all his physical and spiritual pain.
In the final chapter of the thesis I will examine elements that represent
the sublime. Although there are numerous elements that can be scrutinised on
the grounds of sublimity, I will narrow my analysis to the sea and the whale,
Moby Dick. These two elements are the quintessence of the notion of sublimity,
which is also why Melville has given the sea and the whale a very similar
function in the novel they are not only a product of the natural sublime but
also mirror the beholder‟s conscience.
2. Edmund Burke’s ‘Terrifying’ Sublime
Prior to the Romantic period, there was a common thread running through the
literature of the 18
century where writers would put emphasis on the pleasure
and pain of the sublime (Shaw 2006, p.5). This common thread did not least
develop due to Edmund Burke‟s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our
Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.
It must be noted that Burke‟s aim is to
illustrate how the passions are represented by the aesthetic concepts of
sublimity and beauty (Scott 2002). However, since the focus of my thesis is set
on the sublime, I will minimise my analysis of Burke‟s treatise to selected
sections which focus primarily on the notion of sublimity.
The first part of Burke‟s Enquiry explicitly dedicated to the sublime is
„Part I, Section VII: Of The Sublime‟. The introductive sentence already serves
as Burke‟s standard definition of the sublime which echoes throughout the
remainder of the treatise:
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that
is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible
objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the
sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind
is capable of feeling. (Burke 2005, p.110)
Burke presents the reader with a clear-cut negative tone to his understanding of
the sublime. This negative stress distinguishes Burke from his predecessors‟
understanding of the sublime. The latter regarded it as “liberating and
exhilarating, a kind of happy aggrandisement”, whilst Burke rather used
adjectives such as “alienating and diminishing” (Paulson 1983, p.69). For Burke,
terror is the single source of the sublime. Even death, as an ultimate end, “is
scarcely an idea of more terror” (Burke 2005, p.116). „Part II, Section II: Terror‟
provides numerous connotations of terror from the empirical world such as
dangerous and poisonous animals or vast scenery, most strikingly the ocean.
Burke conjectures that the ocean is so terrifying due to its vastness.
As an empiricist, Burke maintains that knowledge of the world around us
is derived from our senses (that which we see, touch, taste, smell and hear)
(Shaw 2006, p.49). As the title of his treatise shows, he is interested in the
origin of our ideas of the sublime. Given Burke‟s empiricist philosophy, he
Hereafter I refer to the work as the Enquiry.
insists that senses are “the great originals of all our ideas” (Burke 2005, p.95).
In other words, senses function as the intermediary between the cognitive
dimension of the sublime and the natural dimension of the sublime. So
depending on how the subject sees, hears, touches, or even tastes and smells
an object, he or she will have corresponding cognitive associations with that
object. Gasché (2012, p.27) claims it is not the terrible object as such but the
idea of it that incites the feeling of the sublime. Burke asserts along similar lines
that a terrible object is only then sublime when it is beheld from afar and the
beholder is not directly exposed to it.
Once exposed to it, the terrible object is
simply terrible and the beholder fears for his or her life instead of pondering the
sublimity of that object.
Now I will turn to another striking factor that adds to the terrible effect of
the sublime, which is obscurity. Burke‟s argument in favour of obscurity
intensifying sublimity runs as follows:
To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be
necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can
accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.
Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds
to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts
and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds […].
(Burke 2005, p.132)
As Burke expands on the idea of obscurity, there is a compelling reason to
argue that in doing so he deviates from his initial empiricist worldview. When a
thing is obscured, in any given way, it is no longer within the realm of sensory
perceptions. The ideas one has about “death”, “night”, “ghosts”, or “despotic
governments” (Burke 2005, p.132), are terrifying and therefore sublime
precisely because these entities cannot be presented to the mind as clear and
definite images (Shaw 2006, p.51). There are things which are sources of the
sublime even if they do not look that way
, that is, in spite of lacking terrifying
components as Burke (2005) recalls: “[…] many things from which we cannot
[…] apprehend any danger have a similar effect [as those which do cause
terror], because they operate in a similar manner” (p.211). By making obscuring
itself, the sublime can thus be deceitful.
See „Part I, Section VII. Of The Sublime‟.
Emphasis mine.
I have noted previously in this section that the Enquiry adopts a negative tone to
its definition of the sublime. It is therefore not puzzling that Burke should depict
light as something terrifying as well. Burke develops the claim that light is only
then sublime when it leaves a “strong impression on the mind” (Burke 2005,
p.156), as does the sun or lightning. Moreover, light is capable of inducing pain
just as much as other sublime objects; for example, being exposed to extreme
light, regardless of its amount, becomes more or less blinding. That the sublime
is able to deceive can be well observed by the example with light. In contrast to
traditional connotations of light being pure, Burke (2005) argues that light in fact
can resemble darkness: “After looking for some time at the sun, two black spots,
the impressions which it leaves, seem to dance before our eyes.” (p.157). And
this is the very deceptive effect of light, unlike darkness which is also terrifying
yet simple and true
to its nature.
Throughout the Enquiry Burke (2005) employs various other binary
oppositions such as delight and pain, society and solitude, clearness and
obscurity, in order to show that “opposite extremes operate equally in favour of
the sublime” (p.157). The sublime is thus “shown to consist of two equally
important, although mutually incompatible, experiences” (Gasché 2012, p.26).
Burke demonstrates that there is a “double aesthetics” (Zelle 1995) inherent in
these dichotomies that functions similar to the concept of a „double standard‟.
Subsequently, Burke also places the sublime in a pairing with its antithesis
being the beautiful. Yet this is only logical if one ascribes negative properties to
the sublime, which Burke has done in the Enquiry. The same would hold true if
he were to solely ascribe positive properties to the sublime. By drawing a sharp
distinction between the sublime and the beautiful, Burke underestimates the
essence of the sublime. His theory on the sublime reaches its limits when one
applies it to a novel like Moby-Dick where the sublime can also be experienced
in the presence of beauty, hence being associated with positive and not only
negative qualities. I will buttress this claim with corresponding arguments in a
broader sense throughout the bulwark of my thesis.
Emphasis mine.
2. Immanuel Kant’s Moral Sublime
So far I have given an account of Edmund Burke‟s philosophy of the sublime,
which mirrors that of the majority of 18
century writers, centred on
emphasising the way extreme opposites can be mixed in producing sublimity. In
the 19
century however writers emphasised “the failure of understanding and
reason to capture the infinity that [the sublime] invoked” (Battersby 2007, p.1).
My first reason for using Immanuel Kant‟s philosophy as part of the theoretical
framework to my thesis is because, writing at the end of the 18
century, Kant
serves as a gradual transition from this period to the 19
century Romanticism
(which I will examine in the succeeding chapter). The second reason is that
Kant‟s aesthetics was very influential in both philosophical and literary circles at
the time when Herman Melville was active as a writer.
Kant describes the sublime as an encounter between the „I‟ (i.e. ego,
conscience, or the individual as a subject) and that which is capable of
annihilating the „I‟ completely (Battersby 2007). As a defence mechanism, it is
rational humanity that keeps the individual resolute when confronted with that
which is capable of annihilating his or her conscience (Downard 2006). The
Kantian sublime is presented as neither materialist nor wholly idealist. After the
„dangerous‟ encounter, the sublime develops as the human mind enters the
faculty of reason that transcends sensual, naturalistic, existence (Shaw 2006).
This also suggests that Kant‟s sublime contains even more abstractness than
Throughout Kant‟s works,
the sublime is rendered into different modes.
In §25 and §28 of the Critique of Judgement, Kant differentiates between the
mathematically sublime (= that which is absolutely great in magnitude) and the
dynamically sublime (= that which is absolutely great in power). Both modes
however are categorised as representations of the sublime in nature. Kant
implies that this natural sublime can also be experienced as a kind of admiration.
For example, when looking at “lofty mountains, the magnitude, number, and
distance of the heavenly bodies, the strength and swiftness of many animals” is
The Critiques trilogy: Critique of Pure Reason (1787), Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and
Critique of Judgement (1790)
admired (Kant 2004). As an antithesis to the natural sublime, Kant introduces
the idea of the moral sublime. A simple example of the moral sublime is the
feeling of benevolence towards an object (Merritt 2012). The underlying
difference between the moral and natural sublime is that the former, the moral
sublime, is something the subject (the individual) feels he or she should practice
themselves; therefore, it is more than just admiration. Upon seeing a certain
object, the individual is exhorted to practice greater beneficence, to be caring or
even loving (Merritt 2012, p.47). Experiencing the natural sublime, on the other
hand, does not prompt the individual to practice any sublime action or state of
being because it is virtually beyond the individual‟s capability and/or will. One
cannot be a lofty mountain or move like a strong and swift animal. The subject
simply contemplates this matter in awe, that is, admiration. Thus, what Burke
would call „terror‟, as a quality inherent in the sublime, is for Kant admiration
which is not a component of the sublime but a reaction from the individual. Kant
suggests it is not „real fear‟ that is involved when experiencing the sublime, but
rather an attraction towards that which threatens to annihilate the ego
(Battersby 2007, p.29). It is attractive because the sublime leads one to reflect
on the infinite character of his or her own power of reasoning (Downard 2006).
Kant‟s account of the sublime is something that “is to be found in a formless
object, so far as in it or by occasion of it boundlessness is represented” (Kant
2015, p.102). The sublime object may appear formless (a sea storm) or it may
assume form (a giant whale) but due to its enormous size it is beyond human
perception. All in all, the beholder is unable to “unify its elements […] in sense
intuition” (Crawford 1974, p.99). However, the individual is aware of this inability.
And this awareness indicates the existence of a higher faculty, something
above both nature and imagination
(Shaw 2006). Kant writes:
[W]e readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the energies
of the soul above their accustomed height, and discover in us a faculty
of resistance of a quite different kind, which gives us courage to
measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature. (Kant
2015, p.125)
This higher faculty is what Kant refers to throughout the Critique as „Reason‟.
Reason is what elevates human beings from the earthly, natural impulses since
Imagination in the sense of simply being able to think.
it is “transcendent to […] all determinations of nature” (Burnham 2000, p.99).
Reason does not drives human beings to do as they want, this would be
complying with the laws of nature, but to act as they should, which is in
accordance with moral law (Shaw 2006, p.84). Kant‟s interpretation of the
sublime as a kind of moral attainment instead of just being a „terror-sublime‟ is
what distinguishes it from that of Burke‟s (Battersby 2007). When one
encounters an object seemingly infinite in size or absolute in power, the
beholder feels insignificant and powerless (Downard 2006). It is particularly the
object which appears absolute in power that gives the beholder the feeling of
being stripped of his or her own willpower. This feeling derives from the
incapability of one‟s imagination to grasp the sublime; the mind is „forced‟ to
make sense of the sublime, give it reason, regardless of how difficult the
attempt may prove. Where imagination relinquishes, reason prevails. Kant
[Imagination and Reason] bring about a feeling that we possess pure
self-subsistent Reason, or a faculty for the estimation of magnitude,
whose pre-eminence can be made intuitively evident only by the
inadequacy of that faculty [Imagination] which is itself unbounded in the
presentation of magnitudes (of sensible objects). (Kant 2015, p.121;
emphasis mine)
Kant reaches the conclusion that sublimity “does not reside in anything of nature,
but only in our mind” as long as human beings are aware of their own
„reasonable‟ thinking. The objects one deems sublime are therefore never truly
sublime per se. It is by “supposing this Idea in ourselves” which makes the
objects sublime. Finally, the individual transitions from admiring the natural
sublime to „loving‟ it, which is the moral dimension and at the same time
resembles a kind of transcendence from the physical to the metaphysical. This
does not occur by seduction of the power of the sublime, but “by means of
[Reason] which resides in us of judging [the sublime] fearlessly and of regarding
our destination as sublime in respect of it” (Kant 2015, p.129).
3. The Romantic Sublime
Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant‟s treatise on sublimity were both the most
influential of works during the Romantic period where the meaning of the
sublime was passionately debated, defined and applied by scholars and artists
(Riding 2013). In critical literature „the Romantic sublime‟ refers to the
individual‟s transcendence of the natural and social world that no longer has the
capacity to fulfil the mind‟s desire (Potkay 2012). As I have previously
mentioned, Immanuel Kant‟s transcendental philosophy on the sublime served
as a starting point for the Romantic sublime. However, this is not to say the
Romantics continued writing in the footsteps of the Kantian sublime, but rather
they used it as the catalyst for addressing the problem Kant‟s philosophy left
behind: “the failure of imagination […] to realise the ineffable” (Shaw 2006,
p.90). The failure of imagination produces melancholy, since we are unable to
employ imagination anymore to grasp the sublime in our empirical world
(Hamilton 1983). After the mind enters the realm of reason in order to
comprehend the sublime, there is a “displeasure of knowing that one can never
give sensual representation” to this sublimity via imagination (Shaw 2006, p.90).
Shaw claims that this depravation induced Romantics to rekindle the
relationship between the realm of ideas (noumena) and the realm of nature
(phenomena). Furthermore, Romantics strive to bring back the supernatural into
the realm of imagination as another means of comprehending the sublime.
The synthesis of mind and nature Shaw (2006) refers to is reflected in all the
arts of the Romantic period where nature became the vehicle for the expression
of human thought and emotion (Riding 2013). For Romantics, nature was the
primary site of experiencing the sublime (Vaughan 1994). Certain themes, stock
motifs and formal qualities were adopted accordingly to underline the sublime.
As I have shown with Burke, the qualities are chiefly „negative‟ here too.
Anything along the following nouns and adjectives was applied to represent
sublimity: “vastness, enormous size, power, […] mysterious, dark, obscure,
great, […] towering, dizzing, […] disordered, dynamic, tumultuous, […] formless,
boundless, frameless” (Brady 2012, p.182). These were at times regularly, at
times systematically, employed by artists to achieve a „sublime‟ register
irrespective of theoretical texts. Painters would symbolically present the sublime
in landscape imagery depicting mountains, volcanoes, storms, and the sea. The
sea in particular is acknowledged for its profundity:
Humans live their lives and build their institutions on dry land.
Nevertheless, they seek to grasp the movement of their existence above
all through a metaphorics of the perilous sea voyage. The repertory of
this nautical metaphorics of existence is very rich. (Blumenberg 1997, p.7)
The qualities of the sublime which I have enumerated above can all be ascribed
justly to the sea. The sea, above all other phenomena of the natural world,
epitomises the sublime in all its power. It is no wonder that the most common
catastrophe portrayed in Romantic paintings and narratives of the sublime is
that of shipwrecks, as Riding (2013) shows.
Potkay (2012) argues that critics of the Romantic sublime have neglected
the morality writers from this period have pursued in their theoretical and
fictional writings. His claim is that “the sublime of transcendence is related and
finally subservient to the moral sublime (Potkay 2012, p.205). This is to say
that transcendence does not simply occur when the individual alienates him or
herself in an attempt to attain false spiritual empowerment. Potkay sees it rather
as an emergence of a fully moral human being realising that the most awe-
inspiring thing is either great virtue, pervading love or morality itself” (p.205).
Therefore, the quest for the sublime for Romantic writers was also to “resurrect
love” and associate it with God, who is a Being and a Force at the same time,
as the highest apprehension of the sublime (Glenn 2001, p.574).
3.1. Coleridge and Imagination
I will now advert to the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge who is a key
figure for the Romantic sublime. I have selected Coleridge due to his strong
advocacy of the imagination which he regarded as “the living Power and prime
Agent of all human perception […] a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal
act of creation in the infinite I AM” (Coleridge 1997, p.75). It is evident that
Coleridge attempts to bridge a gap between the human („the finite mind‟) and
the divine („the infinite I AM‟). The divine, in Coleridge‟s case, is a reference to
God. Coleridge‟s view on humanity is that humans themselves are sublime;
they are “spiritual subjects whose Being transcends Space and Time”
(Coleridge 2003, p.169). Once more, transcendence plays a fundamental role in
sublimity, implying that the sublime is a mode of spiritual “elevation” (Vallins
2003, p. 132).
Coleridge addresses the function of symbolism as a product of the
imagination. When the mind symbolises a thing, the newly created symbol does
not serve to simply represent, but it rather “partakes of the Reality” as a “living
part of that Unity which it is representative” (Coleridge 1972, p.30). To refer
back to my example of the sea, Coleridge‟s theory implies that the sea is not
only symbolic of the sublime but it is also an authentic a part of the sublime. Not
a „part‟ in the literal sense that can be measured in size or percentage, but
rather the „part‟ is the „whole‟ and the „whole‟ is the „part‟. The essence of the
sublime is not divisible but it is distributional. In symbolism, the differences
between subject and object, self and other, are deconstructed (Shaw 2006).
However, even as Coleridge attempts to deconstruct these dichotomies, the
distinction between word and thing, noumena and phenomena, cannot be
refuted so easily, since it would be „self-destructive‟. This means that if word
and thing converge to one entity, an individual would only have the capacity of
understanding this entity provided it is within the confines of their experience.
The attempt extinguishes the very principle that allows the individual to grasp
something beyond their understanding of it, beyond experience. Sublimity can
therefore only emerge when noumena and phenomena are maintained as two
separate entities (Shaw 2006).
3.2. Schopenhauer‟s Will
In this part of the chapter I shall examine the Romantic sublime based on
German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer‟s pessimistic worldview. For
Schopenhauer, sublime objects or phenomena bear hostility to the human will
insofar that they threaten the individual‟s existence with their magnitude and
power (Shapsay 2012). Similar to Burke, Schopenhauer also defines the
sublime primarily as a response to nature. He gives examples such as a desert
or frozen winter landscape, cascades, a starry night sky, and a violent storm at
sea (Shapsay 2012). In his seminal work The World as Will and Representation,
Schopenhauer sees the inner nature of the world and the way each individual
sees the world (=representation) for him or herself as aimlessly subject to
space, time, and causality (Guyer 2012). The human will is the non-rational
force that drives the individual to be in ongoing pursuit to attain more in life. For
Schopenhauer this constitutes insatiable striving that thus leads to suffering
which is the essence of our existence (Troxell 2011). The will is a strong force; if
transcendence were to occur during the experience of the sublime it would only
be possible if the individual is „strong‟ enough to “violently [wrench] himself free
from his will” (Schopenhauer 2000, p.226); only then can the individual truly
embrace the sublime:
[B]eing raised above himself, his own person, his willing, and all willing: -
then he is filled with the feeling of the sublime, he is in a state of
elevation, which is why the object that gives rise to this state is also
called sublime. (Schopenhauer 2000, p.226)
Schopenhauer‟s theory found its way into the postmodern philosophy of Jean
François Lyotard who writes that “with the occurrence [of the sublime], the will is
defeated” (Lyotard 1989, p.199). In „wrenching‟ oneself away from the will, the
threat presented by the sublime object and the reciprocated fear of it subside.
At this stage the individual is able to admire and marvel at the sublime, leaving
it not so disparate to the notion of the beautiful. Schopenhauer refers to this as
the ability to contemplate the Idea of the sublime (Guyer 2012). For the same
reason, the sublime is known to have been described as “terrible beauty” (Brady
2012, p.182). The term deconstructs the sublime-beauty-dichotomy that Burke
juxtaposed, singularising the sublime without a counterpart.
Like Kant, Schopenhauer also distinguishes between a mathematical and
dynamical sublime which originate in nature. The only human artistry capable of
inducing the feeling of sublimity is that of colossal architecture (pyramids,
domes, towers, etc.). Schopenhauer does not explicitly mention any other
examples of human work that may be capable of sublimity. Nonetheless, there
is reason to assimilate Schopenhauer‟s account of the sublime with the form of
an artistic medium other than colossal architecture. Such an artistic medium
would enable the artist to “wrest his Idea out of his own experience of a
threatening or terrifying object and manage to communicate both the Idea thus
wrested from this struggle and the sense of the struggle itself.” (Guyer 2012,
p.114). This form of art may even do more justice to representing the sublime,
since it would depict the „making of the sublime‟ (the process) unlike the static
bodies of architecture which are only the result of the artistic process (Guyer
2012). Such a process-orientated artistic medium is without doubt literature and,
more precisely, language.
4. Ishmael’s Transcendence
As I have mentioned earlier in the Introduction, I consider Ishmael as one of
three main figures in Moby-Dick, along with Ahab and Moby Dick himself, who
is involved in the experience of the sublime. Based on my personal reading of
the novel, Ishmael occurs to me as the central figure of the narrative and not
Ahab or Moby Dick. As Bezanson (2001) puts it, he is the real center of
meaning and the defining force of the novel” (p.433). The story begins with
Ishmael and it ends with Ishmael. He is a unique blend of various types of
narrative point of views, which may give the reader the impression that Ishmael
is not even narratively present throughout certain chapters of the novel. It‟s
almost as if the story is telling itself (Martin 1986). Nevertheless, he is the voice
of the world of Moby-Dick. Ishmael is a character who is within and without the
novel, retrospectively and prospectively, and yet he is not abstract but a solid
entity. In this section, I aim to analyse the nature of Ishmael‟s character as he
embarks on a spiritual quest of self-transcendence, fuelled by his fascination
towards the sublime. Unlike Ahab, Ishmael does not strive to obtain the sublime
or conquer it. He contemplates the sublime in “wonder” (Baker 2011, p.85).
Ishmael‟s world is a world of discontinuity and disorder, just as he himself is a
character who is „all over the place‟. Yet this is the very “careful disorderliness”
(p.395) Melville touches upon in the novel; that is the essence of the novel and
of Ishmael as a character. I will additionally pay close attention to Ishmael‟s
style of narration on a micro and macro-textual level.
Opening with the renowned directive “Call me Ishmael” (MD, p.3) the reader is
introduced to the character which will act as a „guide‟ throughout Moby-Dick.
One quickly learns that Ishmael‟s reason for embarking on a sea adventure is a
combination of his contempt towards conventional life on land and his affection
of the sea. His isolation from society, missing family connection and life as a
wanderer are traits that do justice to the biblical origin of his name. Just as the
biblical Ishmael is saved from perishing in the desert to become the father of a
great nation, so is Melville‟s Ishmael the sole survivor of the Pequod‟s voyage at
sea (Friedman 1970, p.80). In both cases, the individual has been redeemed.
Martin (1986) puts forward that Ishmael is on a journey of discovery without an
exact aim. This is partly true since Ishmael is not actively in pursuit of anything
but rather quits his “melancholic condition” (Martin 1986, p.73) due to a lack of
something. However, on the other hand, even a reason as such presupposes
an indirect or subconscious aim. This becomes evident when Ishmael speaks of
“Fates” and “the grand programme of Providence” as the higher, unknown,
power that influences his life in addition to his “own unbiased freewill” (MD, p.7).
There are two motives which Ishmael is conscious of: “the great whale himself”
and “the wild and distant seas” (MD, p.8). Both are elements of the natural
sublime. Even at the very earliest point in the novel, Ishmael already shows
curiosity and awe towards the sublime, which can be understood as Kant‟s
admiration towards the natural sublime. It is less apparent however that the
sublime also acts as Ishmael‟s saviour. Ishmael refrains from committing
suicide in the beginning of the novel due to the sublimity of an experience at
sea which captivates him. It is also arguable that the sublime is the reason for
Ishmael‟s survival at the end of the novel in whichever form this sublimity may
manifest itself. Whether it is the sea, God („Fate‟), or Ishmael having reconciled
human willpower with the power of the sublime (according to Schopenhauer‟s
theory) and thus reaching a state of transcendence, or most likely all three
variables, Ishmael‟s life is bound to the power of the sublime.
Sherrill (1979) writes that Ishmael develops a career of self-
transcendence in Moby-Dick. With Ishmael, Melville is able to discover
moments that are “unaccountable in any terms but the irreducibly spiritual”
(Sherrill 1979, p.94) which is the sublime. Such moments range from lengthy
descriptions of various body parts of whales, the art of whaling, profiles of the
Pequod‟s crew, parts of a ship, and any other aspects where Ishmael provides
philosophical-like explanations. According to Sherrill, Ishmael is confronted with
the sublime through the realm of experience. To recall Edmund Burke‟s
empiricist worldview, Ishmael‟s descriptions and explanations derive from how
he senses the environment; “his representation of the world of […] bespeaks his
sense of the nature of that world.” (Sherrill 1979, p.255). In Chapter 103
„Measurement of the Whale‟s Skeleton‟, Ishmael proves that a certain object
can only truly be discerned when one is confronted with that object in reality:
How vain and foolish […] to comprehend aright this wondrous whale, by
merely poring over his dead attenuated skeleton […]. No. Only in the
heart of quickest perils; only when within the eddyings of his angry flukes;
only on the profound unbounded sea, can the fully invested whale be
truly and livingly found out. (p.495)
This thinking draws parallels with Burke‟s assumption that a terrifying object is
only truly terrifying when one experiences it in its proximity. Burke‟s theory holds
that the beholder would not be able to experience the sublimity of the whale
face-to-face since he or she would only be overwhelmed with fear. However,
judging by the above passage, Ishmael does not imply that the sublimity of the
whale dissolves when that whale is “truly and livingly found out”, whereas Burke
would argue otherwise. The again, like Burke, Ishmael is aware of the
consequences of increasing one‟s proximity to the sublime: “you run no small
risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore […] you had best not
be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.” (p.289). That is,
Ishmael can bask and marvel at the mystery of the sublime, but once
confronted with it, it is likely to destroy him on account of its absoluteness,
infinity, or its malicious and hostile nature (Friedmann 1970, p.59). This is where
Ishmael‟s weakness lies; it could potentially develop into an antagonizing inner
strife (as it already has with Ahab) between the desire to „get close‟ to
understand the sublime and Kant‟s rational thinking which prevents Ishmael
from getting in harm‟s way. Melville appoints Ishmael as the mediator who
conveys the notion of the sublime in Moby-Dick to the reader. As unreliable a
narrator as he may seem, Ishmael narrates the truth as he experiences it. It is
only because, as Melville puts it, “truth is ever incoherent” (Lathrop 2013, p.158),
even in the world of Moby-Dick, that Ishmael himself must also appear
Despite the empiricist approach Ishmael employs, he does not refrain from
using imagination to get the image of something physical or metaphysical
across to the reader. „Imagining‟ something, in this case, is not to say that
Ishmael manipulates the reader by inventing certain events or exaggerating in
his narration. On the contrary, Ishmael is an honest narrator as I have already
pointed out. Instead, he applies his imagination at moments when he is
awestruck by sublimity, a method that is not untypical of the narrator of a
Romantic novel. Staying within the confines of empiricism, “Romantic wonder is
an awe for nature‟s realities rather than fanciful delusion.” (Baker 2011, p.89).
Both Burke‟s and Kant‟s aesthetic theories, as those of Romantics, comply with
the idea that sensual experience of a material object has the capacity to affect
the imagination (Baker 2011). This is also the case for human beings. One
explicit example is Ishmael‟s characterisation of Captain Bildad:
Indolence and idleness perished from before him. His own person was
the exact embodiment of his utilitarian character. On his long, gaunt body,
he carried no spare flesh, no superfluous beard, his chin having a soft,
economical nap to it, like the worn nap of his broad-brimmed hat. Such
then, was the person that I saw […]. (MD, pp.83-84)
In this short passage, Ishmael‟s perception of Bildad‟s physical traits
corresponds to the latter‟s mentality which is a trait off limits to sensual
perception and requires the faculty of imagination to be „sensed‟. Therefore,
judging by Bildad‟s appearance, Ishmael is able to conclude that the man is
„indolent‟ and „idle‟. Yet Ishmael also provides the reader with a contrasting
case where the physical appearance does not correspond to the inner nature of
an object or individual. An example is with Queequeg:
Savage though he was, and hideously marred about the face […]
[t]hrough all his unearthly tattooings, I thought I saw the traces of a
simple honest heart; and his large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold, there
seemed tokens of a spirit that would dare a thousand devils. (MD, p.55)
The simple message Ishmael attempts to convey with both examples is that
“[y]ou cannot hide the soul.” (p.55). In other words, it is also saying that the
physical and metaphysical world can be congruent and, at times, incongruent.
Ishmael‟s narration is inconsistent about what the sublime is. As I mentioned
earlier, this does not mean that Ishmael is an unreliable narrator, it simply
shows that the nature of the sublime is dynamic. Ishmael is „required‟ to assess
it from different perspectives. He becomes to realise that reason alone is
inadequate to grasp the sublime (Sherrill 1979, p.163) and that “without
imagination no man can follow another into these halls” (Chapter 42, p.209). So
for the reader to be able to „follow‟, Melville makes Ishmael transcend his state
as a first-person narrator by replacing him with a different narrative voice,
whether it‟s omniscient or second-person such as in the following passage:
If then, Sir William Jones, who read in thirty languages, could not read
the simplest peasant‟s face […] how may unlettered Ishmael hope to
read the awful Chaldee of the Sperm Whale‟s brow? I but put that brow
before you. Read it if you can.
As seen in this passage, Ishmael (or the unknown narrator) implies that not
even intelligence is sufficient for the individual to understand the sublime. And
he, Ishmael, who lacks intelligence can hardly hope to ever make sense of the
sublime, let alone present it to the reader. Furthermore, Ishmael is offering the
reader to assume an active role in figuring out the sublime and, thus, adds a
metafictional level to the novel. This is the process-orientated approach which
Guyer (2012) claims literature enables or, rather, is in itself.
So far I have merely approached Ishmael‟s narration from a micro-textual
perspective, yet even the macro-textual structure of Moby-Dick is dynamic in its
conception of the sublime. The length of the chapters varies considerably; at
times the reader cannot tell if Ishmael is the narrator or not; the literary form of
the chapters is also inconsistent most being written in prose, some as
scientific reports, others as plays or even manuals. These different types of
chapters prepare the reader to better comprehend the world of Moby-Dick, the
voyage of the Pequod, whaling and, ultimately, the notion of the sublime, all
from different angles. It is, as Wolf (1986) puts it, “a rather messy approach”
(p.160) that Melville has applied. The one chapter in the novel that truly does
justice to this „messy approach‟ is „Cetology‟. Here, Ishmael “loads his
metaphoric gun with the fodder of human knowledge [and] takes aim at whales
in particular and the universe in general”; in the process, he familiarises the
sublime via language (Wolf 1986, pp.160-161). For example, Ishmael refers to
whales as books, something the human mind will be able to understand (or at
least he hopes so). Despite that, Ishmael lets the reader know a priori that the
chapter is “[a] classification of the constituents of a chaos” and that nothing
more or less is “essayed” (p.145) the word implies a „literature-isationof the
sublime by turning it into an „essay‟. Ishmael also confirms his disclaimer in the
last paragraph of the chapter and has therefore “kept [his] word” (p.157) as an
„honest narrator‟. „Cetology‟ mirrors the way Moby-Dick functions as an entire
novel. Firstly, just as one cannot separately analyse the „BOOKS‟ Ishmael
enumerates in order to understand the meaning of the entire chapter, one also
cannot isolate individual chapters of the novel to understand the meaning of
Moby-Dick in its entirety even though each chapter is a living part of that
Unity which it is representative” (Coleridge 1972, p.30). Moby-Dick, that is
Ishmael‟s narration, must be read as a whole. This draws parallels with
Coleridge‟s idea of the sublime being indivisible; the „part‟ being the „whole‟ and
vice versa.
Secondly, the very first sentence of „Cetologyalready includes how
the voyage of the Pequod ends: “Already we are boldly launched upon the deep,
but soon we shall be lost in its unshored, harborless immensities.” (p.145). This
is indeed how the narrative time of Moby-Dick ends. The sentence does not,
however, reveal how or even if the narrated time of Moby-Dick ends. According
to Ishmael‟s final statement in „Cetology‟, metaphorically, Moby-Dick does not
have an ending:
But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished […]. For
some small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones,
true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever
completing anything. This whole book is but a draught nay, but the
draught of a draught. (MD, p.157)
In this chapter I have analysed the nature of Ishmael‟s character in regards to
his perception of the sublime. For Ishmael it is clear that the answer to his
curiosity and wonder about the sublime lies at and in the sea. It is, as he himself
phrases it in the first chapter, „Loomings‟, “the ungraspable phantom of life”
(p.4). Ishmael is on a journey of self-transcendence throughout the novel; it
begins with his desire to go out to sea and encounter the sublime. The final
chapter of the novel indicates that the sublime is the reason for Ishmael‟s
survival. Ishmael is an „honest narrator‟ and empiricist who presents the world
of Moby-Dick as it is, but also frequently uses imagination to convey his
message to the reader, which is characteristic of Romantic texts. His
inconsistent narration is proof that the sublime itself is inconsistent, dynamic,
and that Ishmael resorts to unorthodox means of narration in order to yield the
notion of sublimity. Thus, Ishmael‟s most powerful tool is language. Finally,
Ishmael is a character who is not bound to the novel; he is, in a way, an
embodiment of the novel. Just as Moby-Dick is a „careful disorderliness‟
substantially and structurally, so is Ishmael „carefully disordered‟ as a character
and the voice of the world of Moby-Dick.
See „4.1. Samuel Taylor Coleridge‟ of my thesis.
5. Ahab vs. the Sublime
Ahab is the second main protagonist which I aim to analyse in my thesis. He is
central to the notion of sublimity in the novel insofar that he represents the
struggle between the will and transcendence. Ahab‟s obsession with Moby Dick
constitutes the problem and the leitmotif in the novel (Washington 2015). He is
driven by a will to conquer Moby Dick, the sublime; in other words, to grasp “the
ungraspable phantom of life” (MD, p.5). This relentless desire signifies that
Ahab is also on a particular quest of transcendence since he does not feel
„whole‟ in his current state. This can be understood both in the physical sense,
in that Ahab is missing half of his leg, and in the metaphysical sense, in that
Ahab‟s willpower has been undermined as a result of lifelong inner struggle
combined with his first confrontation with Moby Dick. By destroying Moby Dick,
Ahab seeks to redeem himself. This is the path of transcendence which Ahab
pursues but will not reach because Moby Dick is not the source of his physical
and spiritual suffering but he himself. Therefore, I am concerned to argue that
stigmatising Ahab as a monomaniacal madman does not do justice to the
character (this is only Ishmael‟s perception of Ahab in the novel). Instead, Ahab
is rather the tragic figure of the novel who is torn by his inner conflict. Despite
his overt pessimism, there are moments in the novel that indicate Ahab‟s
temporary relapse into moral thinking. For this reason, he can be identified as a
character who has preserved fragments of morality that struggle to prevail over
his strong willpower. I will begin analysing Ahab by giving an account of his
perception of the nature of the world, which is governed by order and meaning.
Towards the end of the chapter I will show how Ahab‟s worldview is a reason for
his lack of transcendence.
Firstly, it must be stated that when drawing comparisons between Ahab and
Ishmael, they are not strict opposites of one another. Both are on a quest for
transcendence (whether they are conscious of it or not) and the life of either is
bound to the sublime, for better or for worse. Ahab and Ishmael differ solely in
their worldviews. Moby-Dick is therefore a “fictional presentation [of] two
attitudes toward and two visions of the nature of the world” (Brodhead 1973,
p.148). Ishmael‟s worldview, as I have argued in the previous chapter, is
disorderly and dynamic. Ahab‟s worldview, on the other hand, is governed by
order and meaning. He is not an empiricist like Ishmael. To Ahab, the sublime is
always subliminal because he is never satisfied with the object as such, but
rather the meaning inherent beneath the object. There are various chapter in
the novel where Ahab attaches a deeper meaning to mundane, tangible objects,
such as a quadrant (see „The Quadrant‟), his brow or a harpoon (see „The
Forge‟), a coffin (see „The Deck‟) or even a doubloon (see „The Doubloon‟).
Likewise, he attaches profound meaning to natural phenomena, such as the
sun (see „Sunset‟), the air and ocean (see „The Symphony‟), lightning (see „The
Candles‟), or the wind (see „The Chase Third Day‟). It is as Ahab himself
claims: “Oh! How immaterial are all materials! What things real are there, but
imponderable thoughts?” (MD, p. 574). Obviously, Ahab adopts a Kantian
outlook in his examination of the sublime by believing that the mind produces
sublimity rather than anything in nature; the metaphysical prevails over the
physical. And yet, ironically, at the same time Ahab persuades the members of
the Pequod to fight for his cause with the aid of material interest (Lenson 1975,
p.51), in form of money and the doubloon.
Ahab‟s perception of the world posits a transcendent, universal law
capable of explaining the physical (Recker 2008, p.81), as one can see in
Ahab‟s response to Starbuck in Chapter 36 „The Quarter-Deck‟:
All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboards masks. But in each event
in the living act, the undoubted deed there, 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! (MD, p.178)
This law is what Kant refers to as reason, the faculty within the mind capable of
elevating the individual above the earthly and the material. Ahab does not find
order in the “unreasoning mask” of the “visible object”, which is why a
“reasoning thing” must therefore impose order and morality to the chaotic,
disorderly phenomenon (Recker 2008, p.81). Ahab aims to use reason to
„conquer‟ the natural sublime and so “strike through the mask”. He does not
resort to using his imagination to better understand the sublime nor is he
puzzled by its presence or wonder about its meaning, as does Ishmael. Ahab is
also not intimidated by the terror of the natural sublime. Sublimity to him does
not inhere in natural phenomena but in the depths of the immaterial world. Moby
Dick is not simply a giant sea creature to Ahab that is responsible for his
dismemberment; that is but the outer layer or the “mask”. Ahab is rather
interested in the interior of Moby Dick, “the mouldings of its features”, which is
the metaphysical realm beyond the sensual. This realm can only be brought
forth into „view‟ with the help of the “unknown but still reasoning thing”
(emphasis mine). The core of the sublime is located behind Moby Dick‟s
physical appearance and Ahab feels he must destroy it by first “[striking]
through” Moby Dick‟s physical appearance.
To Ahab, Moby Dick takes on a concrete form as well as being
something abstract, he is in more than one place at the same time, as the crew
members say, thus defying space and time. The notion of Moby Dick being
absolute in Ahab‟s mind derives from Ahab‟s own absolutist and reasonable
worldview. Melville juxtaposes this absolute, orderly world symbolised by Ahab,
with the relative, disorderly world symbolised mainly by Ishmael (Lenson 1975).
“[B]e the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal”, Ahab is absolutely
determined to “wreck […] hate upon him” (MD, p.178). However, there is still the
outstanding question as to why the sublime strikes Ahab as hateful or, as
Ishmael sums it up, “the intangible malignity which has been from the beginning”
(MD, p.200). This I will attempt to answer in the following section.
John Seelye (1970), amongst many other critics of Melville‟s monomaniacal
protagonist, argues that the crucial element Ahab implements in his effort to
establish order between the physical and metaphysical is “universal malice”
(Seelye 1970, p.64). Schopenhauer‟s pessimistic view is that strong exertion of
the will is the source of pain and suffering, only Ahab transforms his bodily and
his spiritual suffering into malice. Ishmael gives a thorough psychoanalytic
account of Ahab in the chapter „Moby Dick‟, referring to the link between the
metaphysical and physical:
All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all
truth with malice in it; all that cracks and sinews and cakes the brain; all
the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were
visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. (MD,
Without naming what causes this apparent “evil” and instead only providing the
reader with conceptual terms such as “truth” and “demonism”, Ishmael is hinting
at the idea of the sublime. Ahab finds it necessary to attach any bit of reason,
meaning, to his suffering in order to make it bearable, to convince himself that
the suffering is not in vain but a part of his task in killing Moby Dick. However,
Seelye (1970) understands Ahab‟s “universal malice” and “mad idea of nature”
as a result of his failure to “read the puzzle rightly” (p.64) which “his bodily woes”
and “intellectual and spiritual exasperations” (MD, p.200) had brought upon him.
In turn, I interpret this failure as Ahab‟s deviation from the path of
Ishmael continues to trace the origins of Ahab‟s monomania by explicitly
pointing out that Ahab‟s first encounter with Moby Dick and the subsequent loss
of his leg were not the initial cause of his inner conflict, but merely triggered it:
It is not probable that this monomania in him took its instant rise at the
precise time of his bodily dismemberment. [W]hen he received the stroke
that tore him, he […] felt the agonizing bodily laceration, but nothing more.
Yet, when by this collision forced to turn towards home, […] then it was,
that [Ahab‟s] torn body and gashed soul bled into one another; and so,
interfusing, made him mad. (MD, p.200)
In the remainder of this chapter Ishmael puts forth the evolution of Ahab‟s
“raving [lunacy]”; starting from the encounter with Moby Dick, Ahab‟s “delirium”
on board the ship amongst his then crew, to the “[transfiguration of the madness]
into some subtler form” and, finally, aggregating itself in “audacious, immitigable,
and supernatural revenge” (MD, pp.200-202). Ishmael also does not fail to
mention that Ahab‟s will to hunt down Moby Dick (which to Ishmael translates to
„monomaniacal madness‟) also empowered Ahab, equipping him with “a
thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon any
one reasonable object” (MD, p.201). This implies that Moby Dick, that is the
sublime, evoked something sublime within Ahab too, which proves Coleridge‟s
assertion that human beings are themselves sublime, and further confirming
that the sublime is dynamic. According to Ishmael, Ahab even succeeded in
sharing his sublime hatred of the whale amongst his crew: “by what evil magic
their souls were possessed, that at times his hate seemed almost theirs; the
White Whale as much their insufferable foe as his” (MD, p.203). There are
several dramatic scenes in chapters such as „The Doubloon‟, „The Candles‟,
„The Dying Whale‟, and the two from which I deducted the above passages, that
depict Ahab‟s “quest for [sublime] omniscience and omnipotence” (Cook 2012).
It even extends towards the final chapters in the novel during the chase where
“all individualities of the crew […] were welded into oneness, and were all
directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to” (MD,
Ishmael‟s account of Ahab‟s obsession with Moby Dick still gives the reader an
insufficient idea of Ahab‟s true nature and the source of his hatred. Ishmael is
aware of this as he says “Ahab‟s larger, darker, deeper part remains unhinted”
(MD, p.201). Ahab‟s pessimism and inner conflict are due in large part to his
perception of the world, which, as I have argued, is governed by order and
meaning. Ahab refers to this as his “high perception” of things that prevents him
from attaining “low, enjoying power” (MD, p.182). This corresponds to the idea
of the sublime and the beautiful (Moore 1982, p.118). Ahab‟s “high perception”
enables him to penetrate the „mask‟ of the sublime object leaving him at the
same time oblivious to the beauty of that object, which is the “low enjoying
power”. In fact, Ahab neither perceives nor believes in the “lovingness” of nature,
but deciphers only “anguish” (MD, p.182). So, despite transcending the fear of
the natural sublime, Ahab is not able to admire its „beauty‟ and thus does not
transcend his ego.
The question remains whether Ahab is able to experience Kant‟s moral
sublime. There are scenes in the novel where remnants of Ahab‟s morality
surface. For example, Ahab‟s memory of his wife and child; his respect for
Starbuck‟s moral advice, and his fondness of Pip, the cabin boy. It is particularly
in the chapter „The Symphony‟, just before the hazardous chase for Moby Dick
begins, that Ahab‟s moral side and the essence of his inner struggle become
apparent. He questions the purpose of the hunt (“Why this strife of the chase?”)
and what higher power within him forces him to pursue Moby Dick almost
against his own will. The answer Ahab eventually provides is that “God”/”Fate”
is responsible for his monomaniacal quest to destroy the Moby Dick. The inner
conflict accumulated during “forty years of continual whaling […] of privation,
and peril, […] forty years on the pitiless sea!”; having “widowed [his wife] when
[he] married her, and the “thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly
chased his prey more a demon than a man!” (MD, pp.590-591). Deep down,
Ahab wishes he could forfeit his quest and appreciate the moral sublime as he
tells Starbuck: “let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or
sky; better than to gaze upon God (MD, p.591). Nonetheless, Ahab cannot
„wrench himself free‟ of his will, believing that the quest for Moby Dick is
inevitable. Being sublime himself, the only redemption Ahab can ever find is by
returning to the source of the sublime, which is why Ahab‟s tragedy ends at sea
alongside Moby Dick.
In this chapter I have attempted to explain how Ahab perceives the
sublime and why the nature of his character is likewise sublime. Unlike Ishmael,
Ahab perceives the world through the lens of order and meaning. Because of
this rational thinking, Ahab is not intimidated by the natural sublime nor does he
find beauty in it. The physical world is irrelevant to Ahab as his strives to attain,
master, the metaphysical in order to find solace from his inner struggle and
redeem himself. Moby Dick is therefore the ultimate manifestation of the malice
of the, or rather Ahab‟s, world and all that tortures Ahab internally. However, the
real source of Ahab‟s monomania and inner conflict is he himself, in other words
his will. In the end, Ahab‟s „death‟, even though the reader does know whether
Ahab literally dies, is not so much a tragic end as it is the only and true form of
salvation for him.
6. Symbols of the Sublime: The Sea and the White Whale
In the Chapters 4 and 5, I have applied the different philosophical viewpoints on
the sublime primarily to analyse its effects on human nature. Ishmael and Ahab
prove to be two contrasting characters in respect to their perception of the world.
However, they share similarities in pursuing the same goal to transcend their
current state of being as the Pequod begins its journey. Therefore, in Moby-Dick
the contemplation of the sublime is branched into two different characteristics of
human nature. It is as Lawrence Buell (2014) claims that Ishmael and Ahab
constitute a bi-polar observer/hero narrative structure, with Ishmael being the
observer and Ahab the „hero‟. By first analysing the dispositions of Ishmael and
Ahab, I have primarily focused on two different views on the sublime. In this
final chapter of my thesis, I aim to examine elements that Melville uses to
symbolise the sublime in the novel. First and foremost of these elements is the
epitome of the sublime in the novel, namely the White Whale himself, Moby
Dick. Another element, which the reader is introduced to even before any
reference to Moby Dick appears, is the sea.
6.1. The Sea
In the theoretical section I have briefly drawn attention to the interrelationship
between the sublime and the use of symbols to convey the authentic profundity
of the former in literary form. Melville chiefly symbolises the sublime in Moby-
Dick through his portrayal of various components of nature. Nature serves as
the elemental backdrop to the plot of the novel, which is ultimately chaotic
(Bezanson 2001, p.446). As a consequence of this „chaos‟, Ishmael is
compelled to systemically order his narration which, as I have shown in Chapter
5, only ends in „careful disorderliness‟. For the same reason, Ahab leaves the
reader under the impression that he is a madman only because he is unable to
conform to a world of chaos. This chaotic world is represented by the sea, the
main setting of the world of Moby-Dick.
The sea is a sublime element that envelops the novel from beginning to
end, but is also constantly present throughout the novel. It is initially a
subliminal pull towards the sea that urges Ishmael to embark upon a journey of
transcendence, as the reader finds out in the chapter „Loomings‟. The final
events of the narrative take place at sea and the Pequod‟s quest literally
finishes in the sea as the ship and its crew are engulfed by it. The sea is the
typical example of the Burkean and the Romantic sublime that incorporates
terror, vast disorder, irresistible power and obscurity (Glenn 2001, p. 567). Still,
the sea is just a part of one of numerous dichotomies Ishmael brings forth in his
narration; to comprehend the sea, one must compare it to the land, its opposite.
This juxtaposition of land and sea is thoroughly depicted in chapter „Brit‟, where
Ishmael convinces the reader of the superiority of the sea to land and humanity.
To Ishmael the sea is immortal, “masterless” (MD, p.299) and unequalled in
power, capable of destroying the mightiest of whales and ships. In the chapter
„The Blacksmith‟, Ishmael likens the ocean to a source of death. It is not as
straightforward a death as on land however; the ocean lures the individual
towards it, disguised by offering “wonderful, new-life adventures” and “wonders
supernatural, without dying for them” (MD, p.529).
Yet the sea does not only symbolise death, but also the transitive state
between life and death (Talley 2007) a state of the sublime. Pip is the only
character besides Ishmael and Ahab whose experience of the sublime is vividly
described in the novel. And this experience occurs as Pip is temporarily
abandoned at “heartless immensity” (MD, p.453) of the sea in the chapter „The
Castaway‟. It is hardly the natural dangers of the ocean that induce terror, but
rather the “awful lonesomeness” (MD, p.453) during such abandonment in the
infinite openness of the ocean. In Burkean terms, it is Pip being a small and
lonely figure in the vastness of the ocean that renders the scene so terrifying.
Furthermore, the scene confirms the mysterious ways of the ocean since it does
not literally kill Pip, but “jeeringly [keeps] his finite body up, [whilst drowning] the
infinite of his soul” (MD, p.453). Through Pip‟s experience of the sublime,
Ishmael delivers the underlying message that the sublime is never even
conceived as the sublime to human beings but as madness instead: “[Pip] saw
God‟s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his
shipmates called him mad.” (MD, p.454; emphasis mine). Interestingly enough,
Ahab is the only one who becomes even fonder of Pip after his sublime
In „The Candles‟, Melville illustrates the terror of the sublime by implementation
of turbulent weather resulting in a sea storm and the destruction of the Pequod.
Ishmael warns the reader that terror may be concealed beneath what appears
as a tranquil scenery at sea, in that “[s]kies the most effulgent but basket the
deadliest thunders” and “in […] resplendent Japanese seas the mariner
encounters the direst of all storms, the Typhoon” (MD, p.546). Firstly, this can
be understood as Burke‟s reference to the sublime assuming characteristics of
obscurity. Secondly, hazardous sea storms, thunder, and the destruction of
ships at sea portray the essence of the Romantic sublime inherent in nature.
The sublime that results from the combination of nature and terror is capable of
evoking a certain “supernaturalness” (MD, p.550). In this case, Melville shows it
mainly through Ahab‟s hysterical behaviour and readiness to threaten the lives
of his crewmembers. On a less abstract level, the „supernaturalness‟ is also
symbolised by the “lofty tri-pointed trinity of flames” (MD, p.550) which itself
resembles the Holy Trinity of the Christian faith.
Despite the terror of the sea, Ishmael also accentuates the beauty of it.
The first chapter where this becomes apparent is in „The Lee Shore‟, where
Ishmael equals Bulkington‟s joy for being at sea to a sense of belonging and
comfort. He depicts land, however, as “direst jeopardy”, “treacherous” and
“slavish” (MD, pp.116-117) not only for a ship but for the individual too.
Figuratively speaking, the desire to go abroad to sea is “the soul [trying] to keep
the open independence of her sea” (MD, pp.116-117); the sublimity of the sea
in the phenomenal realm is likened to the sublimity of the mind (“soul”) in the
noumenal realm. This is an example of Melville adopting characteristics of the
Romantic sublime in the novel. On the other hand, „land‟, although a safe haven,
restricts the boundlessness of the mind, figuratively speaking.
Another example where the sublime sea is vested with effects of beauty
can be seen in „The Pacific‟ and „The Gilder‟. Here Ishmael exerts his full
narrating abilities to describe the „sublime beauty‟ of the Pacific Ocean.
Nostalgic feelings emerge as Ishmael basks at the serenity and mystery of the
grandiose Pacific Ocean. The latter chapter, Ishmael illustrates the various
impressions the “soothing scenes” (MD, p535) of the ocean leave upon Ahab,
Starbuck, and Stubb. Ahab feels the “blessed calms” of the scene but is quick to
pessimistically renounce them as only temporary moments of “calms crossed by
storms” in one‟s life. Upon gazing into the “golden sea”, Starbuck is convinced
in the supremacy of “faith” over “fact” and “fancy” over “memory”, stressing the
role imagination plays in the experience of sublimity; Stubb recalls a life of
happiness above all else (MD, p.535). All three characters, including Ishmael,
experience a moment of transcendence from their everyday activities and the
effects of the natural sublime of the sea are projected to the moral sublime of
their minds‟ “secret golden treasuries” (MD, p.535).
As I have shown on the basis of selected chapters from the novel, there
is sublimity both in the terror of the sea and in the beauty of it. This finding
contradicts Burke‟s claim that beauty is the antithesis of the sublime. Rather, it
leads to the assumption that the sublime is a universal quality in itself that has
no opposite and therefore cannot be categorised. Additionally, Melville‟s
implantation of thunder and lighting, sea storm, and ship wreckage in the novel
emphasizes the manner in which writers of the Romantic period defined
sublimity. Combined with the power of nature and human emotion, the resulting
notion of the sublime has a supernatural effect.
6.2. The White Whale
All the characteristics of the sublime Melville instils in the novel are accumulated
in the whale, Moby Dick. Ward (2001) sees the white whale as Melville‟s
attempt to arrive at an understanding of the spiritual, metaphysical realm
through an understanding of the physical realm. As a work of Romantic
literature, Moby-Dick is the perfect example of where human thought and
emotion are expressed in nature (Riding 2013) with the whale as object, central
force and symbol of the novel (Ward 2001, p.462).
As an object, Moby Dick is first and foremost a living being like any other
animal in the natural world. At the same time, however, he is a symbol of the
true nature of the world. Drewermann (2004) describes Moby Dick as the living
incarnation of all that in the world which is sinister, unfathomable, demonic, yet
majestic in appearance and power (p.338). Such a description aligns well with
Burke‟s notion of the sublime, as it is no doubt what the white whale symbolises
for Ahab. Yet even this interpretation is too straightforward and does not wholly
do justice to the sublimity of Moby Dick. As a symbol, a whale is traditionally
“the spirit of the Deep, the creature that mirrors its incomparable size […] as
ocean, [the] unconscious, memory, night, womb, and underworld” (Ronnberg &
Martin 2010, p.204). The terms which are most relevant here are „ocean‟ and
„unconscious‟. Figuratively speaking, Moby Dick is as deep as the ocean. Not
only is this a creature which resides in the ocean but it is an embodiment of the
ocean. That is, Moby Dick is as vast, unfathomable, dynamic, powerful, and
sublime as the sea itself; “[v]isualizing […] Moby Dick is like visualizing the sea,
his element. He is present but elusive, massive yet dissolving figureless into
passing motion […]” (Callahan 2003, p.52).
And like the sea, Moby Dick also reflects images, in this case it is the
„image‟ of the beholder‟s conscience. He symbolises different things for different
characters (Bernstein 1964, p.107). If pessimism and emotional inner conflict
define the conscience, then Moby Dick is a terrible and malicious entity, which
is the case for Ahab; if a quest for truth and willingness to transcend define the
conscience, then to that individual Moby Dick is a mysterious and alluring entity,
which is the case for Ishmael. The beholder is not aware of this effect of the
whale, making it unconscious‟. Already there is a shift from Burke‟s sublime,
which depicts nature as an external power, to Kant‟s sublime which depicts
conscience as an internal power part of nature (Wolf 1986, p.155; emphasis
mine). Moby Dick allows both Ishmael and Ahab, or any other individual for that
matter, to measure themselves against the, in Kantian terms, „almightiness of
nature‟. It may be convincingly argued that Moby Dick is the “tormenting” yet
“mild” “image” that is reflected in the water as the individual stares into it and
tries to “grasp” it but in the act is only consumed, that is destroyed, by that
“image of the ungraspable phantom of life” (MD, p.5). Therefore, Moby Dick is
not only a whale that is sublime, Moby Dick is the sublime. As Coleridge would
suggest, the whale as symbol becomes a living part of that what it represents.
Furthermore, the “phantom” that “swayed [Ishmael] to [his] purpose” is Moby
Dick himself (MD, p.8). This implies that Moby Dick is no longer only an object
or a symbol but he acts as a subject as well, whether actively or passively.
In the first chapter I have stated that Burke understands both
components of a dichotomy to be representative of the sublime, for example
light and darkness. In Moby-Dick, one may first and foremost associate the sea
with darkness or even Ahab, both judging by his physical appearance and his
personality. Darkness, by Burke‟s definition, almost always has negative
connotations; only in some cases may it be considered somewhat less negative
in that it is not deceitful by nature. Light, on the other hand, is deceitful to Burke
because it may appear positive while concealing its true negative nature.
Melville adopts this symbolic meaning of the complementary pair. However,
instead of light, Ishmael puts emphasis on the colour white, giving it a more
abstract notion by referring to it on the whole as „whiteness‟. The whiteness of
Moby Dick is what produces the terrifying aura of the whale and that which
renders him a model of the Burkean sublime. It is more terrible than both size
and strength of the whale (Downard 2006). Gretchko (1991) claims that for
Ishmael whiteness even seems to be “beyond the domain of the sublime”
(p.140) and that this becomes evident in the following passage:
yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and
honourable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the
innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than
that redness which affrights in blood […] This elusive quality it is, which
causes the thought of whiteness […] to heighten that terror to the furthest
of bounds. (MD, p.205)
However, I believe Ishmael does not depict whiteness as something „beyond
the sublime‟ or, as Gretchko (1991) puts in in more detail, that “the significance
of the whiteness requires more than a sublime experience” (p.140) to be
understood. On the contrary, the passage proves once again my claim that the
sublime takes on different, that is even opposing, forms. Previous to this
passage, Ishmael enumerates in the same chapter many positive associations
one traditionally has with the colour white: “gladness”, “innocence”, “benignity”,
“majesty”, “divine spotlessness and power” (MD, p.205). That is why he places
the word „sublime‟ in the same category as the words „sweet‟ and „honourable‟
in the above passage; he is shedding a positive light on the sublime. By the end
of the chapter, however, the causes of the “elusive something” in whiteness that
Ishmael discovers are equivalent to Burke‟s account of the sublime whiteness
in nature terrifies (Glenn 2001, p.570). It is even associated with supernatural
elements such as ghosts or “the shrouded phantom of the whitened waters”
(MD, p. 210; emphasis mine). It is important to keep in mind that despite the
elusive qualities of whiteness, Ishmael does not deny the positive and moral
qualities that are also inherent in whiteness. As with the sea, this underlines the
double aesthetics of the sublime in that it is present both in terror (negative
qualities) and in beauty (positive qualities) of whiteness.
Throughout the novel, Moby Dick is never described in his entirety, not
by Ishmael nor by any other character. Ishmael even applies the term
„Leviathan‟ in most cases instead of referring to Moby Dick by his name. There
are countless cetological chapters where Ishmael illustrates the anatomy of
whales (including the sperm whale), the procedure of whaling, how whales act,
and how whales are portrayed in the humanities. The chapters „Moby Dick‟ and
„The Whiteness of the Whale‟ are particularly important since they depict what
Moby Dick means to Ahab and Ishmael respectively. All in all however, the
identity of the whale remains obscured: “So there is no earthly way of finding
out precisely what the whale really looks like.”, but also “his precise expression
the devil himself could not catch” (MD, p.289; emphasis mine). Even though the
sublime exists both in nature (“earthly”) and in the supernatural (“devil”),
Ishmael informs the reader in this passage that that does not necessarily mean
the sublime can always be conceived by natural or supernatural means.
The Romantics considered God to be the highest form of the sublime,
who also lacks concrete description as an entity. Melville has applied this same
principle for Moby Dick, even though I disagree that Moby Dick serves as a
symbolisation of God because despite being looked upon with admiration, fear,
or contempt, Moby Dick is still „only‟ a creature of the physical realm. As such,
whether sublime or not, the only considerable option of “[deriving] even a
tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going whaling” (MD, p.289) which is
implying Burke‟s empiricist approach that Moby Dick can be (and has been)
seen, heard, felt, and is therefore within the sensory realm (unlike God). The
setback lies in the fact that if the individual ventures to meet that reality, the
absolute infinity of it will most likely destroy the individual (Friedman 1970, p.59).
In spite of this “existential truth” (Friedman 1970, p.59), Moby Dick is a
component of the metaphysical realm, which means that one is compelled to
employ the power of imagination when contemplating this sublime whale. He is
an entity where “imagination and physical reality ignite each other” (Callahan
872003, p.52), but at the same time need to be balanced out (Wolf 1986, p.172).
It is by this approach that Ishmael narrates the story and attempts to classify
and describe Moby Dick to the reader.
Until now my analysis of the sublimity of Moby Dick has centred on the
associations and ideas of the white whale. I have only examined Moby Dick
prior to his appearance in the three concluding chapters of the novel. What still
remains to be discussed is how Moby Dick is perceived in reality, that is when
he is encountered „face to face‟. The three final days of the Pequod‟s journey
and Ahab‟s sublime quest “flow together in one continuous intense pursuit” (MD,
p.617) that forms the climax of Moby-Dick‟s storyline and where both narrator
and reader are confronted with the long-awaited phenomenon that is the White
Whale. It would be false to assume, however, that simply because the reader
now experiences the „physical reality‟ of Moby Dick, that imagination is no
longer required to perceive the whale. Ishmael continues to apply imagination in
his description of Moby Dick‟s movement, which is more poetic and symbolic
than scientific:
A gentle joyousness a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested
the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished
Europa clinging to his graceful horns; […] not Jove, not that great
majesty Supreme! Did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so
divinely swam. (MD, p.596)
In this scene it is the mere visible appearance of Moby Dick that cancels out all
previous rumours and legends of the whale that have “invested [him] with new
terrors” (MD, p.196) (Baker 2011, p.97). The sublime is of such nature that
despite being encountered in reality it is still powerful enough to “strike the
imagination with unwonted power” (MD, p.198). Ishmael continues:
And thus, through the serene tranquilities of the tropical sea […] Moby
Dick moved on, [slowly rising from the water] his whole marbleized body
formed a high arch, like Virginia‟s Natural Bridge, and warningly waving
his bannered flukes in the air, the grand god revealed himself (MD, p.597)
Thus, imagination is, as Coleridge (2004) claims, “essentially vital” (p.488-489)
for the language of Romanticism to bring the sublime to life (Baker 2011, p.97).
Had Ishmael confined his narration to concise, objective and scientific
descriptions of the sperm whale, Moby Dick would only come across as an
empirically known yet „dead‟ object that lacks any sublimity (Baker 2011).
Another aspect that becomes apparent in the above extracts is Melville‟s use of
the binary opposition motif concerning terror and beauty. When Moby Dick is
first sighted, Ishmael describes him as a creature of serene beauty. However,
when provoked, Moby Dick reveals the terror of his malevolent fury (Novak,
pp.337-338); he now becomes “appalling” and “vengeful” (MD, p.599). In
contrast to his tranquil appearance on the first day of the chase, on the second
day Moby Dick “[reveals his vicinity] not by any calm and indolent spoutings; not
by the peaceable gush of that mystic fountain in his head […] but by the far
more wondrous phenomenon of breaching” which is “his act of defiance” (MD,
p.607). And on the final day of the chase the fury of the white whale is so
intense that to Ishmael he even takes on supernatural characteristics:
“maddened by yesterday‟s fresh irons that still corroded in him, Moby Dick
seemed combinedly possessed by all the angels that fell from heaven” (MD,
p.618). In these dramatic scenes Ishmael depicts Moby Dick‟s transgression
from a physical to a metaphysical state. The whale now shows no
characteristics of beauty but only “retribution, swift vengeance [and] eternal
malice” (MD, p.622). Ishmael, Ahab, and the rest of the crew, now all feel in the
object (Moby Dick) the “presence of something that transcends the object”
(Lyotard 2006, p.260), and there is ultimately nothing “mortal man” can do to
prevent or defeat this sublime power. Human will is both individually and
collectively defeated by the sublime. Melville visualises this defeat as the
Pequod and every single crew member (except for Ishmael) are engulfed by the
sea and as Ahab meets his doom alongside Moby Dick. All in all, it is a
disastrous scene visualised by the shipwreck, which is a depiction of the
Romantic sublime (Blumenberg 1997; Riding 2013). The underlying idea in the
three final chapters of the novel is that Moby Dick, as the epitome of all that is
sublime, is both terrible and beautiful and that human will is powerless against
the force of the sublime.
7. Conclusion
Herman Melville‟s Moby-Dick is a book that produces a feeling of profound
fascination within the reader, kindled by the very first sentence of the narrative,
which then grows as the motives, storyline and symbolism of the novel unravel
(Drewermann 2004, p.13). The continued legacy of the renowned novel has
resulted in countless interpretations of the meaning of the White Whale,
analyses of Ahab‟s monomania and the nature of Ishmael as a character, in
addition to various other elements in the novel of lesser recognition. Based on
my personal reading of Moby-Dick, I have examined the text in a manner that
would underline what to me constitutes the essence of the novel, which is the
notion of the sublime. To pin down an abstract notion such as the sublime to a
single definition and interpretation is a challenge that is only successfully
approached by refuting the very idea of it and acknowledging the diversity of the
sublime. The same holds true for the uniqueness of Moby-Dick as a literary text.
Due to this likeness I have chosen to combine the novel, Moby-Dick, with the
literary and philosophical subject matter that does justice to the profundity of the
novel, the sublime.
In the theoretical section of the thesis I have presented an account of the
sublime from both a literary and philosophical point of view. Burke‟s and Kant‟s
respective philosophies on the sublime are almost exact counterparts. For the
same reason, they can be applied to explain naturalistic and psychological
elements within the novel that portray the sublime. Burke focuses on the terror
of the sublime in nature, whilst Kant considers the sublime as part of human
nature, being moral. In addition to Burke‟s and Kant‟s sublime I have provided
an overview of the sublime as it is generally portrayed in Romantic works of
literature and traces thereof that are found in Moby-Dick, whilst also paying
attention to Coleridge‟s and Schopenhauer‟s theories on the sublime. The
bulwark of my thesis begins with a character-analytic approach in
understanding Ishmael and Ahab‟s perception of the world, hence their
perception of the sublime. Subsequently, in the final chapter, I focus on the
sublime and how it is represented in Moby-Dick.
Ishmael, who is treated as the more significant character in my thesis, is the
voice of the world of Moby-Dick. On the surface, Ishmael is a very malleable
and dynamic narrator whose narration style is at times a give-and-take between
him and the reader. This renders Ishmael unreliable and „disorderly‟, but these
are the required characteristics of the narrator since the macro-textual level of
the novel is dynamic itself, as is the sublime which Ishmael attempts to illustrate.
Therefore, I consider Ishmael to be not only an internal character of the novel
but also the human manifestation of the novel. Deep down, Ishmael is in fact an
honest narrator despite appearing unreliable. He is an empiricist in the Burkean
sense, describing the realm of phenomena in the way he experiences it.
However, when Ishmael encounters notions of sublimity, he is urged to enter
the realm of noumena, applying imagination to express his admiration for the
sublime. The core of Ishmael as an individual is defined by his quest for self-
realisation and transcendence. Throughout the development of his character, it
becomes clear that Ishmael‟s goal has no final or absolute stage; his quest is
fulfilled during the course of the Pequod‟s journey. His fate is intertwined with
the sublime; he is induced to embark on the sea voyage because of the sublime;
he experiences (narrates) various sublime circumstances; it is also due to
sublime reasons that Ishmael should be the sole survivor of the voyage. He is
attracted towards the sublime, in the Kantian sense, without being prone to
„claim‟, fully comprehend, or destroy it. One may speculate that Ishmael
survives ultimately because he is the only member of the Pequod who has
embarked upon the voyage without any interest in its outcome; his sole
immersion was in his own state of being and in transcending it.
Ahab, as much as he subconsciously seeks to, is unable to transcend. I
consider Ahab to be the source of tension in Moby-Dick, just as there is an inner
tension, that is conflict, inside himself as an individual character. His physical
and spiritual suffering precedents his encounter with Moby Dick. It is an
accumulation of lifelong sea voyages and lack of inner peace that has almost
entirely robbed Ahab of his moral side. Unlike Ishmael, Ahab‟s world is
governed by order and meaning; if he perceives none, he wilfully imposes it by
attaching meaning to all phenomena and his suffering. Although Ahab is able to
„transcend‟ the physical world, he is incapable of excelling beyond his own will
for his own sake. Ahab may not be an advocate of Burke‟s „terrible‟ sublime,
however, he also does not comply with Kant‟s moral sublime. Schopenhauer‟s
philosophy on the power of the human will being self-destructive and irrational
explains Ahab‟s nature, even though, ironically, Ahab tries to give „reason‟ to
things which are unreasonable to him like Moby Dick. Ahab is not intimidated by
the sublime, which also leaves him oblivious to its beauty. He himself, as a
human being, is sublime and thus Ahab‟s suffering ends with his returning to the
„greater‟ sublime which is manifested in the ocean and in the white whale, Moby
In the attempt to clarify what the sublime is and how it is portrayed in
Moby-Dick, I have narrowed my analysis to the two main elements of the
sublime in the novel, namely the sea and Moby Dick, the whale. The first
obvious characteristic both elements share is that they are products of nature,
especially of Burke‟s „terrifying‟ natural sublime. The second, less obvious,
characteristic is that sea and whale mirror the Kantian human conscience which
Melville, in turn, has depicted in a particularly Romantic way. Depending on how
the individual thinks and feels, that is how they will respectively perceive the
sublime. Both the sea and Moby Dick exhibit terror and beauty, proving that the
sublime is both of those qualities and has no antithesis. Ishmael reassures the
reader that he can only do as much justice to the sublime by merging the
physical and the spiritual together into one „Moby Dick‟ in order to give the
reader an impression of the sublime; the rest is left to the reader‟s imagination.
Moby-Dick shows that a combination of nature and terror, such as a sea storm
or the wrath of Moby Dick, creates a further dimension which is the supernatural.
The sublime, therefore, exists in nature, human nature (as I have shown with
Ishmael and, in particular, Ahab) and the supernatural. It forms a cross-section
between the subjective-internal and the objective-external, which, for human
character in the novel, results in transcendence of their earthly and, above all,
eccentric being. Herman Melville‟s Moby-Dick is indubitably a masterpiece that
causes the reader to ponder in awe the sublime meaning of life whilst not
providing finite elucidation, since “[w]onderfullest things are ever the
unmentionable” (MD, p.116).
Baker, Jennifer J. (2011). „Dead Bones and Honest Wonders: The Aesthetics of
Natural Science in Moby-Dick.‟ In: Melville and Aesthetics, ed. Samuel Otter and
Geoffrey Sanborn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Baldick, Chris (2001). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Battersby, Christine (2007). The Sublime, Terror and Human Difference. London and
New York: Routledge.
Bezanson, Walter E. (2001). Moby-Dick: Work of Art.‟ In: Herman Melville Critical
Assessments, Vol. 2, ed. A. Robert Lee, Mountfield: Helm Information Ltd.
Blumenberg, Hans (1997). Shipwreck with Spectator: Paradigm of a Metaphor for
Existence, trans. Steven Rendall. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Brady, Emily (2012). „The Environmental Sublime.‟ In: The Sublime. From Antiquity to
the Present, ed. Timothy M. Costelloe. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Brodhead, Richard (1973). Hawthorne, Melville, and the Novel. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Buell, Lawrence (2014). The Dream of the Great American Novel. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press.
Burnham, Douglas (2000). An Introduction to Kant‟s Critique of Judgment. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press.
Burke, Edmund (2005). „A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the
Sublime and Beautiful.‟ In: The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Vol. 1,
pp.67-263. Accessed: 27 July 2015 <
Callahan, Aileen (2003). „Eye to Eye: Painting White Whale: Moby Dick I.‟ In: Leviathan:
A Journal of Melville Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 52-57.
Cook, Jonathan A. (2012). Inscrutable Malice: Theodicy, Eschatology, and the Biblical
Sources of Moby-Dick‟. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.
Coleridge, Samuel T. (1997). Biographia Literaria, ed. Nigel Leask. London: J. M. Dent
and Sons Ltd.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (2004). Biographia Literaria. Coleridge‟s Poetry and Prose,
ed. Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson & Raimonda Modiano. New York: Norton.
Ciseri, Ilaria (2004). Die Kunst der Romantik. Stuggart: Chr. Belser Gesellschaft für
Verlagsgeschäfte GmbH & Co. KG.
Crawford, Donald W. (1974). Kant‟s Aesthetic Theory. Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press.
Downard, Jeffrey (2006). „The Color of the Sublime is White.‟ In: Contemporary
Aesthetics, Vol. 4. Castine: Contemporary Aesthetics.
Drake, Tom (2015). The Sublime. University of Idaho. Accessed: 5 August 2015
Drewermann, Eugen (2004). Moby Dick oder Vom Ungeheuren, ein Mensch zu sein.
Düsseldorf und Zürich: Walter Verlag.
Friedman, Maurice (1970). Problematic Rebel: Melville, Dostoievsky, Kafka, Camus.
Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Gasché, Rodolphe (2012). „…And the Beautiful? Revisiting Edmund Burke‟s “Double
Aesthetics.”‟ In: The Sublime: From Antiquity to the Present, ed. Timothy M. Costelloe.
New York: Cambridge University Press.
Glenn, Barbara (2001). Melville and the Sublime in Moby-Dick.‟ In: Herman Melville
Critical Assessments, Vol. 2, ed. A. Robert Lee. Mountfield: Helm Information Ltd.
Gretchko, John M. (1991). „The White Mountains, Thomas Cole, and “Tartarus”: The
Sublime, the Subliminal, and the Subliminated.‟ In: Savage Eye: Melville and the Visual
Arts, ed. Christopher Sten. Kent: The Kent State University Press.
Guyer, Paul (2012). „The German Sublime After Kant.‟ In: The Sublime. From Antiquity
to the Present, ed. Timothy M. Costelloe. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Hamilton, Paul (1983). Coleridge‟s Poetics. Oxford: Blackwell.
Hill, John S. (1978). Imagination in Coleridge. London: Macmillan.
Kant, Immanuel (1987). Critique of Judgement, trans. Walter S. Pluhar. Indianapolis:
Hackett Publishing Company.
Kant, Immanuel (2004). The Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Thomas Kingsmill
Abbott. Project Gutenberg. Accessed: 7 August 2015
Kant, Immanuel (2015). Kant‟s Critique of Judgment, trans. J.H. Bernard. Project
Gutenberg. Accessed: 8 August 2015 <
Knapp, Steven (2014). Personification and the Sublime: Milton to Coleridge. Harvard
University Press.
Lathrop, Rose Hawthorne (2013). Memories of Hawthorne. London: Forgotten Books.
Lenson, David (1975). Achilles‟ Choice: Examples of Modern Tragedy. Princeton and
London: Princeton University Press.
Lyotard, Jean-François (1989). „The Sublime and the Avant-Garde.‟ In: The Lyotard
Reader, ed. Andrew Benjamin. Oxford: Blackwell.
Lyotard, Jean-François (2006). The Communication of Sublime Feeling.‟ In: Lyotard
Reader and Guide, ed. Keith Crome & James Williams. Edinburgh: Edinburgh
University Press.
Martin, Robert K. (1986). Hero, Captain, and Stranger. Chapel Hill and London: The
University of North Carolina Press.
McCarthy, Paul (1990). “The Twisted Mind”: Madness in Herman Melville‟s Fiction.
Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
Melville, Herman (2003). Moby-Dick or, The Whale. London: Penguin Books.
Moore, Richard S. (1982). That Cunning Alphabet: Melville‟s Aesthetics of Nature.
Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Novak, Frank G. (1983). „”Warmest Climes But Nurse The Cruellest Fangs”: The
Metaphysics of Beauty and Terror in “Moby-Dick”.‟ In: Studies in the Novel, Vol. 15, No.
4, pp. 332-343.
Paulson, Ronald (1983). Representations of Revolutions: 1789-1820. New Haven: Yale
University Press.
Potkay, Adam (2012). „The British Romantic Sublime.‟ In: The Sublime. From Antiquity
to the Present, ed. Timothy M. Costelloe. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Recker, Astrid (2008). “But truth is ever incoherent…” Dis/Continuity in Herman
Melville‟s Moby-Dick. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter GmbH.
Riding, Christine (2013). „Shipwreck, Self-preservation and the Sublime.‟ In: The Art of
the Sublime, ed. Nigel Llewellyn & Christine Riding. Tate Research Publication.
Accessed: 11 August 2015 <
Ronnberg, Ann & Kathleen Martin (2010). The Book of Symbols: Reflections on
Archetypal Images. Cologne: Taschen GmbH.
Rosengarten, Frank (2012). Giacomo Leopardi‟s Search for a Common Life Through
Poetry: A Different Nobility, a Different Love. Plymouth: Farleigh Dickinson University
Schopenhauer, Arthur (2000). „The World as Will and Representation.‟ In: The
Cambridge Edition of the Works of Schopenhauer, Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Seelye, John (1970). Melville: The Ironic Diagram. Evanston: Northwestern University
Shapsay, Sandra (2012). „Schopenhauer‟s Aesthetics.‟ In: The Stanford Encyclopedia
of Philosophy. Accessed: 15 August 2015
Sherrill, Rowland A. (1979). The Prophetic Melville: Experience, Transcendence, and
Tragedy. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Talley, Sharon (2007). Student Companion to Herman Melville. Westport: Greenwood
Troxell, Mary (2011). „Arthur Schopenhauer.‟ In: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
ed. James Fieser & Bradley Dowden. Accessed: 16 August 2015
Twitchell, James B. (1983). Romantic Horizons: Aspects of the Sublime in English
Poetry and Painting. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
Vallins, David (2003). Coleridge‟s Writings: On the Sublime, Vol. 5. Basingstoke:
Palgrave Macmillan.
Ward, J.A. (2001). „The Function of the Cetological Chapters in Moby-Dick.‟ In: Herman
Melville Critical Assessments, Vol. 2, ed. A. Robert Lee. Mountfield: Helm Information
Washington, Ellis (2015). „On Melville‟s Moby Dick and the obsession of self-will.‟
Renew America. Accessed: 17 August 2015
William Vaughan (1994). Romanticism and Art. London: Thames & Hudson.
Wolf, Bryan (1986). „When Is a Painting Most Like a Whale?: Ishmael, Moby-Dick, and
the Sublime.‟ In: New Essays on Moby-Dick.(The American Novel), ed. Richard H.
Brodhead. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Zelle, Carsten (1995). Die doppelte Aesthetik der Moderne: Revisionen des Schönen
von Boileau bis Nietzsche. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler
Declaration / Eidesstaatliche Versicherung
Hiermit erkläre ich, dass ich die Bachelorarbeit mit dem Titel
“The Sublime in Herman Melville‟s Moby-Dick
selbstständig verfasst und keine anderen als die angegebenen Quellen benutzt
habe. Die Stellen der Arbeit sowie evtl. beigefügte Zeichnungen, Skizzen oder
graphische Darstellungen, die anderen Werken dem Wortlaut oder dem Sinn
nach entnommen sind, habe ich unter Angabe der Quelle als Entlehnung
kenntlich gemacht.
Düsseldorf, den 20.10.2015
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
This volume offers readers a unique and comprehensive overview of theoretical perspectives on 'the sublime', the singular aesthetic response elicited by phenomena that move viewers by transcending and overwhelming them. The book consists of an editor's introduction and fifteen chapters written from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Part One examines philosophical approaches advanced historically to account for the phenomenon, beginning with Longinus, moving through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers in Britain, France and Germany and concluding with developments in contemporary continental philosophy. Part Two explores the sublime with respect to particular disciplines and areas of study, including Dutch literature, early modern America, the environment, religion, British Romanticism, the fine arts and architecture. Each chapter is both accessible for non-specialists and offers an original contribution to its respective field of inquiry.
This new volume demonstrates the extent and diversity of Coleridge's writings on the sublime. It highlights the development of his aesthetic of transcendence from an initial emphasis on the infinite progressiveness of humanity, through a fascination with landscape as half-revealing the infinite forces underlying it, and with literature as producing a similar feeling of the inexpressible, to an increasing emphasis on contemplating the ineffable nature of God, as well as the transcendent power of Reason or spiritual insight.
This volume offers readers a unique and comprehensive overview of theoretical perspectives on 'the sublime', the singular aesthetic response elicited by phenomena that move viewers by transcending and overwhelming them. The book consists of an editor's introduction and fifteen chapters written from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Part One examines philosophical approaches advanced historically to account for the phenomenon, beginning with Longinus, moving through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers in Britain, France and Germany and concluding with developments in contemporary continental philosophy. Part Two explores the sublime with respect to particular disciplines and areas of study, including Dutch literature, early modern America, the environment, religion, British Romanticism, the fine arts and architecture. Each chapter is both accessible for non-specialists and offers an original contribution to its respective field of inquiry.