What Moby-Dick can teach us about race

Quite a lot, according to Fathima Sheikh

In 1850, when Herman Melville was writing Moby-Dick, America was facing a crisis: there was both a war between races, and a war of race. The states in America were divided— in the North, slavery was being abolished whereas in the South, fugitive slave laws were becoming tighter. When Melville was writing, there were only thirty free states (hence the thirty men on the vessel, the Pequod) but eventually, through the Compromise of 1850, the fate of California was decided: it was a free state. However, disputes over Mexico being a free/slave state were still ongoing. In a country that was facing a political and moral dilemma, Melville was writing Moby-Dick. Thus, through Moby-Dick, Melville bridged the gap between literature and politics to have an honest conversation with Americans about their race – pun intended.

The main audience for Moby-Dick were white men, and through Ishmael – who holds a prejudice, doubts it and then comes to a logical conclusion – Melville creates a three-step process of analysing the absurdity of race. Through Ishmael, Melville shows us that although the human condition is flawed and that it may never be fully understood, it is deeply important to explore, for it is the way through which a man acts in society. In this discovery of the human, Melville (among many other things) tackles race in a very precise manner that both connects to the reader and brings forth the reader’s prejudices. This clever tactic comes across in various incidents that occur from the beginning, till the end of Moby-Dick.

In the beginning, while talking about the tattooed sailor, Ishmael concludes, “It is only his outside; a man can be honest in any kind of skin” (Melville, 23). Then, when he finds Christianity superior to Queenqueg’s religion, Ishmael asks, “What is worship? – to do the will of God – that is worship. And what is the will of God? – to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me – that is the will of God” (Melville, 58). Also, when he talks about whiteness, in all its conditions (complexion and color), he claims that although it is “at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian’s Deity [it is at the same time] the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind” (Melville, 212). Ishmael always shows duality in his conclusion of things so he can both relate with and reflect his audience’s prejudices. He builds his prejudices on what he knows as a universal ideology, but through inquisition and experience, doubts them and sometimes even drops them. Self-reflectively, the reader begins to do that too. Also, in his interaction with Queenqueg, Fedellah, Daggoo and Tashtego, Ishmael presents the men of colour on the ship as much stronger, more skillful and much more compassionate than Ahab, Starbuck, Flask and Stubb. Hence, Melville connects the reader to the narrator and shows us that the notion of superiority through race and religion are all constructed by a system of social hierarchy that has no fundamental logic— he intends to open his readers eyes to this absurdity and how it prevails in the American system.

Furthermore, Melville tackles race as a rivalry through Ishmael’s depiction of Ahab.

Ahab’s monomania, his desire to hunt down the white whale, is the drive that begins this journey. “This grey-headed, ungodly old man’s [chase of] Job’s whale round the world” (Melville, 203) becomes a ferocious ambition. His purpose to kill Moby-Dick is the sole reason for this journey— Ahab’s race, and his fight to achieve that before anyone else does is what kills him in the end. His monomania to rival the whale, and do it before anyone, turns him into a man who drives thirty men to their death. Thus, through this Melville presents the apex of wild ambition that sees no morality: death.

By 1850, America had chartered over 13,000 corporations; at the time, this was more than any other country in the world. Most of these corporations were created by individual state legislatures (for example The Lehman Brothers, Stroh Brewery Company, Falls Road Railroad etc.). Thus, the drive towards capitalism was quite strong. Melville saw that it was quickly increasing because by 1860, the number of corporations had doubled. However, only a third of them eventually survived. So, I think that by showing Ahab and the crew’s demise, Melville wanted to show what the singularity of an obsession could do, whether it was a whale or the need to build industry.
The author of Moby-Dick wanted to show Ishmael's relationship with race so we could "see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when love once comes to bend them"

If America only thrived on building these corporations, it would need hands (i.e. labour) and these hands could only come out of a system of hierarchy. This hierarchy was constructed through race. Thus, the construct of race became vital in the economy of goods and services. These two ideas functioned together, and still function together in the larger picture of America. In Moby-Dick, Ahab affirmed this practice through the golden token and his crew. Because the crew was “chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals” (Melville, 203), they were already considered inferiors in the space that they were operating in – giving Ahab the access to manipulate their emotions through monetary means: the gold coin. Ahab’s gold coin, and his thrill of the chase served as the political and emotional manipulation carried out by states for hiring black men as labourers and as soldiers so they could be used as hands and cannon fodder. Race as an identity and the race to succeed were at play with each other and benefited the American system, both economically and structurally.

Thus, among other things, Melville intended to show how race functioned on the Pequod, and how Ishmael dealt with it. He wanted to show Ishmael’s relationship with race so we could “see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when love once comes to bend them” (Melville, 60) and he wanted us to see Ahab’s demise so we could learn how monomaniac endeavors perused through societal hierarchies result in one’s own demise. The narrative also makes one realise the ongoing exceptionalism: slavery, that forgave politicians for new sins. Melville’s Moby-Dick calls for many things, among which it also intends to talk about how powerful the system of race (whether colour or rivalry) is and how its practice through manipulation and obsession can damage a whole community.