Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick has been read in countries and language from all over the world. It has been picked apart and analyzed from a plethora of analytical theories and contexts. In terms of the four functions of mythology, the story can be read in any perspective: mystical, cosmological, sociological, or pedagogical. Analysts and literary scholars could make the case that Moby Dick could be interpreted through any of these four lenses. Above the other three, it is easy to perceive and observe that the narrative is a definite comment on the lives of seafaring men during the 1800s. The story is an interesting example of one of history's most dangerous and fascinating periods and professions. As an example of a sociological text, Moby Dick not only informs the reader of the daily life of men on a whaling boat and the dangers that they face, but also reveals some of the psychology that would have pervaded men who were living in the 19th century in America. The novel can be seen as a sociological work in the style of the narrator as an example of lower class citizens of the United States during the period, as an exploration of life on a whaling vessel during a time before sophisticated technologies, and as an examination of the psychology of men who may or may not have had a sexual or romantic interest in one another.
Almost everyone, even people who have never read Melville's Moby Dick are familiar with the novel's famous opening lines. The narrator says, "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago -- never mind how long precisely -- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world" (Melville 1). This man that serves as the readers' gateway into the story is decidedly lower class. He asks that the people call him by name, which shows that he does not consider himself to be of a social class which would be higher than his potential reader. His words indicate his level of financial stability saying that he had "little or no" money to speak of. This would indicate that not only is he poor in the current moment, but that this is the frequent financial situation for him. This is so much so that Ishmael cannot remember if at the time of his journey he had any money at all.
The character often comments on the universality of mankind and how they are essentially similar despite surface differences. This would be the thinking of a lower class individual. He says, "All [men] are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life" (Melville 239). All people are the same according to Ishmael. Even if they are not socially similar, each man will live and then die before he or she is judged by a higher power. This is the only important understanding of mankind to Ishmael. He also does not have any particular racial prejudices. Ishmael says of the African cannibals that he hears of, "The man's a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian" (Melville 24). This is a particularly insightful quotation because the 1800s were a period where racism and racial differentiation were still the normal psychology. People who are born in higher echelons of society would never lower themselves to accept that they might be in any way similar to someone who spent his life on the sea and actually worked with his hands for a living. They would be particularly reluctant to have any kind of identification with people of a different racial background or ethnic profile. Ishmael also speaks with a colloquial dialogue indicating that he is not a highly educated person.
The whaling industry was a very profitable enterprise during the 1800s. Whales were killed by these sailors and much of their body parts were used for the manufacturing of different products as well as for the meat of the animal. Among other things, whale blubber could be used for candles and lamp oil. Ambergris was used in perfumes and spermaceti was turned into material as well. Since so much money and so many products are related to the whaling industry, it could be said that all men of the period were in some way linked to whaling. Ishmael comments that, "All men live enveloped in the whale-lines" (Melville 239). Even though whaling was a very dangerous business, many men dying because of storms or ships being sunk by charging animals, there was enough profit to be made that there were always plenty of available sailors. Through Ishmael, Melville illustrates his opinion of the industry. He writes, "Yes, there is death in this business of whaling -- a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity" (Melville 35). Often a man would die as a direct result of being aboard a whaling ship will have a quick death. Among other ways of demise, he can be knocked overboard, attacked by an animal, accidentally harpooned, or perhaps even killed by a suddenly seasick shipmate.
The sea functions as both the life force and the inevitable death to the men who choose to live as sailors. The men who die are a mixed bag of sorts. The dangers of the seas are illustrated when Ishmaels says:
Yet for ever and ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; nevertheless, by the continual repetition of these very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it…But not only is the sea such a foe to man who is an alien to it, but it is also a fiend to its own offspring…the sea dashes even the mightiest whales against the rocks…No mercy, no power but its own controls it (Melville 267).
In some stories, where there was to be a lesson taught about the dangers of disrespecting the sea, perhaps only a few men would die. Their deaths would be directly related to the caliber of their characters. In Moby Dick, everyone but Ishmael dies. The deaths have little if anything to do with how they behaved as men or what their motives were. The only person whose death could have a potential moral or pedagogical purpose would be Captain Ahab, for it was his obsessive need to pursue the white whale that led to his demise, as well as to those who were aboard the Peaquod.
Many people have noticed that homoerotic undertones of Moby Dick and written about their observations. Homosexuality was not seen in the 19th century in the same way that it is perceived in the modern context. A man and another man could be close friends at this point in time, even to the point of sharing a bed together without the fear of a stigma being attached to their characters. Reading the text in terms of queer theory asks that the reader be understanding of the psychological understanding of male-male interactions in a given time period. Strangeness and queerness are directly related. Between the characters of Ishmael and Queequeg, there is a type of attraction. Ishmael understands the interesting dynamic between himself and his loyal friend when he says, "Damn me, but all things are queer come to think of 'em" (Melville 106). This is a friendship that is deeper than what one would…