Melville's 'Moby-Dick, or The Whale' - an Attack on Calvinism

Forms of Melville's Fiction

Seminar Paper, 1994

30 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Melville and the religious milieu of his time

3 Scepticism and bigotry in Moby-Dick

4 Ishmael and the Calvinist elements
4.1 Ishmael – a Biblical name
4.2 Ishmael – an outcast
4.3 Calvinism versus scepticism
4.3.1 Father Mapple and the sermon
4.3.2 Ishmael’s response to the sermon

5 Ahab and the Calvinist elements
5.1 Ahab – a biblical name
5.2 Ahab’s cosmic fury and bigotry
5.3 Ahab and the sermon

6 Ishmael and Ahab – a comparison

7 Conclusion

8 Bibliography

1 Introduction

The publication of Melville’s Moby-Dick or, The Whale in 1851 caused a vast range of attitudes toward the book, approaching the novel in various ways. Among those, central motives of creation and quest played an important role in interpreting the author’s masterpiece as a work that sought to reach new fundamental religious insights by challenging the Calvinist tradition of Melville’s time.[1]

This paper is an attempt to show how far Melville’s Moby-Dick succeeded in attacking the Calvinist principles of a theocratic and evil view of the world, constructing a literary scene of scepticism and bigotry that crosses the normal boundaries in its quest for what is beyond the universal system.

2 Melville and the religious milieu of his time

Herman Melville, born on August 1, 1819 in New York City to Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melville - both came from distinguished and well-to-do American families[2] - had to face from his earliest days on and throughout his lifetime an America that was in a continuous state of religious upheaval and transition.

During the early 19th century, two major religious forces caused the Christian community based on Jesus and his teachings to be the scene of constant debates.

On the one extreme, there were the Unitarians who belonged to a Christian Church which rejected the doctrine of the Trinity – the Union of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit in one God – but instead believed that God is only one person.

On the other extreme, the Unitarians were opposed by conservative Calvinists who held a different interpretation of the moral relation between God and man. The Unitarians thought that God had endowed man with inherent rights that divine Providence would not violate, whereas the Calvinists believing in the predestination and personal election of each individual by God, thought that the Almighty ordained all sufferings and evils of life because he was rightly angered by the innate depravity of the human race that took its course with the fall of Adam.[3]

This Reformation dogma of the French Protestant John Calvin (1509-1564) also affected Herman Melville in his youth. He was reared by his pious parents who were members of the Dutch Reformed Church in America to believe that “God had created him innately depraved and predestinately damned to eternal Hell,” as Lawrence Thompson maintains, “but that he might possibly be saved from such damnation through divine grace if he threw himself submissively and abjectly on the mercy of God as revealed through Jesus Christ.” Herman Melville supposedly believed in this Calvinist theory until he left home at the age of eighteen. By that time he already had experienced the financial ruin of his family and his father’s death.

However, he became increasingly disenchanted, in particular during his first sea voyage in 1839 to Liverpool which was deemed a failure along with his subsequent voyages. As a consequence he began to doubt his Calvinist heritage, longing for a God that was more benevolent and a personal source of truth. The struggle between his beliefs and doubts increased steadily, yet he never really denied the existence of the God of John Calvin. Instead, Melville came to view God as responsible for all the evil of the world and he blamed him for his cruelty, malice and the rigid obedience he demanded from mankind that caused so many human beings to rebel. Finally recognizing the failure of Providence in his own family tradition Melville came to invert the principle of the “depraved mankind” into his new concept of the “depraved Original Sinner”.[4]

In Moby-Dick, Melville exposed his own personal religious crisis and thus his own search for a just God as well as the crisis of his Age by internalizing the conflict between the two religious camps: the more liberal Unitarians and the orthodox Calvinists.

3 Scepticism and bigotry in Moby-Dick

In portraying Melville’s and the nineteenth-century’s search for religious truth, the novel as such has two major protagonists: Ishmael, a simple sailor who tells the story and Ahab, the captain of the Pequod.[5] Though both never exchange a word during the whole voyage they are linked as figures of a spiritual crisis that join in Ishmael’s scepticism of resolving his meditative quest for religious truth wondering if it will ever be possible to fathom its deeper meanings.

To start with and important for the reader to realize here is that Ishmael describes himself in retrospect presenting an earlier self that has already experienced the physical and spiritual terrors of the Pequod’s doom and, therefore, has adopted an intense scepticism about the prospects of spiritual quests.

Ishmael compares this illusionary search to the “image of the ungraspable phantom of life” of the story of Narcissus. He observes:

And still deeper [is] the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But the same image we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life. (“Loomings”, p.5).

Just as Narcissus who was drowned because he endeavored to possess his natural beauty, Ishmael considers his own quest for religious truth as an attempt that will remain an insoluble and “ungraspable” mystery. Thus, he conveys the message that man can never possess nature and he recognizes that to look behind the mask of death will invariably lead to death – ordained by some supreme existence behind the natural order. Ishmael calls this disguised power the “ invisible police officer of the Fates who has the constant surveillance of me…forming part of the grand program of Providence” (“Loomings”, p.5).

Ahab’s “intense bigotry of purpose” (“The Quarter-Deck”, p. 174) in his blind fury at the whale helps to intensify the religious crisis that may be felt throughout the whole novel. Ahab strikes back at the divine malice that decreed his fate: it was Moby-Dick who took off his leg and who made him not only a physical but also an emotional cripple. Ahab comments his bigotry asserting “… I will wreak that hate upon him…I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is a sort of fairplay herein.” (“The Quarter-Deck”, p .178).

His desire for revenge is directed at God, or whatever Ahab considers to be God, rather than at the whale. Whatever power controls the universe, Ahab wants to attack it as he feels he himself has been attacked.

Scepticism and bigotry is the corner post of the world of Moby-Dick through which the religious crisis of the book moves.[6] Calvin’s theology that the eternal system orders human affairs is overcome by Ishmael’s doubt and Ahab’s revolt against the cosmic adversaries as the following chapters of this paper will reveal.

4 Ishmael and the Calvinist elements

4.1 Ishmael – a Biblical name.

“Call me Ishmael” (“The Loomings”, p.3) – as such Melville introduces the spiritual voyager of the book. The Biblical allusion of the name becomes apparent immediately: Yishma’el, “God shall hear” was the name which Hagar bestowed on her son. Hagar was the slave of Abraham and his aged wife Sarah; Abraham impregnated Hagar because he feared that Sarah was too old to conceive though God promised to Abraham that a child would be born to Sarah. God’s prophecy became true: years later Sarah herself was expecting a child. She named him Isaac and, afraid of having to share the heir God had promised, Hagar and Ishmael were driven out of God’s elected family and thus took up the role of outcasts. Both got lost in the desert and when Ishmael was in danger of dying of thirst, his life was saved by a miraculous spring (Gen. 16; 1-15). Alluding to the Book of Genesis, Melville virtually predicts the voyage’s outcome: the wreck of the Pequod and the entire crew is lost in the end, only Ishmael survives.[7]

4.2 Ishmael – an outcast.

“…Having nothing particular to interest me on shore,” Ishmael tells the reader, “I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” At first glance, Ishmael’s departure on the whaling voyage suggests nothing more than he is undertaking this journey because of a personal whim. The deeper meaning of his adventure becomes apparent when he continues:

…Whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the streets, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball (“Loomings”, p.3).

Ishmael admits that he is escaping the land because of his troublesome thoughts on death, being aware of his own madness and keeping it thus under control. The sea offers opportunities for contemplating the mysteries of life and death because “meditation and water,” he claims, “are wedded forever” (“Loomings”, p.4).

Note here that the Calvinist view developed a comparison of the “land” from which Ishmael departs and the “sea” that he enters. Herein, the “land” is associated with God and the elect, offering comfort and spiritual subservience, whereas the “sea” stands for danger and the reprobate lost in his sin. Again, Melville’s Biblical allusions are perceptible. The fate of the Biblical Ishmael who both was and was not a child of Abraham led him to the conclusion that a searcher for the ultimate truth must take up the role of an outcast to question the universal validity of the religious order. To attain spiritual insight one has to plunge oneself into the domain of the reprobate, namely the sea. Calvinism held the view that man had to sin before he could be redeemed by God in order to attain spiritual insight.

To Melville and likewise to Ishmael, the ocean is the only place of religious reality. Accordingly, Ishmael proclaims in the beginning of his spiritual voyage, ”but as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God – so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even as that were safety” (“The Lee Shore”, p.117).[8]

4.3 Calvinism versus scepticism

To illustrate Ishmael’s doubt of the universal understanding of Christian religion, Melville established an anti-thesis between the sermon of Father Mapple, the embodiment of Calvinist authority, and Ishmael’s encounter with Queequeg, the heathen harpooner of the Pequod. Father Mapple’s church reveals a background of Calvinist doctrine against which Melville sets up Ishmael’s discovery of new religious values in his friendship.

4.3.1 Father Mapple and the sermon

Entering the Whale man’s Chapel, Ishmael seems to be strongly impressed by Father Mapple’s spiritual authority to which the “lofty pulpit” after drawing up the rope ladder alludes. He asserts that this “act of physical isolation … signifies his spiritual withdrawal… from all outward worldly ties and connexions” (“The Pulpit”, p.44).


[1] Laurence MacPhee, Herman Melville’s Moby- Dick (New York, N.Y.: Monarch Press, 1964) 104 – 105.

[2] James Barbour, „Melville Biography: A Life and the Lives,“ „A Companion to Melville’s Studies“, ed. John Bryant (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Inc., 1986) 3-4.

[3] T. Walter Herbert, Jr ., Moby-Dick and Calvinism: A World Dismantled (New Brunswick, N.J.: Ruttgers University Press, 1977) 5.

[4] Lawrence Thompson, Melville’s Quarrel with God (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1952) 4-6.

[5] William Hamilton, Melville and the Gods (Chicago, California: Scholar Press, 1985) 9.

[6] T. Walter Herbert, „Calvinist Earthquake: Moby-Dick and the Religious Tradition“, “New Essays on Moby-Dick or, The Whale”, trans. Richard H. Brodhead (Cambridge UP, 1986). 114-115.

[7] Nathalia Wright, „Biblical Allusions in Melville’s Prose“, „Herman Melville“, trans. P.G. Buchloch and H. Krüger (Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft Darmstadt, 1974). 166.

[8] Herbert, Calvinist Earthquake: Moby-Dick and Religious Tradition, p. 116 – 123.

Excerpt out of 30 pages


Melville's 'Moby-Dick, or The Whale' - an Attack on Calvinism
Forms of Melville's Fiction
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Englische Philologie)
The Forms of Melville's Fiction
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
473 KB
Well researched!
Melville, Moby-Dick, Calvinism, Religion in America
Quote paper
Kirsten Vera van Rhee (Author), 1994, Melville's 'Moby-Dick, or The Whale' - an Attack on Calvinism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Look inside the ebook
Title: Melville's 'Moby-Dick, or The Whale' -  an Attack on Calvinism

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free