Beauty and Horror in Nature in "Moby Dick"

Notions of (Anti-)Transcendentalism in Melville’s Ishmael

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2018

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Transcendentalism
1.1. Introduction

2. Pull to Nature

4. The Beauty of Nature and the Leviathan
4.1. The Tail of the Leviathan

5. Transcendentalism and Art
5.1. The Painting in the Spouter-Inn

6. Conclusion

7. Works Cited

“(…)but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance.” (Emerson, ‘Nature’ 10)

“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 (…). Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.” (Melville, ‘Moby-Dick’ 224ff)

1. Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism emerged in the late 1820s in the United States as a philosophical movement which turned its view away from spirituality and intellectualism – theories that were popular during these times. In contrast to these currents, Transcendentalism turned nature itself into the focal idea and subject of worship, attributing it with an inherent goodness.

Emerson’s definition of nature is a broad one. Nature is the way things are. Philosophically, Emerson says, the universe is made up of nature and the soul, or nature and consciousness. Everything that is not me is nature; nature thus includes nature (in the common sense of the green world), art, all other persons, and my own body. (Richardson 97)

This radical shift of values, away from a belief in a higher entity and empiricism and towards man himself and nature, was not only influential but also very controversial. The short book ‘ Nature ’ by Emerson which was released in 1836 became a founding document of Transcendentalism. In contrast to empirical view, the theory of Transcendentalism states that man needs no master or higher entity to discern the goodness in nature, only his own subjective perception. The individual is sufficient to decipher all questions. Emerson held the belief that there is a strong connection between human beings and everything in nature. This connection is constituted by a common soul to which all human beings have access through their own intuition. The idea of god also drastically changes in Transcendentalism: Instead of one supernatural being which observes man at all times, Transcendentalists believed God to be an all-embracive being perceptible in nature which exists in the world like a spirit engulfing everything.

In contrast to other religious beliefs, Transcendentalism makes nature not only the object of worship, but also considers it a provider and the very fundament of humanity’s ideals and ideas. In the chapter ‘commodity’ in his book ‘Nature’, Emerson “considers how nature provides the raw material and energy for everything we build, grow, or eat” (Richardson 99):

The misery of man appears like childish petulance, when we explore the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for his support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens. (…) Beasts, fire, water, stones and corn serve him. The field is at once his floor, his work-yard, his play-ground, his garden, and his bed (Emerson 15)

Man not only lives in and from nature, he draws his ideals from it as well. Our standards of beauty, of aesthetics, are provided by nature: “Such is the constitution of things, or such the plastic power of the human eye, that the primary forms, as the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal give us a delight in and for themselves (…)”(Emerson 19). In contrast to monotheistic religions like Christianity, a concept of evil is nowhere to be found in Transcendentalism, for all things in nature and nature itself are inherently good. This idealism and optimism is a core element of Transcendentalism.

1.1. Introduction

When Herman Melville had written and released Moby-Dick in 1851, Transcendentalism reached its peak in the United States. It is safe to say that Melville had not been totally isolated from the effect of this new movement and had formed an opinion on it. In spite of the temporal simultaneity, “when he wrote Moby-Dick Melville had not read Emerson. He had merely attended one of his lectures (5 February 1849).” (Hoffman 4). Nevertheless, this one lecture gave him enough incentive to write a letter to Evert Duykinck nineteen days after the lecture, telling him about he felt about Emerson. In this letter, Melville “rejects the notion that he might be a follower of the Transcendentalist camp” (Hoffmann 5), but finds him a peculiar man nevertheless: “there is a something about every man elevated above mediocrity, which is, for the most part, instinctualy perceptible. This I see in Mr. Emerson” (Melville in Hoffman 4). In a pictorial description, Melville thinks Emerson capable of deeper thought and compares him to a whale descending great depths, acknowledging his skills, in contrast to other fish which are only able to swim closely to the surface. Hoffmann says that “Melville admires the figure Emerson cuts, not the word he utters” (5) which is a pretty ambivalent statement to give. Melville also mentions in his letter a “gaping flaw” (5) he had seen in Emerson. According to Hoffmann, Melville was bothered by the “high presumptuousness” (5) Emerson displayed, “a feeling that had he been around when the world was created he could have given God some good advice-perhaps even taken His place” (5). It is hard to say whether Melville was really fond of Emerson’s ideas or not. According to Romero, we get an impression of “simultaneous embrace and rejection of Transcendentalist ideas” (2) and Hoffmann also diagnosed a similar behavior of Melville, in which Melville argues that some ideas of Emerson are flawed but at the same time utilizes Transcendentalist ideas in his book Moby-Dick. In this paper I want to focus on the main character and narrator of the book Moby-Dick, especially on his reported thoughts and impressions on Transcendentalist key aspects go get to the bottom of whether there is a clear inclination towards or away from Transcendentalist ideas.

2. Pull to Nature

A core idea of Transcendentalism is the sublime but constant pull to nature innate in human beings. This is due to the fact that nature is in Transcendentalist view the very embodiment of beauty and therefore the procreator of human pleasure. Emerson frames this idea and belief when he reports of a particular winter scene:

Not less excellent (…) was the charm, last evening, of a January sunset. The western clouds divided and subdivided themselves into pink flakes modulated with tints of unspeakable softness; and the air had so much life and sweetness, that it was a pain to come within doors. (Emerson 22).

Odes to nature like this particular one can be found throughout his book which consolidates the belief that man is more at home in “wild” nature than in the habitat man has built for himself in the form of villages and cities. Emerson describes this phenomenon of fleeing into nature’s embrace further:

In the wilderness I find something more dear and connate than in streets and villages. (13) (…) The tradesman, the attorneys comes out of the din and craft of the streets, and sees the sky and the woods, and is a man again. In their eternal calm, he finds himself. (21)

He depicts a feeling in people which pulls them outside their cities and villages into nature. Looking at Ishmael in Moby Dick, we can see the same kind of behavior early in the novel. In the chapter “Loomings”, he describes his urban habitat as something he urgently has to flee from:

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 street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off-then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. (Melville 18)

He goes on telling the reader that it is not just him seeking the vista of the ocean, but many more:

But look, here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water (…) nothing will content them but extremest limit of the land (…) they must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. (19)

Early on, we can observe a truly Transcendentalist motif in Moby-Dick; crowds of people amassing on the Oceanside, as if the ocean were summoning them. Is it the “eternal calm” Emerson spoke of, which these people seek? An opportunity to heal themselves from the sickening city? Whatever it is these great volumes of water radiate, it is without a doubt positive and healing to the people, otherwise so many people would not be drawn to it. Ishmael describes the water as having “magic in it” (19) and sustains this conviction even further: “Why did the Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity (…)? Surely all this is not without meaning.” (20). What sounds like a strong affection for the ocean culminates in the conviction that indeed the sea is the explanation to life itself. This becomes clear when Ishmael references the tormenting image young Narcissus sees in the water: “It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.” (20). The reader is left with the question what Ishmael truly means when talking about “the ungraspable phantom of life”, but by considering one key statement, we can quickly tell that it is not mere fascination of the medicinal, healing Transcendentalist faculty of the sea he is referring to: the sea is his “substitute for pistol and ball” (18).

The figure of Ishmael embodies a somewhat ambiguous stance towards Transcendentalism in this chapter. On the one hand, we can observe his fascination for the sea, giving explanations as to why thousands of people are drawn to the ocean, beholding it and looking for healing of the soul. On the other hand he says that this magical appearing ocean is only a substitute for pistol and ball, not the cure, painting the entire idea of being drawn to water in a gloomy color. Not only is he pausing before coffin warehouses and joins funeral processions, he is looking for a substitute for a means to suicide. When it is not healing he is looking for in the ocean, what is he hoping to find there? In order to pertain a suitable answer to this, we have to look at the ocean from a different, non-Transcendentalist view: the sea is considered to be uncontrollable, turbulent, roiling, complex and mysterious – just like the forces at play in the mind of a suicidal human being. Both the ocean and such a mind represent a destructive and indifferent power veiled within its own endless depths. Maybe Ishmael is looking for a like-minded force to counter (or balance) his own, and finds the biggest similarity to himself in the primeval entity of the sea or its inhabitants, for he does not suffer under some naïve perception of a smooth and friendly sea, but is sober-mindedly aware that he is to expect “wild and distant seas” (22) on which he may encounter the “undeliverable, nameless perils of the whale” (22). This proposition raises further questions: Is the ultimate outcome of finding healing in nature (in this case the sea) important for a Transcendentalist interpretation of Ishmael’s behavior, or does the fact that he simply sympathizes with the indifferent chaos within the tides void this Transcendentalist notion?

According to Emerson, nature is inherently good and never harbors any evil, yet still Ishmael is involuntarily drawn to the frightening idea of finding another means to his suicide at sea, which would rob the ocean of all of its well-meaning qualities. Considering that he is not the only one who is drawn to the ocean, but merely one among many, thinking that all of these people have suicidal tendencies in common which they hope to find a substitute for at sea would be highly naïve. Another explanation might be that Ishmael seeks an answer to his inner unrest within the sea, since “(…) the sea stands for the hidden, the secret, the half-known world where the other side of reality is shown and where alone one may find the full truth” (Walcutt in Romero 5). Having this in mind, Ishmael might just as well be looking for the answer to his inner stirrings, which would uphold the Transcendentalist idea of nature being medicinal – the sea would help him. Still, the general impression we get from Ishmael’s telling about the sea is a somber one when he tells us about the “swift madness and gladness of the demoniac waves” (Melville 194) or that to “the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him [man]” (224). In Ishmael’s opinion, “man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.” (224).

Another remark of Emerson in Nature provides us the explanation necessary to this bleak point of view: “Nature always wears the color of the spirit. To a man laboring under calamity, the heat of his own sadness hath fire in it. Then, there is a kind of contempt of the landscape felt by him who has by death lost a dear friend” (14). So far, we have established that nature has an all-encompassing pull to it, drawing us towards it, and that Ishmael and many people are taken hold of this force. Furthermore, Ishmael suffers under fighting his inner demons, the ones rendering him suicidal and he hopes to find a substitute on or in the ocean. Considering Emerson’s statement, nature serves as a mirror of the soul, so it should not surprise us, that a suicidal man has a rather somber perception of the ocean. Yet still, Ishmaels behavior meets Transcendentalist beliefs. He is involuntarily drawn to nature (next to many other people) and he sees a reflection of himself within it, which confirms Emerson when he says that nature is merely a mirror of the soul. It is hard to say whether the motives which drive him to the sea would contradict the Transcendentalist idea or not, since there are Transcendentalist arguments for both; he clearly demonstrates a pull to nature and nature does indeed mirror his soul, for he sees the same disturbance in the ocean as he does within himself. On the other hand, a key element of nature is displayed as a chaotic entity which is indifferent or even hostile to man, what no Transcendentalist would ever agree to.


Excerpt out of 21 pages


Beauty and Horror in Nature in "Moby Dick"
Notions of (Anti-)Transcendentalism in Melville’s Ishmael
University of Mannheim  (Anglistik)
Moby Dick
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Moby Dick, Transcendentalism, Ishmael, Moby, Dick, Melville, Emerson, Ralph, Hermann
Quote paper
Tolga Konmus (Author), 2018, Beauty and Horror in Nature in "Moby Dick", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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