Representations of Femininity in Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" and John Rollin Ridge's "Joaquín Murieta"

Seminar Paper, 2004

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0


In the 19th century, when both Moby-Dick and Joaquín Murieta were written, a separation of gender roles was common. Whereas men were responsible for work and money, women usually accounted for the domestic sphere and did not have much of a voice. At first glance, both Moby-Dick and Joaquín Murieta seem to support this view as women play a rather passive if not invisible role in the novels. However, an examination of the role of femininity shows that it is indeed a major part of both stories. In Joaquín Murieta, Ridge regards the love of a woman as support and refuge for men. Women show such a strong affection towards their men that they would never leave them alone and vice versa, men appreciate the loyal love of their woman which they can also count on in miserable times. Ridge also uses femininity to describe both Murieta’s appearance and his gentle character, for he is loved by women and treats them with respect. Melville, on the other hand, does not allow women an active role in the story. He puts emphasis on the ideal relationship between men on a whaling ship where they depend on each other and are in some way wedded. Women, on the contrary, are left behind by the sailors and represent the domestic sphere which mostly exists in the sailors’ memories and forms a sharp contrast to the adventures at sea. Whereas Ridge generally allows women a more active role in his story and at times presents them as almost equivalent companions of men, Melville ascribes a domestic role to the dependent widows and substitutes women for men, whales, and nature – all of them turning into symbols of femininity.

In his novel Moby-Dick, Melville creates a generally male world. A striking fact is the frequent use of the words “he”, appearing almost 2000 times, and “man” or “men”, being used over 800 times. Words connected to “woman” or “wife”, however, only appear about 35 times in the book.[1] On the whole, Melville does not allow women an active role, but commonly refers to them as “sailors’ wives or widows” (p. 43) being left behind by their men when they go on a long journey across the sea that might be their last. Melville repeatedly underlines women’s abandonment and dependence; for example, when he asserts that the Pequod is held by Captain Bildad and Captain Peleg but also “by a crowd of old annuitants; widows, fatherless children, and chancery wards; each owning about the value of a timber head, or a foot of plank, or a nail or two in the ship” (p. 73). The sailors’ widows depend on the little money given to them by the captains and Melville again underlines their hopeless situation when Captain Bildad ponders Ishmael’s pay and tells Captain Peleg to “consider the duty thou owest to the other owners of this ship – widows and orphans, many of them – and [...] we may be taking the bread from those widows and those orphans” (p. 76-77).

Beside their dependence on their husbands, women neither seem to have personality or sexuality in the novel. The only two female characters that appear are two servants, namely Mrs. Hussey and Aunt Charity, Captain Bildad’s sister. Mrs. Hussey is a comic figure and ridiculed by Ishmael when she wants to bring him a meal. The narrator also mocks Charity by watching her “bustle about hither and thither, ready to turn her hand and heart to anything that promised to yield for safety, comfort, and consolation to all on board a ship on which her beloved brother Bildad was concerned, and in which she herself owned a score or two of well-saved dollars” (p. 90). Melville makes all her work seem trivial and presents her as an ignorant and silly person whose efforts are useless. Even her gift, a ginger-jub, is ridiculed at sea, “freely given to the waves” (p. 257), and replaced for ‘manly’ grog.

On the whole, women are described in a disrespectful and mocking way in the novel. Only in the whalers memories do they gain more significance; for example when even grumpy Ahab seems to regret the dependent situation of women towards the end of the novel, when he finds himself far away from his wife whom he does not even dare calling so as his following utterance shows: “wife? wife? – rather a widow with her husband alive? Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her” (p. 405).

Throughout the novel, Starbuck has repeatedly been thinking about his wife Mary as she is part of “his far-away domestic memories of his young Cape wife and child” (p. 102). Therefore, he finally tries to urge Ahab to sail back to Nantucket, and to their homes and wives, instead of continuing the fatal hunt for the White Whale. Starbuck longs for the safety of the domestic space instead of the adventurous ocean where madman Ahab, Moby Dick and death are near.

“Wife and child, too, are Starbuck's – wife and child of his brotherly, sisterly, play-fellow youth; even as thine, sir, are the wife and child of thy loving, longing, paternal old age! Away! let us away! – this instant let me alter the course!” (p. 406)

Starbuck’s desperate attempt fails, however, and Ahab clings to his desire for revenge on Moby-Dick; therefore the whole boat’s crew never returns to their wives and daughters, who already seem to exist merely in their memories.

In some way, Ahab’s relationship to women might have been spoiled at an early age already because his name, deriving from the idolatrous King Ahab, is described by Captain Peleg as “a foolish, ignorant whim of his crazy, widowed mother, who died when he was only a twelvemonth old” (p. 78). Although Ishmael is also told that “Ahab has his humanities” (p. 79), they are by far not as strong as his longing for vengeance. In this case, ‘having humanities’ is equivalent to loving a woman and having a child as Peleg’s utterance suggests:

“Besides, my boy, he has a wife – not three voyages wedded – a sweet, resigned girl. Think of that; by that sweet girl that old man had a child: hold ye then there can be any utter, hopeless harm in Ahab?” (p. 79)

However, Ahab rather seems to be married to the Pequod and to Moby-Dick than to his actual wife. The ship’s carpenter hits the nail on the head by saying “And here’s his leg. Yes, now that I think of it, here’s his bed-fellow! has a stick of whale’s jaw-bone for a wife!” (p. 360-361). As his leg was bitten off by the White Whale and is now made out of a whale’s bone, whales have become a crucial part of Ahab and determine his life and fate. His mind being fully occupied by Moby-Dick and his leg being made of a whale’s jaw, Ahab is mentally and physically married to a whale rather than a woman.

A further indication for the femininity of whales is the commonly used phrase “There she blows” (p. 180, e.g.) which ascribes the female pronoun to whales. Moreover, the whole crew’s marriage to the whales is underlined when they are surrounded by a herd of whales and are “occasionally visited by small tame cows and calves; the women and children of this routed host” (p. 302). The reader observes a strong relation between the men and the whales; Queequeq even pats their heads and Starbuck scratches their backs. In this scene, humans and nature, men and whales become one. Melville describes the whales almost like human beings, having a society and a family. In the following chapter, the connection between whalers and whales becomes most obvious when the author states that the schoolmaster whale “will have no one near him but Nature herself; and her he takes to wife in the wilderness of waters, and the best of wives she is, though she keeps so many moody secrets” (p. 307). This phrase also hints at another, darker side of nature, which shall be treated later on, however. On the whole, the whale’s marriage to nature corresponds to the whalers’ relation to nature, the sea and the whales. Instead of being married to mortal women, they are wedded to divine nature.


[1] Cohen, Hennig & Cahalan, James: A Concordance to Melville’s Moby-Dick; The Melville Society; Michigan; 1978

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Representations of Femininity in Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" and John Rollin Ridge's "Joaquín Murieta"
San Diego State University
The American Renaissance
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ISBN (Book)
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Femininity, Herman, Melville, Moby-Dick, John, Rollin, Ridge, Joaquín, Murieta, American, Renaissance
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Julia Deitermann (Author), 2004, Representations of Femininity in Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" and John Rollin Ridge's "Joaquín Murieta", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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