Moby-Dick features several characters who seem insane. How does insanity relate to this story? How do these characters contrast with one another?
Ishmael describes Ahab as mad in his narration, and it does indeed seem mad to try to fight the forces of nature or God. However, some of the other characters in the novel whom Ishmael labels insane—notably Pip and Gabriel—might be viewed as wise rather than mentally unbalanced, thus calling into question the possibility of making a clear distinction between sanity and insanity. Gabriel, the prophet figure aboard the
Ishmael frequently refers to the relationships between men in terms normally used to describe heterosexual romantic relationships. What is the literal and symbolic importance of homoeroticism in Moby-Dick?
Ishmael and Queequeg are depicted in bed together several times and are frequently described as “married” or “wedded” to each other. When they wake in the Spouter-Inn, Queequeg has his arms around Ishmael in a seemingly conjugal embrace. Melville uses the vocabulary of love and marriage to suggest the strength and closeness of the bonds between men at sea. Marriage is one of the institutions upon which society on land is organized, but there are no women aboard the
Describe the playlike scenes interspersed throughout Moby-Dick. What is the function of these scenes? In what ways do they differ from the rest of the narrative?
These scenes fall into two major categories: dramatic dialogues among several characters and soliloquies from a single character, often Ahab. The latter capture moments that Ishmael, the narrator, could not possibly have witnessed. Ahab must maintain his composure and certainty in front of his crew; it is only in private that he can express doubt or regret. These scenes are used to build dramatic tension, as they would in a play: Ahab senses the approach of catastrophe, which his soliloquies communicate to the reader by voicing his feeling of doom. The dialogue scenes frequently alternate with chapters that contain digressions from the plot. (Ishmael’s measurements of the whale’s skeleton, for example.) In this context, they become very suspenseful, as the plot is advanced purely through the authentic-seeming speech interactions of the sailors. Finally, by hearkening back to well-known dramatic works, these dramatic scenes also remind the reader of the novel’s thematic connections to tragic drama, particularly Shakespeare.