Moby-Dick is death-obsessed. The ship is black, like a hearse, a “cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies.” The fires used to melt whale blubber at night turn the Pequod into a “red hell.” Whales are described as “phantoms.” The restless sea, a metaphor for Ahab’s desperate melancholy and desire for revenge. But revenge against what? For Melville, the despair of living? Climbing debts? Marriage to a wife who did not satisfy him? Fear of failure? Yet he persisted in the pursuit.
Listen to the novel’s grand opening, in which Ishmael announces that the voyage—or for Melville, writing—is a way of staving off depression:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; 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. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.
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