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Melville and Existentialism

Updated on March 13, 2013

Moby-Dick or The Whale

Herman Melville’s writings anticipated the philosophy of twentieth-century existentialism. In his works, Moby-Dick or The Whale and Bartleby the Scrivener, Melville touches on many of the themes of existentialism such as authenticity, passion, and Angst. He accomplishes this by satirizing the Enlightenment-era ethos of strictly interpreting the world by means of objectivity (the use of science and logic to understand what is believed to be a rational universe governed by causality). Melville was not alone in his criticism of strict objective understanding; in fact, this movement away from the Enlightenment-era ethos of Europe was characterized by the writings of American Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Elizabeth Peabody[1], to name a few (Hart 673). The Transcendentalists, though varying in their opinions, aimed to explain how one could amalgamate the individual’s desire with the goals of civil (democratic) society. As can be seen in the works of Emerson and Thoreau, their personal beliefs were often founded in the metaphysical. Melville on the other hand, took a far more grounded approach to the nature of human existence, an approach that is far less optimistic than his contemporaries in the Transcendentalist Club.

Melville gained some notoriety during his career by publishing Romantic adventures such as Typee, Omoo, and Mardi, but his popularity began to fade with the publication of, what is now known as his greatest achievement, Moby-Dick. His reputation would also suffer with the publication of Pierre a year later which, along with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, criticized optimistic idealists (Hart 426). Unlike his friend and neighbor Hawthorne, Melville lacked political savvy, and the negative criticism of his works led to a declining career and near-obscurity. He managed to publish works such as Israel Potter and The Piazza Tales – which would include “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno”, over the course of the following decade, and continued criticize society, but his career was almost lost. He published Billy Budd shortly before his death but had spent the last 19 years of his life as an outdoor customs inspector in New York. His death went almost unnoticed and his work was all but disregarded until 1920 when he was rediscovered by literary scholars (Hart 426).

Though Melville’s theme of rejecting a strict objective stance toward understanding the universe was not unlike those themes found in the writings of the Transcendentalists, his pessimistic writing, which leans toward realism, failed to impress his contemporaries and the international market. In this essay, I will use existential criticism to explain how motifs such as authenticity, passion, Angst, function in the works Moby-Dick or The Whale and “Bartleby the Scrivener,”in order to demonstrate how Melville’s work anticipated the existentialism of the twentieth century thus differentiating him from his contemporaries and ruining his career.

Authenticity is “the condition of those, according to Heidegger, who understand the existential structure of their lives” (Honderich 70). To be authentic, then, is to be aware of the arbitrary nature of social structures, an awareness that separates the individual from the mass of people who remain in what Camus calls the “mechanical life” (Camus 13). Sartre would later emphasize action as part of the definition of authenticity: “He [Sartre] advocated dragging oneself out of the slimy visquex, out of a passive existence; imbuing existence with essence, or meaning, by the exercise of choice and free will; and living an authentic life as an individual by asserting total freedom and accepting total responsibility” (Murfin 157-8). With Sartre’s emphasis on action, or passion (an important part of existential philosophy as promoted by Kierkegaard), one is able to not only become aware of the artificiality of internalized social structures but also to change them or create new social structures. The literary works of the existential writers of the twentieth century would demonstrate this understanding of authenticity; Melville on the other hand, uses the principal of relativism to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of social structures such as religion.

Though Melville was a Christian, he recognized the arbitrary nature of structured religion. In Moby-Dick Melville describes two different Christian churches: first, an African American congregation (11) and then a “Whaleman’s Chapel” (39-54). Melville describes the African American church as “Wretched entertainment” (11) even though the scene described seems closer to a traditional church service. The “Whaleman’s Chapel,” on the other hand, is consciously gimmicky using the symbols of whaling to reinforce the religious messages. If religion was a fixed social structure then the possibility of difference would be impossible between the two churches, otherwise one or the other church could not be understood to be “church”. Though one church is favored over the other, Ishmael choosing the Whaleman’s Chapel over the African American church (possibly because he wanted to be a whaler, and because he wasn’t African American), both are understood to be Christian churches.

Another example of the relativism of religion comes by way of Ishmael’s justification of his worship of Queequeg’s idol;

I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild [idolater] in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? Thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth – pagans and all included – can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is the will of God? – to do the will of God – that is worship (58).

It is in this passage that the reader may infer that Melville’s message is that the structure of church is secondary to the personal understanding of God’s will. Ishmael, in treating Queequeg’s religion with respect is, in his mind, doing the will of God.

Melville also demonstrates the arbitrary nature of symbols. After having had Queequeg’s coffin converted to a life-buoy Captain Ahab says, “Oh! how immaterial are all materials! What things real are there, but imponderable thoughts? Here now’s the very dreaded symbol of grim death, by a mere hap, made the expressive sign of the help and hope of most endangered life. A life-buoy of a coffin!” (574). In this passage Melville clearly explains that symbols represent the meanings that people give to them and that materials used to make these symbols are inherently meaningless.

Yet another example of social structures being arbitrary comes from Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” This is a story about a man named Bartleby that comes to inhabit a law copyist office. At first Bartleby copy’s the work given to him, but refuses to participate in the readings of the copied work. He uses one phrase to stop the other office workers from asking him to work, “I would prefer not to.” This seems simple, but through the course of the story it shows the reader how simply stating one’s true feelings can undermine the polite and cordial social structure that has been established. Bartleby serves as an example of how the individual can react toward society after having reached a point of authenticity, or having gained awareness of the arbitrary nature of social structures. Using the system against itself, Bartleby manages to avoid working all together for a span of time, and even stands to profit from his inactivity at some points – an effort of the inauthentic office workers to remove Bartleby from the office and return the normal balance to their environment. Bartleby does meet a sad fate in the end, becoming the victim of his own inactivity. This would demonstrate perhaps one reason that Sartre would want to include reinvesting oneself into daily life as part of his definition of authenticity.

Passion is another part of the existential philosophy of the twentieth century, and a major theme in Melville’s work. Of course, Melville is known for turning themes upon themselves, and in the case of Bartleby – as described earlier, it is a lack of passion that becomes his end. Passion has been an important function of existential philosophy, a tradition that is rooted in Melville’s European contemporary Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard writes, “The crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die” (Hakim 473). For Kierkegaard, this passion means a faith in God. For Sartre, passion means engaging in social causes. One could argue that Bartleby’s passion is being actively passive, to say, he works at doing nothing. Bartleby obviously has to put real effort in maintaining his stance on work, or finding an apartment. One could also argue that Bartleby was likely suffering from major depressive disorder, and that his lack of passion was his undoing. Either way, we find in the text a blaring example of the necessity of passion.

Captain Ahab, on the other hand, gives us an example of passion that has been called mad. Ahab defies his vocation of whaling in order to take vengeance on one particular whale; he also forgoes human kindness, and destroys the lives of his crew, save Ishmael. Melville seems to satirize being inauthentic with his picaresque portrayal of Ahab as “the Fates’ lieutenant” (Melville, Moby-Dick 611). Though it is within his power as captain to return to Nantucket, as Starbuck suggests, Ahab refuses saying:

What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? (592).

When approaching the question, “Is Ahab, Ahab?” the answer is, undoubtedly, yes. It is Ahab’s own will that propels the plot of this story and eventually leads to the destruction of the Pequod and its crew. It is Ahab’s own emotive will that defines Ahab’s fate. This is passion, though it is reckless and futile. One could argue that Ahab’s madness has made Moby Dick the embodiment of evil, and that Ahab’s search for him is an effort to produce some overall good. If this is the case, then Ahab and his crew are martyrs to a greater cause. If it is selfishness on Ahab’s part then it is still passion, by Kierkegaard’s definition, in that it is an idea in which Ahab is willing to live or die. Ultimately, Ahab’s obsession is a matter of subjectivity in that his fate is determined by his own perception of truth. This reliance on subjectivity, as opposed to an objective understanding (such as every ship that has had an encounter with Moby Dick has met with disaster, therefore seeking Moby Dick will end in disaster) defines existentialism and passion.

Passion does not, however, emerge from a vacuum. In existential philosophy there is usually some experience that functions as the catalyst for an existential awakening. Often this catalyst is Angst or anxiety. Angst has been defined as “a recurrent state of disquiet concerning one’s life which Existentialists interpret as evidence that human life has a dimension which a purely naturalistic psychology cannot comprehend” (Honderich 36). In this way, Angst is a naturally occurring state concerning the idea of nonexistence (death) that cannot be wholly grasped because it is outside of the realm of subjective experience, and yet nonexistence appears inevitable because we have the experience death of other people and things. In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus writes, “Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness. It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows. What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening. At the end of the awakening comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery” (Camus 13). Melville’s work appears to anticipate this understanding of Angst, as is evident in “Bartleby”.

Bartleby the Scrivener

Bartleby, before appearing in the law copyist’s office, worked in the “Dead Letters Office” (Melville, Bartleby 34). The very name of the office suggests the dreary nature of the vocation, as it seems that Bartleby spent years sorting undelivered mail and then destroying his own work. It is suggested in the text that Bartleby came upon his position toward life after having spent years at this sad vocation. The text even goes so far as to compare Dead Letters to dead men (34). It can be inferred that Bartleby realized the futility of social constructs, and in that way the arbitrary nature of social constructs as he worked at the Dead Letters Office. Just as Camus wrote in “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Bartleby came upon his realization after having observed the acts of a “mechanical life” (Camus 13). “The Myth of Sisyphus” takes a more optimistic approach to this situation than “Bartleby the Scrivener,” however, as Camus portrays the mythological Sisyphus as being aware of the futility of his work but still willing to continue because it is his choice to do so, almost as if he is continuing his labor as an act of defiance (Camus 121).

The difference between Bartleby and Sisyphus is that Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to his labor and Bartleby is deprived of his by a change in administration (Melville, Bartleby 34). Perhaps if Bartleby’s story was about a man that continued to work in the Dead Letters Office, then there would be a perfect synchronicity to these examples, but this is not the case. “Sisyphus” is portrayed as having an awareness of the absurdity of his work, just as one can assume that Bartleby had a similar awareness. How then, could one understand Sisyphus if he had been in the same situation as Bartleby; how would the story of Sisyphus function if he no longer had his boulder? The simple answer is that Sisyphus would not be Sisyphus. His conscious choice to continue the work of endlessly pushing the boulder defines Sisyphus, for Sisyphus (if he were real) and in the reader’s mind. Bartleby, in losing his job at the Dead Letters Office, loses his identity and simultaneously comes upon a full realization of the absurdity of life, a realization that would eventually lead to his death.

Passion can be a means to overcome Angst as it emerges in one’s life, as Sartre writes, “To avoid fear [of death], which reveals to me a transcendent future strictly determined, I take refuge in reflection, but the latter has only an undetermined future to offer. This means in establishing certain action as a possibility and precisely because it is my possibility, I am aware that nothing can compel me to adopt that action. Yet I am indeed already there in the future; it is for the sake of that being which I will soon be at the turning of the path that I now exert all my strength…” (Sartre 119). Bartleby, aware of death, has his passion deprived of him. He cannot continue to push his boulder and so he loses the will to live. Sartre would suggest that Bartleby simply find a new passion, but as we have seen, this is not possible for him. Instead, as Camus suggests, he cannot return to the inauthentic world or “mechanical life” and so he enters into a suicidal phase that lasts the course of the story, and by not eating in the jail, Bartleby secures his own death.

Angst functions differently in Moby-Dick­. There is an awareness of death that is presented through symbols and portrayals of actual death. Symbols such as Queequeg’s coffin are shown to serve different purposes through the plot of the novel, the coffin being reformed as a life-buoy and being used by Ishmael to survive. Symbols such as Moby Dick serve a different purpose. Though Moby Dick is surely a sign for death, he is more than that. Moby Dick is a symbol for the surety of death, which is perceived by Ahab to be evil. The actions of Ahab, then, can be seen as having great passion acting against not only the concept of evil, but acting against the concept of death itself. As Sartre points out, death is certain and a constant possibility, though fear is natural the key to being authentic lies in being in control of the circumstances that might lead to the possibility of death. Ahab accomplishes this insofar as he actively pursues Moby Dick, the ultimate symbol of death in this work. Through his passion, Ahab is able to overcome his fear of death as can be seen in his final words, “Toward thee I roll, though all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee” (623). If one examines this passage they will find an odd word – unconquering. This word seems to imply that Moby Dick is incapable of conquering him. This seems backward as Moby Dick survives the attack and Ahab dies. What then does Ahab mean? Perhaps, he is referring less to the physical presence of the whale in that line and addressing his notion of the whale as a symbol of Angst, in that by hunting the white whale and physically attacking him, Ahab is able to overcome his fear of death.

Another instance of passion overcoming Angst in the text of Moby-Dick comes from Queequeg. Queequeg becomes ill during the course of the novel and so he has a coffin made for himself. Oddly enough, though, shortly after he is presented with the coffin, Queequeg miraculously recovers (Melville 523). When the crew is surprised at his recovery, Ishmael recalls, “When some expressed their delighted surprise, [Queequeg], in substance, said, that the cause of his sudden convalescence was this; – at a critical moment, he had just recalled a little duty ashore, which he was leaving undone; and therefore had changed his mind about dying: he could not die yet, he averred” (523). This passage demonstrates the theme of passion overcoming anxiety as dramatically portrayed in the recovery of Queequeg.

The existential themes presented in the texts of Moby-Dick or The Whale and “Bartleby the Scrivener” are hardly limited to the few examples presented within this essay. Melville’s work clearly demonstrates a reaction against the strict adherence to objective understanding by presenting satirical characters such as Ishmael, who seems bent on logically understanding and justifying every concept that he encounters, or Ahab who forgoes any logic in an attempt to serve a higher purpose. In doing so Melville has shown that where there ought to be a preference given to rationalism, a careful balance between faith and rationalism is ideal. He uses the same core concepts that would come to define the existential philosophy of the twentieth century but does so by introducing the counterintuitive stance on these concepts often presenting them comically, or unrealistically, or satirically.

[1] Emerson (1803-1882) was a prolific writer and social critic, Thoreau (1817-1862) was a writer famed for his essay “Civil Disobedience” and was a close friend of Emerson, Peabody (1804-1894) was a pioneer of the American education system introducing kindergarten as borrowed from the German education system. Collectively, they represented a portion of a group called The Transcendentalist Club or the Hedge Club, named after Dr. F.H. Hedge (Hart 673).

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brien. 1955 New York: Vintage International, 1-129. Trans. of Le Mythe de Sisphe 1991. Print.

Hakim, Albert B. Historical Introduction to Philosophy 4th edition. Upper Saddle River: Pretence/Hall 2001. Print.

Hart, James D. The Oxford Companion to American Literature 6th edition. New York: Oxford 1995. Print.

Honderich, Ted. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy 2nd edition. New York: Oxford 2005. Print.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick or The Whale. New York: Penguin. 2001. Print.

---. “Bartleby the Scrivener” Bartleby and Benito Cereno. New York: Dover. 1-34. 1990. Print.

Murfin, Ross. Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms 3rd edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin. 2009. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. Ed. Robert D. Cumming. New York: Random House, 1965. Print.


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    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 4 years ago


      thanks for speaking on such a great writer

      and how his work may or may not have

      related to existentialism. great work.

      Voted up.

    • sholland10 profile image

      Susan Holland 4 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      Welcome to HubPages, Samuel!

      Your in-depth research of Melville is interesting, intuitive, and outstanding.

      Again, Welcome! If you need help with your hubs, be sure to check out the Learning Center.

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