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Herman Melville's Moral Vision in Moby-Dick

Updated on November 28, 2016

Moral Vision through Pip

The moral vision of Moby-Dick can be seen through the experiences of the character Pip in that, something innocent gets destroyed by the unforgivable vast ocean and this idea foreshadows the fate of the Pequod as a whole if she continues this hunt for vengeance.

When Pip is first introduced to us he is painted as this innocent spirit and a coward who beats on his “tambourine” and this fearful, coward character rings true when he encounters the “white squalls” and knows true fear. The footnote points out that, white squalls are “sudden, violent winds bringing rain and oddly accompanied by a white cloud in a dark sky” and this white cloud imagery is a symbol of the white whale, and the sudden and violent winds could be the whale’s wrath being unleashed on the ship and its inhabitants. Upon seeing this horror Pip prays to the white whale in hopes that Moby Dick will have mercy on the boy: “Oh, thou bug white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowel to feel fear!”. Pip takes on the role of an innocent being pulled into this wild journey which ultimately leads to the death of his innocent child-like character when he is flung from a boat and left in the ocean. Pip, though very young, also knows that there is definitely something to be feared in the unyielding sea and when he does these acts where he is trying to convey this idea to the rest of his shipmates they laugh at him and color him crazy.

Illustration from an early edition of Moby-Dick
Illustration from an early edition of Moby-Dick | Source

The next description we get of Pip is in chapter 93 and he is described, by Ishmael, as innocent and free-spirited: “Pip, though over tender-hearted, was at bottom very bright, with that pleasant, genial, jolly brightness peculiar to his tribe; a tribe, which ever enjoy all holidays and festivities with finer, freer relish than any other race”. Pip comes from a race of people who seem to live life like it’s a party and this life loving spirit is soon squashed by the fear that lingers within the ocean. Following this uplifting description of Pip we see him falling overboard into the open ocean. Pip is tossed from Stub’s boat into the ocean and is left there for only a moment to bob in the “shoreless ocean” and in that brief moment his whole demeanor is transformed and he becomes a shell of the innocent child he used to be and the ocean basically “drowned the infinite of his soul”. The description of what Pip saw while alone in the ocean is like a vision of what’s in store for the Pequod:

"Carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom"

While Pip is alone to tread water and try to keep afloat, a piece of him dies because of what he encounters while waiting to be rescued. When Pip is left to suffer the loneliness the sea offers he gets this horrifying image of something colossal and God-like destroying what I’m assuming to be the Pequod. There is no doubt that Pip has some kind of transformation while on the sea, but it’s one that brings fear and terror to the child’s eyes.

Herman Melville


Another image of Pip acting as a fortune teller for the Pequod is in chapter 99 where everyone has an opinion about what the doubloon symbolizes, and in so many words Pip sees it as a symbol of something holding the ship together: “Here’s the ship’s navel, this doubloon here, and they are all on fire to unscrew it. But, unscrew your navel, and what’s the consequence?”. Here Pip is saying that the doubloon is something that draws everyone in, but it’s also something that has everyone fighting because everyone on the ship is battling to site the white whale first in order to win the gold piece. Then in the next sentence Pip goes on to say that the doubloon may be something of a bad omen because it’s a sign of hopelessness and recklessness: “Then again, if it stays here, that is ugly, too, for when aught’s nailed to the mast it’s a sign that things grow desperate”. The lingering of this doubloon is making things worse and isn’t a sign of something good, because this journey for vengeance is one that will result in death. A few lines down we get the sense that Pip knows that the Pequod will perish because he talks about others finding the sunken ship with the doubloon still lodged on the mast: “And so they’ll say in the resurrection, when they come to fish up this old mast, and find a doubloon lodged in it, with bedded oysters for shaggy bark. Oh, the gold!”. The image here is definitely one of a sunken ship with the description of oysters decorating the bark. When using words like “resurrection” or “fish up” to describe the finding of a ship the only image that comes to mind is that the Pequod perished and sunk.

Pip began this journey as a free spirited boy and ended it a fearful fortune teller. The images where he envisions to Pequod’s doomed fate linger throughout the story and the fear of the white whale grows within him as the ship gets closer to its target. Because Ahab seeks vengeance on this beast he endangers his whole crew and destroys the innocence of a boy. In order for Pip to have become this wise seer he needed to be broken and his lonely wading in the ocean not only broke his spirits but allowed him to see the true horror in this journey.


Interesting video lecture on Melville's masterpiece Moby-Dick. I thought this gave some interesting insight into the book.

Illustration of the final chase.
Illustration of the final chase. | Source


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