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Moby Dick
Moby Dick
MOBY-DICK, by Herman Melville
Herman Melville's MOBY-DICK (1851) is ranked as America's greatest epic. It can be read as an allegory of the risks in trying to subjugate nature to the will of humanity, a rebellion against the evil and chaos in the universe, and/or a metaphor for the narrator Ishmael's search for the meaning of life. Moby-Dick, the white whale, is usually interpreted as a symbol of evil, God, or an indifferent universe.

In its complex examination of right and wrong (what Melville calls "Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate"), the novel dares to question not only the nature of humanity but also the nature of God. Ahab, the central figure, is a madman, but the model of the romantic rebel, hurling his defiance into the teeth of a vast and inscrutable universe. The novel explores other enduring American leitmotifs and themes as well.

For instance, despite Ishmael's extensive efforts and exhaustive description, he can never fully understand the nature of the behemoth Moby-Dick, suggesting the allegorical limits of human knowledge: efforts to understand God are inevitably fruitless and may even be fatal, as is the case here. This reading is reinforced by Melville's inversion of the customary representation of whiteness. Traditionally a symbol of purity, whiteness in the novel comes to represent a lack of meaning and even a terrible, evil void. The novel also explores 19th-century America's belief in manifest destiny and the inevitable exploitation that followed, shown here in the whaling trade, which echoes the despoiling of the American frontier through overhunting of the buffalo and the displacement of Native Americans.

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The American Novel