Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” has been the subject of numerous debates due to various elements in his novel, such as religious themes. Debates about religious themes in “Moby Dick” include claims of hypocrisy in the novel because in some parts, Melville seems to show respect for religion. “Now, as I before hinted, I have no objection to any person’s religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don’t believe it also” (Melville 85). However, in other parts of the novel, the author seems to be mocking at it. “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian” (Melville 29). Considering the opposing viewpoints in the novel, the objective in writing this report is to analyze the hypocrisy of religion in “Moby Dick.” The goals of analyzing the novel is to identify the parts of the novel that offer contradicting points of view about religion, determine why Melville wrote those parts, and understand the role of opposing viewpoints in religion to the overall essence or consequence of the story.
Hypocrisy of Religion in “Moby Dick”
Religion is one of the main themes in Melville’s novel, “Moby Dick.” Many people admire Melville for the religious themes in his novel because in various parts, the author talks about respecting different religions. No religion is discussed or preferred in the novel but, on the contrary, Melville talks about various religious traditions and the importance of all people showing respect no matter what their own religion is. Melville made the understanding and acceptance of different religions through the novel by representing different groups. Patell (2011), for instance, discussed how Cosmopolitanism and Zoroastrianism were represented in “Moby Dick.” In one part of the novel, Ishmael takes notice of the scar in Captain Ahab’s face. Ishmael described Captain Ahab’s scar many times as a brand or a specific type of mark that means something, like ownership. Moreover, in Ishmael’s eyes, the scar of Captain Ahab’s face represents the fire inside him. Ishmael’s description of the scar, the concept of branding, and the imagery of Captain Ahab as fire, as discussed by Patell (2011), are representations of Zoroastrianism. Captain Ahab’s scar has sparked Ishmael’s curiosity and the man came up with numerous explanations for the scar in the captain’s face. However, Captain Ahab talks about the origin of the scar and admits that it was a result of a religious ritual that is associated to Zoroastrianism.
Melville has also references Christianity and the Holy Bible many times in “Moby Dick.”
Critics say that Melville knows the Bible well and based on thorough observation and critiquing of Melville’s work, they have counted over two hundred fifty Biblical quotes references in “Moby Dick.” In addition, Melville also uses Biblical names for some of the characters, like Ahab, Ishmael, Elijah, and Gabriel (Davey 2003). Critics also say that some of the characters, like Ishmael, could be described by viewing their traits or character counterparts in the Bible. According to Davey (2003), Ishmael from “Moby Dick” could be described in the same way as Ishmael, son of Hagar, in the Bible. The Biblical allusions presented in the novel not only reflect Melville’s affinity with the Scriptures, but also his attempt to represent yet another religion in his novel. Melville also portrayed the religion of Islam in “Moby Dick”. In one part of the novel, Melville alluded to Islamic tradition of polygamy. In the story, male whale with many female was described as “a luxurious Ottoman… and his concubines” (Potter 2004, 154). Melville alluded to many other religious traditions, but the point is that the author represented a number of religions in his novel and emphasizeed the importance of respecting them no matter kind of religion they are.
Aside from the different religions that Merville utilized in “Moby Dick,” Cosmopolitanism was also utilized in the novel to depict or portray another tradition. Cosmopolitanism is not exactly a religion but a way of life. Cosmopolitans believe that all elements of culture exist in different groups but are understood and interpreted in different ways due to cultural differences. Cosmopolitanism supports multiculturalism where people are free to practice their culture or to choose to practice what kind of culture they want to follow. Moreover, Cosmopolitanism supported freedom and independence in such a way that cosmopolitans value their freedom to make their own choices and decisions, independent from external elements that may influence those choices or decisions. The one side of Melville’s ideas and beliefs about religion is accurately described or portrayed by Cosmopolitanism. In one part of the novel, Melville writes that the kind of religious group that an individual belongs to does not matter as long as individuals do not attempt to force their religion on other people or denigrate other people’s religion because of their differences. This concept is in sync with the theories and concepts underlying Cosmopolitanism.
Although Melville might have introduced many religious traditions throughout the novella and with words, sought to promote Cosmopolitanism and the respect for all religions, other critics call the author out because some parts of the novel are considered blasphemous and disrespectful to people who follow religion. Some critics described Melville as “A blasphemer and violator of sacred traditions” (Coffler 2004, p. x). In the novel, Melville touches on hypocrisy when Ishmael, the protagonist, associates the unfortunate position of whales to the church. In one scene in the book, Ishmael hauls a whale killed with a harpoon. Ishmael feels pity and grief for the loss of the whale and thinks to himself how the church benefits from the loss of life. “For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other’ merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all” (Melville 338). The passage, according to those who criticize Melville, disgraces the church because of the claim that creates loses their life for the benefit of the church.
Another part in “Moby Dick” that offended Christians was when Ishmael showed his uneasiness towards traditional Christianity. In Chapters from ten to twelve in the novel, Ishmael sees Queequeg practicing his own religious traditions. At first, Ishmael finds it odd since Queequeg has been doing unfamiliar worship practices. However, despite the oddness of Queequeg’s form of worship, Ishmael feels that he is sincere and passionate about his religion. Ishmael also knows that Queequeg is a good person. For these reasons, Ishmael gets used to Queequeg’s religious practices and even admits to himself that he prefers those practices more than the Christian ones. Later on, Ishmael joins Queequeg by following his religious traditions for worship. IN return, Queequeg also took interest in the Christian religion but the longer he learns about it, the more he prefers his own religion. For Queequeg, Christianity is a flawed religion and that most Christians are sinners (Fish & Spring 10). In the book, Queequeg was “fearful Christianity, or rather Christians, had unfitted him for ascending the pure and undefiled throne of thirty pagan Kings before him” (Melville 58).
In another part of the novel, Ishmael observes the hypocrisy of the Quakers. Ishmael observes and criticizes them because of how they use religion as a means to justify their bad actions. “Just as Ishmael’s soul is possessed by Ahab’s mysticism… the captain’s captains, hinges specifically on their use of religion to justify their brutal business ethics that lead to their economic dominance” (Dowling 83). First of all, the Quakers do not rightfully pay Ishmael and Queequeg their earnings that should be appropriate for the amount of work that they do. Second of all, the Quakers discriminate and judge Queequeg because he is a pagan and has not been baptized. The Quakers believe that just because Queequeg is a pagan and has not been baptized, that he is a sinner, although Ishmael knows that Queequeg is one of the kindest people that he knew. Peleg said, “he hasn’t been baptized right either, or it would have washed some of that devil’s blue off his face” while Bildad said, “is this Philistine a regular member of Deacon Deuteronomy’s meeting? I never saw him going there, and I pass it every Lord’s day” (Melville 87). Because of what the Quakers said, Ishmael felt remorse for what they think and believe, for the feeling of “otherness” that they think should separate themselves from Queequeg just because they do not belong to the same religion and have not followed the religious practices that they knew – it is the ultimate representation of hypocrisy.
Another hypocritical theme illustrated in the novel is how the Quakers criticize and judge Queequeg because of his religion but their keeping him in their company because of his skill in whaling. Moreover, the Quakers’ practices and motivations are questionable for people who say and think that they strongly abide by Christianity. Based on the Christian tradition, Christians are supposed to rest on the seventh day and use the time to worship their god and the Quakers say that there should be no hunting on Sundays because of this. However, when a whale is nearby, the Quakers break that rule in favor of working and they justify it through religion, saying that it is a good sign from God and they use Queequeg, someone who is highly skilled in whaling, to do their bidding, when they discriminate him because of his religion (Dowling 83). Yet again, Melville has set a good example that represents hypocrisy because the Quakers judge people because of their differences in religion judge and discriminate other people who they use for their own gain, and vow to abide by Christian traditions but break them instantly when money or gains are involved.
Ultimately, Melville illustrates human errors as a means to highlight hypocrisy in religion and intertwined with other various issues, such as capitalism. Ishmael’s views of the Quakers represent the idea of greed and capitalism taking precedence over people’s religions. The Quakers could easily avoid having the men work on Sundays, but when faced with the opportunity to catch a whale, they instantly break their rule and religious vows so they can catch whales and sell them. In this situation, it is perfectly clear that no matter how an individual vows to follow his religious traditions, when he starts to ignore it in favor or worldly things, then he is a hypocrite. In the same way, Melville uses the example of whaling in order to criticize the church. As previously discussed, Ishmael in the novel thought about how the number of whales that are being killed fuel the church. Ishmael’s thought echoes the idea that a number of sacrifices have been made just so the church can go on preaching and worse, instilling fear on people so they would follow what their churches say. The idea could be an allusion to events in history when thousands of pagans died in the hands of Christians just because the latter think of the former as sinners because of their difference.
Another issue that Melville highlights in the novel is the hypocrisy in religion when an individual judges or discriminates another just because they do not follow the same religious traditions. The Quakers represent those discriminatory and judgmental people when they treat Queequeg badly just because he follows pagan traditions. Perhaps this is the reason why Melville felt it important to bring to light Cosmopolitanism, specifically the importance of respecting different cultures, and thus, religions, and the need for people to respect other people despite their differences in religions. Some critics may find Melville’s criticisms of religion, especially Christianity, as blasphemous. However, I believe that Melville wrote the novel in order to shed light on human errors. Melville’s intentions do not include just merely criticizing religion, and he does not, in fact. Melville does not directly attack the religion per se, but the followers of religious traditions who are not wholeheartedly sincere in their ways. In the novel, Ishmael did not prefer paganism to Christianity because Melville himself prefers it. I think Melville used it as an opportunity to show how Ishmael appreciated Queequeg’s devotion and sincerity in worshiping his god, and to the author, that is more important than religion. As long as one is sincere, truthful, and honest, it does not matter what his religion is. Through “Moby Dick,” Melville simply attempted to point out that many people who claim to be religious are the first ones who go against their religious vows and traditions like the Quakers, and it should not be so. From the novel, I understand that religion is not the point, just as how Melville represented numerous religions in the novel. The important thing is that no matter what kind of religion an individual chooses, he must be able to follow his vows wholeheartedly.
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Indeed, religion is one of the major themes that can be found when studying Melville’s “Moby Dick.” In the novel, Melville alludes to different religions, from pagan practices to Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism, and even Cosmopolitanism, which is not entirely a religion but a way of life. In some parts of the novel, Melville talks about the importance of respecting other people’s religions. However, in other parts, it seems like Melville is criticizing and insulting other religions. Based on the review of the novel, Melville has indeed done both but with the intention of pointing out the errors of human beings, specifically hypocrisy in religion. I do believe that Melville did not intend to attack a particular religion in the novel, although he may show preferences for one over the other, but the point is that the author wanted to the more important thing than religion – man’s internal beliefs, intentions, and motivations in worshiping a higher law. Ishmael’s opinions about Queequeg echoes that idea, such that Ishmael admires Queequeg because he is a good person and he is sincere when it comes to worship and religion, and for Melville, everyone should be to no matter what religion they follow.