Moby-Dick: a Metaphor of Foreplay and Sex
Throughout Herman Melville’s American classic Moby-Dick, there is much description of whaling by way of terminology, the ins-and-outs of the profession, yet there is a more natural characteristic interwoven. Mixed between numerous chapters of encyclopedic fodder there are points of detailed action. Melville’s Moby-Dick critiques human sexual frustration brought on by thinking as opposed to doing, by obsessing over the act. The act of waiting leads to a catastrophic end, one built up by preconceived notions of such events; sexual relations or hunting a whale. A reaction not unlike the social assumptions founded in the motives of foreplay and sex. Throughout Moby-Dick there is subtle, and yet direct, insinuation of the sexual meaning, and the powers of sexual frustration. Readers are exposed to situations in relation to marriage, homosexuality, sperm, virgins, penis, vagina, with few, yet weighted references to women, in relation to sex, by way of ambiguous whaling references. What Melville does in Moby-Dick is express the sheer pressure of pent up sexual aggression, and the lack of sex- until the final chapter. Ahab’s hunt for the slippery Moby Dick, the unknowable, other sex, is his internal struggle with his sexual identity. Having this whale defines him; not having this whale destroys him. Moreover, Ishmael, Ahab, and the majority of the crew on the Pequod, are represented sexually by way of working in close proximity, discussing sexually loaded topics, and becoming ever increasingly more desperate for the prospect of having said whale, or symbolically, sex. In Moby-Dick, Melville is expressing the weight of thought, time, and words one puts into courtship, relationship, marriage and sexual conquests. Melville’s Moby-Dick is a 19th century critique on sexual strain and the emphasis society puts on sexual identity; in relation to the turmoil and pressure sex causes physically and mentally to an individual.
In order to understand Melville’s theory of sexuality the reader must first understand a few things about sex, before understanding Moby-Dick’s sexiness. Sex, usually, takes place between two people, sex involves sexual organs (almost always), and sex presumably comes out of want, or need to be satisfied sexually, and/or to procreate. One can have sex, but one cannot have sex: Ishmael suggests, “It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all” (p 20) Sex is not an object to obtain, but an experience to behold. Though, neither is Moby Dick an object to obtain. One can either talk about sex, or have sex, -doing. Though, one can discuss Moby Dick, one cannot have Moby Dick. One can talk about past experiences in relation to sex, or create new experiences by having sex. Though, Ahab lost his leg to Moby Dick now he chases him again. Sex is not tangible, however real, sex is not a thing, entity, or object, sex is an action fleeting. The act of sex is meaningful, or meaningless, depending on the person. It can be life changing, or life ending (heart attack: Viagra). People can have sex, but they cannot keep sex. They can remember sex, or can’t; because it’s either over or happening. The obsession with sex is age-old, but made relevant by the persons involved. Moby Dick is made significant, a sole obsession, as sex can be also made an obsession, by Ahab. In order to reproduce one must have sex, coitus. Sex is the monomaniacal obsession we human beings exist for. Without sex we would not be. That being said, Ahab’s sex is Moby Dick. Ahab’s only life goal is to capture and kill and have Moby Dick, though he does not realize that like sex, Moby Dick is also unobtainable. One cannot own sex, as one cannot own Moby Dick. He can have Moby Dick for a moment, but that moment must end. One cannot strike sex, because sex does not exist. Sex is an act, above an object, yet still sought after to no end. We human beings become excited by the prospect of sex, possibly as much as Ahab becomes excited about the prospect of having Moby Dick. Melville is creating a symbol of sex out of Moby Dick, a giant white whale, and those aboard the Pequod, led by Captain Ahab, are the human beings looking for the action, the sex. Also, the reader must be human.
Moby-Dick, the book itself, is a whale of a novel in its most literal sense (pun intended, in the most clichéd way). Moby-Dick is the elephant in the room. It is large in size and meaning, it is rough and hard in reading. It builds itself up within itself; Moby Dick as infamous, Ahab as crazed, and the Pequod as totally fucking doomed. That ship is going down, that captain will die, and that whale will get some action and then leave. The book is endowed with much thick symbolism. One example of symbolism is expressed through Ishmael and Queegueg. Before the meeting of Queequeg we see an independent Ishmael, a sort of landlubber on the prowl for something more, to become a seaman, he is walking loose. Ishmael saunters around town until he finds the nearest Inn, in hopes of a warm night’s rest (sure). He gets far more. Upon realizing that he must sleep with a cannibal (opposites attract!) Ishmael is changed. He sees this prospect as something exotic, something new, something which grabs him. He had no real warning of this event, and has no time to react negatively. It starts the way an impassioned sexual encounter may start, perhaps. He navigates the situation using themes suggesting a marriage, a wedding, and a “wife” (p 36), thoughts of intimacy are swollen, as he is drawn in. His relationship with Queequeg is seemingly consummated on the first night. After this encounter they are bound to a queer pact, for the rest of the book; a tacit agreement that makes them closer than any of the whalers aboard the Pequod. This is an example of how Melville shows the importance of sexual closeness in a relationship, specifically one not built upon pretense, prejudice, or judgment, and the stability and comradery which comes with it. This passage breaks down the build-up, the sexual frustration, it shows discussion of evils as a device to oppress and torture the mind. Whether or not Ishmael and Queequeg have sex, it is no matter, but innuendo. They conceive this relationship spontaneously, and it is no one-night-stand. Melville puts great emphasis on the concept of a relationship being formed quickly, physically, and without airing of past situation. Melville adds deep meaning to this somewhat substantially awkward narrative, which becomes a foundation of Moby-Dick’s progressive sexual ideology; free love, gay relations, and a desirable and poignant friendship which encompasses both. Moby-Dick is built-up on stories of sexual experience before they happen, this garners fear and anxiety, causing major issues for the Pequod’s crew: Ishmael states, “What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself—the man’s a human being just as I am: he has as much reason to fear me as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” (p 36) Ishmael could be saying (for later chapters): the whale is just a whale, or sex is just sex.
In physical words and vastness of text, Melville emphasizes on the importance and detriment, of foreplay in a sexual relationship. Melville shows in practice through the text’s length, the power of waiting for action; Moby-Dick has 427 pages, 135 chapters. Approximately ten of the chapters consist of showing actual action. There is much lengthy foreplay in Moby-Dick of asserting oneself near Moby Dick. Ahab’s monomaniacal obsession could reflect the obsession that a real whaler, or real sailor, has while away from the physical and mental nature of the opposite sex. Ahab constantly discusses the whereabouts of Moby Dick. “Hast seen the white whale?” (p 403) this is the first question Ahab asks every ship he comes across. He is out to sea for such a long period of time, away from civilization, and the first inquiry he can conjure is one of a whale. One could assume he does not act unlike someone suffering from sexual frustration due to lack of sex, or the obsessing over sex. He has seen a bit of Moby Dick, and now he wants more. His days become toilsome and disturbed in wanting. He can think of one thing only, and he will put the whole crew in harm’s way to mount it. Instead of being obsessed with his wife, being away from her, and lacking the ability to console in her, Ahab goes to the nearest, yet most unbelievable and less attainable thing: a white whale, Moby Dick. Ishmael is Ahab’s foil, here Melville shows contrast by characteristics, by way of having and not having a companion. Ishmael has Queequeg, Ahab lacks Moby Dick. Ahab’s obsession shows the obsession a human being has while in love, or in the pursuit of a sexual intercourse. Ahab puts himself out there for whatever he may receive. He would do anything to have said object; one can interchange girlfriend, boyfriend, penis, vagina, sex, pleasure, power, or love etc., for Moby Dick. It is Ahab’s piqued obsession, and like the others, in a similar situation, are all going down together, and not in a good way. Misery needs company and all of those on board the Pequod are lacking, except, interestingly enough, Pip, who the reader can assume is not old enough for these sexual urges; also including Ishmael and Queequeg, being already satisfied. Ahab would stop at nothing to achieve his goal of getting, having, and taking the elusive white whale. Ahab has made it his mission, as someone in love will stop at nothing to be with a certain person they love.
In language and “fact”, the reader can assume that Melville, through Ishmael is somewhat experienced. His numerous chapters on the art of whaling, or the art of the action, outnumber the actual action itself. We see this foreplay, and foreshadowing, of something to come. Ishmael wants action in a way as well, from experience, “Nothing, Sir; but I have no doubt I shall soon learn.” (p 71) Ishmael once worked on a merchant vessel, something apart from a whaling ship. Ishmael observes and relays information, but like someone lacking experience in trials and errors, he gives no fresh examples of tries. He refers to outdated, sourced material, written by others who have experienced. These second hand accounts excite and entice Ishmael into finding something more, something tangible. He reads a book on whaling, or a book on sex, and he wants some of it, so he enlists and gets aboard a ship. This happens, not before a possible sexual encounter. Ishmael has only begun, he is madly in lust for action; however, there is someone else more interested, more taken over by this lust, that someone: Ahab. Ishmael eventually recognizes the danger in this obsession, obsessing over the unattainable; whether that be the touch of a women, sex, love, or intimacy on the high seas. Ishmael witnesses this change in a person, – he also has Queequeg for a companion- and realizes he must avoid such peril. His desire through readings on whales is less than one who has previously experienced whales firsthand. In Ahab’s experience, as in the experience of being in love, or having sex, one loses a part of themselves. Ahab has lost his leg, and now he wants to take something from his adversary, or ex-lover. His mission is deeper than actually killing Moby Dick. His mission is as deep as eradicating Moby Dick from the world, and from his sick mind. Ahab and Ishmael are consumed by similar plights, obsession, yet just before Ishmael is drawn fully into insanity, and that experience, that tryst, he takes a step back to see the situation for what it is. He realizes that his “marriage” with Queequeg is more important than some passionate and deadly fling with a white whale, unobtainable.
Further on in Moby-Dick we reach a chapter alluding to the experienced and the inexperienced, or tainted and innocent. The Pequod eventually runs into other ships. One of those ships happens to be called the Jungfrau. Now, for those of you who spechen sie Deutsch, you know that this means one thing (well two things): Young Girl; essentially, as Melville puts it: virgin. The Jungfrau is depicted as fickle, green, frolicking, along the sea in hopes of finding a whale. The ship is presented as empty, or as needing to be filled. And what does the Pequod do? The Pequod fills her with all of the material she needs, the materials being made of spermaceti. The symbolic, and literal, references to being filled with sperm are obvious. This experienced ship is moving along, looking for its experienced prize, Moby Dick, when it finds the Jungfrau in need, wanting, begging for backing, it must attend to pressing issues. They press near. So, the Pequod takes it upon itself to satisfy the longings of the Jungfrau and give her special attention. Satisfied, the Jungfrau carries on and leaves the Pequod watching from afar, in anger. The Pequod feels hurt and rejected, and ironically, used. It is almost as if the virgin has escaped the grasp of the Pequod, the social constructs of marriage, and carried on. In this instance the foreplay was quick, and then followed by back breaking agony, and action, in excitement for the chase of a useless whale, as Starbuck cries, “Come, why don’t some of ye bust a blood-vessel?” The Pequod is ever wanting, and ever frustrated. The Jungfrau is off on to the next big thing, leaving the Pequod behind as damaged goods, with less of a load. Hurt by this prospect the Pequod can only become more morose and sensitive to finding what it must have, Moby Dick.
In the chapter Schools and Schoolmates, Ishmael gives us one more hint of foreshadowing, and sexual frustration. He ejaculates, “Like a venerable moss-bearded Daniel Boone, he will have no one near him but Nature herself; and her he takes to wife in the wilderness of waters, and the best of wives she is, though she keeps so many moody secrets.” (p 307) Ishmael himself is the sole survivor, left as an orphan to the water. He is himself the child born out of a “moody” experience, his “secret” encounter and companionship with Queequeg, and his unfortunate journey commanded by the “Nature” of Ahab. Ahab has finally had an experience with Moby Dick, yet it proved fatal, and not without great warning. Ishmael puts forth an idea about the secrets of sexual nature, through a man, Daniel Boone, and through a woman, Nature, proper. Sexually speaking these labels cannot be attained, discretely. Declassifying gender is not Ishmael’s purpose, but creating a sexual urge about a seemingly asexual object that declassifies gender is. The sexual object to Ahab is Moby Dick, the sexual object to Ishmael is a cannibal, and the womb of these interactions is the sea. Ishmael floats in vitro for two days before being found by the Rachel. All else on the Pequod perish. The pressure, and frustration built up from such an encounter created a deadly reaction, gave new life to Ishmael. Ishmael through experience because the experienced man he so desired to become. By way of not building up such an idol of his sexual importance he did not succumb to the demise of those interactions, he was birthed out of them.
Moby-Dick explains many things in great detail, but what it falls to explain absolutely is its narrator. The reader is given volume upon volume of whale theory and idea. Moby-Dick gives much about the physicality of whales, and delves into whale psychology, yet very little about Ishmael as a person is discussed: “my Lord Whale has no taste for the nursery” could explain the orphanage of Ishmael in the end. Moreover, “he leaves his anonymous babies all over the world; every baby an exotic.” By the end of the book we truly do not know Ishmael from Adam, or Noah. He tells us to call him Ishmael, as a sexual partner may introduce himself, but we have not the slightest inkling of his past, where he comes from, who he is really. His identity is blank canvas as one is before their birth, his trip on the Pequod is his creation, and his being discovered by the Rachel is the beginning of his life. His frustration as a human being, sexually, begins for him exactly at the end of the book. Before this he is just another passenger led astray by the emotions and sexual needs of others, as having been born.
Also, Moby-Dick has the word dick in it.
Melville’s critique of sexuality, by way of Moby-Dick is astonishing. This great novel, in size and in literature merit, carries heavy meaning. On the surface one can perhaps safely assume Moby-Dick is about the Pequod and its deranged captain attempting to exact vengeance upon a white whale named Moby Dick. However, when looked at closely, readers can see how this carries over into the prospect of attaining a sexual partner, or experience, and the trials and tribulation in relation to both. Moby-Dick is large in foreplay and little in action, though the action seems to outweigh the words, in experience. One can gam through a whole novel, give examples, show and tell; however, what trumps that speech, that language, is actually going out and experiencing it firsthand, getting a piece of the action. In doing that, experiencing, the aggression, sexually, and vengefully, all aboard, save for Ishmael, the lone survive, perished in this dire pursuit to obtain the unobtainable, this appealing encounter. Comparatively speaking, Melville’s iteration of knowledge and experience, in information and action, depict the makeup of foreplay and sex in real-life. Moby-Dick exhibits both of these devices, and shows the negative aspects and the pressures which come from the discussion of experience, and the actual experience.
Melville, Herman, and Hershel Parker. Moby-Dick. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.