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Feminism and Moby Dick
Transcript of Feminism and Moby Dick
and Morgan Yoho Feminism is defined in The American
Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy as
“the doctrine advocating social, political,
and all other rights of women equal to those of men.” Feminism Although the actual term “feminism” first appeared in 1872
the concept of feminism has been in practice since the 18th century History of Feminism One of the most recognized feminist writers during the 18th century
was Mary Wollstonecraft,
whose book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
is recognized as the foundation for future feminist philosophy. At the Convention, prominent abolitionists and feminists of the era, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton authored a Declaration of Sentiments patterned after the Declaration of Independence which asserted fundamental rights often denied to women, including the right to vote. Seneca Falls Convention of July 1848. Feminism in Moby Dick During Herman Melville’s generation of the middle 1800s, individual advocates
of feminism were just beginning to organize and gain social and political power.
This development inspired Melville to begin writing about
gender issues in society, beginning with Moby Dick. In the 1850s, the act of whaling was a job exclusive to men.
In fact, the only jobs that women were
allowed to hold always involved serving men.
There are very few women characters in Moby Dick.
Nearly all of them are depicted as a form of a servant. Melville uses the subservient women to present
the social issue of male subjugation;
women are only there when men want them to be. Melville parallels these gender roles with whales. Chapter 87 “The Grand Armada,”
is the first chapter in which whales are specifically identified as
either male or female (Melville “The Grand Armada”).
In the chapter, a whaling boat of the Pequod somehow ends up in
the middle of a pod of sperm whales.
During this time, the whalers sit and observe the placid female whales. The most emphatic difference between male and female whales is how they react to a friend in danger. The female whales are always seen with their children, while the male whales are guarding the pod. This shows the that the female whales are also subject to male domination. When a male whale is struck by a harpoon, he is abandoned by his friends. But when a female member of a harem is struck, the surrounding female whales swim around her with concern, acting illogically, but emotionally. Melville has Ishmael point out this behavior to show that females care for others even if they become endangered as well. The act of whaling can then be considered as a metaphor for male subjugation of women. The harpoon, a phallic symbol, is the main tool used by the whalers in hunting whales. The murder of a whale is the equivalent of a women succumbing to male dominance and being forced into the ownership of the male. Whales in general can also
be interpreted as a symbol for women. Melville created Moby Dick to be a physical form of the social-political feminist movement in society. Moby Dick is a symbol of a new kind of woman in society; one that is independent of men, and has actively fought against any form of subjugation. Moby Dick has harpoons sticking out of her, showing that many men have tried to tame her, and have even penetrated her skin, but none have ever been able to make her submit. Captain Ahab attempted to subdue Moby Dick, but failed and lost his leg to her. Ahab is described as “a grand, un-godly, godlike man” and “a crowned king” (Melville “The Ship” Paragraph 25). Ahab is clearly the most masculine man in the novel, so the taking of his leg by Moby Dick signifies a loss of manhood by a feminist figure. Ahab’s quest for revenge is a symbol for man’s attempt at stopping a very powerful force from overpowering their dominance. In the end, Ahab and his men fail, as Moby Dick easily destroys the Pequod. The decimation of the Pequod is a symbol for men losing their absolute control over all women. But Moby Dick doesn’t kill everyone on the Pequod, one whaler is spared. Ishmael is commonly referred to as simply the narrator of the novel, but he can also be considered a female symbol as well. If Moby Dick is a symbol of a new, empowered generation of women, then Ishmael is a symbol of the young and growing generation of feminists that Melville saw around him in the 1850s. On the ship, Ishmael doesn’t specialize in any particular task, instead, he assists in whatever unskilled labor that needs to be accomplished. This lack of acceptance by the ship’s crew mirrors male society questioning a female’s ability to function in a man’s world. Ishmael doesn’t partake in the hunting of whales; he prefers to closely study the whales, analyzing their behavior and anatomy. His fascination with whales symbolizes a suppressed female wanting to become an empowered feminist. In chapter 102, “A Bower in the Arsacides,” Ishmael forms a physical bond between himself and whales by tattooing their physical dimensions onto his right arm. In Ishmael’s relationship with Queequeg, Ishmael takes on the wife figure, following Queequeg around and letting him lead the way. Ishmael’s entrance onto the Pequod symbolizes a woman attempting to assimilate into a man’s job, and showing that they are just as capable as a man when it comes to working. In the final chase of Moby Dick, the Pequod is destroyed, with Moby Dick taking its crew down. Ishmael is the only survivor, using Queequeg’s coffin to stay afloat. This can be viewed as Ishmael still needing his husband to survive. Moby Dick’s sparing of Ishmael is the woman’s failure to be accepted by the empowered feminist. Instead of killing Ishmael, Moby Dick gives Ishmael another chance to become just as powerful and independent as the feminist leviathan. Work Cited Page Donoghue, Steve. "Welcome!" Eight Great Dicks! N.p., 17 Sept. 2010. Web. 25 Sept. 2012.
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