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The Abyss inThree American Novels

The idea of living on "the abyss" as expressed by Melville can be found clearly in his novel Moby Dick and is also operating in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, where "the abyss" is physically embodied in the scaffold on which the "family" stands in the middle of the night when there is no one to see. The main characters in both novels stand at the edge of the abyss even if they do not realize that this is so, and some are plunged into the abyss while others are saved from it. The abyss can be equated with evil and with the death that is visited on those who transgress.

Ahab stares into the abyss every day and sees the white whale waiting there for him. Other characters in the novel feel this same sense of standing on the edge because they follow the captain whether they want to or not, and more and more it is clear that his obsession is carrying them all to a fate they did not envision when the voyage began. From the first, Ishmael shows not only an understanding that life is lived on the abyss but a celebration of it--he is going to sea to test himself against the abyss and so to discover something in himself, to connect with the spirituality of the universe, and to experience life by facing it directly. Indeed, arguably that is what facing the abyss means--to live each day not knowing what it will bring. there is always danger in living, for we never know what will happen next. Ishmael survives his ordeal, while all of his fellow seamen perish. For Ahab, Moby Dick is the embodiment of the abyss, but the real abyss is what we face each day.

The abyss for Hester Prynne was faced and held at bay when she faced the community and was punished for her sin. Her confession reduced the power of the abyss to harm her, though she lives each day now watching over her child, fearful that the abyss might claim Pearl as it once tried to claim her. Dimmesdale is the character who is faced with the abyss most clearly and ...

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The Abyss inThree American Novels. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 19:31, August 12, 2020, from