ôCall me Ishm'lö is the opening line of one of the greatest American novels, Moby Dick. Herman Melville's tale of the quest for the ôGreat White Whaleö provides a vehicle for the author to explore the larger themes such as man's place in the universe, though critics have long debated just what Melville was trying to accomplish. This paper will analyze those various interpretations and whether they capture Melville's intent.
Melville, in writing the book, attempted to create an American epic. The traditional definition of an epic is an extended narrative, usually a poem, which celebrates the heroic tradition of a people. The English poem Beowulf and the Greek poems Iliad and Odyssey are classic examples of epics.
Melville's work captures the spirit of those epics in its grandeur, its tragic components, and its heroism. At a time when people rarely ventured out of their town, Melville's Ishm'l embarks on a great journey halfway around the world. The tragic figure of Captain Ahab looms over the narrative. Heroism also abounds, as the crew surmounts the danger that constantly confronted seamen in the age of sailing ships.
Similarly, Homer's tale of the Trojan War and the resulting journey home reflects many of these characteristics. Homer portrays many acts of heroism, led by his central character, Odysseus. But Odysseus, despite all of his positive traits, also is a flawed man. Ultimately Odysseus reaches home, but his ôodysseyö to the Trojan War and back comes at a great cost. It takes him 20 years, his wife does not recognize him, and many people die as a result, both during the Trojan War and the journey home. Ahab also achieves his goal, but at an even greater costùhis life and the lives of his crew, save Ishm'l.
Melville has no hero in the traditional sense, choosing instead to compose his epic via Ishm'l's narrative. Melville keeps the reader enthralled with an exciting adventure story while addre...