“Moby Dick is biographic of Melville in the sense that it discloses every nook and cranny of his imagination.” (Humford 41) This paper is a psychological study of Moby Dick. Moby Dick was based on Melville’s personal experiences, based on the adventures of Ishmael. Ishmael is an introverted, lonely, and alienated individual. He wishes to see the “watery part of the world.”  Moby Dick begins with the main character, Ishmael, introducing himself with the line “Call Me Ishmael.” (Melville 1)

Ishmael explains his background, with a depressed tone for the readers. “Some years ago-never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” (Melville 1) 

Storytelling revolves around his experiences in various towns such as New Bedford, Nankantuket.  Eventually, while in Nankantuket, Ishmael signed up for a whaling voyage on the Pequod.  On this ship, characters like Queequeq, Starbuck, and the captain of the ship, Ahab, all voyaged together. Ahab, the captain of the ship, reveals his plan to hunt down a white whale named ‘Moby Dick’.

Ahab was a stone-hearted veteran sailor with a strong grudge against Moby Dick.  Moby Dick was responsible for taking off Ahab’s leg in his previous voyage. Ahab’s planned an unauthorized takeover, which the whaling company had not in mind. Ahab’s irrationalism and ludicrous mindset seals the fate of Pequod’s crew. 

In the tragic ending of Moby Dick, only Ishmael manages to survive, which was mainly due to the help of a coffin that his close friend built.  Ishmael was a special character as he closely relates to the author’s personal life. 

There are several symbols between Ishmael and Herman Melville’s own life. The name, Ishmael, can be traced back to the Bible.  The Biblical story of Ishmael is one of a rejected outcast. This “rejected outcast” is linked to Ishmael of Moby Dick and Herman’s own life. Herman’s childhood played a crucial role in his life. His unconventional childhood full of twists and turns is evident throughout his writings.

Born on August 1, 1819, in New York City, Herman was the third of 8 children.  His mother belonged to Gansevoort’s of Albany, who were Dutch brewers settled in Albany in the 17th century, achieving the status of the landed gentry.

“The Gansevoort’s were eminent and prosperous people; while the (Herman’s Father’s side) Melvilles were somewhat less successful materially, possessing an unpredictable. erratic, mercurial strain.” (Edinger 6) This huge difference became the root of the Melville family’s problems.  While Herman’s mother worked her way up the social ladder by moving into bigger and better homes, his father was spending way more than he earned.  

“It is my conclusion that Maria Melville never committed herself emotionally to her husband but remained primarily attached to the well off Gansevoort family.” (Humford 23) Allan Melville was also financially attached to Gansevoort’s for support. “Apparently, the older son Gansevoort who carried the mother’s maiden name was distinctly her favorite.” (Edinger 7) Just like the Biblical Ishmael, the author felt alienated from his mother.   The following are a few excerpts from some of Melville’s works that reflect his childhood. 

A passage from Melville’s Redburn shows that Melville was attached to his mother, “The name of the mother was the center of all my heart’s finest feelings.” (Melville 33) Another poem he wrote says “ I made the junior feel his place Subserve the senior, love him too; And soothe he does, and that is his saving grace But me the meek one never can serve, Hot he, he lacks quality keen, To make the mother through the soon, An envied dame of power a social queen”. (Melville 211) 

Herman’s father’s side originally Scots with connections in the peerage, who were Boston merchants.

Allan Melville was a merchant and importer, dealing with French goods.  “Allan Melville seems to have been socially charming and sensitive, but basically weak, with a long-standing dependence on his father, and more especially on his wife’s bother Peter Gansevoort.” (Humford 33) “Allan Melville’s sons may have found a more substantial father experience with their maternal uncle Peter Gansevoort.” (Edinger 8) 

Herman’s father unintentionally neglected his children by being too involved in the business. Allan Melville’s unrealism and wishful optimism led to the financial crisis. “He seems to have been a man who constantly lived beyond his means, continually expecting a great windfall to be around the corner.” (Humford 35)

Allan Melville borrowed money for his business, but he was also trying to fulfill his wife’s social ambitions by moving into larger homes.  Eventually, that bubble burst, and Allan Melville had fallen into a total financial and psychological collapse.  Despite having good intentions, his money management was impractical. The family’s dependence on the fatherly figure, Peter Gansevoort, grew after his father passed away following the financial collapse, affecting Herman’s early psychological development. 

The effects would show up in his later writings.  Herman’s relatives helped as much as they could. Herman was forced to quit education and work when he was just 12. His older brother, who was conventionally the successful one owned a hat store.  After a few months of job hunting failed, he decided to work at his brother’s hat store.  Gansevoort, his brother, eventually opened a law office and later became prominent in politics.

 “This is not the way Herman doubtless felt that one’s adolescence should open.” (Humford 40) Herman’s ambitions to go to college, become an orator, and travel ceased to exist.  “Herman was as unambitious as a man of sixty.  Such careers do not begin at a hat shop.” (Humford 41) He felt as lost as the Biblical Ishmael.

Herman signed up as a common sailor on a merchant vessel sailing for Liverpool at the age of 20, following the uncertainty. (Edinger 22) After four months, Herman was back from his voyage, still lost and aimless.  He signed up for a four-year voyage on a whaling ship when he was 21. (Edinger 22)

While people his age were in college, Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “A whaling ship was my Yale College and Harvard.” “From a cultivated, genteel environment, Melville was suddenly plunged, unprepared into the coarse life of the sea.” (Rosenberry 31) 

“Moby Dick begins with the striking sentence, ‘Call me Ishmael,’ we are immediately confronted with the figure of the rejected outcast, the alienated man.” (Porter 15) At the beginning of Judaic mythical history stands the figure of Abraham, the progenitor of the Jews.  Abraham had two sons, Isaac, the legitimate, the accepted one, and Ishmael, the illegitimate, the rejected one. In the Bible (Gen:16) an angel speaks to Ishmael’s mother Hagar saying; Behold, you are with a child and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael; because the Lord has given heed to your affliction. 

He shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsman. (Gen:16) Ishmael and his mother Hagar were cast into the wilderness to die.  God saved Ishmael, who led the Muslims.

Issac, Ishmael’s brother was a Christian. Christian’s believe Ishmael was the enemy and one who must be repressed and rejected.  “To himself, Ishmael is the rejected orphan who through no fault of his own has been cruelly cast out and condemned to wander beyond the pale.” (McSwenny 25) This connects well with Melville’s life as his mother’s neglected him for his brother and his father died. 

Melville’s writings show that he was preoccupied throughout his life with the figure of Ishmael.  In Mardi, he writes, “sailors are mostly foundlings and castaways and carry their kith and kin in their arms and legs.” (Melville 21) In Redburn Melville writes “at last I have found myself a sort of Ishmael on the ship, without a single friend or companion.” (60)

In Pierre Melville writes “so that once more he might not feed himself driven out an Ishmael into the desert, with no maternal Haggard to accompany and comfort him.” (125) “Melville had what might be called an ‘Ishmael complex.’” It had two sources; personal life experience and identification with an archetypal image.” (Edinger 16) The personal cause would be the insanity and death of his father and the following hardships.  Melville was twelve and a half at the time when his father died, close to the Biblical Ishmael, who was thirteen.

“Most of the action is seen through the eyes of Ishmael. He will thus represent the author’s ego…” (Edinger 10) If Melville was personally identified with the figure of Ishmael, it has more than a personal meaning, it represents the opposing attitude. “To speak as Ishmael means to speak from a position outside the orthodox convention.” (Glien 89) If there is any doubt that the name Ishmael symbolizes a state of alienation and despair, this doubt can not survive the first paragraph of Moby Dick.

“What does the opening sentence of Moby Dick mean? Ishmael is trying to say never mind what my real name is but think of me as a rejected outcast.” (Dickinson 23) The mood of a “damp, drizzly November in the soul,” sets the whole mood for the whole novel. “It is a state of depression, emptiness, and alienation from life values.” (Glien 60) Herman Melville experienced many hardships in his life; an unstable childhood, neglect by his mother, and his father not being the center male figure in the family. 

His father was a weak-willed individual who lived beyond his means, depending on his brother-in-law for financial support.  His father’s ultimate demise led to psychological effects as well. These hardships are symbolized in Moby Dick through Ishmael. Moby dick ultimately reflects the life of the Author and the hardships he went through.

Works Cited

The Bible. Revised Standard Version.  Edinger, Edward. Melville’s Moby Dick: A Jungian Commentary. New York: New Directions Books, 1978.

Glein, William. The Meaning of Moby Dick. NewYork: Russel & Russel, 1962.

Humford, Lewis. Herman Melville. New York: Quinn & Borden Comany Inc, 1929. 

McSweeny, Kerry. Moby Dick, Ishmael’s Mighty Book. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.

Melville, Herman. Mardi. New York: New American Library, 1964.

Melvillle, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Hendricks House, 1962.

Melville, Herman. Pierre. New York: Hendricks House, 1962.

Melville, Herman. Redburn. Garden City: Doubleday & Co, 1957.

Melville, Herman. “Timolean,” Collected Poems. Chicago: Packard & Co, 1947.

Porter, Carolyn. “Call Me Ishmael or How to Make Double Talk Speak.” New Essays on Moby Dick. Ed. Richard Brodhead. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,     1986.

Rosenberry, Edward. Melville. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1979.

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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