Nov 09 2021

‘We account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality,’ wrote Herman Melville. Katie McGettigan considers the future of ‘Life Below Water’ in Moby-Dick.

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) celebrates the whale and the whaling industry, but it was written at a tipping point for both. Whaling was perhaps the first modern energy industry; before the discovery of kerosene, oil from sperm whales was prized as an illuminant because it burned brightly with an odourless flame. Light from sperm oil illuminated the factories of the industrial revolution, at the same time as oil from right whales lubricated their machinery.

In the mid-nineteenth century, increased demands for energy and the possibility of quick profits created a whaling boom that had a devastating impact on whale numbers. Whaling voyages became longer, more dangerous, and less profitable, and whalers more often turned to killing mothers and cubs, further threatening the future of the species. Ishmael, Melville’s narrator, professes unwavering faith that the species will endure, yet he observes that whales are absent from their former grounds, and whaling ships must now visit ‘Polar citadels’ to track them down. Indeed, Melville himself seems more sceptical about the future of the whale. By having Ishmael claim that it would be impossible to overhunt whales to extinction, as had already happened to buffalo in Illinois, Melville tacitly acknowledges that species collapse is a very real threat.

Nineteenth-century concerns are ‘eerily familiar’ in our present moment

Nineteenth-century novels might not be the first place we look for reflections on the environmental crises of the present, but there is much in Melville’s text that resonates with our own moment. As the literary historian Tom Nurmi observes in a book on Melville and ecology: ‘nineteenth-century conditions are eerily familiar to us: increasing energy use and reliance on large-scale mining and drilling, growing awareness of climate changes with little political action, enduring legacies of imperialism and racism, and evolving technologies in transportation, medicine, and communication that transform the frontiers of the human body and its proximity to – or distance from – other beings.’

Studying texts written in the nineteenth century – the moment when humanity’s impact on the environment accelerated profoundly – produces cultural histories of environmental crisis and crystalises the problems we face today. But we can also find in Moby-Dick ways of understanding humanity’s entanglement with life below water that prompt us to recalibrate our relationship to the natural world, and take action to secure the future of oceanic life, and the economies and communities that depend upon it.

Human and non-human life in Moby-Dick are bound together

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Image shows a mural in Newport, Oregon, depicting Moby-Dick crashing through the ship and sailors trying to swim away. Photo by Bjorn via Flickr/Creative Commons.

In Moby-Dick, Melville repeatedly draws attention to the ways that human and non-human life are bound up with one another, making it impossible to value the former’s prosperity over the latter’s survival, or even to separate the two. The entanglement and merging of the human and non-human is personified in Captain Ahab, who has literally become a part of Moby Dick, the white whale that has consumed his leg, and on which he is determined to be avenged.

Ahab then replaces this lost leg with a prosthesis made from whale ivory, incorporating the whale into his own body. This prosthesis is then extended to incorporate the Ahab’s entire ship, which has an ‘augur hole’ bored in its quarterdeck, in which Ahab can insert his pegleg; captain and whale not only merge with each other, but with the materials and mechanisms of industrial capitalism. Melville scholar Michael Jonik further argues that this ‘prostheticity’ is not limited to Ahab’s body but is ‘writ large across the whole of the novel’, in which character, ontology and epistemology do not reside in entities, but across and between them. That is, we become who we are not through things that are innate within is, but through the connections we make with other entities, including those that are not human.

Utopian merging and exploitative capitalist structures

Occasionally, these moments of merging with oceanic life lead to something like transcendence. In one of Moby-Dick’s most famous scenes, as the crew squeeze solidified sperm whale oil back into liquid, Ishmael feels himself ‘almost melted into it’ and ‘unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules’. Ishmael achieves contentment, and even enlightenment, in this imbrication of the human and the non-human. He feels ‘divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice’, and imagines a warm future in which we ‘squeeze ourselves into the milk and sperm of kindness’.

But it is important to remember that this utopian merging of human and non-human comes at the expense of the whale as a living organism: it is no less implicated in the reckless consumption of natural resources than Ahab’s prosthesis. The handwork of the sailors might seem antithetical to the impersonal financial structures and mechanisation of the whaling industry, but this handwork still takes place within it. Ishmael achieves enlightenment through squeezing the whale, just as the whaling industry squeezed the oceans of whales to provide light in the form of spermaceti candles. Indeed, one thing Moby-Dick invites reflection on is the way in which capitalism structures and restructures many of our encounters with the natural world.

Our oceans have long been at risk

For all of Melville’s awe and wonder at the majesty of the whale and his deep appreciation of the interconnectedness of human, non-human, and non-living entities, Moby-Dick presents a bleak picture of humanity’s future amid oceanic exploitation and a developing energy crisis. Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of Moby Dick, a revenge quest facilitated by the whaling industry, ends in an apocalyptic shipwreck in which the oceans rise up and consume everything in their wake: ‘all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.’ Here, and elsewhere in Moby-Dick, Melville asks us to imagine how and if we would exist were the contingent boundaries and precarious relations between the human and oceanic worlds to suddenly shift. Ishmael survives the wreck, but the deaths of Ahab and the rest of the Pequod’s crew remind us that humanity’s survival is as precarious as that of the whale, or any other species.

Today, the United Nations estimates that marine fisheries employ over 200 million people, and 680 million people live in low-lying coastal zones: this will rise to 1 billion people by 2050. Reading Moby-Dick with climate change in mind illustrates how our oceans have long been put at risk by their industrial exploitation, and by humanity’s effects on the planet and its climate more widely. But Melville also reminds us of the complex connections between humans and life below the water – connections that are economic and cultural, ancient and modern, fragile and persistent, and that need to be at the heart of future thinking about sustainable development.


Katie McGettigan is Senior Lecturer in American Literature. Her first book, Herman Melville: Modernity and the Material Text, was published in 2017, and she is finishing her second book, which examines the publication of American literature in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. Her essays have appeared in American LiteratureJournal of American Studies, and Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies.