Het verhaal over het conflict tussen kapitein Ahab en Moby Dick, een grote witte walvis die ooit een van Ahab’s benen afrukte, is gekend: Ahab is uit op wraak en gaat wanhopig op zoek naar zijn vijand. Alhoewel de schrijver, de Amerikaan Herman Melville, zelf ook gevaren heeft en het verhaal in zekere mate op realiteit berust, is het toch niet door hemzelf meegemaakt.

The novel seems to begin with a false start: Queequeg, the cannibal who sells shrunken heads from the South Sea, has a large part in the first chapters, written in the first person by Ishmael (the opening line: “Call me Ishmael” is world famous). Queequeg is prominent early in the novel, but later fades in significance, as does Ishmael.
In the opening paragraph of “Moby Dick”, Ishmael tells the reader that he has turned to the sea out of a feeling of alienation from human society. In the last line of the book, Ishmael also refers to himself symbolically as an orphan. What happened?
It seems that Melville began writing a book on whales and then changed his mind. After his moving to Massachusets he came under the influence of Nathaniel Hawthorne (he reviewed “Mosses from an Old Manse” uit 1846) and Thomas Carlyle (vooral “Sartor resartus” uit 1831) and he was impressed by the idea that all visible things are emblems of the invisible and spiritual reality: “All visible things are but as paste-board masks.” (Melville)
The whale, being the biggest thing in creation, became for Melville (who was a non-practising Unitarian) a symbol for God. Good and evil being united in one. (And why is the whale “white”? You can read this in chapter 42.)
As a consequence, Melville dedicated his novel to Nathaniel Hawthorne (compare the chapter “Candles” with Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”), shifted his point of view (third person instead of first person) and included references to biblical characters. Furthermore there is an influence of William Shakespeare (certain passages are dramatized) and of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (the idea of organic art, chapter 63).
The main story was primarily based upon a story about “Mocha Dick, the white whale” by an ex-naval officer, Jeremiah Reynolds, in a magazine in 1839. Other sources were “Miriam Coffin” (1835) by Joseph Hart, “Etchings of a whaling cruise” (1846) by Ross Brown and other books on oetology (the study of whales). And of course his own adventures on the Acushnet. Pequod is taken from Owen Chase’s narrative of “the most extraordinary and distressing shipwreck of the whale-ship Essex”: on November 20, 1820, the Essex encountered a sperm whale, which rammed the ship and sank it. With food running out, the survivors resorted to cannibalism. By the time the last of the eight survivors were rescued on April 5, 1821, seven sailors had been eaten. In 2013 werd dit verhaal verfilmd als “The whale” door Alrick Riley. Met Martin Sheen in de rol van degene die het verhaal vertelt aan Melville.

Ronny De Schepper

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