Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick: Irony 6 key examples

Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Explanation and Analysis—Ishmael as Narrator :

Ishmael, a storyteller who constantly emphasizes the limits of his own knowledge and that of writing, proves himself to be an unreliable narrator, and one who doesn’t hide it. Indeed, Ishmael repeatedly hints that he cannot give a full and complete picture of the tales he is narrating. His discussion of the impossibility of representing the whale in art—a discussion that highlights the imperfections of his own attempt to do so through writing—is one example that emphasizes this self-awareness. When he attempts his classification of the whales, he is quick to acknowledge that he can “promise nothing complete” because “any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that very reason infallibly be faulty.” In other words, a full and faithful tale would be an impossible feat. 

Furthermore, the very contents of Ishmael’s writing, which details scenes that Ishmael could not possibly have witnessed (for example, Ahab’s soliloquies in his cabin), draws attention to the fictional construction of this narrative, which is mediated through Ishmael’s own imaginings. In turn, readers see how Ishmael’s narration of such passages requires him to masquerade in other roles. This is also something readers can see in the fictional apparatus given to the novel, with the “Etymology” and “Extracts” sections that precede the main narrative seeing Ishmael also take on the guise of a fictional “late consumptive usher to a grammar school” and a “sub-sub librarian.” Ishmael’s explicit caution to the reader not to fully trust him—“therefore you must not, in every case at least, take the higgledy-piggeldy whale statements, however authentic, in these extracts, for veritable gospel cetology"—adds an extra layer of irony.

Perhaps most famously, the unreliability of Ishmael’s narrative is also indicated from the very start with his opening introduction: “Call me Ishmael.” By telling the reader to “call” him Ishmael instead of simply stating that he is Ishmael, Ishmael immediately casts doubt over whether this is his real name and alerts the reader to the fact that this is a novel of self-construction in which Ishmael can present himself as whomever he wants to be.

Chapter 65: The Whale as a Dish
Explanation and Analysis—Hypocrisy of Reader :

When describing how Stubb eats a whale steak, Melville uses logos to highlight the hypocrisy of the anticipated outrage of the reader. In a direct address to the reader, Melville uses reason to demonstrate how even the readers probably engage in similar acts without scrutiny. He writes:

But Stubb, he eats the whale by its own light, does he? and that is adding insult to injury, is it? Look at your knife-handle, there, my civilized and enlightened gourmand dining off that roast beef, what is that handle made of?—what but the bones of the brother of the very ox you are eating? [...] And with what quill did the Secretary of the Society for the Suppression of Cruelty to Ganders formally indite his circulars? It is only within the last month or two that that society passed a resolution to patronize nothing but steel pens.

Melville’s use of humor emphasizes the many ironies present in society, with the examples he gives providing a satirical commentary on the many hypocrisies of man. The use of rhetorical questions is an effective way of Melville presenting his argument, ultimately forcing readers to engage their own faculties of reason in a way that demonstrates the logic that guides his own conclusion. 

There is also perhaps a further silent implication in this passage, reflected in Melville’s emphasis on the suggested indictment of Stubb for eating the whale “by its own light” (that is, by the light of lamps that burn whale oil). Here, the reference to the light is important, as it possibly winks at the fact that people reading Moby-Dick when it first came out probably read it by the light of a sperm oil lamp. Melville’s use of logos thus effectively forces readers to dissect their own instincts towards judgement by exposing their own hypocrisies.

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Chapter 98: Stowing Down and Clearing Up
Explanation and Analysis—Cleaning the Ship:

That the ship is described as at its cleanest after having undergone the gruesome and bloody processes behind distilling the sperm oil from the body of the dead whale is an example of situational irony. Ishmael highlights the irony himself, commenting on its “remarkable” nature:

In the sperm fishery, this is perhaps one of the most remarkable incidents in all the business of whaling. One day the planks stream with freshets of blood and oil... But a day or two after, you look about you, and prick your ears in this self-same ship; and were it not for the tell-tale boats and try-works, you would all but swear you trod some silent merchant vessel, with a most scrupulously neat commander. The unmanufactured sperm oil possesses a singularly cleansing virtue. This is the reason why the decks never look so white as just after what they call an affair of oil. 

Ishmael describes how the very parts of the whale itself are used to clean up the “freshets of blood and oil.” The language of purification, with the sperm oil’s cleansing quality described as a “virtue.” emphasizes the moral considerations at play. He explains how a “potent lye” is made from the ashes of the burned scraps of the whale, which is able to “exterminate” any parts of the whale that remain “clinging” to the ship. That it is the whale itself that helps erase the brutality of its killing creates a tragic irony that alludes to the cruelty of the whaling industry. 

Ishmael’s emphasis on the way in which the whole manufacturing process is “hidden” from view, with every cask put “out of sight” and all tackles coiled in “unseen nooks,” also provides a commentary on contemporary industrial capitalism, where the horrors of production are often invisible to the consumer. The slave trade is one pertinent example, where the people enjoying the products are able to ignore the violence that has enabled their creation. 

Indeed, the starkness of the transformation of the whale from corpse to product emphasizes the way that society is able to disconnect commercial products from  the realities of their production. After this passage, Melville goes on to describe the scenes of domestic comfort that the sailors lapse into, with discourse turning to “parlors, sofas, carpets, and fine cambrics”:

To hint to such musked mariners of oil, and bone, and blubber, were little short of audacity. They know not the thing you distantly allude to. Away, and bring us napkins!

By showing the stark shift from the industrial to the domestic, Melville shows how denial can be embedded in civilization, with one able to enjoy the comforts of civilized society without acknowledging the often brutal processes that lie behind them. The shift in narrative to the domestic sphere is also significant because it's likely to invoke the setting of the reader, who is probably reading this novel in the comforts of their own home. For Melville's contemporaries, who were perhaps reading the novel by the light of their own sperm oil lamp, this invocation has the potential to be even more powerful.

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Chapter 113: The Forge
Explanation and Analysis—Inverted baptism :

When forging the harpoon with which he intends to kill Moby Dick, Ahab parodies the Christian ritual of baptism but in a way that inverts it to represent his defiance of the gods. When forged, Ahab rejects the water for the harpoon and instead asks the three “heathen” harpooners if they will be pricked by the barbs to “baptize” it in blood.

Three punctures were made in the heathen flesh, and the White Whale’s barbs were then tempered.

“Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!” deliriously howled Ahab, as the malignant iron scorchingly devoured the baptismal blood.

Ahab’s use of Latin references the Christian church, which also traditionally uses Latin in its ceremonies, but it significantly perverts the meaning. Translated, Ahab declares that he baptizes the barb “not in the name of the father, but in the name of the devil,” a declaration that clearly inverts the meaning of baptism, a right that is meant to represent purification and virtue. By baptizing the barb in blood rather than water, Ahab further perverts the ritual, injecting it with a sense of the macabre that references the intended bloody purpose of the weapon. The irony in the use of baptism, a ceremony meant as a ritual to cleanse sins, as a rite to incite violent acts is also not lost. Overall, the use of parody and irony work together to emphasize the godlessness and blasphemy of Ahab’s mission. The closing remarks of this chapter, which details the "unnatural" and "most piteous" sound of Pip’s “wretched laugh,” make clear that no good will come of this ritual.

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Chapter 127: The Deck
Explanation and Analysis—Coffin as Life-Buoy:

Queequeg’s coffin becoming Ishmael’s life-buoy is an example of situational irony that highlights the novel’s exploration of immortality and fate. Ahab curses the carpenter as a “heathenish old scamp” for undertaking the task of transforming the coffin. However, though initially abhorred, the philosophical pondering that the coffin-lifebuoy goes on to evoke in Ahab highlights the novel’s deeper and metatextual reflections on the idea of immortality. Ahab reflects:

Here now’s the very dreaded symbol of grim death, by a mere hap, made the expressive sign of the help and hope of most endangered life. A life-buoy of a coffin! Does it go further? Can it be that in some spiritual sense the coffin is, after all, but an immortality-preserver! I’ll think of that.

Ahab’s provocation that the coffin might after all be an “immortality-preserver” proves to be extremely apt. The coffin not only goes on to save Ishmael after the sinking of the Pequod, it also goes on to preserve the memory of Ahab and the rest of the crew, with Ishmael’s survival necessary for the creation of this very novel. In light of this, Ahab’s words acquire a metatextual resonance; that we can read the recording of his speech in this chapter is thanks to the preserving qualities that the coffin is being given at that very moment. Just as the coffin is an object that facilitates the memory of one’s life after death, so too does Moby-Dick the novel come to be a sort of tombstone for the lives lost on the Pequod. That the coffin is covered with inscriptions is also apt, with it highlighting the power of writing as a form of immortality.

The arguably heavy-handedness of the symbol of the coffin and the foreshadowing of the final acts of the novel suggests Melville is purposefully trying to remind the reader of the contrived mechanics of the novel. Moby-Dick, after all, is a novel that repeatedly highlights its own construction. The heavy use of devices such as irony and foreshadowing is thus another way for Melville to expose the machinations of the plot and emphasize the influence of the writer. That Ahab’s reflections on the symbolism of the coffin come in a chapter written as a scene in a play—a technique which highlights the performative elements of the novel—further betrays this intention. Such a technique also alludes to Moby-Dick’s exploration of fate, with the reader able to see the predetermination of events in the novel, a form in which it is the writer who gets to play God.

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Chapter 135: The Chase. – Third Day
Explanation and Analysis—Ahab's Death :

That Ahab is killed not by Moby Dick but by the throwing of his own harpoon is an example of irony that highlights Ahab’s role in bringing upon his own downfall. In the final reckoning with the whale, Ahab, knowing all is lost, launches his harpoon in a final act of desperation but gets entangled in his own line and drowns. Before launching the harpoon, Ahab says:

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”

This speech, which highlights the bitterness and hatred that fuels Ahab’s obsession with conquering Moby Dick, hints at the captain’s own role in his undoing. After all, if it weren’t for his unquenched blood-thirst and obsession with vengeance, Ahab and the whole crew would still be alive. That Ahab’s death is brought about by the throwing of his own harpoon is also symbolic of his self-destruction, with the significance of his crafting of that harpoon for the exact purpose of killing Moby Dick having been previously emphasized. The baptism of the harpoon in the name of the devil further hints at how it is Ahab himself who has been instrumental in his own destruction. The elevated tone given to Ahab in this speech may also be a way in which Melville hints at the absurdity of Ahab’s quest for vengeance, with Ahab very much seeing his enmity with Moby Dick as personal and mutual. The reality of the matter, that Moby Dick is simply a wild animal who will strike when struck, is lost on Ahab, whose ego forges a role for himself as a Shakespearean hero in a tragic narrative.

Moreover, the symbolic significance of “the line” should not be lost here. Earlier in the novel, Ishmael reflects on the dangers of the line in whaling, which can often trip one up, but also on the metaphorical “halters” all men live with around their neck that can cause their ruin at any time. The line thus also comes to symbolize the complex and dangerous networks by which men are bound together, a fitting symbol in light of the tragic ends of the crew of the Pequod, who ultimately all die because of their ties to Ahab and the ship. The line, which shows how one cannot always be in control of one’s own life, also speaks to the preoccupying question of the novel of whether it is fate or free will that is determinative. Ahab’s final words, that he will surrender to Moby Dick “while still chasing thee, though tied to thee,” speaks to the lack of resolution on this matter, with Ahab acknowledging both his agency as chaser and his powerlessness as captive.

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