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Comparing Self-reliant Man Theme in Melville’s and Keats' Works

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Ralph Waldo Emerson’s optimistic ideal of the “self-reliant man” in nature resonated in the literature of many of his contemporaries. Although many agreed with Emerson’s principles, however, two major writers, Herman Melville and John Keats, chose not to emulate him in their major works. Rather, they critiqued him. In the following essay, I will show, first, how Melville’s Moby Dick is a critique of the ideals of man illustrated by Emerson in his essays “Self-Reliance” and “Nature.” Through Captain Ahab’s failure and Ishmael’s survival, Melville shows how Emersonian ideals can be perverted and destructive in the search for truth. Second, the Romantic poet Keats also shows a potential for the darker side of self-reliance in his poem “La belle Dame sans Mercy,” in which the knight, in attempting to capture elusive truth, ultimately fails.

For sake of chronological order, I will begin my analysis with Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Mercy.” The belle of this poem can be viewed as the mysterious, non-human other, and paralleled to Moby Dick in the sense that the attempt to encapsulate and capture this elusive truth destroys the truth-seeker. As truth-seekers, Ahab and the knight both project their distorted version of truth onto the objects they pursue.

The knight in “La Belle” creates a scenario of love, wherein this mystical lady and he are blissfully joined. As critic Theresa Kelley writes, “Neither the reader nor the knight is privy to her inner thoughts,” for she is “a figure known exclusively by her attributes” (Kelley 342). To the knight, the belle’s passive manners are easily interpreted into a semblance of love: “She found me roots of relish sweet, /And honey wild, and manna dew, /And sure in language strange she said– /I love thee true” (Keats 25-28). Each of her actions is ambiguous; her overall intentions are completely molded to the fancies of the knight. Her “language strange” is obviously reinterpreted by the knight to be words of love, in order to perpetuate his favored scenario. Kelley comments, “This ‘language strange’…indicates how figurative meaning tends to ‘err,’ half-mistaking itself as it wanders from its referent” (Kelley 342).

Like the belle’s ambiguity in language and actions, the ambiguity of Moby Dick’s significance allows Ahab and the other crewman to muse and fixate on a specific meaning relative to each man’s personal preoccupation.

It is also important to acknowledge that the torment which the knight experiences as he is “alone and palely loitering” (Keats 46) is, for the most part, self-inflicted. There is no agent to inflict this alienation, only his own sculpted, narrow reality. The eternal Promethean torment which Ahab experiences is also of his own creation: “God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates” (Melville 1008). Ahab pivots his existence on Moby Dick. If the whale is truly unconquerable, then Ahab has created a scenario in which he cannot exist.

Ahab thus projects a gargantuan significance onto the whale, although the whale is possibly no more than a “dumb brute,” according to Starbuck. This significance is due to the whale’s symbolism of all the evil in the world: “All that most maddens and torments…all truth with malice in it…all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down…” (Melville 989). The narcissism in this enables Ahab to fuse all of his miscellaneous anger at the universe into one object. Thus, his monomania spawns a narrow-mindedness which Ahab believes to be crucial to his ability to finish this quest: “The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung” (Melville 989).

Ahab’s inability to let alone what is inscrutable culminates in an interaction with Starbuck, in which Starbuck is angered by Ahab’s determination to have “vengeance on a dumb brute!” Starbuck does not believe the whale to have agency or a guiding principle of its own, only an animal instinct which caused him to take Ahab’s leg. To this, Ahab replies: “He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him” (Melville 967). This indicates that the physical existence and overall intention of the whale is irrelevant to Ahab. Ahab is concerned with the elusive truth, the “inscrutable malice,” which the whale symbolizes to him. However, the only way he is able to capture this truth would be to physically slay the whale, therefore possessing the “inscrutable” which before had eluded him. As critic Michael Hoffman comments,

“Three generations of critics have busied themselves with worrying about what the whale symbolizes. They should have been concerned with the creator of meanings, Captain Ahab, for it is he, not Melville, who has created the ‘meaning’ of the white whale. He fashions the myth of Moby Dick to give substance, form, and value to his own unhappy life, and he is aided in his efforts by other mariners who in turn project their own meanings onto the animal” (Hoffman 91).

Jean Paul Sartre also chides readers of Moby Dick who incessantly search for the ultimate symbolism of the whale: “We should stop seeing a symbolic universe in the tales [Melville] tells and in the things he describes. Symbols are attached retrospectively to ideas we begin with…” (Sartre 95). Ahab embodies the dangers of fusing one’s will into a “supreme purpose,” and entrusting oneself to a meaning which will always be infected by a narrow selfhood. However, it still seems possible for the reader to fall into the same trap which ensnared Ahab—the trap of assigning a lump sum meaning to an object in the light of an inevitably infected, narcissistic, personal agenda.

In the first chapter, “Loomings,” Ishmael ponders the magnetism of the sea. He makes a parallel to Narcissus, and indicates this myth to be the “key to it all.” This parallel seems to foreshadow Ahab’s presence in the story. In the vast literary criticism on Moby Dick, Ahab has often been referred to as “narcissistic,” an adjective used mainly to describe his egotism. But in examining the story of Narcissus, one sees a greater parallel between doomed Ahab and the obsessed young boy. Both are consumed by something they see in the water, and both plunge to their death in an attempt to merge with and therefore grasp the meaning of (and merge with) that reflection.

In his famous essay, “Nature,” Emerson asserts the reflective qualities of nature to man by claiming that “nature always wears the colors of the spirit” (Emerson 25). In Moby Dick, nature also seems to create reflections of the spirit, these reflections manifested in the white whale. Ahab acknowledges this distorted mirror in “The Dubloon,” where after gazing at the gold dubloon, and seeing only himself in the coin, he deducts that the entire earth is but a reflection of man: “…this round globe is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self” (Melville 1254). This confirms what is already suspected in Ahab; his solipsistic outlook on the universe reduces reality to a “mirror-like opacity,” in which Ahab only sees himself, reflected by an introspectively sculpted reality (Zoellner 115).

Ahab carries this outlook of the universal reflection to an extreme during the actual chase, when he feels Moby Dick to be in his grip. On the second day of the chase, Starbuck once again pleads with Ahab to abandon this doomed pursuit under the argument: “…never wilt thou capture him, old man…” To justify his actions to Starbuck, Ahab refers to himself as “Fates’ lieutenant,” who merely “act[s] under orders” (Melville 1394). This manipulation of fate into Ahab’s purposes shows the intensity and blindness of his monomania. Not only does the world mirror Ahab, but Fate itself is tailored to Ahab’s whims. Although Ahab imagines himself to be lacking will, he in fact has used it to will himself out of desiring anything but capturing Moby Dick: “…yielding up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose; that purpose, by its sheer inveteracy of will, forced itself against gods and devils into a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own (Melville 1007).” But this will is limited by fate, not steered by it. Ahab cannot comprehend a fate beyond one that will further him in his quest. He does little to justify himself to the world, except for a weak assertion that he is yielding to fate. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson asserts that “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world” (Emerson 149). Captain Ahab has indeed absolved himself–directly into a delusion that his pursuit of truth is so large, his agenda so great, that he will persist with the “suffrage of the world,” although the entire ship is against him.

It is not at all difficult for a man to deceive himself when he possesses conviction. For Melville, conviction is a dangerous sentiment, especially in the case of Ahab, where his convictions become aligned with truth: “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines” (Melville 967). This conviction echoes Emerson’s conception of the man who realizes all of his possibilities in “Nature.” Emerson finds spatial and temporal constraints ineffective in the face of a personal truth or will: “We become immortal, for we learn that time and space are relations of matter; that with a perception of truth or a virtuous will they have no affinity” (Emerson 47).

Ahab strives to maintain his self-inflicted insanity and purposeful alienation, and “assiduously cultivates this dehumanization, protecting it from any influence which might mitigate its terrible singularity” (Zoellner 100). He must be fully immersed because he knows that Pip could cure this madness, but does not want it so: “There is that in thee, poor lad, which I feel too curing to my malady. Like cures like; and for this hunt, my malady becomes my most desired health” (Melville 1363). Emerson has a similar sentiment, writing, upon being enraptured with nature, that “the name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance” (Emerson 24). Much like Emerson, fellow man to Ahab becomes irrelevant upon his immersion, merely an accessory to the grand pursuit. Indeed, “nature is thoroughly mediate. It is made to serve. It receives the dominion of man as meekly as the ass on which the Savior rode[…]” (Emerson 38). Considering the destruction which Moby Dick’s attempted “dominion” entailed, Melville would probably find this passage laughable. Emerson’s “doctrine of nature as a tool and the mind as a technician,” concisely worded by critic Frederick Garber, is a potentially dangerous presumption when existing alongside evil. Of course, one of Melville’s major qualms with Emerson was his ability to ignore the evil in the world, assuming it to be smoothed over by a greater good (Garber 196).

For Melville, this anthropocentric view expressed by Emerson yields tragic results if man cannot accept his insignificance in an inscrutable and immense universe, wherein his conceptions of truth are irrelevant and no more overarching than that of any other man. To believe “all the facts in natural history taken by themselves, have no value, but are barren, like a single sex. But marry it to human history, and it is full of life” is to ignore the incredible autonomy of Moby Dick, the cruelty of the sea, and the futility of man’s attempts to reign in nature (Emerson 32). It seems that an epic drama of man is played out upon the sea, yet once man is destroyed in a brief, anti-climactic flurry, the sea rolls on “as it rolled five thousand years ago.” This anti-climax and eradicating futility demonstrates the farcical quality of Ahab’s impossible quest.

The only survivor of this wreck is Ishmael, who all along had seemed keenly self-aware of his insignificance in the grand scheme, as well as of the inscrutability of truth. Retrospectively, he states, “I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment” (Melville 799). Ishmael does not see the whale as his defining truth; he is not fixated on his own identity in relation to it. Rather, he is the objective viewer, and attempts to understand the whale from all perspectives, including the scientific, the philosophical, and the literary. Unlike his captain, he does not view the whale through the lens of revenge or ultimate truth. Ishmael does not believe he can master truth by the mere physical conquest of the white whale.

In the beginning of chapter 49, for example, Ishmael bitterly expresses his anger with the universe becoming a “vast practical joke…and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own” (Melville 1035). This is quite a change from the first chapter, where we are introduced to an Ishmael who feels somewhat cheated by his relatively insignificant place in the “grand programme of Providence,” but comically accepts it as his own, due to the fact that it “was drawn up a long time ago” (Melville 799). Although Ishmael’s attitude towards fate has changed, what has not changed is the very belief in fate. Ishmael still humbly accepts his destiny. Unlike Ahab, he does not launch on an immense, autonomous quest to conquer an inescapable fate and an inscrutable truth. Even in this bitterness Ishmael has developed towards destiny, he never loses sight of the joy which can be found in camaraderie. In “A Squeeze of the Hand,” for example, Ishmael is assigned the pleasant task of squeezing the lumps out of the gallons of oily spermaceti extracted from the sperm whale. As times passes, Ishmael becomes enthralled with this task, connecting with nature through the spermaceti, and, thus, connects with his fellow man through nature. As he exclaims, “Oh! My dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all around; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness” (Melville 1239).

The Ishmael of “A Squeeze of the Hand” is a stark contrast with Ahab, who rejects all possible connections with humanity including the camaraderie of Pip, who could have cured his “malady” by loosening Ahab’s grip on his whale-constructed, self-reflective reality. In the end, Ishmael’s life is saved by a relic of a friendship, Queequeg’s coffin, carved to resemble Queequeg’s tattoos. Throughout this epic novel, Ishmael defines himself by the relationships around him. He is not at all the “self-reliant” man. He is the observer, the spectator, the objective force in this text which somehow enables him to survive.

On the question of Emerson’s sidestepping the issue of evil, Melville once quipped, “His gross and astonishing errors & illusions spring from a self- conceit…Another species of Mr. Emerson’s errors, or rather blindness, proceeds from a defect in the region of the heart” (qtd. in Braswell 331). Through the narrative of Moby Dick, Melville sculpts a subtle critique of Emerson’s “great man” by creating a character which possesses all of the qualities of the Emersonian genius. This genius is self-reliant and views the universe as a reflection of the self. The knight of Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci” used his malformed self-reliance to misinterpret the belle’s actions into a scenario of love, a reflection of his desires. More extreme than the knight, Ahab views the entire universe as a reflection of his desires. Through Moby Dick, Melville then places an ironic twist on this idea of a narcissistic genius by acknowledging the possibility of a perverting power of evil on this “self-reliance,” which Emerson chooses to ignore.

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Comparing Self-Reliant Man Theme in Melville’s and Keats’ Works. (2018, May 02). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 30, 2021, from
“Comparing Self-Reliant Man Theme in Melville’s and Keats’ Works.” GradesFixer, 02 May 2018,
Comparing Self-Reliant Man Theme in Melville’s and Keats’ Works. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 30 Nov. 2021].
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