Moby Dick is filled with many themes and ideas. However, Melville’s Moby Dick is less focused on the superiority of primitive man to modern man. The book’s undertone is Moby Dick’s admiration for the “noble Savage”, which was so prominent in Melville’s earlier stories of the idyllic and simple life of cannibals. However, the emphasis has been moved to the dangers and the struggle between good versus evil.
Before we discuss Melville’s glorifying of “primitive-man” in Moby Dick’s novel, we must agree on a working definition. Ashley Montagu in her essay “The Concept of the Primitive,” argues against the use of the term “primitive”, within a scientific context. This is because it is ambiguous and can have so many different connotations. He shows that “primitive” peoples don’t have the same level of development, civilization, or simplicity as they seem to think. Because Melville believed primitive man was a god, he didn’t know how to define it scientifically. On one level, Queequeg is a prime example for the superiority of a true “primitive” person. The fictionalized “native Kokovo” depicts Melville’s impressions of the natives he met on his trip to the tropical island. He shows his selflessness and strength by diving after the young “bumpkin”, and when he rescues Tashtego from the icy waters. Queequeg’s impact on Ishmael speaks volumes about his goodness. “I felt a melting in me. I felt a melting in me.
Many people believe that Moby Dick’s central theme is that you can’t assign one meaning to everything and that Ahab is dangerously trying to do this, which is what many have stated. Queequeg’s role in saving Ishmael from death is clear if you agree with this viewpoint. Ishmael has a new way of seeing the world after meeting Queequeg for the first time. Clark Davis says that Ishmael is saved by Queequeg’s influence. He uses his coffin to provide a life-buoy. Queequeg is primitive and gives civilized Ishmael an improved perspective of life.
Higher levels of thought can see an analogy between whale-men, whaling ships, and whaling themselves, as well as primitive man’s nomadic tribe and the hunt that was his way. Ishmael states that “your true whale-hunter” is “as savage and an Iroquois”; Ahab contemplates the motives of his “savage crew.” Eventually, the whale-men are “restored to the condition in which God placed,” i.e. this is called “savagery” (see Chapter 56: Brit) The ship is a nomadic tribe that roams the prairies looking for great beasts to hunt down and kill. These ship-tribes can be rare and they are often able to share stories and any knowledge they have. The whale hunt serves as a metaphor for a hunt that was the mainstay of primitive man’s time and provided their sustenance. It is easy to imagine cavemen throwing spears at mammoths when all the harpooners launch their harpoons towards a whale. The prehistoric whalemen must also exhibit the same virtues as the mammoth-hunters; they must be courageous, persistent, and solidarious. Melville does not simply want to be credible in writing about whaling. Melville may be subconsciously yearning for past glory of the hunt, as well as admiring the beautiful and romantic virtues that the “noble, wild” character has.
We come to Ishmael. His quest is the thread and glue which binds the entire book together. Ishmael starts the book angry about the world. He embarks on the whaling journey to “wardoff his spleen”. Ishmael claims that the whale-ship was both his Yale College, and Harvard. He now uses this ship to gain a better understanding of life. Like all people came from sea, so does the sea call them back. This is the common longing of all for the land of our birth. Ishmael travels to the sea because it has not changed since before the arrival of man. It is therefore “primitive” as such. It is a type of ancient repository of wisdom. Ishmael is able to see the world from many perspectives. Ishmael learned to be open to new ideas and to cherish human companionship.
Melville shared the sentiment of Nathaniel Hawthorne that modern society is becoming corrupted. He wanted to return humanity to its “roots”. He saw the dangers in new commercialism, and in Moby Dick’s great theme, he quotes Ahab to warn against the nation’s obsession with the American Dream. Melville was a turbulent man who felt overwhelmed by modern life. The brief time that he spent with savages seemed to have provided an alternative to the stress of modern life. In Typee and Omoo, Melville praises the virtues and deplores the interference of missionaries.
Moby Dick still feels reverence for the primitive beginnings of man in Queequeg’s noble persona and in the whalers, whaling, and even in the primeval sea, which teaches Ishmael.