Sailing to Self-Discovery

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Big Books Home

2006 Second Web Report

On Serendip

Sailing to Self-Discovery

Jackie O'Mara

What moves a person? What, when faced with only one's innermost emotions, rises to the surface? Ishmael, in Herman Melville's Moby Dick, puts himself in a situation that provokes questions such as these. There was some discussion in class regarding Ishmael's choice to sail on the Pequod did he want to keep himself from committing suicide, as he would most surely have done on land, or was he hoping that he would die during the voyage? Perhaps Ishmael himself did not have an answer to these questions. Perhaps the decision to go whaling came from something subconscious in Ishmael, some need to be alone with his thoughts and emotions and away from the distractions of land. Death could be an option for him, but it was not the cause of his voyage. In his moments aside from Ahab and the White Whale, Ishmael experiences something we all, on some level, long for freedom from the confines of the mind.

The story begins with Ishmael claiming that there is "nothing particular to interest me on shore" (18). He speaks of the "ocean reveries" of people on land gazing out to sea (18) and of the "mystic vibration" felt by boat passengers "when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land" (19-20). By beginning this way, Melville sets up the ocean as a vast, indescribable mystery that calls to those of us on land (19) as if there is something in each of us pressuring us to explore the sea.

Ishmael makes a decision to leave the land and go on a whaling ship. These descriptions of the ocean and of the water are his simple justification for what he is about to do. Ishmael is stuck in a "damp, drizzly November" and feels the need to escape to the sea. But why does the ocean cause this feeling in Ishmael? Why are people drawn to the water as Melville has claimed? Ishmael cites Narcissus attempting to "grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain"(20). We all see that image:

But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all. (20)

It is an image of ourselves that we could not see, or would not have seen, without looking into the water. Narcissus sees his own reflection in the fountain, suggesting that when we look into the "rivers and oceans", what we see there is ourselves, but a part of ourselves that is both dangerous and essential to life. In these opening pages, Melville sets a perplexing tone for the remainder of Moby Dick. What in each of us would we see in the water? Ishmael may be subconsciously going to find that out for himself when he decides to go whaling.

Ishmael's description of the experience of being a lookout on the mast-head illustrates the effect that open water has on a person. Sailing has a unique and unfailing way of almost forcing the sailor to reflect on her own life and emotions. As Ishmael states of his own abilities as a lookout:

With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude, how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale-ships' standing orders. (135)

Far from the distractions of the shore, with nowhere to go, and nothing to look at but the boundless ocean around, one hardly has any other choice than to work out one's own "problem of the universe", whatever that may be. All of the thoughts and emotions stewing in the back of Ishmael's mind have the chance to come to the surface and eventually dissipate. What results, other than poor scouting skills, is a freedom from the boundaries and limitations set up by the mind.

Ishmael portrays a young philosopher at his mast-head post as being "lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that as last he loses his identity" (136). This describes, for many, the appeal of being out on the ocean and, for many more, the fear it brings. On shore there are too many people, there is too much happening, too much to think about from day to day, that having or seeking out a moment to turn the focus inward is very rare. The opportunity to be out at sea, as Ishmael has, is a welcome one to people who feel confined by their surroundings on land both physical and emotional. The solitude found sailing allows one to truly see who he is as an individual, so much so that sometimes "he loses his identity". This can be a welcome experience to the person who feels suffocated by his identity and by the mental walls he has put up for himself. For other people, this can be a chilling, unnerving thought. They will shy away from anything that might cause them to lose their identity, as they know it, preferring to stay on land where comforting distractions abound.

If, as was discussed in class, literature at the time of Melville and Moby Dick was meant to be acted upon and not interpreted, what are we to do with these characteristics of Ishmael's story? It is difficult to suggest that we all go whaling and find our own Captain Ahab to lead us on a crazed voyage so that we may reach a better understanding of ourselves in the off time. But the suggestion raised by this reading of Moby Dick is not that far off. In today's society, we are constantly bombarded with things to think about, things to do, people to meet. And this is only intensifying. Our way of life is limit creating: we would sooner choose to define ourselves than to experience life without an identity. The more definitions we form for ourselves, however, the more we close ourselves off to a life of mental freedom and acceptance. If we are to act on some of the messages in Moby Dick, an option is to find our own Pequod on which to sail. To live in a boundless way, we must seek out our own voyages and allow ourselves to make self-discoveries such as the ones possible to Ishmael and the other lookouts. While keeping a "weather eye open" (135) towards the future, we must not resist the impulse to explore the thoughts and emotions that are deep within us.

What could be found when looking into the depths of one's own being? It can be very terrifying to expose one's innermost self there is no telling what you might discover. Ishmael finds himself in a position to truly explore his thoughts and emotions. Did he put himself in that position intentionally? Ishmael was searching for something when he joined the crew of the Pequod. In a way, we are all searching, and the freedom that comes in escaping whether on the ocean or not can help us find what we are looking for.

| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:38 CDT