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Monday, April 22, 2013

Does Herman Melville’s Moby Dick Covertly Allude to Jane Austen’s Persuasion?

And now, as a companion to my immediately preceding post about Moby Dick and Emma….

….I now will briefly examine the possibility Melville had Persuasion in mind as he wrote Moby Dick.

First  here's the passage in Moby Dick that I was led to when I searched in its text for the word "persuasion". It is, as will be immediately obvious, in the very last chapter of Moby Dick,  just as Captain Ahab is about to meet his fate in final embrace with the white whale, and the text I see as resonant with Persuasion is in ALL CAPS. I will then give you the resonant passages in Persuasion, and then give my brief additional thoughts right after those quotations:

"[Ahab] gave the word; and still gazing round him, was steadily lowered through the cloven blue air to the deck. In due time the boats were lowered; but as standing in his shallop's stern, Ahab just hovered upon the point of the descent, he waved to the mate,—who held one of the tackle-ropes on deck—and bade him pause.
"For the third time MY SOUL's ship starts upon this voyage, Starbuck."
"Aye, sir, thou wilt have it so."
"Some ships sail from their ports, and ever afterwards are missing, Starbuck!"
"Truth, sir: saddest truth."
"Some men die at ebb tide; some at low water; some at the full of the flood;—and I feel now like a billow that's all one crested comb, Starbuck. I am old;—shake hands with me, man."
Their hands met; their eyes fastened; Starbuck's tears the glue.
"Oh, my captain, my captain!—noble HEART—go not—go not!—see, it's a brave man that weeps; HOW GREAT THE AGONY OF THE PERSUASION THEN!"
"Lower away!"—cried Ahab, tossing the mate's arm from him. "Stand by the crew!"
In an instant the boat was pulling round close under the stern.
"The sharks! the sharks!" cried a voice from the low cabin-window there;
"O master, my master, come back!"
But Ahab heard nothing; for his own voice was high-lifted then; and the boat leaped on.
…."Heart of wrought steel!" murmured Starbuck gazing over the side, and following with his eyes the receding boat—"canst thou yet ring boldly to that sight?—lowering thy keel among ravening sharks, and followed by them, open-mouthed to the chase; and this the critical third day?—For when three days flow together in one continuous intense pursuit; be sure the first is the morning, the second the noon, and the third the evening and the end of that thing—be that end what it may. Oh! my God! what is this that shoots
through me, and leaves me so deadly calm, yet expectant,—fixed at the top of a SHUDDER!"  END QUOTE

Now for the Persuasion passages that perhaps Melville was wishing to point to:

Chapter 8: “…We had not been six hours in the Sound, when a gale came on, which lasted four days and nights, and which would have done for poor old Asp in half the time; our touch with the Great Nation not having much improved our condition. Four-and-twenty hours later, and I should only have been a gallant Captain Wentworth, in a small paragraph at one corner of the newspapers; and being lost in only a sloop, nobody would have thought about me." Anne's SHUDDERINGS were to herself alone; but the Miss Musgroves could be as open as they were sincere, in their exclamations of pity and horror.
"And so then, I suppose," said Mrs Musgrove, in a low voice, as if thinking aloud, "so then he went away to the Laconia, and there he met with our poor boy. Charles, my dear," (beckoning him to her), "do ask
Captain Wentworth where it was he first met with your poor brother. I always forgot."
"It was at Gibraltar, mother, I know. DICK had been left ill at Gibraltar, with a recommendation from his former captain to Captain Wentworth."
"Oh! but, Charles, tell Captain Wentworth, he need not be afraid of mentioning poor DICK before me, for it would be rather a pleasure to hear him talked of by such a good friend."

Chapter 23: "I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce MY SOUL. I am half AGONY, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a HEART even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W.
"I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father's house this evening or never."

…"To see you," cried he, "in the midst of those who could not be my well-wishers; to see your cousin close by you, conversing and smiling, and feel all the horrible eligibilities and proprieties of the match! To consider it as the certain wish of every being who could hope to influence you! Even if your own feelings were reluctant or indifferent, to consider what powerful supports would be his! Was it not enough to make the fool of me which I appeared? How could I look on without AGONY? Was not the very
sight of the friend who sat behind you, was not the recollection of what had been, the knowledge of her influence, the indelible, immoveable impression of what PERSUASION had once done--was it not all against me?"
"You should have distinguished," replied Anne. "You should not have suspected me now; the case is so different, and my age is so different. If I was wrong in yielding to PERSUASION once, remember that it was to persuasion exerted on the side of safety, not of risk. When I yielded, I thought it was to duty, but no duty could be called in aid here. In marrying a man indifferent to me, all risk would have been incurred, and all duty violated."

Anyone who wishes can compare the Melville with the Austen and think about Anne shuddering thinking about the dear old Asp going down to the bottom, in relation to the Pequod which does in fact go to the bottom almost immediately after we read the above; and can also think about the brave man Wentworth in an agony that could bring even him to tears, in relation to Starbuck’s poetic exclamation fearing for Ahab.

More food for thought (or for whales).

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