115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

"The Smallest Strands in the Mighty Cable of the Scriptures": Melville's Testament to the Bible in His Collected Works 

Emily Butler-Probst, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

This essay analyzes Herman Melville’s subversive use of the Bible to suggest that Melville’s works should be read in a typological manner. Melville reuses themes from his earlier works in later works so that readers can understand the significance of these themes when they reoccur and connect the two texts.   


This essay explores the way that Herman Melville modeled his collected works after the structure and typology of the Bible because the works in Herman Melville’s corpus repeat similar concepts and imagery which imbues them with a greater significance when Melville reuses them in his later texts. Scholars such as Craig Svonkin and Zachery Hutchins have proposed that Melville modeled the heteroglossic structure of Moby-Dick after the Bible because Moby-Dick incorporates a variety of genres including sermon, drama, encyclopedia, and novel while remaining a cohesive whole. In addition to the way in which Melville presented Moby-Dick as a subversive Bible, of sorts, I argue that Melville incorporates the rest of his corpus collectively into a pseudo-biblical “text.” This can be seen in the heteroglossic, diverse genres that Melville utilized throughout his writing career which is similar in many ways to the diversity within Moby-Dick itself. Earlier texts such as Typee and Omoo are presented as semi-autobiographical travel narratives, Pierre invokes the sentimental novel, and Melville also wrote poetry later in his life. Melville’s biblically-influenced corpus is also evident in a typological sense with the imagery that Melville recycles between his works.  For instance, in Typee, Tommo rejects tattooing by the Typee people because he believes that these tattoos resemble a form of cultural conversion that he is not comfortable receiving due to the Typee’s cannibalistic practices. Like the people in Typee, Queequeg is both heavily tattooed and a cannibal, but Ishmael embraces a relationship with Queequeg and later places tattoos on his body, unlike Tommo who rejects both. Ishmael also specifically describes his bond with Queequeg as a conversion experience when he notes that the Queequeg has “redeemed” him and he turns away from the monomaniacal behavior that he displayed earlier in the novel. Ishmael’s “conversion” via Queequeg becomes more evident when situated against Tommo who rejects this same opportunity. Melville shows a similar repetition of themes and tropes when he uses imagery from the “Squeeze of Hands” chapter in his later story “The Two Temples.” In “Squeeze of Hands,” Ishmael experiences a moment of deep communion with the other crewmembers as he embraces love and the hierarchal boundaries between the men dissolve. While Ishmael wishes that this moment of affection and unity could last forever, it is ultimately temporary and is interrupted by a return to other violent and damaging duties on board the Pequod. In “The Two Temples,” the narrator enters a theater where he experiences a similar moment of perfect love and union with the other audience members. But, like “Squeeze of Hands” this moment of love cannot last forever and the narrative ends with a once again isolated narrator. By reusing similar imagery between his works, Melville is creating a corpus which, like scripture, needs to be read in light of the other works contained in the corpus, in much the same way that readers of the Bible might interpret the book of Genesis through the lens of all of the other books in the Bible.