Moby Dick

The Primitive In Herman Melville's Moby Dick

Among the numerous themes and ideas that author Herman Melville expresses in Moby Dick, one of the less examined is the superiority of the primitive man to the modern man. As an undertone running through the entire book, one can see in Moby Dick the same admiration of the "noble savage" that is so prevalent in Melville's earlier tales of the simple and idyllic life of the cannibals, even though the focus has been shifted to the dangers of seeing things from only one point of view and to the struggle between good and evil.

Before proceeding to a discussion of how Melville glorifies "primitive man" in Moby Dick, a working definition for the term must be agreed upon. In her illuminating essay, "The Concept of the Primitive," Ashley Montagu points out the fallacy of using the term "primitive" in a scientific context because it is so ambiguous and has so many different connotations attached to it. He shows that so-called "primitive" peoples are neither as undeveloped, uncivilized, or simple as the term implies. However, here I will use the term subjectively, with all its implications, because when Melville idolized primitive man, he did not have a specific, scientific definition...

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