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Written by Rudolf Pretzler
Using the Brute
The whole poem can be seen as an allegory for the act of weaker subjects to use their guile to use stronger individuals for their personal gain. The small fish that is described to aid the shark in his quest for food fears no harm, as it is protected by the stronger being. It also shows no mercy in helping the shark, described as "lethargic and dull" to find prey, even though they never partake in it. This concept can be considered a strong criticism of human tactics to get ahead. The brutality and strength of the brute is used to forward the interests of the weak, being in a position where the strength of their partner has no negative effects on them. While Melville lived in the late 19th century, the human counterpart is still very present in modern politics and society as a whole. The poem can be understood as a critique of human instincts to use whatever comes for personal gain.
Marine Symbiotic Relationships
The poem as a whole has the strong motif of marine symbiotic relationships between smaller fish and a shark. These symbiotic relationships can be witnessed in nature between smaller fish offering their skin cleaning services and larger predators like sharks, which is probably where Melville got his inspiration from. The purely biological concept is used as a metaphor for more human affairs.
Reference to Greek Mythology
Concepts from Greek mythology appear within the poem as portrayers of evil. The Gorgon's head, a metaphor for the outlandish and dangerous look of the sharks head, is taken from the myth of the gorgon. The Gorgon is a creature that has a snake's body and snakes on her female head, who transforms anyone into stone who dare look into her eyes. Another name for Gorgon would be Medusa. This motif conjures a whole array of pictures within the educated reader and enriches the poem in depth and meaning. While a shark's head turns no one to stone, a direct meeting with one is dreaded by most. The second usage of Greek symbolism can be found in the phrase "jaws of the Fates". The Fates were the Greek goddesses of fate, three elderly women, sometimes described as horribly disfigured. They were responsible for starting and ending lives of humans. The connection to the jaws of a shark is clear.
The brute shark
The shark as a concept, very unlike many other descriptions and usages in literature, is described as something stupid and slow. A simpleton that is in need of help from others to guide him. This reference can be interpreted as a critique of those in power. The powerful ones are nothing without the help from their many small underlings, represented by the pilot-fish within this poem. Connected with the intelligent and agile description of the pilot fish, this allegory paints a sorry picture about the opinion of the author about any particular person in power.
The Strange Ocean
For Melville's time, the description of exotic ocean creatures would be something most people have to believe. Even though the poem has other intensions, most people reading this would never have seen a shark, from the Maldives or anywhere else, in real life. The usage of this remote and exotic ecosystem can be seen as a motif as to create clarity. Systems and creatures that would have been known to the audience would have created different emotions within each reader, according to their own opinion about the system. However, an exotic and potentially dangerous, unknown world, like the ocean and its predators, is perfect to paint a very clear picture within a short poem.
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