Let’s explore how Herman Melville shows the differences between good and evil in his masterpiece Moby Dick
In Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick the author is eager to tell us a tale of good and evil. These two opposing forces are represented everywhere throughout his story, the vying battle between the two is the back bone of the entire novel. Good versus evil, love against hate, forgiveness or revenge, they are all explored throughout its many pages. This is one of the reasons for its enduring popularity amongst readers.
Some readers consider the great Moby Dick to be the character best placed to represent the evil force. Yet this whale, no matter how huge and scary is still simply that, a whale. He is an animal with no conscious ability to be rational, he is simply an animal living within his natural habitat.
So for me the obvious representation of evil is Captain Ahab. Ahab’s entire world is seeking out the whale that dismember him many years ago. He is a man consumed by one single goal, a goal to bring about death to a creature that has no understanding of what is happening. Captain Ahab is a man possessed by the idea of killing the great white whale, and he doesn’t care what happens as long as that end goal is achieved.
Yet Ahab is also not a one dimensional man, he is a tortured man. He is certainly not a cardboard figure of evil. “Once the captain throws his pipe overboard, he takes a turn for the worse,” here Melville is showing us that the Captain has become so overwhelmed with his need for revenge on Moby Dick that he no longer enjoys little acts, such as his pipe, as he once did.
Yet we must also remember that Captain Ahab leads his entire crew – baring Ishmael – to their death, for nothing more than petty vengeance. The true evil in this novel is the very human traits of stubbornness and obsession. A sentient and conscious man is willing to throw away everything to wreak his vengeance upon a creature who acted simply out of instinct and not malice.
The presence of good is shown in the novel most clearly in the character of Queequeg, who was once a barbaric cannibal but who now embodies the ideals of ‘Christianly’ behaviour more than any of the other men aboard the Pequod.
While Ishamel and Queequeg’s relationship starts off with a brawl and attempted murder at the Spouter-Inn, it quickly turns into a beautiful friendship.
The reader gets to see the true heart of Queequeg for the first time when the two men fall asleep beside one another. When the two awaken the ‘savages’ arm lies draped across Ishmael in an affection manor, or as Melville describes it, as if Ishamel were “his wife”.
Queequeg also shows incredible modesty when dressing in the morning ing, even attempting to hide himself as he pulls on his boots. This moment shows the two sides of Queequeg, the savage and the civilised man: “if he were a savage he wouldn’t consider boots necessary, but if he were completely civilised he would realise there was no need to be modest when pulling on his boots”.
While this theme of friendship becomes less prominent once the Pequod unfurls its sails Queequeg does still save Ishmael’s life, albeit indirectly. Yet he also saves two other men from drowning while acting as harpooner aboard the vessel.
Queequeg’s presence within the novel slips as it draws towards the great climax as Melville begins to darken the tone and focus upon the aggression and hatred of the captain. However, his greatest action occurs at the novel’s finale.
While suffering from a fever Queequeg believes he is at deaths door and asks the ship’s carpenter to construct him a coffin in the form of a canoe to remind him of home. The coffin is not needed however as Queequeg makes a full recovery, it therefore becomes the ships new life-boat, which in turn is the only thing that allows Ishmael to survive Moby Dick’s attack and the Pequod’s demise.
Melville also shows us how good and evil can manifest itself through the journey of ones life. For instance Queequeg lived a life of bliss on the island of Kokovoko where he was the son of a King, yet he hated the life of idleness and insisted instead on becoming a whaler and exploring the world, the pampered life was not for him. Ishmael similarly wanted to see the rest of the world, not to escape idleness but instead to combat the early stages of a creeping depression. All of this is in stark contrast to Captain Ahab who’s sole reason for the journey was revenge, cruel and selfish revenge. Ahab is swept up in his manic desire to kill Moby Dick and the end result is a grizzly and unnecessary demise for his whole crew.
Overall Melville does well to give us good and evil characters with layers and depth. Captain Ahab has all the characteristics of a tragic hero, he has a great heart but tragic flaws. Yet it is his final actions and manic obsession with revenge that destroys his heart and leaves him simply as a flawed and hate filled villain. Queequeg on the other hand may appear to be a savage but his heart stays pure and he has a truly noble spirit.
Melville shows us that we cannot simply judge a person by their appearance, that titles and riches do not matter, it is only the heart that can be judged to show ones true self.
The epic tradition represents a record of heroic actions that were once celebrated through song and folktale. Examples of epic stories that started out as folklore and were then written down are the epics of Gilgamesh and Beowulf.
The epic tradition includes key elements such as the epic hero and the form of an epic poem, which thus provides the rhythm which made it easily able to be sung. The epic tradition has influenced fiction over time, and certain elements can still be found in modern fiction today although altered as times have changed.
A key aspect of the Epic tradition as shown in both Gilgamesh and Beowulf is that of an Epic hero. An epic hero is ‘a brave and noble character in an epic poem, admired for great achievements or affected by grand events: Beowulf, an epic hero with extraordinary strength’ (dictionary.com).
The Epic hero has to be someone of high status, preferable a royal and they must have aspects of greatness and superhuman qualities, such as great strength and courage, and in the case of Gilgamesh, the epic hero has connections to the Gods, showing the hero to be above all others.
The epic hero also has to in some way achieve greatness within the story, Gilgamesh for example changes drastically from being a mean and uncaring king, to becoming great and compassionate by realizing the importance of love and loss and Beowulf begins as a highly regarded prince and by the end he has become legendary by his brilliant courage in defeating the evil of the world.
The epic hero features prominently in mythology, such as in the two Greek poems The Lliad and The Odyssey with the epic heroes, Achilles and Odysseus, both central figures in the Trojan War. These two are key examples of epic poetry in ancient literature.
Further aspects of the epic tradition is the fact that stories such as Gilgamesh and Beowulf weren’t written for the purpose of being a novel, but instead were simply a story or folk lore which was told and passed down through generations, and often recited to music until finally being written down. This means that the story has no determinable author and is told as a third person narrative. The story is also not set out as a novel but as more of an epic poem told in a refined manner. As the stories of the epic tradition were primarily for oral transmission they include long speeches and often the story is told through a series of flashbacks.
This means that the stories do lack description and imagery which are fundamental aspects of modern novels, and instead were written as more of a chronology of events and facts and was written as evidence of heroic actions.
The epic tradition has had great impact on modern literature. All novels have a hero, and although they are no longer what one would call epic, as they are not necessarily of high status or do not possess superhuman qualities they are still heroes.
In Shakespearean plays, there are tragic heroes, which contrast to the epic hero, as the tragic heroes usually start off great but through their own flaws they become tragic and fall from their heroic status. Although tragic heroes in Shakespeare’s plays are not exactly the same as the epic heroes, the epic narratives and heroes have greatly influenced the plays as they all centre around one hero, a hero that like that of the epic narratives, is of a high status.
Although the tragic heroes have flaws and at times do bad things, they are essentially good and essentially heroic in the outcome. The tragic hero of Hamlet although different from the epic hero of Beowulf, still achieves a form of greatness by exposing his murdering uncle.
The tragic hero is also represented in the novel of Frankenstein. The influence of the epic tradition on modern literature can also be seen in the story of Robinson Crusoe, as you see a man exert extraordinary courage and strength to survive in a hostile environment, much the same as the epic heroes of the past.
However in the case of Robinson Crusoe, the hero is a sailor and not someone of noble birth or high status. This represents the changes in society at the time the novels are written. In modern times an average man or ‘underdog’ achieving great things is considered more epic than someone of a privileged status. However although Gilgamesh was a noble who was two-thirds God he himself much like the tragic heroes had flaws which meant that he was not very liked and could even be viewed as a villain at the beginning of the story.
But whereas the tragic heroes begin as respected and then are brought down by their mistakes, Gilgamesh learns from his mistakes and after a heroic quest he becomes a hero worthy of the name. The way in which the heroes are represented and the journeys they take determine the differences between the epic hero and the tragic hero.
A monster is most often defined as a “large, ugly, and frightening imaginary creature.” Most often in literature the main character of the story is a good guy, a man or woman who goes against evil to destroy a villain or monster. And yet despite the fact that the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a quintessential example of a monster, big, ugly, unnatural, it is in fact Victor, the main character who is the true monster. But can we really dismiss his creation as no monster? I don’t think so.
Victor is the one who wished so much to create unnatural life that it ultimately led to the deaths of everyone he loved so dearly.
Some people argue that the creature is the monster of the story based upon the way he looks, he fits the criteria sure but Frankenstein is a novel about the inner reality of a soul, it is a story about how the actions not the physical appearances of people make them monsters or not.
Yet in most analysis of the text the creation is referred to as Frankenstein’s monster, that is his most common label. After all his description is horrifying, “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries, his hair was of a lustrous black, his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriance’s only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”
This is a classic example of judging a book by its cover. We, just like the society in the book only see the scary and monstrous aspects of the creature and did not think to judge him by what he was on the inside, within that most horrifying of extremities. Someone who is newly born cannot be evil, they do not know right from wrong, they do not understand the world around them.
The creation is shown to be fascinated with the world, with nature specifically, “I started up and beheld a radiant form rise from among the trees. I gazed with a kind of wonder. It moved slowly, but it enlightened my path.” This is the moment when the creation shows his curiosity for the first time, by allowing us to heart his wonderment through his own words Mary Shelley shows us that he is not a monster, he’s more accurately a child.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (most commonly referred to simply as Frankenstein) by Mary Shelley is an old classic of Gothic literature.
We are even shown that he is capable of being good by performing helpful deeds such as gathering wood. It is quite clear that if he had been taught and nurtured he could have been brought down the right path and found his place within society.
At one point he takes a families wood cutting tools and brings them back an ample supply of firewood, an act of pure kindness, “I discovered also another means through which I was enabled to assist their labours. I found that the youth spent a great part of each day in collecting wood for the family fire, and during the night I often took his tools, the use of which I quickly discovered, and brought home firing sufficient for the consumption of several days.”
At his most basic the creation has a personality that cares for others and craves their acceptance within their lives. And yet no matter how many acts of kindness he performs nobody is willing to accept him within their society, he is always judged by his looks alone and not by his deeds or actions, “he dashed me to the ground and struck me violently with a stick.”
Those were the actions of a family the creature had grown to love from a far, the family he would chop wood for secretly so they never went cold, and yet they were terrified by what they saw, they could not bring themselves to look past the outside to the kind hearted person within.
Mary Shelley gives us the false impression that the creation is the monster of the story, but of course that is not true. Victor is a selfish man whose rejection of his creations leads to his own demise and that of his family, he is the monster of his own creation, he is the true villain.
When the creature is first born his introduction into our world is cruel and unforgiving. His creator, and more rightly father, is horrified by him and abandons him immediately, which for a being of new life is terrifying.
This was not a creature born evil, he was simply a product of Victors unwillingness to accept the truth about his experiement. He tries to reach out to other people, to find the comfort and companionship he should have had from Victor. All he ever wanted was to be accepted, and his one true chance at that was taken cruelly away from him when Victor destroys his companion, “The wretch saw me destroy the creature on whose future existence he depended for happiness, and with a howl of devilish despair and revenge, withdrew.”
It was this harrowing death that pushed the creature to his breaking point. Throughout his entire life he had never known one single act of kindness, he had known only disgust and hatred, based on nothing more than his appearance.
The creature deals with Victor in kind and kills his beloved wife Elizabeth.
Something can not be created evil. It is the surroundings and environment within which they are raised that ultimately influence their behaviour. And we see first hand the creature turn from a kind hearted individual into a killer.
Shelley shows us quite clearly that people focus too much on whats on the outside and forget to look at whats on the inside of another person.
Victor was a reckless monster driven by his own passion and ambition, instead of truly thinking about the ramifications of his actions he focused on his desire to be famous.
When Justine is accused of murder Victor stays silent, he doesn’t tell the truth and take responsibility, he allows another to take the fall, and when the creature threatens him on his wedding day he thinks not of Elizabeth but of himself.
Victor describes his own creation as an animal, he never once looks at it as if it were human. But he’s not the only one to reject him.
The creatures entire life is filled with societal rejection and hatred, and we are able to understand, though not justify, his extreme actions in retribution, after all it is societies fault that he is led to the actions he commits.
When he is on his own the creature is a kind individual, he saves a little girl from drowning and he helps a family survive the harsh winter. But he is not seen as the hero he is but as a monster, and it is that fear and hatred leads to the creation of a monster to rival his creator.
The creation certainly did not wish to be born to be evil, he did not wish to be born at all, yet so many literary experts say that simply because of Victors horrible actions his creation is not a monster, as if excusing his actions. They are both monsters, they are both evil, why cannot that be so? Society turned the creature into a monster but I argue it did the same for Victor. He sought approval and fame, shallow things yes but things that society encourages and rewards. They were both corrupted by the same thing, the views of others.
Vampires have enjoyed something of a renaissance in modern literature and one of the main reasons for that is the sexual nature of what is otherwise a monster from the depths of mankind’s nightmares
Vampires have enjoyed something of a renaissance in modern literature and one of the main reasons for that is the sexual nature of what is otherwise a monster from the depths of mankind’s nightmares.
If we look backwards in time at the first proto-literary vampires they may not have been unable to engage in ‘normal’ sexual activity like their modern day counterparts, but they certainly were not asexual creatures as some people would believe.
To understand the sexual nature of vampirism we really need to look closely at arguably the greatest masterpiece within the entire genre. I am of course talking about Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The sexual nature of vampires is first seen within those pages when Jonathan Harker encounters the three vampire brides who reside within Dracula’s Castle. Harker openly describes the brides as sexually appealing, ” I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with their red lips.” Stoker also described the three brides as sensual predators whose bites were more akin to a kiss. One of the women even anticipated the biting of Harker with her own desires, “He is young and strong; there are kisses for us all.”
An even more obvious allusion to the sexual nature of vampires is given when Lucy Westenra, one of the novels ‘good’ women, becomes distracted by the presence of Dracula. During a sleep walking incident Lucy is found by her friend Mina being fed upon by the Count. This begins Lucy’s transformation from a prim and proper lady of the day into what is described by some as a “sexual monster.” As the vampire took a hold of her Lucy took on a most unladylike voluptuousness that was unbecoming of the period.
Not only this but on her death bed Lucy requests that her lover, Arthur, give her a kiss, when he leans in however she attempts to bite him. Yet its within the blood transfusions meant to save her life that Stoker truly shows his understanding of the sexual nature of the vampire. While never able to consumate his love for Lucy Arthur muses that by sharing his blood with her they have at least, in the eyes of God, been married.
Yet it was not Lucy that was the true goal for Dracula, that dubious honour was held by Mina, an honour that led to the most sexually charged scene of the novel. When Van Helsing realises Dracula’s intentions he calls together the men of the novel and they quickly make for her bedroom. Bursting through the door they discover Dracula sitting on the bed and forcing the poor women to drink his blood from a ragged tear upon his chest.
Dracula does not respond well to the interruption. “His eyes flamed red with devilish passion….” Once he was driven away and Mina realised what had occurred she felt violated and vowed never to “kiss” her husband again.
Stoker will no doubt have taken inspiration, at least somewhat, from the Eastern European vampire lore, including their beliefs as to the vampire’s sexual nature. In southern slavic lore for instance it is believed that when suspected vampire corpses are dug up many will have an erection.
In Gypsie folk lore they too thought of the vampire as a sexual entity. The male vampire for instance was believed to have a sexual appetite so strong that it alone would prove powerful enough to bring the creature back from the grave. His first act upon reawakening would be to return to his widow and engage in sexual intercourse, an activity that would continue nightly, leaving the poor widow exhausted and emaciated.
The more modern interpretation of vampires as young handsome men may take inspiration from the Russian folklore which described the vampire as a young handsome stranger who would lure unsuspecting women to his bedchamber. This tale was used to frighten and curtail the more adventurous of a towns youth.
The original vampire in literature can be found in “The Bride of Corinth” which drew heavily from an ancient Greek tale of a woman who died a virgin and returned from death to enjoy the sexual proclivities of her parents house guest.
Clearly vampires have been creatures of a sexual nature since the human mind invented them. Yet it is only in the modern stories that the sexuality has become so overt.
Carol Fry, author of the compelling article “Fictional Conventions and Sexuality in Dracula”, pointed out that Dracula was also being depicted as a staple of nineteenth-century books, the rake. The purpose of the rake within books was simply to torment and distress the good ladies of upright society. In many ways the stereotypical rake was very much like a vampire in their demenor and actions. In many tales falling for a rake would leave a female character as contaminated as “morally depraved”. Just like this sociatal label of depravitiy Dracula leaves behind his own contamination on the innocent women who fall beneath his charms.
When the creature was brought from the page to the stage Dracula took on a new life. No longer was he relegated to the background he inhabited in the novel, now he was front and centre, a place where it was much easier to understand the romantic appeal of the creature. However it was Christopher Lee and his set of fangs that truly brought the charming romance of Dracula to the mainstream when the count hit the big screen in 1958.
While it was arguably Lee and his portrayal of Dracula that really showed us the sexuality of the vampire he wasn’t the first to do so. In Dracula’s Daughter (1936) a female vampire seduces a young model with a charged sexual appetitie hitherto unseen from the vampiric species.
As human society continued to evolve and sexual proclivites became more normalised it was soon the turn of the vampire to be turned into a semipornographic feature by the French director Jean Rollin. It wasn’t long before other directors released equally risque material around the vampire mythology.
While the vampire continued down this adult orientated genre for some years it was not until the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was released that it really gained momentum.
But thankfully it was not the adult film industry that helped redefine and mold the evil monster of the gothic era into the often romantic lover that we see today though. It was books and mainstream films that created the idea of a vampire being not just sympathetic but often times even a hero.
We can give much of the credit for this new form of vampire to Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint-Germain, who emerged from the pages of the novel not as a blood sucking monster but as a man with convictions and morals, and of course the captivating sensuality that many of his forebears had shown, sometimes he even fell truly in love.
While Germain was unable to have sex traditionally his bite was able to convey an intense sexual pleasure to the recipient, a pleasure women found to be more than adequate.
While books containing the exploits of Germain were being released a new play called Dracula: The Vampire Play in Three Acts was proving a huge draw on Broadway. This would be the first such play to show the public the scene in which Mina is forced to drink Dracula’s blood.
In the novel the scene is akin to rape more than anything else, yet the play transformed it into one of seduction. A transformation that was kept when the play was adapted for the big screen. Gone was the monster, in his place was an attractive foreign nobleman who was able to lure his victims to their demise by the sheer power of his sexual presence.
When Mina now willing rushes to her lover to drink his blood Dracula completes his transformation from being a villain into a hero, and one who lived up to the film’s grand tagline, “Throughout history he has filled the hearts of men with terror, and the hearts of women with desire.” It was this portrayal of Dracula, played by Frank Langella, that then influenced the 1992 Dracula production from the mind of Francis Ford Coppola.
Coppola showed us a young and handsome man who becomes a monster due to the loss of his beloved wife. This Dracula depiction is able to seduce Mina from her weak fiance and a full love story subplot was crafted which ended in a sensual lovemaking climax alongside the iconic blood drinking scene.
Coppola gives us a villain but a sympathetic one who in the end begs for release from his curse so he can die in peace.
The evolution of the vampire into a hero lover was a primary element in the overall permeation of the vampire myth into the culture of late twentieth century society.
Mara McCuniff, the centuries-old vampire of Traci Briery’s The Vampire Memoirs, is overtaken by her sexual urges for three days each month at the time of the full moon,while Lori Herter’s romance novels made the vampire the pinnacle object of a woman’s fantasies.
Sexual tension was an ever present theme throughout the hugely successful Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, which was one of the first vampire stories set in high school with a young adult cast exploring their newly developing sexuality and having numerous human vampire relationships.
The heightened sexuality portrayed within Buffy inevitably spilled over into the literary world with the likes of Anne Rice (interview with a vampire) being criticised for upping the openly sexual content of her later novels in an attempt to broaden her appeal to the new young vampire fans.
Yet it was the inclusion of vampires within the traditional romance book sector that really pushed the vampire, especially male, into popular fiction. After all romance literature now claims half of the book market.
Many of these novels follow a copy and paste plot. They place a young desirable woman into a forbidden and dangerous relationship with the handsome vampire (either hero or villain). One of the first authors to see big success with this model was Charlaine Harris thanks to her series of books, The Southern Vampire Mysteries, which you may know as the television series True Blood.
This fascination with vampires trickled down from adult romance novels in the first decade of the new millennium and into the rapidly growing YA scene. An early example of this is the hugely successful vampire diaries series. While L. J. Smith published the first three books in the 1990’s it gained much of its popularity in the late 2000’s with its TV adaptation and she returned the finish the series.
Of course there’s one vampire iteration that has to be spoken about. The popularity of the blood sucking monster hit new heights with the release of Twilight in 2005. Stephanie Meyers heroine was a high school girl who finds her true love in a handsome vampire, and kind of also in a werewolf but this article isn’t about them.
Bella Swan and her vampire lover Edward Cullen are faced with holding back their expressions of sexual attraction until marriage, which only occurs at the end of the book series.
This sexualizing and romanticizing of the vampire in fiction may depart from the common belief of a mere monster, but it is certainly not new for the creature of mythology.
As discussed earlier many a native folklore tell of, a vampire like creature with a seductive sexuality that mingles naturally with its innate monstrous nature.
Sadly modern vampire depictions seem intent on lessening the monstrous origins of the creature in favour of salacious sexuality. There is a natural balance in the myth that is being lost in its modern depictions.
What this evolution into the peak of sexuality has ensured though is that vampires will remain a focus of fictional works for many years to come.