Authors throughout history have used the biblical accounts to enhance their own story. Herman Melville's classic American novel Moby Dick is no exception. In Moby Dick, Melville uses innumerable biblical allusions, but readers can observe this literary technique best in the naming of his characters. The use of the Bible in literature is a powerful tool for an author; it allows him to place his characters and plot within an immortal context. Each character lives for a finite amount of time, but given a biblical name he will live forever in scripture. Also, the author's comparison of aspects of a novel allows the reader to know something more about the characters, settings, and context without an author's introduction.
The reader brings a pre-formed notion to the text from his knowledge of the biblical material. Knowing this adds more poignancy to the frustration that Ahab has over his mission to kill the whale. In Moby Dick Melville acts as both parent and inventor. As author, he creates the characters and names them. Ishmael begins Moby Dick saying "Call me Ishmael." (Melville 1) We do not know if this is his real name but he chooses to identify with the biblical character.
It is interesting to consider the name of Ishmael in respect to all the other biblical names of the novel. Ishmael is the only one who chooses his, while Melville determines the others' names. This is particularly significant in regard to Ahab. Ishmael is the only one with the power to choose his fate because he is able to choose his name. Ishmael chooses God as his protector when most other people have a parent. Ishmael's survival story is incredible and supports the idea that God was looking out for him since he is the only one to survive.
Because God is willing to save Ishmael, Melville is willing to save him as well; Ishmael is the only one to survive. Ahab is another person all his own, with his own past and biblical reigned as the king of the Israel for 22 years. During his reign he made a pact with Judah. Ishmael and Ahab are given a past beyond their present and given the ability to live forever.
The use of Ahab in Moby Dick is very powerful. Throughout the novel, many of the characteristics of Ahab the king are seen in Ahab the captain. The reader's recognition with Ahab as the most evil king as well as an idolater supplies important information to the reader before he even begins to read. Melville explicitly wants the reader to be aware of these ideas and in his introduction of Captain Ahab he refers to Ahab as, "a crowned king!" (Melville 77) Though Ishmael asks if king Ahab was "a very vile one," (Melville 77) Peleg later tells him that, ."..
Captain Ahab did not name himself. Twas a foolish, ignorant whim of his crazy, widowed mother, who dies when he was only a twelvemonth old... wrong not Captain Ahab, because he happens to have a wicked name." (Melville 77-78) This passage clearly shows the multiple significance of the dialogue. Melville strongly points out that we, as readers, should associate the captain with the king.
It is interesting, though, that Peleg wants us to recognize the kingship of Ahab, but not what he did as king. What is important to Peleg is the honor and respect demanded by a sovereign, which should be bestowed upon Ahab. Ishmael is the one who reminds the readers what Melville wants to remember of the evil king: not his achievements and majesty but his wicked acts and his punishments. The justification given, discrediting the connotations of Ahab as an evil king -- that Ahab did not chose his name -- is an important point to juxtapose with the naming of "Ishmael" The readers do not know if this is his true name. Ishmael names himself and consciously identifies with the biblical character. Ahab has no choice in the matter.
Melville chooses his name and associated him with the evil king. Biblical connections, in literature, serve as a bridge between two worlds. It allows authors to convey ideas that would not be comprehendible any other way. Melville takes advantage of this concept, and draws connections between biblical characters and his own. Readers, with a little biblical knowledge, can convert a complex novel to an understandable one.