Melville and the fire -eaters: Satiric strategies in “Moby -Dick”

Susan Garbarini Fanning, Fordham University


This study examines how the Congressional slavery debates of 1820–1850 influenced Melville's conception of his masterwork. My thesis is that Moby-Dick may be read productively as a narrative satire written in the tradition of late-Renaissance and neoclassical satirists such as Rabelais, Swift, and Sterne, and that it exposes, in an often unflattering light, the ideological controversies gripping the nation at midcentury. Following Alan Heimert's suggestion that Ahab is an analogue for proslavery and states' rights advocate John C. Calhoun, I argue that while Melville's primary target is the South and its stubborn defense of the slave system, his secondary target is a northern commercial interest in tandem with a federal government that perpetuated slavery for the sake of profit and a tenuous peace. In “Melville and the Fire-Eaters,” I apply Mikhail Bakhtin's and Michael Seidel's theories relating to the disjunctive novel form to Melville's use of the satiric mode in Moby-Dick, particularly satire's dialogism, its indirection, and its degenerative quality which rebel against conventional narrative form. I argue that this aesthetic “rebellion” reflects the rupture taking place in the political arena. I explain how Melville, using Ishmael as ironic surrogate, enters the ideological debate, juxtaposing his egalitarian belief system primarily with the white supremacy of southern fire-eaters. Melville's subversive portrayal of black characters in Moby-Dick and his bold dissection of the material body of the “whale” (American democracy) push the reader to question, if not overthrow, previously sacrosanct “truths” and to adopt a more flexible view of the nation's political destiny.

Subject Area

American literature|American history

Recommended Citation

Fanning, Susan Garbarini, "Melville and the fire -eaters: Satiric strategies in “Moby -Dick”" (2001). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3017547.