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Monstrous Mechanized Man: The Transubstantiated Laboring Body in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick

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The mechanization of labor and its effects on the body are central concerns in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick. In Call Me Ishmael Charles Olson provides an historical context for the status of whaling in the mid-19th century. Olson insists that critics have not placed enough emphasis on whaling’s influence on the American economy, and reminds us that, “whaling expanded at a time when agriculture not industry was the base of labor” (18). Despite agriculture’s prominence, Olson understands whaling as industrially innovative, and so reads the “whale ship as factory” (23). Correspondingly, industrial transformation requires the transformation of the laboring body. Thomas Carlyle’s prescient essay “Signs of the Times” (1829) explores how mechanization extends beyond the factory, converting man and his social relations into mechanisms designed to maximize value production. On the basis of these two claims, my project will explore how whaling transforms not simply the laboring body of the crew, but also that of their captain as he, in turn, transubstantiates the crew and the vessel (the ship of state) into an instrument apt to the ends of industrial capital. Through an examination of Ahab’s leg, my second chapter explores how Captain Ahab perceives that his transubstantiated leg grants him access to the metaphysical. My third chapter reveals how Ahab’s body complicates his attempts to scorn his physical limitations, a scorn that highlights the absolute mixing of his body with the logic of capital. I conclude with an inquiry into Ishmael’s use of free indirect discourse to argue that in choosing to listen primarily to Ahab’s voice, Ishmael precludes himself from imagining any ending other than the Pequod’s death.

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