Herman Melville's iconic novel Moby-Dick contains in its 135 chapters dozens of symbolic images artfully connected and expanded. The power of the imagery lies in how the symbols reappear throughout, like a juggler's balls constantly in the air. These range from lofty literary and Biblical allusions to simple words with archetypal associations. One such simple word is ‘hammer.'
While a hammer seems an everyday object, it has some distinctive qualities. It is widely considered the oldest type of tool, its use possibly pre-dating Neanderthals; the basic design has bred thousands of variations for uses ranging from tiny mechanical parts to lethal war-hammers; and it has been purposefully imbued with symbolic meaning by its adoption in Communist flags and artwork. Hence, global associations with work, labor, death, and progress.
[...] Soon after the ship is damaged and Ahab tragically identifies it as the second hearse that fulfills his prophecy, in his last lines of speech, he demands to hear Tashtego's hammer ring out against the mast. This final command cements the hammer as a symbol of his defiant crusade. The last three instances of the word come in the last paragraphs, as the hammer in Tashtego's arm, slipping beneath the surface of the sea, swings toward the mast. As it lands, a hawk appears from the sky to intercept the blow and is pulled below [...]
[...] Whereas for the English captain and the blacksmith the hammer is a symbol of re-entry into the sane, toiling world, in the hands of Ahab, (whose identity as a skilled captain was undermined by Moby-Dick), the hammer is portrayed as a symbol of defiant clinging to his old identity- an implication that comes to dominate the remainder of the book. The next chapter illustrates this warp in the hammer's meaning. While Perth is hammering a pike-head, Ahab approaches and watches him work. [...]
[...] Here, the expression becomes “sledge-hammering seas.” In the hierarchy of hammers, the sledge is the ultimate power hammer, used not to put things together but to demolish and obliterate, as the sea ultimately does. The sound of hammers becomes a constant in the final action. The second to last chapter, Chase Second closes with the sound of hammers reverberating throughout the night, rebuilding the broken boats of The Pequod: everything passed nearly as on the previous night; only, the sound of hammers and the hum of the grind-stone was heard till nearly daylight, as the men toiled by lanterns in the complete and careful rigging of the spare boats and sharpening their fresh weapons for the morrow (419). [...]
[...] Except for allusions to gods of the sea, the ocean itself is rarely personified in the novel. It is compared to dozens of other images, for example, fields of flowers, but it is only scarcely described in human actions. In the first 118 chapters, the word ‘hammer' is used exclusively to describe the tool or express the actions of a human agent. Beginning with chapter 119, Candles,” however, the word also begins to describe the action of the sea. The chapter with the candles is the obligatory storm chapter that every good nautical story contains, and on page 380, Starbuck describes the gale “hammering” at them to stave them. [...]
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