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Nailed to Desks: Symbolism of the Hammer in Moby-Dick

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  1. While a hammer seems an everyday object, it has some distinctive qualities.
  2. Hammers, literal or figurative, appear from early in the novel, but the frequency of appearance and the intensity of associated imagery increase as the novel progresses, through to the final lines
  3. The presence of hammers aboard a whaling ship like The Pequod in Moby-Dick is no surprise, but varied uses of the word reveal a range of ways in which deeper conclusions can be drawn from the work
  4. The next mention comes in ?The Quarter-Deck,? in the scene in which Ahab nails the gold doubloon to the main-mast.
  5. The hammer further develops as a symbol in the chapters ?The Blacksmith? and ?The Forge.?
  6. So the hammer, representing labor personified, is portrayed as a happy thing when it is productive
  7. Except for allusions to gods of the sea, the ocean itself is rarely personified in the novel.
  8. Similarly, in the very final pages, in chapter 135 ?The Chase - Third Day,? Moby-Dick sounds, diving beneath the surface
  9. However, the sound of those hammers clanging does continue in the background of the final chapter until the last paragraph

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. [...]

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