The whale avatar of the Hindoos in Melville's Moby Dick

Bruce M. Sullivan, Patricia Wong Hall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Herman Melville depicted the great whale Moby Dick as a powerful force of nature, impossible to comprehend fully. He attributes to the whale not only great antiquity, but also divinity. One of the most striking and effective ways in which he does so is by describing the whale as a manifestation (avatar) of the Hindu deity Vishnu, whose mythology he recounts, the Matsya Avatāra. These passages are analysed in the context of the novel's other references to India and Hindu religious thought. In an effort to interpret the significance of India and Hinduism in the novel, aspects of Melville's life and thought are also analysed. We conclude that the structure of the myth of the fish avatar is reflected in the novel's structure, arid that the novel presents a concept of the divine at variance with Christian theological orthodoxy. But in the great Sperm Whale, this high and mighty god-like dignity inherent in the brow is so immensely amplified, that gazing on it, in that full front view, you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object in living nature.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)358-372
Number of pages15
JournalLiterature and Theology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2001

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Religious studies
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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