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The Call of Classical Literature in the Romantic Age$
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K. P. Van Anglen and James Engell

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781474429641

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474429641.001.0001

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“In the face of the fire”: Melville’s Prometheus, Classical and Romantic Contexts

“In the face of the fire”: Melville’s Prometheus, Classical and Romantic Contexts

Chapter:
(p.241) Chapter 9 “In the face of the fire”: Melville’s Prometheus, Classical and Romantic Contexts
Source:
The Call of Classical Literature in the Romantic Age
Author(s):

John P. McWilliams

Publisher:
Edinburgh University Press
DOI:10.3366/edinburgh/9781474429641.003.0010

Prometheus is a crucial analogue through which Ishmael’s quest to know the whale, and Ahab’s quest to destroy it, are to be understood. Melville’s Promethean references are located in the context of literature about Prometheus (Hesiod, Aeschylus, Plato), more particularly in the context of the Romantics’ understanding of Prometheus (Goethe’s “Prometheus,” Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus). Melville had read Frankenstein before writing Moby-Dick. It seems sure that he had read both Aeschylus (a copy of Aeschylus’s plays bought in 1849 in London) and Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (references to Demogorgon). This essay focuses not on source hunting but rather on how Melville refashioned the Romantic Prometheus to fit the kinds of opposed, paradoxical judgments that his imagination habitually evoked. Ahab’s compulsive Promethean need to “gaze too long in the face of the fire” (“The Try-Works”) emerges both as a daring heroism (on the Aeschylean pattern) and as a self-destructive solipsism of vengeance (in accord with Melville’s image of Narcissus as “the key to it all” in “Loomings”).

Keywords:   Aeschylus, Ahab, fire, Frankenstein, knowledge, Melville, Moby-Dick, Prometheus, quest, vengeance

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