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The relationship of Nature and Man in Turner’s sea-scenes and Melville’s Moby-Dick

Réka Takacs Toth


L´objectif de cette analyse est de révéler les parallèles entre les paysages maritimes du peintre anglais Joseph Mallord William Turner et le roman de Herman Melville intitulé Moby-Dick. L´analyse se concentre sur la représentation de la relation entre l´Homme et la Nature chez les deux artistes ; une relation qui est devenue assez problématique à la suite de l´industrialisation rapide du XIXe siècle. Bien que Melville connût à peine les oeuvres de Turner lorsqu´il écrivait Moby-Dick, la représentation de la relation de l´homme face à la nature chez l´écrivain américain est très semblable à celle présente dans les oeuvres du peintre anglais.

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1The possible influence of the English painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) can no longer be debated due to the extensive scholarly research carried out by Robert K. Wallace. In his essay, Bulkington, J. M. W. Turner and The Lee Shore, Wallace provides a thorough analysis of the said chapter of Moby-Dick with a constant eye on Turner’s ‘lee shore-paintings’, claiming that The Lee Shore chapter and the figure of Bulkington are not mere leftovers from an earlier version of the novel, albeit literary criticism has been content to believe so for the ‘out-of-place’ quality of both text and character, but they pay an everlasting tribute to the painter who had a ‘life-long encounter with the phenomenon of the lee shore’ (Wallace 69-70). Wallace carefully investigates the sources from which Melville could have extricated information about Turner’s pictures: he read John Ruskin’s Modern Painters, the first volume of which came out in America in 1847, visited Greenwich Hospital and the Vernon Collection where he saw historical paintings and some Italian scenes by Turner in 1849 (56-57). This year brought him the friendship of the English poet, Samuel Rogers whose private collection included some of Turner’s sea-pieces and a folio of engravings made by contemporary artists of Turner’s lee-shore pictures (Wallace 57). Apart from Wallace’s essay, Melville’s critical biography also provides us with valuable information on the American writer’s familiarity and fascination with Turner’s paintings; in 1857 Melville made another tour to London and this time he had the opportunity to satisfy ‘a profound aesthetic craving’ (Parker 341): he went to the Vernon & Turner galleries to see, among many others, Turner’s probably most well-known scene, The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to Be Broken up.

2Despite the fact that the text of Moby-Dick contains no direct reference to the English painter; what’s more his name does not even come up in Chapters 55-57 (Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales,Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes,Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in Stone; in Mountains; in Stars) which address exclusively artistic representations of whaling with an open appreciation of French artists (‘The French are the lads for painting action’; Melville 374), the numerous parallels both in idea and in representation between Melville’s and Turner’s style seem to substantiate the hypothesis that the influence of Turner on Melville was much more subconscious than the American writer would have thought at the time when he wrote Moby-Dick. Robert K. Wallace obviously did not regard the influence subconscious as he believes The Lee Shore chapter and Bulkington to be expressions of admiration toward Turner and his work (Wallace 69-70), and he has a firm ground to claim so, knowing that Melville had access to the Lee Shore-engravings mentioned above; nevertheless, there are other cases when textual evidences do not abound to substantiate the hypothesis of a possible relation: Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is a case in point. Harold Beaver asserts that Poe’s only published novel abounds in possible parallels with Melville’s novel; yet there is no existing evidence to prove that Melville had actually read Poe at all before 1860 (Beaver 278). Though there may be similar theories concerning the possible sources that made an impact on Melville in writing his novel it is certainly true that Melville unconsciously addressed many problems and shared a framework of thought that seem apparent in Turner’s work. My intention is to adumbrate those key-motives in the two artists’ works substantiating the existence of such a theoretical framework with a keen eye on their rendering the relationship of Nature and Man in its various aspects: human nature modeled on Nature, human enterprise as violation of Nature and Nature’s revenge on Mankind as a result of the said violation.

The cruelty of Man and Nature: human nature modeled on Nature

3Chapter 18, His Mark of Moby-Dick relates Ishmael introducing Queequeg to the two owners of the Pequod whose opinions on the pagan harpooner diverse to a great extent: Captain Peleg, being a pragmatic character, immediately takes to the cannibal for the latter’s presumed capabilities in catching a whale, whereas Captain Bildad, a pious Quaker expresses his doubts concerning Queequeg’s religion. Peleg’s answer to his doubts displays what side of human nature is pre-requisite to whaling: ‘Pious harpooneers never make good voyagers – it takes the shark out of ‘em; no harpooneer is worth a straw who aint pretty sharkis’ (187; italics mine). Sharkishness as an overruling principle is presently circumscribed to the nature of a harpooner and whaling; however, it does not remain so: the next appearance of ‘sharks’ conveys a more general meaning of sharkishness with regards to human nature. Chapter 64, Stubb’s Supper provides us with a description of sharks feasting on the flesh of the dead whale suspended on the side of the ship:

Nor was Stubb the only banqueter on whale’s flesh that night. Mingling their mumblings with his own mastication, thousands on thousands of sharks, swarming round the dead leviathan, smackingly feasted on its fatness. The few sleepers below in their bunks were often startled by the sharp slapping of their tails against the hull, within a few inches of the sleepers’ hearts. Peering over the side you could just see them (as before you heard them) wallowing in the sullen, black waters, and turning over on their backs as they scooped out huge globular pieces of the whale of the bigness of a human head. (398)   

4The sharks’ fighting feast is dangerously ‘close’ to the sleepers’ hearts; in addition, Stubb is not revolted against the expression of predatory instincts so close to human nature but rather against the noise the sharks make: ‘What a shindy they are kicking up! Cook, go and talk to ‘em; tell ‘em they are welcome to help themselves civilly, and in moderation, but they must keep quiet.’(400) He deliberately compares himself to the sharks when he tells off the cook for making his steak tender (‘don’t you see they [the sharks] prefer it tough and rare?’ – 400) and the cook delivers his sermon to the sharks, his “congregation” in much the same way as a parson would to his flock, addressing them as ‘fellow-critters’ (400). The sharkishness of human nature anticipated in Peleg’s view of good harpooners gets its full interpretation not only in this chapter but in Chapter 89, Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish which delineates the practice of claiming possession over the carcass of a whale at sea asserting that should the dead whale float without any apparent indicator of its belonging to a certain ship, it is fair-play to anyone to capture who gets there first.

5Cruelty, competitiveness and possessiveness represented by sharks/ Nature and men appear to be the central motives of Turner’s painting The Slave Ship or Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and the Dying – Typhoon Coming on (Fig. 1) exhibited in 1840.

6Although slavery had been abolished throughout the British Empire by the time the picture was exhibited, it still derives its powerful mood from the inhuman practice of slave traders to throw the dead and dying human ‘cargo’ into the sea ‘so that they could claim the insurance for drowning’ (Wikipedia). Human unscrupulousness is juxtaposed with the cruelty of the sea: in the foreground of the picture a human limb still in manacles is visible surrounded by sharks and birds of prey. The painting was inspired by the following lines from James Thompson’s The Seasons (1730):

Increasing still the Terrors of these Storms,
His Jaws horrific arm'd with threefold Fate,
Here dwells the direful Shark. Lur'd by the Scent
Of steaming Crowds, of rank Disease, and Death,
Behold! he rushing cuts the briny Flood,
Swift as the Gale can bear the Ship along;
And, from the Partners of the cruel Trade,
Which spoils unhappy Guinea of her Sons,
Demands his share of Prey, demands themselves.
The stormy Fate descend: one Death involves
Tyrants and Slaves; when strait, their mangled Limbs
Crashing at once, he dyes the purple Seas
With Gore, and riots in the vengeful Meal.
(Summer, II.1013-25)

7The lines equate human and natural evil, binding man and shark in a partnership of ‘the cruel Trade’; the same connection is built upon both by Melville and Turner. Interestingly, Melville’s textual references in the chapters mentioned above also draw on identification between sharks and human slavers. In Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish we read the following comment by the narrator: ‘Is it not a saying in every one’s mouth, Possession is half of the law: that is, regardless of how the thing came into possession? But often possession is the whole of the law. What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish, whereof possession is the whole of the law?’ (507). Stubb’s Supper provides an even more striking parallel with Turner:

Though amid all the smoking horror and diabolism of a sea-fight, sharks will be seen longingly gazing up to the ship’s decks, like hungry dogs round a table where red meat is being carved, ready to bolt down every killed man that is tossed to them; and though, while the valiant butchers over the deck-table are thus cannibally carving each other’s live meat with carving-knives all gilded and tasseled, the sharks, also, with their jewel-hilted mouths, are quarrelsomely carving away under the table at the dead meat; and though, were you to turn the whole affair upside down, it would still be pretty much the same thing, that is to say, a shocking sharkish business enough for all parties; and though sharks also are the invariable outriders of all slave ships crossing the Atlantic, systematically trotting alongside, to be handy in case a parcel is to be carried anywhere, or a dead slave to be decently buried […]. (399)

8Had Moby-Dick been published some eleven years before, Turner’s painting would probably have been exhibited with the lines quoted above; the text conveys an idea so close to that of the visual representation. Furthermore, both Melville and Turner found means to vindicate animal instinct and condemn human choice: Melville’s narrator emphasizes the difference in motivation with the line: ‘the valiant butchers over the deck-table are thus cannibally carving each other’s live meat with carving-knives all gilded and tasseled’ (italics mine); whereas Turner pronounces sentence over the slavers by submitting their ship to the punishment of a terrible sea-storm. The sharkishness of human nature modeled on Nature finds no sympathy with either artist, which they hasten to articulate in diverse ways. In the following chapter we will attempt to highlight how they represent human action one step further, that is, in Man’s act of violating Nature’s laws and trying to take it under his control.

Human enterprise as violation of Nature

9The sharkishness of human nature, the unquenchable urge to compete, to possess was the inevitable result of a new kind of perspective that emerged in nineteenth-century America. According to George Santayana, ‘America is a country with two mentalities’: the genteel tradition promoted the ‘survival of the beliefs and standards of the fathers’; it represented a more feminine, a more traditional way of life, and a purely intellectual/theoretical perspective as opposed to a more masculine tendency characterized by aggressive enterprise, ‘the practice and discoveries of the younger generation’ (Santayana 39). Santayana employs architectural symbolism to stress the opposition: the colonial mansion stands for the former, the skyscraper for the latter (39-40). Although Santayana made his famous talk on the schizophrenic state of his country in 1911, his ideas are easily applicable to society and thought in Melville’s America. Ishmael himself is representative of the said dichotomy: he used to be a school-teacher and as such has his roots in an intellectual tradition which, however, has given way to a more pragmatic view: first as a hand on merchant-ships, then as a sailor on a whaling ship he is now in the thick of the action and he very often presents bookish/purely theoretical knowledge with a tinge of irony – if we think of the Cetology chapter, for instance. However, the dualism of old and new is not restricted to Ishmael’s character: Captain Bildad and Peleg, the pious Quaker and the profit-hunter owner of the ship stand for two different kinds of mentality; so does Ahab and Starbuck, which becomes all the more clear when the chief mate rejects to participate in his captain’s lunatic plan:

I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow; but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market. (261)

10As we see, the dualism of intellect and will, theory and practice, ideas and profit seem to be underlying principles in the text of Moby-Dick, constituted by the changes in thought that characterized the era in which the novel takes place.  

11The problem of transition was a primary concern of Turner, as well; his painting The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to Be Broken up (1838, Fig. 2) is a case in point.

12The subject of the picture is built upon the contrast of a declining age characterized by romantic heroism and a new-born industrial era supported by individual enterprise and technical inventions. The ‘Temeraire’, a slender, graceful warship that served in the Battle of Trafalgar is heading for its last journey: she is to be broken up, as she is no longer efficient in an age when naval industry is dominated by the powerful steam-ship. The ‘Temeraire’ relies on natural elements to be able to serve its purpose; the tug-boat is self-sufficient, hence a perfect symbol of human industry violating and alienating itself from Nature. If Melville tended to use contrasts to underline concepts of a dualistic nature, Turner did even more so: he loved contrasts (Lindsay 189) and employed warm and cold colours to express them. The red and yellow of the sunset in the background are juxtaposed to the silvery light of the moon in the foreground: this juxtaposition seconds the central concept of the painting: the contrast of old and new. The transition was a sad one for the painter; the lines the picture was exhibited with show that Turner must have felt a tinge of regret over the passing of the old era: ‘The flag which braved the battle and the breeze/ No longer owns her’, which is a misquotation of Thomas Campbell’s poem Ye mariners of England (Wilton 176). Melville expresses a similar concern in The Honor and Glory of Whaling when Ishmael remarks: ‘Those were the knightly days of our profession, when we only bore arms to succor the distressed, and not to fill men’s lamp-feeders.’ (470) Melville saw the painting at the Turner gallery in 1857 and must have been hugely impressed with it, as he commemorated the subject in one of his poems (Parker 341):

But Trafalgar is over now,
The quarter-deck undone;
The carved and castled navies fire
Their evening-gun.
O, Titan Temeraire,
Your stern-lights fade away;
Your bulwarks to the years must yield,
And heart-of-oak decay.
A pigmy steam-tug tows you,
Gigantic, to the shore--
Dismantled of your guns and spars,
And sweeping wings of war.
The rivets clinch the iron clads,
Men learn a deadlier lore;
But Fame has nailed your battle-flags--
Your ghost it sails before:
O, the navies old and oaken,
O, the Temeraire no more!
(Herman Melville, The Temeraire, 1883)

13A later painting by Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844, Fig. 3) places an even stronger focus on human-made objects violating Nature. The right-hand side of the painting is dominated by the fast and energetic steam-train which is about to run over a hare hopping across the rails. The contrast of rapidly growing human industry and Nature deepens if we look at the left-hand side of the picture which depicts idyllic, almost pastoral scenes with Man living in harmony with Nature: maidens dancing on the meadow and a tiny fishing boat slowly floating on the quiet, peaceful river.

14The problem of transition with Melville and Turner does not necessarily lie in Santayana’s juxtaposition of intellect and will, theory and practice: as we have seen in Ishmael’s character, Melville was strongly against purely bookish learning (‘a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard’ – 208). Turner similarly voted for direct experience; for his painting Snowstorm he studied the effects of a snowstorm at sea by asking the sailors on a voyage to lash him to the mast and he remained there for four hours (Lindsay 191). On another occasion, before painting Rain, Steam and Speed – a picture much criticized for its improbability and ridiculous distortions (Egri 46) – Turner was traveling on a train when a storm broke out and he was sticking his head out of the window for nine minutes so that later he could faithfully recollect his impressions (Egri 46-47). Melville’s and Turner’s problem with transition was, therefore, that it gave way to a purely profit-oriented, competitive tendency that segregated Man from Nature and violated the equilibrium between the two. It developed the sharkish side of human nature, discussed in the previous chapter, which does not seek compromise but elbows its way at all costs. Nature, however, fights back – a subject that remained unsaid neither by Turner nor Melville.

Nature’s revenge on Mankind

15The age-old topos of the antagonistic relationship of Man and Sea proliferates in the text of Moby-Dick; The Lee Shore chapter recounts the numberless perils the ship is exposed to as soon as she sails off the port:

The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing, fights ‘gainst the very winds that fain would blow her homeward; she seeks all the lashed sea’s landlessness again; for refuge’s sake forlornly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe! (202-203)

16As the passage shows, Nature has the capacity to reverse qualities; what has meant comfort and safety to man on land, all of a sudden becomes his direst enemy. Turner made a great number of paintings and sketches on the dangers of ‘going out’ and ‘coming in’ (Wallace 60); these pictorial representations never depict a peaceful and calm sea – unlike those of the marine painter, R. P. Bonington whose name was also familiar to Melville (Wallace 75), but show man and man-made objects as completely exposed to and victimized by the elemental forces of nature.  

17Amongst the numerous perils of the sea emerges the danger of hunting the spermaceti. The Sperm Whale, and Moby Dick in particular, as the fiercest animal of the waters and as such the epitome of the most fearsome forces of nature is represented as the one showing a strong inclination to take revenge on those who attack him. As Ishamel informs us:

Nor was it his unwonted magnitude, nor his remarkable hue, nor yet his deformed lower jaw, that so much invested the whale with natural terror, as that unexampled, intelligent malignity which, according to specific accounts, he had over and over again evinced in his assaults. More than all, his treacherous retreats struck more of dismay than perhaps aught else. For, when swimming before his exulting pursuers, with every apparent symbol of alarm, he had several times been known to turn round suddenly, and bearing down upon them, either stave their boats to splinters, or drive them back in consternation to their ship. (282)

18Moby Dick must be seen, then, not only as the embodiment of all evil as from Ahab’s perspective but also as the symbol of vengeful Nature bearing down on those who violate its sphere. The outcome of the novel unmistakably clarifies who gets the upper hand in the fight; yet it is worth concentrating on how Man responds to the defeat:

But as the last whelmings intermixingly poured themselves over the sunken head of the Indian at the mainmast, leaving few inches of the erect spar yet visible, together with long streaming yards of the flag, which calmly undulated, with ironical coinciding, over the destroying billows they almost touched; - at that instant, a red arm and a hammer hovered backwardly uplifted in the open air, in the act of nailing the flag faster and yet faster to the subsiding spar. (685)

19When Nature eventually defeats and punishes Man, a heroic representation of humankind contaminates the text. Turner seems to have chosen the same resolution for his human figures: The Shipwreck: Fishing-Boats Endeavouring to Rescue the Crew (1805, Fig. 4) is characterized by ‘the realism of the storm-tossed sea and the ship-wrecked sailors desperately trying to survive’ (Gatt 28).

20Although Man is inevitably the victim of the fury of Nature, he is not depicted as a passive observer but is assigned an active role in saving himself: the painting shows a breathtakingly dynamic scene in which the whirling movements of the sea are counterbalanced by the leaning-bowing movements of human figures.

21Calais Pier (1803, Fig. 5) introduces the pier, a human invention with which men try to curb the impending dangers of the lee shore, whereas Fisherman Upon a Lee Shore, in Squally Weather (1802, Fig. 6) shows a steam-boat in the background tugging away a ship from the lee shore against the wind. Giuseppe Gatt asserts that Turner ‘strove to express a living, modern conception of history in which man is responsible for his own destiny’ (8).

22Although Man realizes the countless perils he might encounter at sea, he bears the thought with equanimity and tries his best to maintain an erect position while being tossed about by the furious waves, as does the captain when a gam occurs and he is transported to the other ship:

And often you will notice that being conscious of the eyes of the whole visible world resting on him from the sides of the two ships, this standing captain is all alive to the importance of sustaining his dignity by maintaining his legs. […] it would never do, I say, for this straddling captain to be seen steadying himself the slightest particle by catching hold of anything with his hands; indeed, as a token of his entire, buoyant self-command, he generally carries his hands in his trousers’ pockets […]. (344)


23Comparing Turner’s and Melville’s representations of the relationship of Nature and Man, one might recognize that even though the American writer had a limited access to the English painter’s works and he saw with a few exceptions none of the paintings I have chosen to demonstrate corresponding ideas and concepts, the two artists shared a framework of thought, which cannot be dismissed as irrelevant. Both had an eye on the three aspects of the said relationship, and both produced ambiguous representations of it. The sharkishness of human nature engendered by a rapidly industrializing society which involves the violation of Nature that surrounds Man bears equally negative connotations in Turner’s paintings and Melville’s Moby-Dick; yet Nature seems to have the capacity to reform man and induce a more positive, heroic representation of him. Both Melville and Turner cherish human effort in the face of obstacles and are ready to admire this effort, whereas they shrink from the prospect of a self-devouring, self-annihilating society.

24It is certainly true that having seen Turner’s scenes, Melville did make a use of them, the lee shore-pictures or The Temeraire poem are cases in point. Nevertheless, the concepts studied in this paper suppose a kind of spiritual, if not transcendental correspondence between the two artists, as Melville, quite independently of Turner conceived Man’s relationship with Nature in a very similar manner as the English painter did a few years before him.

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Beaver, Harold, Poe and Melville, in Poe, Edgar Allan, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket New York, Penguin Books, 1975, 278–281.

Egri, Péter, Érték és képzelet: Shelley, Turner, Field és Chopin [Value and Imagination: Shelley, Turner, Field and Chopin], Budapest, Akadémiai, 1994.

Gatt, Giuseppe, Turner, London, Thames & Hudson, 1968.

Lindsay, Jack, J. M. W. Turner: A Critical Biography, London, Cory, Adams & Mackay, 1966.

Melville, Herman, Moby-Dick, London, Penguin Books Ltd., 1986.

_________, The Temeraire, Accessed 28 April 2010.

Parker, Hershel, Herman Melville: A Biography, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996-2002.

Santayana, George, “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy” (1911), in The Genteel Tradition: Nine Essays by George Santayana, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1967, 37–64.

Wallace, Robert K., “Bulkington, J. M. W. Turner and ‘The Lee Shore’”, in Savage Eye: Melville and the Visual Arts, ed. Christopher Sten, Kent, Kent State University Press, 1991. 55–77.

Wikipedia, The Slave Ship, Accessed 27 April 2010.

Wilton, Andrew, Turner in his Time, London, Thames & Hudson, 1987.

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Réka Takacs Toth, « The relationship of Nature and Man in Turner’s sea-scenes and Melville’s Moby-Dick », TRANS- [En ligne], 10 | 2010, mis en ligne le 08 juillet 2010, consulté le 19 février 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Réka Takacs Toth

Second-year Phd Student of the Modern English and American Literature Doctoral Program at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary. Topics of research: 18th-19th century English female gothic novels, the reception of British-American gothic/horror writers in Hungary, gothic motifs in 18th-19th century English painting

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