Still searching to understand Melville, I found this fascinating article:
Calvinist America and the Catholic Contribution to Culture DONALD DEMARCO
Here is an excerpt:
Melville's Moby Dick
The most powerful, the most imaginative, the most startling, and the most unforgettable refutation of Calvinism in America is found in Herman Melville's classic, Moby-Dick. Dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who himself has been dubbed “Calvin's ironic stepchild,” Melville's masterpiece is the first American novel to win a place in the literature of the world and has been called “the greatest of American novels” and “the one undoubted classic of American literature.” Nobel Laureate William Faulkner called it the book he would have liked to have written.
The substance of the drama emerges in the fierce tension that exists between the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man. Captain Ahab, who commands the whaling vessel, personifies man's depravity. He consider! himself already damned. He is the reprobate, the unelected soul who is forever doomed to perdition by an angry God. He visualizes the white whale as a monster embodying the features of that very God. He is determined not to allow God or fate to rob him of any claim he has to something that is his own. Ahab defies God in order to define himself.
Ahab is a Nietzchean figure who rages against the God who renders him insignificant. He struggles fanatically against the thought that he might be nothing more than an ineffectual trifle. He sees malice in the attack of the whale, the same malice that Calvinism's God directs against those whom he chooses not to redeem. The fate of the reprobate, in Calvinist teaching, is to suffer a horrible existence both in this life and in the next, one characterized by reciprocal hatred, God hating the sinner as the sinner hates God. Calvin himself referred to this predicament as “dreadful.” To Ahab, the dreadful situation was intolerable -thus, the ferocity of his rage.
In his probing study, Moby-Dick and Calvinism: A World Dismantled, T. Walter Herbert, Jr. asserts that “Melville ... uses Ahab to explore the fate of human dignity in a world seemingly controlled by an enraged Calvinist God.” The only dignified act of depraved man is to revolt against the misery of life that is preordained by a cruel God. Ahab is desperately seeking dignity by destroying the whale that symbolizes for him the source of all his sufferings.
Starbuck tries to reason with Ahab, suggesting that seeking vengeance on a dumb brute seems blasphemous. But for Ahab, everything in the cosmos is a kind of “pasteboard mask” behind which lurks the malevolent will of an unseen and inscrutable deity. “The inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate,” Ahab retorts. “And be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man: I'd strike the sun if it insulted me.”
Calvin had assured that “Those who seek to know more than God has revealed are madmen.” For Ahab, it is a greater madness to submit to a force that one can neither understand nor respect. “I see in him outrageous strength,” Ahab declares, “with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate.”
Melville, during the composition of Moby-Dick read Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin. In this 1740 work, the author sates that Calvinist teachings, “represent the Divine Dispensations as unjust, cruel, and tyrannical.”
In Melville's description of the whale's final and fateful attack, we find allusions to Calvinism's core tenets: predestination, retribution, malevolence, and the helplessness of men in the face of the divine dispensations. The author writes:
... the whale, which from side to side strangely vibrating his predestinating head sent a broad band overspreading semicircular foam before him as he rushed. Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship's starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled (Chapter 135).
In a subsequent novel, Pierre, Melville confessed his own faith when he rhapsodized about Love as “the loftiest religion on this earth.” Melville, in the person of Captain Ahab, assailed Calvinism in the white whale because it blocked the path of love and contradicted human dignity. Ahab, of course, is more tragic than heroic. He exemplifies the sin of trying to overcome evil with power rather than with love. He had pursued Moby-Dick with a frenzy and rage to match that which the Calvinist God had expressed form the beginning of time. “He [Ahab] piled upon the whale's white hump all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down “(Chapter 41). Nor is Ahab any better than what he denounces: “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run.” “I am the Fates' lieutenant, I act under orders,” he cries to his first mate. “Look thou, underling! That thou obeyest mine.” Ahab despairs in trying to reconcile authority with love.
The Calvinist frame of reference in which Moby-Dick is set permits Melville, particularly through the character of Captain Ahab, to indict God as the author of sin and portray man as his helpless victim. In this way, Melville allied himself with the liberal critics of Calvinism who objected to a relationship between man and God that was loveless and mechanical. As Professor Herbert has stated, this “liberal protest in favor of human `freedom' gained its force from the recognition that the Calvinistic view of God's sovereignty bleaches all the meaning out of human activity, that it dissolves the moral tangibility of the self.”