Skip to main content

Isolationism in Moby Dick and Walden

"If I shall sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for.”

—Henry Thoreau

Background Information

The Romantic period was a literary movement that originated in Britain and Germany in the 18th century. Hallmark of the Romance literary era to sweep through America between the years 1820 and 1865, is the inability of historians and writers to define the word “Romance” as it eludes any specific categorization. A common misconception is to associate “Romance” with a love-stricken couple eating a candle lit dinner, probably an image most people would conjure at the thought of the word Romantic. However, in reference to the literary era, Romance refers to a series of philosophies centered on the idea that imagination overrules rationality and materialism. Two impactful writers to come out of the Romantic Period were Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, men who helped to materialize the philosophy at the center of the literary revolution that took hold of America in the mid 1800’s.

The Romantic period was not only a literary movement but essentially a philosophical movement that marked a distinct change in the perspectives of people in Western cultures, a time during which much of the world’s greatest literature was produced. Romantic writers believed in self-expression, individuality, freedom and a breaking away from society’s standards. Books and poems considered to be Romantic almost always placed emphasis on one of three subjects: the individual self, admiration for nature or a deeper need to understand the world.

The predominant focus at the heart of the Romantic Era was the development of the inner self, an idea which would have previously been considered selfish to earlier generations was redefined and given new, positive connotations like “self-expression” and “self-realization”. The Romantics praised the idea of the “independent artist” or the isolated genius, content with living a life dedicated to finding the meaning behind daily existence. The character who finds himself content with living this solitary lifestyle is depicted as the hero of Romantic literature and oftentimes referred to as a seer or prophet.

Early Isolationism

Early Isolationism

The Concept of Isolationism

Out of this focus on the individual self, sprang forth isolationism or the political belief in abstaining from forming partnerships with other countries which readers began to see being incorporated into Romantic text. America had just broken free from Britain and was celebrating its newfound independence, thus leaping into the modern age which compelled democratic individuals to find ways of reinventing themselves.

Romantic writers, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville seized this ideology and feverishly pursued it in their writing by enforcing the notion that in order to connect with one’s inner-self it is necessary to go deep into the wilderness, the only way to provide the isolation necessary to escape society’s scrutiny and the influence of popular opinion. The theme of isolationism in nature most effectively introduced through Henry Thoreau’s Walden and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was a radically new concept that advocated the importance of nonconformity while at the same time allowing an individual to reconnect with the wilderness at his core.

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

In the nature essay, Walden, Henry Thoreau documents his two years spent living at Walden Pond, a time during which he contacts his inner person through complete isolation and arrives at insight which continues to astound and inspire readers to this day. Escaping an increasingly industrialized America, Thoreau finds liberty in the wild. In Walden, he uses personal pronouns to refer to mother- nature versus society in a metaphorical compare and contrast saying,

I love nature partly because she is not man, but a retreat from him. None of his institutions control or pervade her. There a different kind of right prevails. In her midst I can be glad with an entire gladness. If this world were all man, I could not stretch myself, I should lose all hope. He is constraint, she is freedom to me. He makes me wish for another world. She makes me content with this (Thoreau, 357).

Here Thoreau relates to nature as a retreat or utopia from society and the institutions or workplaces and businesses which end up dictating our lives. In the excerpt Thoreau is conveying the point, that in submissively working full-time jobs in order to get the money needed to pay for food and shelter, citizens unintentionally become automatons to society living routine lives of numbness. He goes on to state that the only way to escape the hectic emptiness which characterizes life in an industrialized American society is by retreating into the wilderness and living off the essentials needed to survive which nature provides at no cost such as leaves and branches to build shelter and berries and animals to supplement the body. Living in the wilderness gives Thoreau the time needed to live a life of meaning, emphasizing the notion that the only way to know the world is to first know yourself, and the only way to know yourself is to be alone.

Thoreau not only makes intense statements and descriptions that resemble prose to pull the reader in but leaves traces of humor throughout Walden that give some much needed comic relief. For example, the statement “I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls” (Thoreau,206). At one point he gripes about several visits from Christian reformers who encroach on his space at Walden and the overdramatic benignity of one of them who wrote a book called “A Kiss for a Blow” saying, “and he behaved as if I had given him a blow, was bent on giving me the kiss when there was neither quarrel nor agreement between us” (432). It’s not only Thoreau’s dry humor that appeals to readers, but his advocating of one of the most revolutionary ideas to take hold of American citizens which was the need to reconnect with the inner self and find a life worth living, a sentiment at the core of the Romantic Era, a groundbreaking time period in the literary world.

Scroll to Continue

Walden did not grow in popularity until decades after Thoreau’s death and in today’s society it is hailed as a classic. In the novel, Thoreau takes on all the characteristics of the prevalent protagonist in Romantic literature known as the independent artist through his need for isolation to preserve his genius which he saw as a feeble and delicate thing that required adequate alone time to be functional. Thoreau resented the “reality” of which common men preached, sensing that to make his life valuable he had to aim to transcend this non-existent “reality” which only served to keep men chained to the material world and the meaningless possessions which would essentially die with them.

A theory that Thoreau expresses in the essay is the notion that man cannot arrive at truth with the multitude of society at his heels, that by leaning on his fellow citizens man becomes just another sheep in the herd unable to live for anything other than superficial convictions. In many ways Walden , exemplified the changing state of perspectives to take hold of America during the 1800s when Americans began to place the traditional value of coming together in unity on the backburner in favor of the more exciting realization that the solitary individual harnesses more power within himself than previously imagined.

Moby Dick

Moby Dick

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

This radical isolationism is the firmament from which Herman Melville wrote his timeless novel, Moby Dick, creating the main characters Captain Ahab and Ishmael to reflect his philosophy about the inherent loneliness of American individuals. Various times in the novel, Melville refers to the crewmates aboard the Pequod as “Isolatoes” saying, “They were nearly all Islanders in the Pequod, Isolatoes too, I call such, not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolatoe living on a separate continent of his own” (Melville 131). He uses the term “Isolatoe” to refer to each man as an island separate from his peers in which no true sense of community can ever be established.

Herman Melville 1860

Herman Melville 1860

Melville's Creation of the Term Isolatoe

Melville’s creation of the term Isolatoe has strong political undercurrents in reference to the state of America during the Romantic period rooted in his belief that Americans have cultural ideologies that keep them isolated from one another. The characters Ahab and Ishmael are said to represent the two choices Americans are given, to either wage war upon the other, our “non-self” which is the rest of the world or to try to bridge the distance between ourselves and the other through an open mind and acceptance of diversity, traits that the character Ishmael embodies.

In Moby Dick, Ishmael represents the American individual and goes to sea to fulfill his own inner need to understand the world, rather than to hunt a whale. Whereas, Ahab’s inner anguish comes from his need to destroy that which he believes to be the cause of his inner anguish and isolation, Moby-Dick, the white whale that bit his leg off years ago. Ahab is projecting his aloneness onto Moby-Dick, where Ishmael understands that his solitude comes from within and makes efforts to transcend it through his compassion for his fellow crewmates. Though both Ishmael and Ahab begin and end the story alone, Ahab dies and Ishmael is the only survivor left on the Pequod. In Moby Dick, Melville tells the story of the very isolated crew aboard the Pequod on a whaling expedition but more importantly on a journey of meditation and introspection.

Throughout Moby Dick, Melville infuses much knowledge about the art of whaling and the mysterious essence of the ocean and its ability to submerse even the chattiest of crewmates in a tranquil silence, acquainting the reader with the nature of the sea. On the pages of the novel, Melville explains this phenomena just as skillfully as any natural born philosopher could have,

There are times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang (Melville 114).

As if to say that like ocean vessels we are forever skimming the surface of things with no knowledge of what truly lies beneath the exterior. In the book, nature and isolation go hand in hand, being that the Pequod is isolated from civilization in the middle of the ocean, the crew must familiarize themselves with life at sea and the perils of the ocean.

The theme of isolation in nature present in Walden and Moby Dick, changed societal perspective during the Romantic Era. Americans began to turn their focus inward and in doing so the art to come out of the mid 1800’s flourished, writers like Thoreau and Melville delved into the human psyche and helped to materialize literature that inspires deep thought about community versus individualism. Unity, one of America’s founding virtues came to be seen as the impediment separating man from his inner self. Writers and artists began to fiercely advocate the importance of individuality and separating oneself from the mass of men leading material lives. The literature to come out of the Romantic Era would change human perspective forever, politically and philosophically.


Bertolini, Joe. “Approaching the Phenomenon of Obama By Way of Ishmael”.

The Potomac Journal. The Potomac Inc, 1 Dec. 2009. Web. 12 March 2012.

Bickman, Martin. “Walden Study Text”. American Transcendentalism Web. Virginia

Commonwealth University, 5 May 1999. Web. 12 March 2012.

Bresiger, Gregory. “The American Heritage of Isolationism”. The Freedom Daily.

The Future of Freedom Foundation, 11 Aug. 2006. Web. 15 March 2012.

Burroughs, John. “Henry D. Thoreau- Part 1”. Thoreau Society. Iowa State University.

9 August 2009. Web. 14 March 2012.

Lilia, Melani. “Romanticism”. Brooklyn College English Department, 12, Feb.

2009. Web. 13 March 2012.

Matterson, Stephen. “The American Novel”. Educational Broadcasting Corporation,

27 March 2003. Web. 13 March 2012.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. Print.

Reiff, Raychel. Herman Melville: Moby Dick and Other Works. Marshall Cavendish,

2008. Print.

Thoreau, Henry. Walden and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau. New York:

Bantam Books, 1854. Print.

Related Articles