Sea Motif in the 19th Century American Literature

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  • 7/31/2019 Sea Motif in the 19th Century American Literature


    Sea motif in the 19th century American literature

    Among the greatest subliminal motifs of the 19th century American literature stands

    the sea motifs, which at those times had been used a lot and was really appreciated.The works that had the sea as a base of them, were also named Sea literature and

    the most common used elements representing it were the sea, the sailor and the


    The sea was seen as a symbol of an adventure and was almost always personified,

    while the ship represented the life and the sailor the nature of man itself. These three

    elements together were contributing in the process of finally creating tales of

    romance and courage and also the initiation of the individual by getting to better

    understand life and its multiple hidden secrets.

    Mythic notions of the sea were developed by Victorians, including its symbolic

    association with Christian redemption and spiritual rebirth and the assigning of

    female qualities to the water, based on its mystery, emotion and sense of


    The sea motif is believed to appeared from the beginning of the oral traditions of

    Native Americans who recited stories of the common experiences of whaling and

    fishing and they attributed strong worshipping to the water because of the belief that

    the land was created from great waters.

    Americans also seen the sea as a place of freedom and soul-searching for the

    individual and it was largely romanticized by them and considered a sort of Heaven

    far from the evils and distractions of society, but in reality sailors were not prepared

    for the isolated life that the water was proposing them and the majority had only one

    trip an then never went back again.

    The American sea fiction was born during the first half of the 19th century when the

    romantic view of the sea prevailed.

    Herman Melvilles great American Novel, Moby Dick, also known as The Whale,

    was first published in 1851 and it is considered to be one of the most important

    works of the literature world. The on-water life presented in Melvilles novel is one

    that triggers the feeling of excitement and the idea of great adventures, but in reality,

    that life is monotonous, dirty and even brutal.

    Starting with the middle of the 19th century and going through the 20th century, the

    sea fiction reflected several significant changes in the American social and cultural

    landscape as the ending of using the sailing ships, the closing of the Western frontier

    and the publication of Charles Darwins controversial On the origin of species in

    1859. Sea literature was most profoundly affected by this latter development with theattention turned towards the investigation of the biological origins of man and

  • 7/31/2019 Sea Motif in the 19th Century American Literature


    attempting to resolve the conflict between the theme of brotherhood among seaman

    and the question of survival of the fittest.

    In abandoning the romantic notions of a coming to terms between man and the

    natural power of the sea, the late 19th century writers of sea fiction took the position

    that man was no match for the powerful, hostile and unfeeling natural environment,

    so during this realist-naturalist period, writers often portrayed in their works the

    human as helpless in front of the sea, the nature, chance or fate being the only ways

    for survival.

    Themes in American literature changed after the writing of Moby Dick, as the focus

    shifted from the recounting adventures at sea to the contemplation of questions of

    consciousness as Walt Whitman, in his sequence of poems named Sea-drift,

    examined the theme of individual identity.