This essay argues that the oath-taking scenes in "The Quarter-Deck" chapter of Moby-Dick were inspired by Jacques-Louis David's Neoclassical history painting Oath of the Horatii (1784). These scenes, in which Ahab symbolically binds first the three mates and then the three harpooneers to his quest to hunt the white whale, form two of the book's most striking vignettes, vignettes that strongly resemble Oath of the Horatii, a painting Melville would have seen on his 1849 visit to the Louvre. While scholarship has done much to explore Melville's engagement with romanticism in visual art, Melville's use of Oath of the Horatii indicates his engagement with an alternate aesthetic mode, which I discuss as the "aesthetic of the distinct." The aesthetic of the distinct emphasizes a clear, precise, and vivid representation of the sensory world and bespeaks a philosophically realist trust in objective, earth-bound factuality and our ability to reliably glean information from this material reality. Thus, Melville's interest in the aesthetic of the distinct, signaled by his use of Oath of the Horatii as a source in "The Quarter-Deck," evidences the appeal that realist philosophy held for him and provides an aesthetic angle to recent arguments for his realist proclivities.


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pp. 3-23
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