Heretofore [as of 1962] it has been customary to look at Melville's work as shifting from celebration to pessimism, or from faith to cynicism, or from defiance to acceptance. This view, which assumes that Melville's books reflected his inner turmoil and conflicting moods at various stages of his life, emphasizes certain peaks of elation and valleys of despair.Melville's art focused consistently on this question (as Miller expresses it): "What should be man's response to his situation in the universe, where evil is omnipresent and where man by the involuntary act of birth becomes inevitably involved?" In answer -- notwithstanding "vital qualifications, extensions, reservations, all in the midst of deep probing" -- Melville "asserted the necessity of man to compromise with his ideals, frankly and without private or public deception, in order to come to terms with the world's evil and his own."
[T]his peak-valley view is, if not incorrect, at least misleading....
Although I would not contend that Melville's entire work is one grand emotional monotone, I do desire to cast doubt on the extreme fluctuations now identified in the line of his artistic development. ... Instead of viewing Melville's work as a series of heights and depths, I wish to view it as essentially steady and straight in theme, though shifting radically in focus and form.
Melville rendered this question and his answer through "an extended drama of masks." It may be diverting to portray how bad men mask their evil intentions, but what fascinated Melville was the "mask of innocence" that good men don unconsciously: "[F]or the most apparently innocent may perpetrate the greatest evil. It was Melville's finest achievement to plunge deep into men's souls and to surface with much that was barely visible to their own inner eye."
Contrasted with the masked characters are Melville's few "maskless men.... Their greatest claim to innocence, ironically, is that they do not don its mask. They accept with equanimity their share of the world's guilt, trying neither to hide nor disclaim it."
Finally, between the masked and the maskless are the "wanderers and seekers ... who must decide with what face to confront the world." Among these Miller places Ishmael.