Great Novel No. 15: “Moby-Dick”

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

by Herman Melville


Moby-Dick“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” So writes Herman Melville in his mightiest novel, and certainly his most famous one, Moby-Dick. Following his own advice he wrote a work that is much broader in scope than most people probably think. The narrator of the story is one Ishmael by name, who tells us very little about his background. He decides to go whaling and signs aboard a Nantucket vessel called the Pequod. The captain’s name is Ahab, a bitter old man determined to kill the beast who took off his leg — a white sperm whale called Moby Dick.*

But Moby-Dick is more than a story about one man’s mad quest for vengeance. Ishmael spreads throughout the narrative many detailed explanations of whales and the whaling industry, often transforming them into considerations of the human condition; take Chapters 74 and 75, where in describing a whale’s sensory organs and structure, he asks his human readers to imagine what their lives would be like if their eyes were either side of their head, or if they lacked a nose. This is not so much a story about whaling as it is an extended metaphor for talking about humanity. And fortunately Ishmael can sometimes be funny even when giving a lecture on cetology.

These “asides” are probably the novel’s most distinct literary feature. They come to dominate the book often more than the narrative itself, and strangely even the character of Ishmael himself almost virtually disappears in the latter half; without the occasional reminder you might even forget he is the narrator. There’s a reason why our cultural consciousness has fixed on Ahab rather than Ishmael as the main character of the novel. Like Watson chronicling Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, our focus is on the one being told of instead of the one doing the telling.

Modern sensitivities to animal cruelty might make some readers raise their eyebrows at an entire story around the whaling industry, but Ishmael shows a significant amount of respect for the creatures he kills for a living. There are even moments when he makes you feel the brutality of his business, such as a scene where a female is found to have given birth during a melee with a sperm whale pod — the calf’s umbilical cord tangled up with harpoon lines.

With chapters on cetology and whaling, and prosodic meditations on various subjects, Moby-Dick can be a lengthy and challenging read for most. It is as vast as the oceans and as dense as the Leviathan’s hide. On this second reading, and with a greater appreciation for the context of American Romanticism laid down especially by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter, I was struck by the sense of otherworldliness the novel evokes. Moby Dick himself appears only at the end, but his phantom haunts the narrative with the “ghost stories” sailors relate throughout, building up the suspense for the final confrontation.

Moby-Dick wasn’t a success on its first publication in 1851; in fact it signalled the decline of Melville’s literary career. But in the early twentieth century a revived interest in the book led to the high status it enjoys today in the Western Canon. Many people have examined and analyzed the themes, characters, and ultimate meaning of the novel; the central figure of Moby Dick has been interpreted as the natural world, as God, as the universe itself. It seems that ultimately the White Whale is a white page on which we write our own meaning.

*For reasons I still don’t understand, the title of the book is hyphenated but the name of the whale in the actual text is not. Does anyone know why?

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