“Moby-Dick” is one of those books that every reader has either read, attempted to read, or lied about reading at one point or another. Doubtless even the most unlearned of us have not escaped mention or parody of the Leviathan, the most famous Terror of the Deep until Jaws nibbled his way up the carnivorous canon.
“Moby-Dick” is one of those rare masterpieces that is able to bring a singular leitmotif roaring into public attention; you can ask someone what any of the other greatest novels of past two hundred years have been: “Ulysses” or “Middlemarch” or “Bleak House”, and he’ll fumble a noncommittal response if one at all. Ask him what “Moby-Dick” is about and he’ll answer with ‘a whale.’
Strangely enough, if you ask a Melville scholar or a learned student the same question, he’ll likely respond with the same answer. Ask for anything more specific and he might clarify with ‘a sperm whale’ or ‘a white sperm whale’, or even, ‘a group of New England whalers hunting a white sperm whale.’
Do we dare say that these singular answers betray a simple story? Anything but. Melville may rely upon this single motif to get his Leviathan of a novel across the pages, but it’s rigid and strong enough to conduct a symphony with: a theme in the hands of Beethoven.
In one hundred and fifty years of publication, there’s little new interpretation about “Moby-Dick” that one can bring to the table. The story of the novel’s dejection—seventy years’ worth—and rediscovery amidst the boom of the aesthetes, is as classic a comeback as you can find in the real world. The disillusioned, post-WW2 school of criticism longed for the romantics of their younger and more vulnerable years, and so they made the tradeoff, revitalizing nature poets and the White Whale while scorning the modernists. The rest, as they say, is history, and “Moby-Dick” emerged a literary champion.
Why was it disparaged in the first place? It’s a thesis that a thousand thousand English majors have groaned over while they wrote their term papers, and it certainly isn’t a question is any more interesting now than it ever was. What can be read today in “Moby-Dick” as quaint and even funny, elicited no laughs from the mopey fuddy-duddies of mid nineteenth century America, otherwise known as the Puritans. God may be omnipotent, but religion had no place within the criticizing pages of a writer, who undoubtedly had a better understanding on the scriptures and intricacies of Christianity than his condemners who hadn’t seen much of the world outside of their churches. Naturally, an ultimatum boiled down to either a harsh editing or damnation because of artistic integrity. We all know the one that Melville chose.
In retrospect, there was probably no other direction that “Moby-Dick” could have gone in. People will remain ignorant until their environment forces them to be otherwise and Melville had to have foreseen the consequences of his work. But “Moby-Dick” was always due for redemption. It’s one of the few literary masterpieces that is able to throw its themes at the reader without losing stragglers due to interpretation because Melville, under the guise of his hero Ishmael, has already provided plenty.
In terms of content, “Moby-Dick” is foremost a revenge epic. No one walks away from reading it without knowing that the White Whale is Captain Ahab’s embodiment for his own hatred and fear: traits due, partly, to the leg the Captain lost in the jaws of the monster, but more in part to the hatred for his own life. And who could wish upon their worst enemy of a lifetime of perpetual voyage with no promise of ascension? Certainly no man is capable of such cruelty, and so it is not at man that Ahab’s hatred is directed, but at God, incarnated in the White Whale. It’s an easy fix. God forced the Israelites into forty years in the desert, so it’s no great stretch of the imagination to think that he can do it again with Ahab and the ocean.
But how does Ahab convince the rest of the crew to go along with the mad voyage? It’s a question of charisma, and Ahab’s got plenty. So much so in fact that Melville has him talk part philosopher, part evangelist preacher:
“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s nought beyond. But ‘tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me.”
This eloquence works for the crew, but that’s probably because none of them had ever picked up a copy of “Hamlet.” Had they done so, Ahab’s words would have been unmasked for the shallow, highfalutin stuff they really were: words to fill the depths of time: thoughts to fill the gaps in action which, once it materializes, does so with horrendous consequences. Nor does it help the crew that the theory of the Death Drive was still a half-century away.
Lucky for the reader, the aesthetes and not the symbolists got ahold of “Moby-Dick” first. We’re allowed to get away from all of these meanings within meanings and turn our attention to where Melville wanted it: on the story itself, and on the juicy language that drives it. Any clever reader will take care to notice Melville’s great first line; not “Call me Ishmael,” but this one before the Extracts:
“The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his own mortality.”
More than Ishmael, the “pale Usher” represents Melville; as aged scholar, rather than wayfarer, whaler, or interpreter, he directs attention squarely on “old grammars”, which doesn’t take a great deal of examination to mean language: the truer source of life (“mortality”) even more than the story itself. This is a more solid and trustworthy narrator than Ishmael, for his age has lent him wisdom and worldly knowledge (“all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world”); moreover, Ishmael’s status as something of a criminal immediately puts his tale to question. The scholar is safer.
Again, I find myself with infinitely more to say than a preview has room for. One is at liberty to read from too many perspectives than even a critic has room to note, yet I would suggest for the reader to follow the excellent lead of the aesthetes: relish the Shakespearean soliloquizing rather than scavenge for “Jonah” parallels; envisage the tragedy of poor Starbuck, rather than the cold, white symbolism of Moby Dick. If you have to write a term paper about it, focus on the masterly command of dialects in the brilliant and bizarre semi-parody of Chapter 40, and how, through the manifold voices of the lesser crew, our camera finally settles down and hones in on the onomatopoetic whimpering of poor Pip:
“Jollies? Lord help such jollies! Crish, crash! There goes the jib-stay! Blang-whang! God! Duck lower, Pip, here comes the royal yard! It’s worse than being in the whirled woods, the last day of the year! Who’d go climbing after chestnuts now?”
Or you could write about the chestnuts.