Moby Dick is a book that is rarely read for pleasure. Unlike a page-turner such as War and Peace it is a dark and grim story with not a hint of romance, gallantry, or triumph in tragedy. In truth, most of us who have read Moby Dick have done so because our high school or college English Literature teacher required it, after all, “The Whale” is one of the great works of American literature. Despite its lack of entertainment value, Moby Dick is a fascinating story, rich with biblical, literary, and philosophical references. Moreover, this book contains a deep and detailed discourse on the practice of whaling, from ship construction to harpooning to slaughtering to butchering to the rendering of whale oil. In the 19th century whale oil literally "lit the night" and was therefore vital to the growth of industry and technology in the 19th century. As a result, whales were nearly hunted to extinction. Around this same time, however, petroleum refining and production had developed sufficiently to fuel the Industrial Revolution; and so, one way or another, the whaling industry and a way of life for many New Englanders were doomed.
The author, Herman Melville (1819-1891), lived an odd, itinerant life, including time on a whaling ship, and mined his experiences for his writing. He first published Moby Dick, a groundbreaking American novel, in England, where it received scathing criticism for being poorly written by people who did not understand that American English writing reflected the character and soul of a people who had built a nation from the ground up. Melville’s American contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was one of the few who recognized the importance of the book, but with the abandonment of the whaling industry and the frenzy of the Gold Rush, Moby Dick languished for decades before receiving the attention of authors Carl Van Doren and D. H. Lawrence in the early 20th century. Had it not been noticed by these men and kept in circulation by New York’s literary society, Moby Dick could have quietly disappeared into obscurity.
A facile outline of the plot is the story of a whaling ship’s captain, Ahab, who having lost his leg to the great white whale, Moby Dick, devotes his entire life and being to slaying the legendary beast, at any cost. The narrator, Ishmael, is a social outcast like his Biblical namesake; he joins the crew of the Pequod as a way of further exiling himself and likens going to sea in pursuit of whales as a way of leaving life, abandoning the self, perhaps a form of suicide. Melville crafted Ishmael carefully so that he would be a credible narrator of a work that is a literary masterpiece with its study of humanity, treatise on whaling, and allegory of human self-destructiveness. Because he had once been a teacher, Ishmael's sophisticated narration fits what little we learn of his character. As a character, however, his role in the story is almost exclusively that of a fatalistic observer.
Captain Ahab enters the story cloaked in mystery. He boards the Pequod in the early hours of the day it is scheduled to depart Nantucket, and immediately retreats to his cabin. Elijah, one of the crew, adds to the sense of foreboding by engaging Ishmael in a cryptic conversation about fate and whether he has a soul. Days later when Ahab finally emerges to meet the crew, he explains that rather than hunting whales for their oil, they are hunting a specific whale: the mythical great white whale that he has sworn to track down and kill. To Ahab, Moby Dick represents everything that is evil and destructive in the known world. The whale, however, is nothing more than a living creature determined to survive in a forbidding and often hostile environment. Melville uses Moby Dick to symbolize the enormity of what is unknown and unknowable in our world. Ahab’s mission to bring down the great white whale can be viewed as an attempt to master the universe. The crew, spellbound by Ahab’s charismatic personality, follow his lead out of a combination of admiration, fear, and having nothing to lose.
One reason the book received severe criticism from its first readers is that it journeys beyond the straight ahead telling of the story of Captain Ahab and his cetacean nemesis. Herman Melville, through Ishmael, illuminates the world of whaling. Several chapters describe in detail the construction and design of a whaling ship, as well as explain the art of killing and harvesting ten-ton marine mammals. Regardless of the horror of slaughtering and butchering whales, the whalers were men of great courage and strength whose movements resembled a work of intricate choreography. Melville’s writing about this way of life is so beautiful, that the reader can appreciate the human achievement that whaling represents, rather than dwell on visceral and emotional reactions to the subject matter. That, more than anything, is what makes Moby Dick a great book, worthy of being called a classic.
At the time Herman Melville was writing Moby Dick, the United States was heading toward civil war over the questions of slavery and states’ rights. White Americans exploited and enslaved Native Americans and Africans; while around the globe, white Europeans invaded and colonized nations of darker-skinned people. On board the Pequod, the crew represents a broad spectrum of religions and races. These differences disappear almost completely at sea because a ship is a world unto itself and each member of the crew has an interest in everyone else’s survival. Just the same, the ship’s leaders are white men who reveal their subconscious racism in unguarded moments.
Almost everyone knows that the original “Starbuck” had nothing to do with coffee. He and some of American literature’s most memorable characters appear in Moby Dick. In addition to Captain Ahab and the whale, there are Queequeg, Pip, and Elijah who give the story its edginess. The crew of thirty individuals represents the diversity of our world and a microcosm of human behavior. As the journey progresses, the crew exhibit character weaknesses, acts of heroism and kindness, as well as brutality. Starbuck, the first mate, is the only one to see the folly of Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick, but remains loyal to Ahab out of a sense of duty. Queequeg, Ishmael’s closest friend, is from a cannibal tribe in the South Seas and serves as a harpooner on Starbuck’s crew. Considered a savage, he is meticulous in his grooming and personal hygiene. At one point Queequeg becomes deathly ill and requests that a coffin be built for him. He lives, however, and converts his coffin into a life-preserver for the ship. What happens to Pip can only be appreciated by reading Moby Dick.
In its essence, Moby Dick is about the universal and eternal struggle of man against nature, of life against death, and what can happen when that struggle becomes an obsession that crosses over to madness. A good analogy to Ahab’s blind quest for vengeance would be an Iraq War veteran who, having lost a leg, attempts to murder the President: not only would the leg remain lost, the veteran would spend the rest of his life in jail, a felon rather than a hero. Some things are not available for our understanding nor are they suitable adversaries. The whale in its unfathomable marine world symbolizes the danger of turning that which we do not – and cannot – understand into an enemy which must be defeated at any cost.
Copyright 2011, Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved