Novel * Herman Melville * White Whale, Holy Grail * 1851
When I was in grad school I took a course in 19th century American literature, the idea being to become more familiar with what was going on in books before Modernism. Looking over my syllabus, I was alarmed to see one of the quarter’s assignments was Moby Dick. This wasn’t alarming because it’s a long, difficult book – it’s graduate school, there’s no shortage of excessive reading assignments. No, it alarmed me because I had tried to read Moby Dick on three separate occasions before that and had only ever managed maybe a hundred pages or so before quitting in a rage. Whatever, though, the cagey grad school student knows how to skirt around onerous reading assignments, so I dipped around in the text and got what I needed, but that made four attempts at this book and four failures. While that didn’t surprise me, the attitude of one of my cohort did. She fucking loved Moby Dick, to the point of reading it annually. She was excited to read it for class because, well, she was going to do it anyway. I couldn’t understand the appeal. I still don’t, despite the fact that, at long last, I finally managed to stick a harpoon in this fucker and finish it.
The reason I don’t understand the appeal should be obvious to anyone who has tried to read it. Herman Melville doesn’t make it easy. He’s not writing for your enjoyment, or your enlightenment, or for you at all. I’m not actually sure what he’s doing, or why, because the novel itself is so strangely composed it’s difficult to get a proper handle on it. It’s a novel, yes, but there are so many tangents which go in so many different directions to so many different purposes it’s hard to call it coherent story. The narrative, strictly speaking, is easy to wrap your head around. I’m willing to bet most people could sketch a quick outline for you, simply through a century and a half of cultural osmosis. There’s a whaling ship captain named Ahab. He’s real mad at this massive, aggressive white whale which ate his leg. He gets his crew together and chases it. They catch up to it, and Moby Dick wrecks his ship all up and nearly everyone dies. If you’re bummed I just spoiled a 167 year old novel for you, sorry. Still, that’s the extent of what happens in this novel. The actual story is not the point.
If Melville had an actual editor, who meticulously went through the text and excised all the extraneous material from the book which has nothing to do with the journey of the Pequod and her crew, Moby Dick would be a hundred page long novella. The other four hundred some-odd pages are story adjacent, maybe, as most of them concern whales in some way. One thing you should definitely be prepared for is the sheer volume of whale-talk. Inaccurate whale-talk. It can be tough, sometimes, as an enlightened citizen of the 21st century reading a long, scientific passage which outlines the whale’s warm blood and lungs, only to have Melville accept all that and still come to the conclusion that the whale is still a fish. Why? Well, because the Bible says so, and also he knew an old whaling captain back in Nantucket who’d be pissed if you called a whale anything other than a fish. And then Melville keeps going. Just on and on and on about various kinds of whales and what the different aspects of the whaling ship are for and how they hunt the whale and what they do with it when they kill one, in excruciating detail, to the point where Moby Dick is more a 19th century documentary about the whaling industry than anything else.
It’s for this reason that it’s hard for a modern reader to really get a grasp on the novel. I’m probably better equipped than most to deal with this fucking thing, and I’m at something of a loss. Now when it comes to literary analysis, I’ve never focused terribly hard on overt symbolism, which probably doesn’t help considering that this is a famous symbolist novel. Yet even knowing that, it’s difficult to discern what is important and what is not. Because quite frankly, most of the novel is supercilious in tone while being superfluous to the story being told. And if you enjoyed those two words, maybe Moby Dick is for you. All that said, I think there is still value here. There were times I was transported to the deck of the Pequod and was feeling the nautical vibe of the whaling adventure. There were times I was in awe of Ahab’s monomaniacal force of will. There are scenes of humor and metaphysical transcendentalism which border on inspiring. That’s all here, but you really do have to work for it.
Over the course of writing these articles, I generally try to take a more casual approach which hopefully serves to appeal to an audience that maybe didn’t pay that much attention in English class while still affecting some amount of depth than might still appeal to those who did. To this end, I almost never use secondary sources when discussing a work. It’s my general preference, here, to take a more direct, personal approach with the media I’m discussing. However, sometimes a text will be so far out of my area of expertise, it’s really in my best interest to look elsewhere for help. In the case of Moby Dick, I am way out of my depth. One nice thing about academic forums is that you quickly learn that there’s no shame in leaning on the established criticism of a text in order to help form your own point of view. Especially with canonical works like this. In this instance, my edition of Moby Dick has some excerpts of critical essays which will hopefully help me elucidate just what in the hell I just read. As it happens, my boy D.H. Lawrence has my back. I’m going to pull a quote or two, and that should see us through.
The following are taken from Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature:
“Moby-Dick, or the White Whale.
A hunt. The last great hunt.
For Moby-Dick, the huge white sperm whale: who is old, hoary, monstrous, and swims alone; who is unspeakably terrible in his wrath, having so often been attacked; and snow-white.
Of course he is a symbol.
I doubt if even Melville knew exactly. That’s the best of it.”
Okay, well that’s how the article begins and so far, Mr. D.H. Lawrence, you’re not exactly helping out, although I appreciate the unorthodox structure of your criticism. He goes on to talk a little bit about the whale before circling back and just trashing Herman Melville. Trust me when I tell you that nothing gives the researcher more secret pleasure than going through old criticism and reading the cattiest, rudest statements leveled at canonical masters by other canonical masters. It’s a nice reminder that even geniuses are human. Anyway, here’s Lawrence being a bit of a bitch (which, to be fair, was kind of his default mode).
“At first you are put off by the style. It reads like journalism. It seems spurious. You feel Melville is trying to put something over you. It won’t do.
And Melville really is a bit sententious: aware of himself, self-conscious, putting something over even himself. But then it’s not easy to get into the swing of a piece of deep mysticism when you just set out with a story.
Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville, even in a great book like Moby-Dick. He preaches and holds forth because he’s not sure of himself. And he holds forth, often, so amateurishly.”
Lawrence is such a mean girl. Anyway, as you might expect I felt a wave of vindication reading this passage because I thought most of those same thoughts, if in slightly more vulgar parlance. The prose really is just ponderous and monotonous. And Ishmael, the ostensible narrator, never, ever feels like a proper character. He has no agency, no interior life. He’s a Melville analogue who is there to tell you everything you never wanted to know about the whaling industry in and around Nantucket in the mid-19th century. And he has some very hard opinions about that time and place. Moby Dick, in many areas, is an insecure justification of the American point of view. Not just Manifest Destiny, but total dominion over the very ocean and the Leviathans within. One of the didactic side-chapters is about the question of over-hunting, and Melville acknowledges that while humans can and have overhunted species before, whales can’t go extinct because they’re so big. I guess? The chapter ended up being a dismissal because the conservationist point of view (which didn’t really exist at that time) conflicts with the entrenched, salt-encrusted traditions of the American whaler. Lawrence has some things to say about Americans.
“It is the same old thing as in all Americans. They keep their old-fashioned ideal frock-coat on, and an old-fashioned silk hat, while they do the most impossible things. There you are: you see Melville hugged in bed by a huge tattooed South Sea Islander, and solemnly offering burnt offering to this savage’s little idol, and his ideal frock-coat just hides his shirt-tails and prevents us from seeing his bare posterior as he salaams, while his ethical silk hat sits correctly over his brow the while. That is so typically American: doing the most impossible things without taking off their spiritual get-up. Their ideals are like armour which has rusted in, and will never come off.”
That’s… pretty accurate. As a nation we’ve never been terribly put off doing the most insane things while still wrapping ourselves in a cloak of innocent righteousness. Yeah yeah, we’re genociding the bejeezus out of these dang Indians, but we’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do! Sure, we’ve built an entire industrial economy on the back of involuntary labor in the South, but the slaves have Jesus now so really we did them a favor. Nor is it all negative, although the ethical armor is used to protect us from blame more often than not. Even whaling, which I expect most people to be against in this day and age, is something of a wonderment. Pre-industrial ships setting out for years at a time and harvesting the largest animals on earth like it ain’t no thing? That’s impressive. Possibly just as impressive is a Quaker captain like Ahab convincing a thoroughly diverse crowd of men to do his bidding, despite the insanity of it. Okay, one more Lawrence quote to finish out, so we can get an idea of what the hell Moby Dick is supposed to mean.
“So ends one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world, closing up its mystery and its tortured symbolism. It is an epic of the sea such as no man has equaled; and it is a book of esoteric symbolism of profound significance, and of considerable tiresomeness.
But it is a great book, a very great book, the greatest book of the sea ever written. It moves awe in the soul.
The terrible fatality.
Doom! Doom! Doom! Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America. Doom!
Doom of what?
Doom of our white day. We are doomed, doomed. And the doom is in America. Doom of our white day.”
I’m gonna sing the doom song now! D.H. Lawrence goes on for a bit with the doom talk, but that’s rather the gist of it. Moby Dick, for Lawrence, is the reckoning of civilization, which is represented by the Pequod. The Pequod, which is the finely crafted, civilized ship of America, is doomed. It is doomed to utter destruction by the chaotic vagrancies of the natural world. This attitude is a refrain from Lawrence’s literature, of course. He was as anti-industrialism as they come. He saw the breakneck technological pace of the late 19th century and the early 20th century as a portent of civilization rushing to its own destruction. That the extermination of the natural world would be the extermination of the human race. Or, at the very least, the “white race” as depicted by the Pequod. Considering that my site has the world “apocalypse” in it, you will not be surprised that I am perfectly happy with this conclusion. More doom more better, as nobody says but should. That said, Moby Dick, as a work of unfettered symbolism, can mean pretty much anything the reader wants it to mean. The text is there to be used as evidence of your interpretation. Personally, I’m fine with Lawrence’s evaluation. And now I can finally stop thinking about Moby Dick. Thanks, D.H.