Cetology 101: Moby Dick


Rather than try and summarize or review a 600+ page tome in this short review, I’m going to talk about a few things that I found interesting about the novel. It was a wildly entertaining read at times, and a more prosaic and tedious read at others. Like a whale, the narrative is sometimes visible and moving along at a good clip, and at other times it is submerged while Melville pontificates and meditates on various sundry subjects connected to whaling. Some of these meditations are amazing and some are less than stellar. I found it ironic when at a certain point the narrator, Ishmael, writes these words:

“So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and indeed, as indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as important a one as will be found in this volume …. I care not to perform this part of my task methodically” (221)

Melville seem to honestly believe that every part is justified by being interesting and curious, and he indulges in many moments of unmethodical wandering. In a way, it seems fitting that Moby Dick, often seen as one of, if not the, great American novel is so rambling, diffuse, and maniacal. The US is anything but streamlined, completely coherent, and carefully structured. At the same time, Moby Dick is about whaling, Ahab’s quest for the white whale, and a growing sense of despair felt by the crew at being caught in the jaws of fate. Similarly, the US is about liberty, freedom, the right to bear arms, and so on. It is easy to read Moby Dick as some kind of meta-narrative or allegory about the US as a nation. However, I think this reading overlooks a key point in the text when Ishmael, in justifying his need to explain all the particulars of whaling, states:

“So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.” (223)

Now, if you want to claim this novel as an allegory, this poses a challenge. Melville explicitly claims the narrative of Moby Dick as a real event. Of course, such words come from a fictional character who may or may not be totally sane having spent two days at sea clinging to a coffin (thanks to JF for pointing this out to me). The complexity of the novel is amazing not only for its publication date (1851) but also how it has been taken up as a key text of English literature in general. As JF also pointed out to me, the actual narrative about Ahab chasing the whale amounts to less than 100 pages of the novel while everything is “filler.” Another friend, LK, told me how she enjoyed reading these sections most and her optimism helped me through some rough patches. In one of these sections, I came across this amazing sentence:

“And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload, as they do hills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the Milky Way” (470)

I had to re-read this a few times. In a stunning way, Melville justifies all of the wandering he does because to not do so would be to miss the “certain significance [that] lurks in all things.” He even makes the bold claim that such significance gives the world its true meaning. You can quibble with Melville’s view, but I think that these words give credence to my own belief that narrative, or story-telling, is one of the highest human activities, perhaps the most important one. For if we can tell stories that show the significance in all things, we give meaning and worth to them.

That’s enough cheap philosophizing for me. “Turn up all hands and make sail!” This reader is off to book number 4.

I would not recommend this book to someone looking for a tight narrative or quick read, but I would recommend it for someone who has not read it. It’s worth reading through to the end as important things happen in the last 50 pages, but it takes a lot of work to get to there.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick or, The Whale. Toronto: Penguin Books, 2003. Print

PS. For some great contextual material on Moby Dick, check out these blog posts over at Verba Americana 


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