Chasing The Whale: In Defense of Moby-Dick

Written by Donna


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December 11, 2012



It has, arguably, the most recognized opening line in American Literature. It is loathed by high school students and college lit majors alike. People actually wince when I tell them it’s one of my all-time favorite classics, followed by, inevitably, a statement that takes some form of, “You’re insane.”

Yeah, maybe I am. But I’m here to tell you, I do love me some Herman Melville, and that includes Moby-Dick.

I know, I know. But hear me out.

Moby-Dick is a ripping good adventure story. “Crazy guy seeks revenge on giant whale while the rest of his crew wonders why the hell they signed up for this” makes for interesting character studies.  It’s also a lot more than that,seriously, but at its most basic level, it’s Adventure 101, pure and simple.

Modern readers, I think, have problems with this book for several reasons. First, the prose is not what we’re accustomed to at all. It’s a little Victorian and a lot stodgy in its Victorian-ness. And it’s dense—Melville is not a fan of short sentences, in general, but he is a fan of exploring every last detail of every thought. In an age of Twitter, Facebook, and 30 second commercials, people either aren’t accustomed to or don’t have the patience for something so concentrated. Second, this is a very man-centric book—female characters are reduced to silent, minor roles at best, and only in the very beginning of the book, and a lot of the men in the book are uncomfortable to spend a lot of time with. Ahab is insane, Queequeg is a little odd, Starbuck is so passive you just want to smack him sometimes, and Ishmael is so naïve at the start that it’s almost unbelievable. And here you are, trapped on a boat with them all  In the middle of the ocean.  Melville brings the claustrophobia alive, trust me.  It’s a nightmare three hour tour.  And third, I think the modern reader isn’t really in step with a lot of the themes that play out throughout the book.

But why not? If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’ll try to answer that.  I make no guarantees, though.

Melville is, along with Hawthorne and Irving, the quintessential American Romantic novelist. Literary periods don’t always fall down in straight lines, and this book actually bridges American Romanticism and Realism (generally, the American Romantic period is seen as ending in 1850, just about when Moby-Dick was written and published), although Melville’s previous novels place him squarely in Romantic territory. The Romantics could be a somewhat tedious bunch, always going on about nature and mysticism and emotion and eschewing anything like science and logic. It was all about feelings—legitimizing them, validating them, exploring them, giving free reign to them. Anyone who questioned whether that was such a hot idea was seen as old-fashioned. But that’s precisely what Melville does in the book, so see, he was old-fashioned even in his own time!

Anyway. It’s hard to say what contemporary readers want in a book, and I’d be the last person to try and classify that. Everyone has their own thing, you know? But to me, Moby-Dick is only partially steeped in the American Romantic tradition—it’s got at least a few toes firmly planted on the Realism line, and it toys with Transcendentalism (you know, Thoreau and his lot) and even Nihilism, a term that hadn’t been coined when the book was written. So there you go—both old-fashioned in his time and ahead of his time. No wonder people find it confusing.

What I don’t get is why more people these days don’t find it utterly fascinating. Aren’t we all about feelings these days? Everybody in this book is all about how they’re feeling. Ahab is bitter and vengeful (and way past cray-cray and squarely planted in insane), Ishmael is lonely and searching for meaning in his life, Starbuck spends a lot of time with his religious texts because he just knows this was a mistake and Ahab does not want to hear it. Because it’s All About The Whale with that one.

I absolutely love Ahab’s character. Sure, he talks like he’s straight out of a Victorian Melodrama (because, yo, he is in some ways) and he’s got a bad bad case of monomania going on, but that’s what makes him awesome. The guy is out to get a whale. He sails halfway around the world to exact revenge upon a whale. He endangers the lives of his entire crew because of his obsession with a whale. So dig deeper and think about that. Yes, the whale chomped his leg off. Understandably, he’s not amused by that. But he doesn’t seem to grasp that the whale could have chomped ALL of him and that he’s lucky he’s alive. He also doesn’t seem to get that it’s a whale who naturally doesn’t want to be killed and is therefore going to do what it needs to do so that doesn’t happen—Ahab seems to think Moby-Dick has human emotions and feelings, that the whale is out to get him specifically. So instead of using anything like logic and common sense, Ahab gives into his feelings and goes roaring back after the whale to get even with it, with nary a thought to his family at home or the safety and well-being of his crew. It is, if you’ll forgive my crudeness, the ultimate pissing contest, and by God, he’s going to win it this time. The problem is, it’s a whale. Not to denigrate whales or anything—lovely creatures—but Ahab’s nuttiness would be far more understandable to modern readers if he wanted revenge against another person. All of this probably seems really silly, to be that mad at a whale.



Unless, of course, you realize that Ahab’s angry at way more than Moby-Dick. He’s mad at himself for failing to kill him the first time—he sees it as a strike against his skill, and his manliness. And to be bested by what he thinks of as a dumb fish seems to him to be God mocking him and punishing him for sins he doesn’t understand. Ahab is a Quaker (as is his first mate, Starbuck), and his vengeful chase after Moby-Dick, to whom he has assigned very human characteristics, goes against the grain of the Quaker faith. In abandoning the basic principles of his faith, Ahab dooms his crew (spoiler alert: the Pequod ends up sinking) and himself. His final words before being drug under by his hoped-for victim indicate that he is well past thinking of the consequences, either on earth or in the afterlife, of his chosen path: “…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” He throws his last harpoon. Had he just left it alone, 28 of his crew members may not have died, and he could have gone home to his wife and young son.

And then there is Starbuck, Ahab’s antithesis, a young man firmly entrenched in his faith, who sees Ahab’s quest as not only madness, but immoral and lacking any sort of reason—if anything, Starbuck represents rationality here, while Ahab is certainly symbolic of what happens when you let your feelings run unfettered. Ahab has willingly lied to the crew he signs on until they are well out to sea—only then does he reveal that his mission is to hunt and kill Moby-Dick, and not just hunt whales for oil. Once he reveals this, Starbuck alone is against him, and as Ahab’s madness continues to spiral out of control, Starbuck is in a quandary—he recognizes that Ahab is likely to get them all killed, but he is also morally obligated to follow the captain’s orders—it’s part of the job. Just as Ahab tests himself against Moby-Dick and falls, Starbuck tests himself against Ahab and suffers the same fate—he briefly considers either arresting or shooting Ahab, but his religious beliefs won’t allow it. Ahab gives complete reign to his feelings and dies as a result. Starbuck does no such thing, and loses his life as well. The message there is part of the conflict—Reason or Feelings? In the end, neither matters, which takes the reader to the very core of this book–because if neither matters, then what does?  That’s one Big Question Melville asks–and really, given the outcome, he has no answer.

One of the other Big Questions this book asks is what the nature of God is, and if there even is a God. Ahab renounces the obligations of his faith to chase Moby-Dick and seek revenge, and gets himself killed for his trouble. Starbuck clings to his faith like, well, like a barnacle on a whale, and gets himself killed for his trouble as well. At the time it was written, this was a very daring theme to explore, and the fact that everybody dies (except Ishmael) seems to suggest that it doesn’t matter whether you believe in God or not. Unless you want to go down the “Moby-Dick is a symbol for God” road (and a lot of people do go there), in which case, given the destruction left in his wake, yikes. Vengeful indeed. But I’m not one of those people who assigns him that role. I think Moby-Dick is symbolic of something completely different to every person on that ship—to Ahab, he’s evil incarnate; to Queequeg, he’s a challenge; to Starbuck, he’s Godlike and not to be messed with; to Ishmael, he’s a sense of wonder and adventure.  To the Reader, he is E–all of the above.

I have to admit that all the cetology stuff isn’t all that interesting—Melville really wanted to present an authentic view of an American industry (whaling) that he was familiar with, though, and so all the stuff about blubber and whale sperm is there. When I look over the book these days, I tend to skip all that, to be honest. Even I have my limits. I understand why it’s there. I’m just not interested.

But I do like the story. I like the questions it poses about God, and about Faith, and about the place of Reason and Feelings in a universe where we can’t control every single thing.  I like that it is about Big Thinky Things while it wallows in little details.

Marvel graphic novel adaptation, Volume 1

Marvel graphic novel adaptation, Volume 1

For those who feel unequal to the task of plowing through whale blubber and Melville’s old-fashioned prose, but who’d like to get a sense of the story, there are numerous graphic novel adaptations, including this one by marvel.  There are 6 volumes to it–but hey, it’s a long book.

Or, for something different, there’s this, a rendering of each page of the novel via modern art. I’ve seen this book, and the artwork in it is stupendous.

Most interesting of all is this site, where, for people who like to listen to books, you can download a chapter a day of Moby-Dick read by some really awesome people, including Tilda Swinton, Stephen Fry, Benedict Cumberbatch (of PBS’ Sherlock, and picture me swooning because I’m totally in love with him), and author China Mieville.  And Melville read out loud is a whole different Melville.  Even I can admit that it’s tough to get into the denseness of his prose, but listening to him read out loud removes much of that burden.  And a tip of the hat to my friend Peg, who pointed the Moby-Dick Big Read site out to me.

Or you could dig out the old Classic Comics version. It’s pretty good. In any event, I don’t suppose I’m going to convert a single person who’s made it all the way to this point in this post to my thinking that Moby-Dick deserves its place in the Western canon and is worth reading even today. But I do love this book. Truly.

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Words of Wisdom

"It's chaos, be kind."
Michelle McNamara