Moby-Dick (1851)


And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.

Melville employs a fragment of Job 1:15 for the epigram of the epilogue: “…and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” In the same way, the reader, after 625 pages of pure sublime masterwork, escapes alone to tell others of the experience. And it is a large, profound experience. As Melville says himself, through his surrogate Ishmael, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme” (497). Having found success with his first two novels, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas, and then failure with his third, Mardi and a Voyage Thither, a dense philosophical work, Melville seems to have found the Aristotelian golden mean in the Genesis of American literature: the mighty Moby-Dick or, The Whale.

I avoided the book for a long time, daunted as I was by its heft and, well, age and subject matter. Yet, as Thomas C. Foster points out in his book How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines, it was really my own age that was the impasse: “…[Moby-Dick] succeeds by rules of narrative that not many people can grasp (especially at the age of seventeen or twenty, when most of us get fouled in its lines)” (243). Indeed, a book like this makes tall demands of its readership. For example, one should at least be conversational about the Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, especially in its King James translation; one should have at least a basic familiarity with the great Shakespearean tragedies and its chief figures (Lear, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth); and one should have an understanding of the major metaphysical arguments before and of Melville’s time (Hume versus Kant; free will versus determinism, etc.). But, really, above all, the King James Bible is paramount. As the great Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye has it in his book The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, “…a student of English literature who does not know the Bible does not understand a good deal of what is going on in what he reads” (xii).

Melville’s great book suffers from the same social stigma as so many others, the Bible included. Along with, say, The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, people have heard so much about the books, that they feel they have already read them. This sentiment leads to Italo Calvino’s cheeky definition of a classic in his book Why Read the Classics? as being a book that one is always “re-reading,” never reading for the first time. To be sure, this can also be because one is embarrassed to admit that one has not read some great work or another before. For myself, I didn’t read Moby-Dick until 8 years ago, at age 24, in grad school. And even then, my professor didn’t do much to give me a leg up when she said, “I’m sorry to do this, but, you’ll have to do a close-reading of Moby-Dick; there’s no way around it.” Luckily, though I didn’t quite take to it on the first reading as I did on this second reading, the experience was peculiar and never left me. When I attempted to negatively criticize it, my arguments were glaringly thin. Harold Bloom, in The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages sums it up best when he says, “When you read a canonical work for a first time you encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfillment of expectations” (3).

Most people are familiar with the opening sentence (you’ve likely just thought it). Indeed even people who despise literature and always watched the movie of the books they were to read in school still know the famous line. I thought about this a while and questioned what it is about the line that is so catchy. (And, really, when read with the rest of the paragraph, it is a bit clunky.) It struck me that its meter is iambic pentameter, which is a natural speaking rhythm for American English speakers. There was a clue, I thought, perhaps Melville consciously did this, knowing that it would stick by its very syntactically structure. Then I started thinking through other great English literature of the time and riffling through opening sentences for possible iambic pentameters, when I came face to face with none other than “In the beginning.” Now, I’m sure this has been pointed out before, given the welter of Melville scholarship out there, but still it fills one with enthusiasm.

In general, it is the opening sentence (featured on a coffee mug of famous opening sentence I bought at the NYPL) and the mad Ahab out to catch the white whale that people know of the book. Scarcely much more, save for maybe the ambiguity of the dynamic between Ishmael and Queequeg. To know only these two elements of the main plot of the book is to know very little of its bulk, for these takeaways can be gleaned from the first chapter and last three chapters. There are still 131 other chapters! Another stigma that has attached itself to the book like a barnacle to a whale is that it is bloated with outdated whaling lore and purports to be an encyclopedia of whaling. Like most stigmas, there is truth to this, but allow me to assert my argument for undertaking such a reading project as this without resorting to abridgment.

Spending, let’s say, a month of your life reading Moby-Dick is not to spend a month reading only one book. It is to spend a month reading through a library: “There are certain books that, in themselves, are an ideal library. Examples: Moby-Dick….” (269, A Reader on Reading). Again, like the Bible (which is also considered a library), this book is not a novel; it is composed of plays, poems, prose poems, narrative, essays, scholarly treatises, philosophy, theology, and more. Melville displays his acumen as a sort of polyglot of genres. Where Cervantes gives us interpolated stories, Melville gives us interpolated essays. Through Ishmael, we get a genius’s thoughts on all manner of the popular and the esoteric (Melville was considerably well read) synthesized into the metaphor of the human pushing to the brink of madness to capture an elusive whale. The more I think about this major theme of the book, the more I realize how inclusive, how universal it is. Yet, it is distinctly American. Whereas Faust sold his soul to Mephistopheles, Ahab looks to himself to obtain his goal.

Approaching the book in thirds is a good way to plan your reading project. The first third introduces the principal characters and sets us off on the Pequod on Christmas Day (i.e. Christ’s traditional birth date). The second third gives us the weight of scholarly discourse on whaling, but Melville rewards the alert reader with constant dips into the poetic and philosophical modes. Finally, the last third, the extended climax of the book, pays off with dividends for the efforts of the reader. This is a book best read at a slow pace. I recommend no more than 20 pages a day, in order to properly ingest and absorb the glut of its offerings.

The undeniable standout character is, of course, that black hole Ahab, into which everything on its event horizon is pulled and out of which nothing escapes. Melville transcends himself with Ahab. The Shakespearean soliloquies (for even when he speaks to others, he is really just speaking to himself) take up the torch passed from Shakespeare to Milton and now to Melville. Ahab captures the viscera of the American spirit in a way that Ishmael just cannot, clinging to Reason above all. Where Ishmael says “give me the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals,” Ahab, in the face of death, proclaims, “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” (12, 623).

I glance through all of my marginalia, Post-it notes, highlighting, etc., and I am overwhelmed with all there is to say of this great book. Perhaps one day I will set to the task of distilling all of these notes and thoughts into a long essay (really, only another book will come closer to doing it justice), but–alas–I must bring this “review” to a close. Suffice it to say this: In Job 41:1, God says to Job, “Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?” Melville’s Ahab answers with a mad, “Yes, I can.” Who would not want to read a book written about the man who, unlike Job, set out to defy God’s limitation on mankind? A mighty theme indeed.

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