This review is divided into two parts: Part I is a look at the vastness of Moby-Dick and at the majestic style Melville employed in this philosophical novel. That Part is more like one of my typical reviews. Part II is a look at one particular chapter and idea that highlights the great depths in this book and the great mind who wrote it.
That’s right. I did it! My whole life I’ve wondered if I’d ever read this book. I always wanted to (or, at least, I always wanted to say I’d read it), but if I’m being honest I don’t think I ever thought I’d actually read Moby-Dick (1851). Then earlier this spring my wife and I took our two- and one-year-old boys to the Berkshires and to Arrowhead, Melville’s home, where he wrote the beast (no, the boys didn’t appreciate the moment). As fortune would have it, at about this same time a family bookclub I’m in decided to read a big book for the summer: Moby-Dick won the vote. So I spent June, July, and August with a reading goal of ten pages per day (758 pages in my edition, which is not the B&N Classics edition shown below but rather the small B&N Books Collector’s Library hardback). I finished my goal early each month, and took out the last 100 pages in two days in mid-August — it is a great book.
Saying it’s a great book, however, doesn’t mean I would unreservedly recommend it to anyone. In a sense, that would be like recommending someone take up particle physics in their spare time, for fun. One does have to be in a certain state of mind to enjoy this long meandering novel. Perhaps by highlighting some of the substantial joys and rewards that come with the work involved in reading Moby-Dick, this review can help some people get into that state of mind.
Before Moby-Dick, Melville had experienced critical and popular success with some of his shorter novels, mostly adventures based on his own experiences at sea. When Moby-Dick was published, most critics didn’t know what to think of it and subsequently rejected it (“The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition”). But the ideas of Moby-Dick are uncontainable in novel form, so, really, it’s not a novel at all. Though there is a beautifully, dramatically written story, to expect a conventional novel is to invite disappointment. Moby-Dick is Melville’s attempt to take the measure of man’s place in the universe, a very philosophical work with the whale, and the pursuit of the whale, as a symbolic subject (pages and pages are spent describing the intricate physical features of the whale). Melville knew it was impossible to take the measure of man’s place in the universe, but certainly it was worth the attempt. Or so he must have thought, though frustrated with the critical result. Doing Melville no good, Moby-Dick became the classic it is today only after the twentieth-century had begun and Melville was dead. I can see where each side of the debate is coming from. On the one hand, if you’re looking for a thrilling adventure story, you get it only in the midst of hundreds of pages dedicated to whales and philosophy. On the other hand, the stylistic and substantive achievement here is thrilling, as is its story and philosophy — it’s worth the time it takes to read. In the end, even after three months, it wasn’t a chore but a pure pleasure (well, there were a few short chapters where I was tired of the whale and just wanted to move on, but I consider that my own failing).
The first lines are famous and seem to herald a bildunsroman adventure story:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.
That is innocent enough. I was shocked and completely taken in by the depth introduced in the next lines of that same paragraph. I never knew Ishmael was depressive and potentially suicidal. And Melville captures it wonderfully:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, sometime or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
Having read the book, I am amazed at how well Melville introduced the breadth and depth of the story and the philosophies we’d be venturing into over the next 758 pages. There are layers upon layers here, philosophical questions about life and death and the unknown, and, of course, the beautiful writing that gives Ishmael a melancholy tinge and makes him into a fantastic narrator of all that’s going to happen and all that that implies.
The next 100 pages or so are similar in achievement. The narrative moves forward as Ishmael attempts to find work on a ship sailing out of Nantucket. There are engaging philosophical layers in the meeting with his bosom friend (later allegorically his twin) Queequeg, the visits the chapel, and Father Maple’s ambivalent sermon. The ruminations on death and what comes after continue as Ismael says,
It needs scarcely be told, with what feelings, on the eve of a Nantucket voyage, I regarded those marble tablets, and by the murky light of that darkened, doleful day read the fate of the whalemen who had gone before me. Yes, Ishmael, the same fate may be thine. But somehow I grew merry again. Delightful inducements to embark, fine chance for promotion, it seems — aye, a stove boat will make me an immortal by brevet. Yes, there is death in this business of whaling — a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance.
Another interesting layer to the story is Melville’s attempts to raise the common whaler up to the level of the princes and kings prevelent in the serious literature that preceded Moby-Dick. In our time it is not surprising to see a common man used to question intimations of mortality and immortality, but Melville felt it important to give these rough men the status he felt they deserved:
And thus have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits, issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders; parcelling out among them the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, as the three pirate powers did Poland. Let America add Mexico to Texas, and pile Cuba upon Canada; let the English overswarm all India, and hang out their blazing banner from the sun; two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer’s. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires; other seamen having but a right of way through it.
One of my favorite passages is in this same vein. It is incredibly poetic and succeeds, much more than the above passage, in making these men objects of envy, in making what these men wondrous in a higher sphere:
There is his home; there lies his business, which a Noah’s flood would not interrupt, though it overwhelmed all the millions in China. He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks in the prairie; he hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters climb the Alps. For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman. With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.
Speaking of raising a man to a higher, almost mythical level, there’s the “ungodly, godlike man, Captain Ahab.” My whole life I’ve heard about Ahab and about how he is a larger-than-life character, but I must say I was skeptical. So the man, disregarding his own mortality and that of his crew, is madly pursuing the object of his rage, Moby-Dick. What is larger than life about that? This line (prescient in some respects) might introduce a sliver of an idea:
[Ahab] piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest has been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.
In Melville’s hands, this captain — who eventually asks in a remarkable introspective soliloquy, “Is Ahab, Ahab?” – acquires depths and prisms unlike almost any other character in literature. One of the reasons I read the last 100 pages ahead of schedule was because the tension really builds around Ahab as they get closer to the white whale. Moby-Dick comes into view in only the last forty pages; but Ahab, whose first question is always ”Hast seen the white whale?”, is encountering all that is ugly in human nature. Right now, I can think of Hamlet only who can offer so much room for searching humanity and oneself. Indeed, I thought often of the uncontained Hamlet while reading the equally unwieldy Moby-Dick. It is not surprising to learn that not long before embarking on this writing project, Melville had been introduced to and became infatuated with Shakespeare. The influence in the language might be obvious from the poetic passages I quoted above. More surprising to me was the influence in structure: sometimes a chapter is written as if it were a play, and often many of the characters, particularly Ahab, speak in soliloquies that contain volumes.
It is very unconventional and at times, if you’re unwilling to let Melville take you through the intricacies of whales, a bit long. But the chapters are all very short, so one feels, even in the boggy parts, that one is speeding along to that final meeting with the monstrous white whale.
One of my favorite aspects of the novel was the way Melville presents an aspect of the story and then sends a plum line into it, looking for all kinds of connections between that aspect and humanity or humanity’s relationship with the greater sphere. Perhaps my favorite chapter in the book was the one entitled “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Ishmael introduces the chapter, “What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.” To Ishmael “[i]t was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught.” I think he explains himself very well.
The explanation begins by looking at the softer side, the more conventional symbolic meaning, of the color white, which “in many natural objects, . . . refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own”:
. . . this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things — the innocence of brides, the benignity of age . . . white is specifically employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; . . . in the Vision of St John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great white thrown, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool . . .
In a conventional binary setup, white is the color of purity and innocence. Ishmael then proceeds to turn that idea on its head by taking a step further, and then further again, and, unbelievably, further yet again than I ever would have been capable of penetrated.
. . . yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honourable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.
With a list of images, Melville illustrates his point.
Why to the man of untutored ideality, who happens to be but loosely acquainted with the peculiar character of the day, does the bare mention of Whitsuntide marshal in the fancy such long, dreary, speechless processions of slow-pacing pilgrims, downcast and hooded with new-fallen snow? Or, to the unread, unsophisticated Protestant of the Middle American States, why does the passing mention of a White Friar or a White Nun, evoke such an eyeless statue in the soul?
Or what is there apart from the traditions of dungeoned warriors and kings (which will not wholly account for it) that makes the White Tower of London tell so much more strongly on the imagination of an untravelled American, than those other storied structures, its neighbours — the Byward Tower, or even the Bloody? And those sublimer towers, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, whence, in peculiar moods, comes that gigantic ghostliness over the soul at the bare mention of that name, while the thoughts of Virginia’s Blue Ridge is full of a soft, dewey, distant dreaminess?
This procession of haunting white words and images goes on for another wonderful and chilly page, in which Melville seems to speak about some of my inner-most fearful images. His explanation — which turns out to be just another series of questions — at the end of the chapter, illuminates a major theme of the book. It’s an empty, windswept explanation.
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thoughts of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour, and at the same time the concrete of all coulours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows — a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink?
With the weight of the novel, the preceding pages, and the ideas Meville presents, it is easy to come to the same conclusion he does: “. . . pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper . . .” I can’t resist showing how these ideas recur in a book which is primarily about whales and what men do who pursue them. Remember: this is just one aspect of the book; a book that can in some shape contain themes of this magnitude while still telling a good adventure story, examining rage and obsession, relationships between humans, etc. . . . it’s mind-boggling. The following passage comes well after the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale”:
There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence, doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbour, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.
These lines — these fantastic lines — beautifully tie into the book’s last sentence. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to conclude this lengthy review with it:
It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.