Moby Dick

A version of this essay was first published as a “The Reader Recommends” essay in The Reader, v15, Summer 2004. pp. 93-96. It is published here under under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 license, August 2006.

Herman Melville: Moby Dick, or The Whale (1851)
(Penguin, 2003)

by Chris Routledge

It may seem a little strange to be recommending a book that finished its author’s career as a novelist, failed to sell significantly on either side of the Atlantic and has been a far greater commercial success in its many abridged and children’s editions than it ever has in complete form. After almost seventy years in obscurity Moby Dick was “rediscovered” by D.H. Lawrence, among others, in the 1920s. It has since become a central feature of the American literary canon, often named as a contender for the title of “Great American Novel”. But even so it’s hard to imagine many people actually picking up this big, serious-looking book with the aim of reading it for pleasure: it’s quite a job persuading students to read it even when it appears on their compulsory reading list.

So why am I recommending it? Quite simply because Moby Dick is an extraordinary piece of work; a glorious amalgam of encyclopaedia, seafaring journal, adventure story, experimental novel and psychological thriller. If ever there was a “book of the world” this is it. Take for example its cast of characters: here we have a crazed sea captain, a slick, professional first mate, a sturdy, faithful carpenter, a fatalistic innocent South Sea Islander, to name only a few. Our listless narrator Ishmael signs up to sail on the whaling ship Pequod because “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”. This is the kind of gap year to give even the most laid back parents nightmares.

In his flamboyant and politically uncomfortable essay on Moby Dick (available in the collection of essays, Studies in Classic American Literature) D.H. Lawrence declares the heartless Ishmael to be the perfect American and likens the crew to America itself: “Renegades, castaways, cannibals, Ishmael, Quakers”. Then there is the white whale: Moby Dick haunts the novel. He is a dream of freedom and power so strong that it can only destroy the dreamer: he is revenge, ambition, love. He has even been described as an allegory for God; a motivation that, in Ahab’s deranged and hatred-riven monomaniac brain, obliterates the commercial interests that keep the Pequod afloat. Unlike other whales Moby Dick cannot be caught and turned into heat and light: he is heat and light himself.

The way Melville achieves all this is quite unlike any other novel I have ever come across. The chase, which forms the main part of the many children’s editions, occupies little more than ten percent of the novel’s seven hundred or so pages. Ishmael’s narrative tells of the Pequod wandering the world’s oceans for month after month, sometimes sighting a whale, sometimes a sail on the horizon. It is a life of boredom and hardship, competition and cameraderie. But the human drama of the novel is augmented with detailed descriptive essays. It is an encyclopaedia of whaling, describing with meticulous care the details of a life at sea: a chapter is dedicated to making a sword-mat, for lashing to the boat, another to “The Whale as a Dish” and yet another to “The Sperm Whale’s Head: Contrasted View”.

The events surrounding the process of hunting whales, pursuing and killing them are vividly drawn. Besides the dramatic headlong rush of Ahab into madness and the destruction of his ship and crew, Moby Dick is a novel that elevates the ordinary to the fantastic and brings down the fantastic to the ordinary. Even the industrial processing of whales becomes a chance for encyclopaedic description and poetic eulogy:

Let us now with whatever levers and steam-engines we have at hand, cant over the sperm whale’s head, so that it may lie bottom up; then, ascending by a ladder to the summit, have a peep down into the mouth; and were it not that the body is now completely separated from it, with a lantern we may descend into the great Kentucky Mammoth Cave of his stomach. But let us hold here by this tooth, and look about us where we are. What a really beautiful and chaste-looking mouth! From floor to ceiling lined, or rather, papered with a glistening white membrane, glossy as bridal satins.

Long before James Joyce turned a walk round Dublin into an epic journey, Melville made fantasy and myth out of heavy industry, drama and heroism out of hard work and plain existence. Like Joyce he did it using an unfamiliar structure of episode and accumulation. It is perhaps not surprising that Melville’s novel rose to its current high status in the 1920s; Moby Dick can be listed as one of the first great works of literary Modernism.

But don’t let that put you off. Besides all this myth making and philosophising and changing the literary world forever, Moby Dick, like Ulysses, is also rather funny at times, in a dark sort of way. The opening sequence, for example, demonstrates Melville’s playful attitude. The etymology with which the novel begins has been supplied by “a late consumptive usher to a grammar school”:

The pale Usher: threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow reminded him of his mortality.

The list of extracts on whaling that follows is supplied by a “sub-sub-librarian” for whose work the narrator expresses gratitude in comically archaic style:

So fare thee well, poor devil of a Sub-Sub, whose commentator I am. Thou belongest to that hopeless, sallow tribe which no wine of the world will ever warm; and for whom even Pale Sherry would be too rosy strong; but with whom one sometimes loves to sit, and feel poor-devilish, too; and grow convivial upon tears; and say to them bluntly, with full eyes and empty glasses, and in not altogether unpleasant sadness. Give it up, Sub-Subs!

This even before Ishmael finds he has to share a bed with a cannibal and his little shrunken heads at the Spouter-inn. Naturally he tells the landlord that he doesn’t like to sleep two in a bed and that “if I should ever do so, it would depend on who the harpooneer might be”. Nonetheless over the course of their doomed voyage Ishmael comes to regard Queequeg as a very fine friend and harpooneer indeed.

Ultimately though, D.H. Lawrence was right to equate the Pequod and her crew with America’s raggle-taggle population of wandering dispossessed. Even the fact that the ship is owned by Quakers and commanded by a passionate idealist seems apt. Ahab’s major offence is to reject the religious and commercial authority on which his command depends: Ahab’s failure to balance his personal quest with necessary commercial diligence is a risk faced by the American project as a whole. Indeed Moby Dick can be read as a comment on what happens when powerful individuals are driven in the service of vengeful obsession. All except Ishmael, who lives to tell the tale, are dragged down into the abyss, shrouded in the flag and innocently, diligently, going about their work.

It is unclear exactly why Moby Dick failed so badly in Melville’s lifetime, but its length, obscurity and unusual structure are probably all to blame. Modern readers have the advantage of being used to at least two of those, but even so the novel has an undeserved reputation for being difficult. Written in under two years, Moby Dick is in some ways a flawed novel. Yet because of its intense drama, its encyclopaedic knowledge of the sea and its hymn to human survival, Melville’s acknowledged masterpiece is the ideal “desert island book”: it is a do-it-yourself guide for castaways and survivors of all kinds.