“A Mighty Theme”: Moby-Dick Is About Whales


Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.

We all probably know the Woody Allen joke about speed-reading War and Peace: “It’s about Russia.” It seems just as comical to say that Moby-Dick is about whales. Obviously, it’s about so much more than that: the whales themselves, especially the White Whale, are wrapped in as much symbolism as blubber, and Ahab’s quest, along with the whole voyage of the Pequod from Nantucket to its final moments, is subject to probably illimitable interpretations.

But! As I was reading the second half of the novel over the last couple of days, what I found most astonishing about it was not so much those metaphorical layers but the sheer inexhaustible virtuosity of its literal content. It really is about whales, after all, and about whaling, and many, many chapters of the novel are pretty spectacular just taken at face value. Take the chapters that describe how something is done, for instance — Chapter 78, for example, “Cistern and Buckets.” It’s not easy (or so I imagine, never having tried it myself) to explain a technical process — one likely to be unfamiliar to most of your readers in every respect — in a way that is at once accurate and artful, but sequences of that kind abound in Moby-Dick and they are all splendid. If you’re reading for plot, of course, they won’t seem to add much, but then, if you’re reading Moby-Dick for the plot, you’ve probably given up long before Chapter 78! In fact, while the writing itself is often memorable in these sections, what I especially like about them is what they implicitly presume about the novel’s readers — that we are capable of being interested, that we can get caught up in Melville’s own delight in digging right in to the nitty-gritty of every process, every routine, every role on board the Pequod.


And the chapters minutely dissecting and describing the whales: how fantastic are they! Sure, nothing happens in most of them, but isn’t that actually a kind of category mistake? They are what happens, the descriptions themselves are what happens, the attention they insist we give to every inch of these gargantuan creatures is what happens. There’s just something so breathtakingly daring and unlikely about them all. Here’s the beginning of Chapter 80, “The Nut,” for example:

If the Sperm Whale be physiognomically a Sphinx, to the phrenologist his brain seems that geometrical circle which it is impossible to square.

In the full-grown creature the skull will measure at least twenty feet in length. Unhinge the lower jaw, and the side view of this skull is as the side view of a moderately inclined plane resting throughout on a level base. But in life–as we have elsewhere seen–this inclined plane is angularly filled up, and almost squared by the enormous superincumbent mass of the junk and sperm. At the high end the skull forms a crater to bed that part of the mass; while under the long floor of this crater–in another cavity seldom exceeding ten inches in length and as many in depth–reposes the mere handful of this monster’s brain. The brain is at least twenty feet from his apparent forehead in life; it is hidden away behind its vast outworks, like the innermost citadel within the amplified fortifications of Quebec.

There’s really no genre of fiction in which this degree of detail about a whale skull is really justified, is there? It serves no purpose whatsoever except to tell us about the whale. There’s a whole chapter — one of my favorites from this second half — about the sperm whale’s tail:

The entire member seems a dense webbed bed of welded sinews; but cut into it, and you find that three distinct strata compose it:–upper, middle, and lower. The fibres in the upper and lower layers, are long and horizontal; those of the middle one, very short, and running crosswise between the outside layers. This triune structure, as much as anything else, imparts power to the tail. To the student of old Roman walls, the middle layer will furnish a curious parallel to the thin course of tiles always alternating with the stone in those wonderful relics of the antique, and which undoubtedly contribute so much to the great strength of the masonry.

It goes on for four more pages! Again, there’s really no excuse — except that it tells us about the whale.

moby-dick-penguin-2That’s not right, though. The excuse (as if any is needed) for all of this stuff about whales is the writing. The fortifications of Quebec! Old Roman walls! The alliteration in “a dense webbed bed of welded sinews”! In my first post about Moby-Dick I talked about how much I was enjoying its prophetic style, so reminiscent of Carlyle. I continued to relish the many passages that leap from the literal to the metaphorical or philosophical:

Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.

Even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve around me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.

Oh! my friends, but this is man-killing! Yet this is life. For hardly have we mortals by long toilings extracted from this world’s vast bulk its small but valuable sperm; and then, with weary patience, cleansed ourselves from its defilements, and learned to live here in clean tabernacles of the soul; hardly is this done, when–There she blows!–the ghost is spouted up, and away we sail to fight some other world, and go through young life’s old routine again.

I love all of that: it too is daring and inspiring and really quite inexcusable. There’s just as much pleasure to be had in how Melville just writes about actual whales, though. And maybe even Melville wouldn’t be able to get away with so much rhetorical flamboyance if so much of Moby-Dick weren’t really, quite literally, about actual whales, so that his wildest flights of fancy, his deepest dives for profundity, remain anchored in reality.

My book club meets Monday night to talk about the second half of the novel. Once again I look forward to all the different perspectives I’ll hear.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.