“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.

Book Club Update: Moby-Dick Contains Multitudes

moby-dick-penguinMy book club met last night for the first of two sessions on Moby-Dick. For this one we read only about half way through, so a lot of our discussion either began or ended with some variation on “I wonder where this goes.” Does the novel as a whole uphold Ishmael’s endearing open-mindedness – or, for that matter, does Ishmael himself continue in the same tolerant spirit he initially shows towards Queequeg’s “Pagan” predilections? Does Ahab’s single-minded quest for the white whale turn out to be in any way noble, or is this model of ruthless heroism thoroughly undermined? When we finally see Moby-Dick for ourselves, what picture do we get, to put up against those described in Chapters 55-57? How far can — or should — we read the novel symbolically or allegorically? What theory of fiction makes sense of the novel’s extraordinary blend of realism and prophesy, concrete detail and metaphorical reach — what kind of book is it? Will there ever be an important woman character (we’re guessing not), how far is women’s absence part of what, for some, has defined its story as great and universal, and what does that mean about the American literary tradition or cultural imagination?  What is it about this book, anyway, that accounts for its having been invested with so much cultural significance? And so on.

We’re pretty unlikely to answer these questions in a really substantial, much less very original, way over a couple of dinners. (However, if you want to talk about seafaring, there are worse times and places to do it than at Shuck Seafood on a foggy Maritime night. The food was so good and the atmosphere and service so pleasant we might do our follow-up Moby-Dick meeting there too!) I’m not going to hazard any answers here now, either. What I wanted to comment on at this point is just a feature of our Moby-Dick discussion that seemed to me different than some, maybe most, of our other bookish conversations. I can’t remember another book in which it wasn’t so much general opinions that differed but the specifics that won or lost us as individual readers. One of us, for instance, particularly loved the details about New Bedford and Nantucket life but was impatient with the “digressions” that impeded the story of the Pequod’s voyage; one (the scientist) was fascinated by the taxonomies of the “Cetology” chapter and Melville’s obvious interest in replacing (or maybe supplementing) myths about sea monsters with whatever facts could be gleaned, often at great cost, about actual whales; one was won over by the humor, such as the good-cop bad-cop scene with Peleg and Bildad in Chapter 16; one (you’ll never guess which) kept bringing up some guy called Carlyle. Moby-Dick offered every one of us something to fascinate or frustrate, and while there was some overlap (interest in Ishmael’s narrative voice, for instance — though again, some of us loved it while others were impatient with it), it sometimes seemed as if we’d all been reading different versions of the novel. (We all brought literally different editions, but that’s a separate issue.)

moby-dick-penguin-4This dispersed effect no doubt stems from the book’s chaotic-seeming and inclusive structure, which has led critics to call it things like an “intellectual chowder” or a “magnificent mess” (that’s Nathan Philbrick, in Why Read Moby-Dick). It seems to be built on a premise of embracing capaciousness: it includes everything Melville finds interesting or significant to his subject, rather than pursuing an aesthetic of elegant perfection. This blotchiness could easily be seen as a fault. (I’d love to know what, if anything, Henry James said about Moby-Dick, given his dismissive view of Middlemarch‘s formal construction. No golden bowl here — more an ungainly pitcher!) It’s certainly risky: surely no self-respecting MFA instructor would dare encourage anyone to write such a book! But I think our group’s diverse responses point to one aspect of the book’s greatness: there was something in it for — and against — all of us. It’s not one thing: it’s all kinds of things (though it’s not everything, though Philbrick’s little book suggests he might think so).  The challenge for a first-time reader is dealing with the bits that don’t immediately suit: we all admitted to having skimmed one part or another, but, again, not usually the same parts. Listening to people pointing out the aspects that most interested them made me want to reread: it made me aware, not just of the book’s mulititudinousness, but of my own limitations (which, in the context of Moby-Dick, are many). That can be off-putting, but it’s part of Melville’s magic to have made it inspiring instead.

“Boldly Launched” — On My First Reading of Moby-Dick


Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon we shall be lost in its unshored, harborless immensities.

When I wrote about Madame Bovary here a couple of years ago, I commented that reading a very famous novel for the first time is

like meeting a celebrity in person (or so I imagine). It is intensely familiar and yet strange at the same time: it is exactly what it always appeared to be, and yet it is no longer an idea of something but the thing itself.

That certainly applies in this case too — more so, perhaps, because I think Moby-Dick has a larger presence in the popular imagination than Madame Bovary. And not just the things everyone “knows” about it (the white whale! Captain Ahab! “Call me Ishmael”!) but the book itself, which is a kind of legendary object, so deep and vast that reading it (or so you’d think) is itself a kind of fantastical quest.

So, once again, I find myself reading something that I already knew a lot about, and in the process discovering how little I really knew about it. So far, anyway, the surprise factor is much greater with Moby-Dick than it was with Madame Bovary (which really was the perfection of the sort of thing I expected it to be). I didn’t really know what Moby-Dick would actually sound like, and I especially had no idea (I don’t know why, but I really didn’t) that Moby-Dick would be so much fun. I also thought it would be much longer! I ended up getting the Penguin Classics edition — a choice I’m very happy with, as the font is very readable and the notes are helpful but not overwhelming — and it’s under 700 pages, which for someone who reads Vanity FairMiddlemarch, and Bleak House regularly is not scary at all.

moby-dick-penguin-2I decided against the highly- recommended Norton Critical edition because I wanted to approach this first reading not as a chore to be done diligently but as a reading experience to be, well, experienced! No doubt I will finish the novel without having plumbed its depths, and if I weren’t enjoying Melville’s prose so much first-hand, I might have changed my mind (and in fact I do have a copy of the Norton out from the library, ready to turn to if the need arises). I feel like Herman and I are doing pretty well so far, however.

One reason for that, I’m quite sure, is that I’ve read Carlyle, which makes a lot of the wackier features of Moby-Dick (its rapid changes of register, from the prophetic to the bathetic; its elliptical allusions; its delight in the grotesque and the absurd; its insistence that everything — everything — is not just literal but symbolic) seem, if not necessarily reasonable and explicable, at least familiar. Here’s one of many examples of a moment that wouldn’t be out of place in Sartor Resartus:

Men may seem detestable as joint-stock companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! the great God absolute! The centre and circumstance of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!

All it needs is some more capital letters and it could be part of the unfolding of the Clothes Philosophy — or at any rate some kind of appendix to it.

moby-dick-penguin-3I know from experience that not every reader finds Carlylean prose exhilarating, but I do: I have ever since I read The French Revolution as an unsuspecting undergraduate. What I loved about The French Revolution then (before I knew anything at all about Carlyle) was that it exuded the conviction that its writing absolutely mattered — that it was about something hugely important and written in a style meant to convey and to reproduce that significance. It was daring and unconventional because it had to be. I get the same feeling from Moby-Dick. Even when it’s going along a bit more quietly than in the passage I quoted, it has the humming energy of a book with something (many things!) it really, really wants to say, and to say in a memorable way. It doesn’t feel artful, if that means constructed to create an aesthetic effect: it feels spiritual — meaning not religious in any doctrinal way but about the spirit, about what matters, what drives us, what scares us, what means something to us. It’s exciting! I’d really rather quote from it (or read it aloud) than write about it!

That said, so far I can’t disagree with the contemporary opinion I’ve read that the book is an “intellectual chowder.” Up to the half-way point I’ve reached (Chapter 60) there has certainly been (off and on) a forward-moving narrative — I hesitate to call it a “plot” when really all that’s happened, in terms of events, is that Ishmael and Queequeg have met, signed on to the Pequod and been at sea for a while, including one “lowering” of the boats. That through-line is enough, but barely enough, to give some coherence to what is otherwise rather a jumble of anecdote, sea lore, nautical trivia, character sketches, and poetic outbursts. I like the divisions into short chapters, though: that helps each of those ingredients have a certain distinctness, and also mostly prevents them from feeling like digressions, because they are so clearly puzzle pieces. In fact, a metaphor that might work as well as the chowder one is patchwork: I wonder if anyone has worked up a theory of Moby-Dick as literary quilting.

moby-dick-penguin-4I doubt it, because something else that’s hard to miss even on a first reading is just how very masculine the book is. I don’t recall that any women have even had any speaking parts at all in the novel so far — though I may be forgetting something, perhaps from back at the Spouter Inn. Certainly at sea it’s a man’s world. What does that mean for the oft-invoked universality of the novel’s mythos? Coincidentally, we’re watching Season 2 of The Affair, and last night’s episode featured a long scene between Noah and his therapist (played by Cynthia Nixon, which kept confusing me — why is Noah talking to Miranda?) in which Noah expounds a theory of greatness founded on abandoning ties — isn’t it more important to do (write) something great than to respect constraints like family and fidelity? What does it matter if other people suffer through your pursuit of greatness, especially if you achieve it? Obviously, in his case there’s a lot of wishful self-justification at work there, but what struck me was how much power that myth of greatness at any cost still has … when it’s a man talking, anyway. Not that Ahab (who is the most single-minded one in Moby-Dick) comes across as great; if he’s heroic, he is dangerously so, and presumably one thing the rest of the novel does is explore what is noble and what is disastrous about his quest for the white whale. (“And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”)

I’m reading Moby-Dick because my book club chose it; we’re meeting next week to discuss the first 60 chapters, so I’m going to set it aside for other reading in the meantime so as not to muddle the conversation. I’ve already discovered that the fragmented structure makes putting it down and picking it up again easier than with books whose plots are more intricately woven (which is not to say that there aren’t continuities and patterns unifying Moby-Dick, particularly metaphorical ones). I’m really glad we did choose it: the suggestion was quite unexpected, and I was kind of skeptical about it when it was made, but now I’m grateful to have been giving that extra push. One more thing I’ll be able to cross off my ‘Humiliation’ list! (Maybe next I can suggest we read Ulysses … )