Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) by Herman Melville

A stunningly thorough and exhaustive novel, where a thoroughly compelling seafaring tale of revenge meets a dizzyingly exhaustive set of examinations on, and interpretations of, whales and whaling.

Tellingly, the novel does not open with anything relating to its plot or characters, but rather with an etymology section followed by several pages of quotations on whales from a wide variety of sources. An etymology section at the start of a book isn’t that strange, but the several pages of quotations – labelled “Extracts” – becomes increasingly bizarre as it continues on, and on, and on, pulling from more and more disparate sources. Its great comprehensively suggests a scholarly work, but make no mistake, what follows is a novel through and through, although one written in a time before the form was as strictly codified as it is now.

These opening sections establish the chief concern of the book, at least as I interpret it; humanity’s struggle to make sense of their universe, their efforts to break down the great chaos that is our reality into understandable concepts, and what their interpretations reveal about themselves.

Through the novel itself, through its one-hundred-and-thirty-three chapters and epilogue, Meville filters the concept of whales and whaling through a huge variety of discourses (religion, law, politics, race relations, imperialism, nationalism, history, myth, art, and more), through various forms (chiefly prose, but also soliloquy, poetry, song, stage play, scholarly documentation, and so on), and through the sequences of events that form the narrative. The chapters primarily concerned with the plot are thrilling, and the novel would have been a fine work composed of them alone, but it is the “digressions” that truly form the heart of the novel, showcasing Melville’s creativity, intelligence, and lyricism.

From the metafictional commentary of “Chapter 32: Cetology” (its dizzying specifics of classification suggesting commentary on the study of literature and science, amongst other pursuits), to the playful homoeroticism of “Chapter 94: A Squeeze of the Hand” (where Ishmael gets carried away in squeezing the hands of other men as they squeeze the whale’s “sperm”), so many chapters act as microcosms of the novel itself – information begging for interpretation, where interpretation reveals as much about the reader as it does about Melville and whaling.

Moby Dick himself is the most direct example of this concept. Does he symbolise God? Satan? Nature? Unknowable truths? Nothing at all, and is merely an animal acting as an animal would? I read it as being as open to interpretation to the reader as it is to the characters in the story; if anything, Moby Dick is a microcosm standing in for any piece of information or knowledge at all, a chaotic element we humans try to break down and classify into an understandable system so as to make sense and order in our lives, just as we do with so many other pursuits Ishmael muses on in the novel.

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The great whiteness of Moby Dick is cause for terror for some of the Pequod’s crew, which seems a curiosity at first – is whiteness not the colour of holiness, of purity, of comfort? Melville’s repositioning of the colour pushes one to re-examine their own systems for categorising information, symbols, their own mental frameworks formed of learned memetics, which seems to me Melville’s main point. Of course, the natural extension of that thought is that any other interpretation is equally valid; all tell more of the reader than of the symbols being interpreted.

The apparent terrifying whiteness of Moby Dick, could it stand in for the pure whiteness of a blank page, that chaos and lack of meaning that so tortures writers? Could it stand in for, as Ishmael interprets it, the violence of waves crashing against rocks, and the inhospitality of extreme environments, like endless snow? None of these interpretations are necessarily “correct”, because before one tries to classify and understand it, it is part of that chaos that is the reality external to our selves. It’s through the attempt to create meaning that we find it, if not in the symbol, then in ourselves. Or at least, that’s my own personal attempt to make sense of the novel, to impose order on the chaos.

With our own eyes we cannot sea the bottom of the sea. There are some truths that we can never truly know, no matter how much effort we exert. Finding ways to cope with that is how we stay sane. Ishmael (and perhaps by extension, Melville) puts forward many startlingly thorough analyses of whales, but readily surrenders to the fact that such analysis is of his own mind, and he’ll never able to completely and utterly understand the whale. Ahab has no such healthy outlook; he displaces so much onto Moby Dick, so much rage and frustration at the unknown and that vaster and older than he. The differing fates of the two characters suggests what Melville considers the more fruitful approach.

The novel is an absolute masterpiece. I give it five harpoons, and a buoyant coffin.

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