Posted by: Mish | July 29, 2010

Moby Dick

“Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outstretching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastadons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panorama of empire on earth, and through the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. 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” (432).


The idea of venturing into Herman Melville’s infamous Moby Dick was extremely intimidating, but once started, the epic journey wasn’t nearly as bad as anticipated. There were times I couldn’t put the book down and stretches that dragged, but the short chapters, some only a page long, helped immensely. I surprisingly liked it a lot and the more I think about its intricacies the more it grows on me. I have no inclination to read it annually like a friend does, but can see myself reading it again- after enough time has passed.

Briefly put, the whale of a tale is about human struggle. It’s narrated by Ishmael, who joins a whaling crew to combat the “drizzly November” in his soul. Having sworn revenge on Moby Dick who made him legless, monomaniac Ahab brings his crew on a quest despite opinions and warnings.

“What is best let alone, that accursed thing is not always what least allures. He’s all a magnet! How long since thou saw’st him last? Which way heading?”

“Bless my soul, and curse the foul fiend’s,” cried Bunger, stoopingly walking around Ahab, and like a dog strangely snuffing; “this man’s blood-bring the thermometer!- it’s at the boiling point!- his pulse makes these planks beat!”

The Pequod’s diverse crew of characters include: domineering and obsessed Ahab, easy-going Ishmael, good-natured Queequeg, romantic and sensible Starbuck, nonchalant Stubb, and prickly-natured Flask. There is also a range of seamen from New England, foreign countries, and remote islands on board and off. They’re all distinct, but pretty archetypal.

Requiring determination, patience, persistence, Moby Dick isn’t something I would suggest to many. It wasn’t well received in 1851 either, only about 2,000 copies sold. I read it for an Infinite Zombies read-along thanks to Sarah, the Books of the Century Challenge, and because I really wanted to make a second attempt. As one who skipped the epic assignment years ago, I think teachers would do better with more student-friendly material. But now I can more clearly see why Moby Dick is often used in curriculums, studied by scholars, alluded to, joked about, dreaded, disliked, and discussed in great length. Melville’s masterpiece is truly one of a kind.

Berth of Thoughts and Quotes

It would have been easier to log the journey as I read, but hindsight is 20/20. Now I have a bursting berth of thoughts and lengthy quotes from the epic in which Melville warns:

“Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters.”

“So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory” (205).

Moby Dick is full of philosophy, theology, history, and commentary. Philosophical subjects are debated, but no definitive answer given. The White Whale can be seen as either a god or a demon or Ahab as a hero or a villain. The central theme is whether to go with the grain or against it and to believe or not, towards which each character has his own reaction. The Cetology chapter about whales  is a humorous commentary on the study of knowledge and justified belief. Believing but refusing to submit to a higher power, Ahab says:

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event- in the living act, the undoubted deed- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing put forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mast! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see him in outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. The inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth has no confines” (167).

The epic dramatic tragedy varies from poetic prose to technical writing to a few scripted scenes with stage directions. The many detours are all part of Melville’s master plan. It’s a complex tapestry in which all the pieces, including the slow stretches, come together in a central whirlpool.

Melville’s use of symbolism is as rich and varied as the novel’s other elements, from whiteness, whales, and weaving to Ahab’s peg-leg:

“You would have thought that in him also two different things were warring. While his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap. On life and death this old man walked” (231).

and Queequeg’s tattoos, which are:

“a complete theory of of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them” (455).

Nathanial Hawthorne said his friend couldn’t believe nor disbelieve in God. If Ahab reflects Melville’s disbelief, then Ishmael reflects his belief. I found Ishmael’s sermon-like tone amusing.

“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. But how easy and how hopeless to teach these fine things! Of erections, how few are domed like St. Peter’s! Of creatures, how few vast as the whale!” (300)

“The weaver-god, he weaves; and by that weaving is he deafened, that he hears no mortal voice; and by that humming, we, too, who look on the loom are deafened; and only when we escape it shall we hear the thousand voices that speak through it. For even so it is in all material factories. The spoken words that are inaudible among the flying spindles; those same words are plainly heard without the walls, bursting from the opened casements. Thereby have villainies been detected. Ah, mortal! then, be heedful; for so, in all this din of the great world’s loom, thy subtlest thinkings may be overheard afar” (427).

In discussing spouts and halos, Ishmael says:

“He is both ponderous and profound. And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts…glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts. For, d’ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly, this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal equal eye” (359).

Melville comments on society’s racial views, though to a lesser extent than other topics. He shows the ludicrousness of categorizing people by skincolour through the absurd and erroneous grouping of species of whales. In another chapter, Stubb warns a young crewman that “a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama. Bear that in mind” (395).

Just because I found it amusing…While rambling about the glory of whaling, Ishmael alludes to St. George and the Dragon:

“which I maintain to have been a whale; for in many old chronicles whales and dragons are strangely jumbled together, and often stand for each other. ‘Thou art as a lion of the waters, and as a dragon of the sea,’ said Ezekiel; hereby, plainly meaning a whale; in truth, some versions of the Bible use the word itself. Besides, it would much subtract from the glory of the exploit had St. George but encountered a crawling reptile of the land, instead of doing battle with the great monster of the deep. Any man may kill a snake, but only a Perseus, a St. George, a Coffin, have the heart in them to march boldly up to a whale” (349).

Coincidentally, I picked up a children’s edition of Edmund Spenser’s legend the same week Moby Dick was bequeathed to me. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s a reminder to read the Faerie Queen in full.


More quotes that caught mine eye

“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker” (225).

“There is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan” (262).

“Is it not curious, that so vast a being as the whale should see the world through so small an eye, and hear the thunder through an ear which is smaller than a hare’s? But if his eyes were broad as the lens of Herschel’s great telescope; and his ears capacious as the porches of cathedrals; would that make him any longer of sight, or sharper of hearing? Not at all.- Why then do you try to ‘enlarge’ your mind? Subtilize it” (321).

“Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. To-morrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glare like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp- all others but liars!… But even Solomon, he says, ‘the man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain’ (i.e. even while living) ‘in the congregation of the dead.’ Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plains, even though they soar” (404).

“Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mass of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary” (441).

“This mysterious, divine Pacific zones the world’s whole bulk about; makes all coasts one bay to it; seems the tide-beating heart of earth. Lifted by those eternal swells, you needs must own the seductive god, bowing your head to Pan” (456).

“The mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. 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 harbor, 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” (464).

“When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain’s exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country without-oh, weariness! heaviness! Guinea-coast slavery of solitary command!-when I think of all this; only half-suspected, not so keenly known to me before-and how for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare0fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul!-when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world’s fresh bread to my mouldy crusts…then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey-more a demon than a man!-aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool-fool-old fool, has old Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now?” (507)



  1. If the read is intimidating, then so is undertaking a review of the whole work! I am glad you did so, because I did want to know what you thought. I have still not found sufficient courage to undertake reviewing the thing as a whole; maybe next time I read it…

    Enjoyed the quotes you picked out; particularly the ones about weaving. I am reminded of the part that decribes the harpoon bristling Moby Dick in terms of spindles… It’s a post in itself.

    I share your feelings about the reading of the book; having also been surprised by how enjoyable it is. I am sorry to have previously helped propagate the myth that it is unreadable.

    Congratulations on an excellent review of an almost unreviewable book!

  2. I just noticed your comment that slipped through the cracks. Geez.

    Thank you for the compliments and bringing the read along to my attention. Really glad you did so. At least you wrote about Moby Dick as you read. There’s so much worth mentioning, it took awhile to go through my notes and was hard to edit.

    You should write about the harpoon as a spindle. The whole weaving metaphors were really something.

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