American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

MOBY-DICK, OR THE WHALE (1851). Moby-Dick is the sixth sea book written by Herman Melville* (1819-1891) and the first to draw deeply on his Pacific whaling experiences. Impatient with his popular reputation based on Typee* (1846) and Omoo* (1847) and dismissive of his rapidly written Redburn* (1849) and White-Jacket* (1850), he was determined to pick up where he had left off in Mardi* (1849), a work boldly experimental in style and an ambitious voyage in the world of mind. Melville’s exhilaration and despair during the eighteen months when he was writing Moby-Dick are evident in some ten passionate letters to his neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne,* to whom he would dedicate the book “In Token of My Admiration for His Genius.”

Not a novel in the usual sense, Moby-Dick is a book of great plenitude, mixing fiction with factual data on whaling and blending philosophical speculation with high comedy. At the center is a sailor’s yarn of the sort told during long night watches at sea. A Nantucket* whaling captain named Ahab,* consumed with anguish at the loss of his leg to an immense white whale known throughout the fisheries as Moby Dick, takes command of the Pequod* on a monomaniac quest vowing death to Moby Dick. Finally tracked down in the far Pacific, Moby Dick smashes into the hull of the Pequod. As Ahab hurls his harpoon at the whale, he is caught in his own line and whisked to his death in the sea. The ship and all boats are lost. One survivor lives to tell the tale (“Epilogue”).

Moby-Dick begins with two unexpected preliminaries: a half-comic “Etymology” of the word whale, followed by a dozen pages of “Extracts” from world literature imaging the massive size and power of Leviathan. They establish the mythic history of whales and warn the reader of the mortal risks to those who encounter them.

With a famously abrupt opening sentence—“Call me Ishmael”*—Melville names the narrator for the 135 chapters of Moby-Dick. Biblical connotation marks Ishmael as an outcast man of the wilderness, though the name translates as “whom God hears.” As sole survivor of the Pequod disaster, Ishmael feels freed from traditional values of landsmen and unafraid to subvert all their comfortable orthodoxies. “Loomings” (ch. 1) is a stunning prologue praising the sea’s power to cast spells on the imagination, drawing men away from stifling routines and stirring them to reverie and meditation.

Ishmael recalls his adventure, beginning in New Bedford and Nantucket, when he becomes the bosom friend of a Polynesian harpooner, Queequeg* (chs. 2-21). After they board the Pequod, the narrator’s interest shifts to Ahab and his crew. The three mates—Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask—are substantial men typifying the New England maritime hierarchy. Among them only Starbuck, a Nantucket islander and Quaker like Ahab, will have the moral stature to attempt, unsuccessfully, to challenge Ahab’s obsessive mission. The three harpooners, each assigned to a mate for the chase, are wild and exotic: a Pacific islander, a Native American Indian, and a gigantic black African.

But the captain’s presence dominates the ship. Though aware that Ahab is named after an evil Old Testament king (chs. 16, 19), Ishmael is sympathetic to his suffering, signified by Ahab’s whalebone leg, and fascinated by his bold defiance of the gods. In a brilliant sequence of chapters (3640) the narrator turns the deck of the Pequod into an Elizabethan theater. In “The Quarterdeck” (ch. 36), a powerfully choreographed scene, Ahab incites the crew by offering a gold doubloon to the first man to sight the white whale. Here he mesmerizes the crew with a black mass ceremony, as later he will temper his harpoon with the blood of his pagan harpooners in the name of the devil (ch. 113).

Many middle chapters in Moby-Dick contain graphic accounts of whaling activities. Sometimes referred to as the book’s “cetological center,” these chapters provide accurate details on such matters as calls from the mast head, lowering the boats, the elaborate equipment of the whaleboats and the duties of the oarsmen, boatheader, and boatsteerer (harpooner), pitchpoling, using the lance, towing the carcass, cutting in, trying out, stowing down, and cleaning up. Such information grounds the novel in reality and foreshadows plot events.

To his own experiences on three Pacific whalers Melville added bits from contemporary whaling accounts, such as those by J. Ross Browne,* whose Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (1846) he had reviewed, and the Reverend Henry T. Cheever’s* The Whale and His Captors (1849). He relied on Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839) and Frederick Debell Bennett’s Narrative of a Whaling Voyage (1840) and others for factual data. Two whaling pieces were probably germinal to Moby-Dick. A widely read magazine story by J. N. Reynolds,* “Mocha Dick: or the White Whale of the Pacific” (1839), offered a concept and a name variant. Owen Chase’s* Narrative (1821), recounting the true fate of the whaleship Essex,* staved by a giant whale in mid-Pacific, served Ishmael as elaborate affidavit (ch. 45) for the coming catastrophe of the Pequod. These works and others are openly commented on by Ishmael (ch. 32), providing veracity and ballast for his whaling epic.

Throughout, Melville endows his story with the complexity and reach of classical literature. Ishmael alludes often to both mythological and biblical figures. As with Ahab and Ishmael, the great whale has Old Testament links, made clear in Chapter 81, where Ishmael quotes five verses from Chapter 41 of the Book of Job wherein “Leviathan” is presented as the measure of God’s power. Thus, Ahab’s vengeance against Moby Dick can be read, among other possibilities, as God-defiance, a fascinating theme to Melville in the light of his own revolt against the Calvinism of his youth. Questions of faith and doubt abound in Moby-Dick.

Ten or so whale killings occur between the Pequod's unsuccessful first lowering (ch. 48) and its fatal encounter with Moby Dick (ch. 135). Each kill serves as a center for a chapter sequence. Thus, “Stubb Kills a Whale” (ch. 61) is introduced by a preceding chapter explaining the whizzing lines in whaleboats, one of which will ultimately strangle Ahab; the killing is followed by two more technical chapters and capped by a comic scene between Stubb and the black cook. Ishmael has previously ridiculed the images of whales in many famous paintings and prints (chs. 55-57). The killings give him opportunities to lecture on whale anatomy: its blanket of blubber, head, case, brain, spoutings, tail, penis, and so on. Anatomy inevitably slides into philosophy mixed with Ishmaelian high jinks. The chapter on blubber (68) and the exceptional sequence of eight chapters on the sperm whale’s massive head (chs. 70, 74-80) focus on two of Ishmael’s passions: analogies between great whales and worthy philosophies and his frustrated attempt to read the “mystical brow” of the sperm whale, which in its “dread powers” represents “the Diety.” The chapter ends with Ishmael’s putting the “brow” before the reader with the challenge: “Read it if you can” (ch. 79).

The major maritime events of the voyage, other than the whale killings, are nine gams or encounters with other whalers. To each ship Ahab has but one question: “Hast thou seen the White Whale?” Their varied responses help define the abnormality of Ahab’s quest. Captain Boomer of the En- derby, having himself lost an arm to the white whale, is appalled: “ain’t one limb enough?” (ch. 100). Captain Gardiner of the Rachel, an old Nantucket friend, begs Ahab to assist in the hunt for Gardiner’s young son missing since the day before in one of his whaleboats. Ahab’s brusque refusal is a measure of his dehumanization (ch. 128). The last of the ships, the ironically named Delight, has just lost five of its crew to Moby Dick, but their report only inflames Ahab further (ch. 131).

Ishmael’s break from sympathy with Ahab may occur symbolically in a lurid night scene around the tryworks. While flames beneath the pots turn the Pequod into a hell-ship, Ishmael at the helm experiences a hallucination that almost leads to capsizing the ship. Stare not too long into the fire, he warns himself, “lest it invert thee” (ch. 96). Ahab’s fascination with fire, marked by his scar, at last culminates on the night of a typhoon when corposants blaze at the mast tips. To the terror of the crew, Ahab proclaims the flames to be his father and his god (ch. 119).

Though temporarily captured by Ahab’s fiery hunt, Ishmael’s personal quest is the sea itself. His early hope that in “landlessness” he will discover “the highest truth” (ch. 23) seems not to be fulfilled, yet the sea brings him self-knowledge, recorded in memorable passages. During a masthead watch in pleasant weather he is lulled into reverie by the rocking ship; then, as he merges with the soul of the “mystic ocean” and experiences transcendence, he is suddenly yanked back to reality by a near fall (ch. 35). On reaching the Pacific, Ishmael writes a love poem to “my dear Pacific” (ch. 111), but the same “mysterious divine Pacific” shortly blasts the Pequod with a typhoon that leaves her “bare-poled” (ch. 119), stripped of sails. Ishmael frequently reminds the reader that the sea is and always has been a graveyard and that “green navies and green-skulled crews” lie beneath benign surfaces (ch. 40). The sea can murder the stateliest frigate at will (ch. 58). Cannibal creatures roam beneath gilded waters. Sharks follow whaleships and tear at the carcasses of dead whales. A strange, dreamlike giant squid rises from the deeps with a sucking sound and disappears (ch. 59). Serene, terrible, unknowable, the sea is life itself.

Told by a young man with a riotous imagination and with many varying moods of thought, Moby-Dick celebrates the life of men on the sea frontier. The 700 American whalers exploring the Pacific do not deserve the contempt of merchant and naval vessels. Whaling is more than a filthy butchering business; it is a noble and honorable occupation, as perilous as war. Whalemen are descended from a long line of famous heroes and dragon slayers (ch. 82). Although Ishmael praises the American thrust into the Pacific, he insistently questions established traditions, doubts the literal truth of the Bible, challenges the existence of God, and makes comedy out of many sober matters. No wonder that Moby-Dick was disconcerting to Melville’s contemporaries. Twentieth-century readers have been far more receptive to Ishmael’s quest for identity, to his passionate search for the sacred, to his hilarities, to his joy in discontinuities. They have been grateful, above all, for Melville’s wonderful gift of language.

The rise to renown of Moby-Dick at home and abroad has been a cultural phenomenon. In the 1920s, after decades of neglect, scholarly studies established Melville’s great prose epic as a major text, leading to its inclusion in the college canon. Subsequently, through films, dramatic readings, television specials, cartoons, and comics, both the white whale and the halfcrazy old sea captain with the ivory leg have become icons of popular culture, familiar to all. Now ranked at the top of American literary works, Moby-Dick continues to inspire imaginative responses at the highest levels of art and literature. Composer Laurie Anderson, for one example, premiered her “Songs and Stories from Moby Dick” in October 1999 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

FURTHER READING: Bezanson, Walter E. “Moby-Dick: Work of Art,” Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Ed. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1967; Bryant, John, ed. A Companion to Melville Studies. New York: Greenwood, 1986; Parker, Hershel, and Harrison Hayford, eds. Moby-Dick as Doubloon: Essays and Extracts (1851-1970) New York: Norton, 1970; Schultz, Elizabeth A. Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth- Century American Art. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1995; Sealts, Merton M., Jr. “Whose Book Is Moby-Dick?” Melville’s Evermoving Dawn: Centennial Essays. Ed. John Bryant and Robert Milder. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1997, 58-74.

Walter E. Bezanson