Moby-Dick (American History Through Literature)
Students or general readers confronting Moby-Dick for the first time often feel as terror-stricken as sailors at the sight of the legendary white whale heading for them "with open jaws, and a lashing tail" (p. 558). Those undaunted by the book's vast bulk and towering reputation find themselves frustrated by what appear to be continual digressions from its ostensible plothe story of Captain Ahab's vengeful hunt for the Leviathan that chewed off his limb. To appreciate Moby-Dick, one must heed the cue its subtitle, "The Whale," furnishes: the book's subject is not just the monster Captain Ahab tries in vain to slay but "the whale" as a species; hence, the cetology chapters, far from being intrusive padding, are integral to the larger story the narrator Ishmael relates, of whaling as a commercial enterprise and of his own unfulfilled quest to "know" the whale, a creature whose "living contour" can only be glimpsed at the "risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him" (p. 264).
Readers' enjoyment of Moby-Dick will also be greatly enhanced if they realize how often Ishmael is teasing them when he seems to be straying from the
BIOGRAPHICAL AND HISTORICAL CONTEXTS
"If I shall ever deserve any real repute in that small but high hushed world" of great literature, writes Ishmael in the chapter "The Advocate," speaking for his creator Herman Melville (1819891), "I prospectively ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard" (pp. 11112). A whale-ship was likewise the crucible of Melville's literary imagination. Embarking aboard the whaler Acushnet on 3 January 1841 (ten days after his fictional persona's Christmas 1840 departure aboard the Pequod), Melville spent three and a half years at sea, during which he made three whaling voyages before returning home on a man-of-war. He based his first five novelsi>Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849), and White-Jacket (1850)n his adventures as a sailor, indicating the extent to which they molded him into the writer he became. Not until his art reached maturity in Moby-Dick, however, did he attempt the feat of rendering "blubber" into "poetry," as he put it in a letter of 1 May 1850 to the fellow sea-novelist Richard Henry Dana Jr. (1815882).
Moby-Dick took Melville uncharacteristically long to complete. Its composition stretched over some eighteen months and its design expanded to accommodate chapters that kept accreting even as the manuscript was going through the press in the summer of 1851, more than a year after Melville had told Dana it was half finished. "God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draughtay, but the draught of a draught," exclaims Melville through Ishmael, as if to account for his unending revisions (p. 145). During the writing process, Melville not only consulted books about whaling, which he cited in the "Extracts" prefacing the novel, but studied Milton's Paradise Lost and Shakespeare's tragedies (especially King Lear and Macbeth), which together shaped his conception of his own satanic tragic hero, Ahab. In August 1850 Melville also met Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom he hailed in the review essay "Hawthorne and His Mosses" as an American Shakespeare, and to whom he dedicated Moby-Dick as a "token of . . . admiration for his genius." This formative encounter, some critics have speculated, may have led Melville to recast Moby-Dick from a whaling chronicle on the same model as his earlier autobiographical narratives into the ambitious symbolic work we now have. Whether or not one accepts the "Two Moby-Dicks" hypothesis, one will find that a close reading reveals elaborate patterns interweaving the various filaments of the book.
While digesting new literary influences and wrestling with the problems of composition, Melville confronted the main political issues of his time: slavery, Indian dispossession, expansionist wars, environmental despoliation, exploitative labor conditions, class conflict, and the specters of slave insurrection at home and revolution abroad. By 1850 the United States seemed to be staking its national existence on maintaining slavery indefinitely. Instead of decreasing, the slave population was exponentially increasing and had reached upward of four million. Instead of following the example of northern states after the Revolution and passing gradual emancipation laws, the southern states demanded the right to export slavery even into territories from which earlier ordinances had barred it. Because plantation agriculture quickly exhausted the soil, the slave system could not survive unless planters could either move to fertile land farther west or sell their surplus slaves on the interstate market. The necessity for continual expansion in turn generated pressure for more warsgainst the Creeks in Alabama, against the Sac and Fox in Illinois, against the Seminoles in Florida, and eventually against Mexico, from which the United States annexed Texas in 1845 and seized the area encompassing the present states of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and California in 1848. Meanwhile, the slave states were calling for more and more draconian federal regulations to protect their peculiar institution. They were also threatening to secede from the Union if their demands were not met.
The constitutional crisis that resulted in the Compromise of 1850, with its infamous law requiring all U.S. citizens to collaborate in catching fugitive slaves, burst literally over Melville's household as he was writing Moby-Dick. In April 1851 Melville's own father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw (1781861), chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, became the first northern judge to implement the law by sending a fugitive slave back to his master in chains. Coinciding with the nation's domestic travails, the years 1848851, as Michael Paul Rogin has pointed out, spanned the outbreak and suppression of revolutions throughout Europe, reminding Americans of the doom that awaited them if they did not abolish slavery before it destroyed the very essence of their democracy, subverted the liberty of all citizens, and provoked either a massive slave uprising or a bloody civil war.
Moby-Dick comments on these events both directly and obliquely. The relevant passages have been cited by a long line of critics from Charles H. Foster and Alan Heimert onward. For example, alluding to the role that the Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster (1782852) and Judge Shaw played in authoring and executing the Compromise of 1850, the famous sermon by Father Mapple on the story of Jonah exhorts the godly to "pluck" "sin . . . from under the robes of Senators and Judges" (p. 48). Not only does Mapple himself speak in the accents of the abolitionist Theodore Parker (1810860), who had compared Shaw to King Ahab, but the entire plot resounds with echoes of contemporary political rhetoric, in which biblical analogies and metaphors such as the ship of state, the Leviathan, and storms at sea figured prominently. In addition, the novel features a number of significant black characters: a nameless "Angel of Doom" in a "negro church," who preaches about "the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there" (pp. 90); the cabin boy Pip, who goes mad after being abandoned for hours in mid-ocean when he disobeys the order not to jump out of the whale boat during the chase because "a whale would sell for thirty times what [he] would . . . in Alabama" (p. 413); the arthritic old cook Fleece, who repays his demeaning treatment by the second mate, Stubb, with a curse that fulfills itself: "Wish, by gor! whale eat him" (p. 297); and the harpooneer Daggoo, "a gigantic, coal-black negro-savage, with a lion-like treadn Ahasuerus to behold" (p. 120)ho exemplifies the spirit of the native African never subjected to white enslavement.
References to America's history of Indian wars also abound. The Pequod is named for the Connecticut tribe all but exterminated by the Puritans in 1637. The ship's owners, Captains Peleg and Bildad, recruit sailors under a "wigwam" on the quarter-deck, at the apex of which waves a "tufted point . . . like the top-knot on some old Pottowottamie Sachem's head" (p. 70). Among the Pequod's harpooneers is Tashtego, an "unmixed Indian from Gay Head," on Martha's Vineyard, "where there still exists the last remnant of a village of red men" (p. 120). Another Gayheader, the "old squaw Tistig," foresees that Captain Ahab's ill-omened name will "somehow prove prophetic" (p. 79). "Aboriginal whalemen" from the neighboring island of Nantucket, Ishmael notes, gave "chase to the Leviathan" long before whites (p. 8). Suggesting that the nation built on the dispossession and genocide of its native peoples may inherit their fate, the Pequod, constructed of American wood, goes down with Tashtego hammering a red flag to the mast, wrapped around a sky-hawk representing the American Eagle, accidentally caught in its folds. The red flag, as Larry J. Reynolds has argued, also evokes the banner of Europe's 1848 revolutions and thus links the nemeses of Old World and New.
If Melville embeds his reflections on Indian genocide, slavery, and expansionist warfare in coded symbols, he graphically depicts both the brutal working conditions whalers face and the ravages whaling inflicts on the environment. The Pequod's first mate, Starbuck, notwithstanding his reputation for prudence, insists on pursuing a whale in the teeth of a white squall that swamps his boat and imperils his crew. During the chase the sailors are routinely "enveloped in whale-lines," whose "complicated toils, twisting and writhing around" (p. 28081) them, risk bowstringing them as the harpoon flies out and the wounded whale thrashes the sea into gigantic waves. On one occasion, Ishmael and Queequeg's boat is "jammed between" (p. 390) whales in the middle of an enormous herd from which they barely escape. As harpooneer, one of Queequeg's tasks is to supervise the stripping of the whale's blubber while its slippery body revolves beneath his feet like a treadmill; in the meantime, "rabid" (p. 321) sharks snap at the bloody mass, and his fellow harpooneers defend him with keen-edged whale spades that are as likely to amputate a foot as to behead a shark. In the blubber room "toes are scarce" because sailors must chop up sheets of blubber "as the ship pitches and lurches about" (p. 418). After cleaning up the decks "by the combined and simultaneous industry of almost the entire ship's company" (pp. 42829), the exhausted crew frequently gets no chance to rest before being summoned to pursue another whale. No wonder, then, that nearly every ship can report "a death by a whale" (p. 206), and many the loss of a whole boat's crew. "For God's sake, be economical with your lamps and candles!" Ishmael exhorts Moby-Dick's comfortable middle- and upper-class readers: "not a gallon you burn, but at least one drop of man's blood was spilled for it" (p. 206).
Besides lamps and candles, whale oil supplied lubricants for machinery until supplanted by petroleum in the late 1860s. The world's first oil industry, as well as the first international capitalist enterprise to be dominated by the United States, whaling both raked in super-profits and recklessly plundered the environment. "Nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford," Ishmael underscores (p. 32). With "reservoirs of oil in every house," New Bedford's elites make no effort to conserve the resources they have "harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea" (p. 32). Their wasteful consumption drives the whaling industry to ever greater excesses, Ishmael shows. In one stomach-churning scene, the Pequod's boats converge on a blind, crippled old whale, "choking" (p. 355) through his spout and suffering from an ulcerous wound. The creature is "horribly pitiable to see," remarks Ishmael. "But pity there was none" (p. 357). The sailors regard the old whale only as a swimming "bank" worth "three thousand dollars" (p. 354). Despite his age and decrepitude, he must be "murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merrymakings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all" (p. 357). His killing, moreover, turns out to be useless, because his carcass sinks before it can be rifled of its blubber and spermacetti.
Later chapters raise the prospect that the whaling industry may be hunting the entire species into extinction. Sperm whales have been slaughtered on such a scale, observes Ishmael, that they no longer swim in small groups but in "extensive herds," as if "for mutual assistance and protection" (p. 382). When the Pequod happens on such a herd, with nursing mother and infant whales at its center, the sailors try to "wing" as many as possible, "so that they can be afterwards killed at . . . leisure" (p. 386). How long can Leviathan "endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc" (p. 460) Ishmael asks, wondering whether whales will dwindle like the "buffalo, which, not forty years ago, overspread by tens of thousands the prairies of Illinois and Missouri" (p. 460). Although he wrongly concludes that the sea affords the whale better chances of survival than does the prairie the buffalo, he at least contemplates the threat of the whales' annihilation. In sum, all of the issues Moby-Dick addressesrom the pillage of natural resources and the superexploitation of workers to slavery, Indian genocide, and expansionist warfareortend disaster for America and the world.
BIBLICAL PROPHECY AND PAGAN MYTH
Melville's fear that his country was headed for shipwreck led him naturally to one of the chief unifying devices around which he structured Moby-Dick: the apocalyptic prophecies of the Bible. These prophecies of a day of wrath on which the world would go up in flames and evildoers would be condemned to eternal damnation laced the rhetoric of nineteenth-century American preachers and reformers. Indeed, less than a decade before the publication of Moby-Dick, the followers of the evangelist William Miller (1782849) had prepared for the end of the world on 22 October 1844. In invoking such prophecies, Melville thus draws on a widespread religious belief system.
Omens of apocalyptic destruction punctuate MobyDick. As early as the second chapter, Ishmael hears a message of doom in an African American church, where he stumbles into an ash-box that reminds him of Gomorrah (p. 9), one of the Old Testament cities reduced to ashes for its sinfulness and often cited as a prototype of the judgment to come. Subsequently, when Ishmael takes Queequeg to enroll in the crew of the Pequod, Captain Bildad hands the cannibal a tract titled "The Latter Day Coming; or No Time to Lose" (p. 89). On the heels of this warning of apocalyptic judgment, a crazy stranger named Elijah, after the prophet who rebuked King Ahab and who is supposed to return "before the coming of the great and dreadful
The biblical text most central to Moby-Dick is the book of Jonah, which tells how the Assyrian city of Nineveh averts apocalyptic destruction by repenting. Father Mapple's sermon emphasizes the aspect of the Jonah story relevant to Ishmael, who is almost swallowed by a whale, as was the biblical prophet, but survives to warn an American Nineveh to repent. At the same time, Father Mapple's retelling of the story invites the reader to view Ahab as a Jonah who persists in his disobedience and pays the price: refusing either to heed God's message or to spare others from sharing his fate, Ahab is not rescued from a whale but towed to death tied to one, involving his entire crew in the debacle of his futile quest for vengeance.
Notwithstanding his use of the Bible to structure Moby-Dick, Melville subverts rather than endorses its absolutist truth claims as a sacred text that literally inscribes the Word of God. Throughout the novel pagan myths compete with the Bible to provide alternative unifying frameworks. As H. Bruce Franklin has demonstrated, the story of Ahab's epic battle with Moby Dick closely follows the Egyptian myth recounting the sun god Osiris's murder and dismemberment by his brother Set, or Typhon, a sea monster comparative mythologists have associated with the biblical Leviathan. Like Osiris, who is slain in the winter and resurrected in the spring, personifying the seasonal death and rebirth of nature, Ahab loses his leg to Moby Dick in the winter, suffers another symbolic dismemberment when his ivory leg pierces his groin just before the Pequod sails on Christmas Day, remains out of sight for weeks as if "the dead wintry bleakness of the sea" were keeping him "secluded" (p. 124), and only begins to stay on deck in warm weather (see chapters 28, 41, and 106).
The Osiris myth also applies to Queequeg, who embodies life-affirming values opposed to Ahab's and thus better approximates Osiris's role as a savior. Not only does Queequeg rescue two men from drowningirst, a "bumpkin" (p. 61) who has earlier insulted him and second, Tashtego, whom he "deliver[s]" (p. 344) from entrapment in a sinking whale's headut he too undergoes a symbolic death and resurrection. Descending into the hold to stop a leak in a cask of sperm (a symbol of life that recalls Osiris's origins as a fertility god), Queequeg catches a chill that nearly kills him. As he lies near death, he asks the ship's carpenter to make him a coffin and lay him in itn allusion to another part of the Osiris myth, in which Set locks his brother in a coffin-like chest. At the eleventh hour, Queequeg "change[s] his mind about dying" (p. 480) because he remembers a duty he has left undone. His coffin, which he orders turned into a life buoy, ultimately saves Ishmael from the wreck of the Pequod, thereby fulfilling both Osiris's redemptive mission and Queequeg's pledge to "die for [Ishmael], if need should be" (p. 51).
Queequeg's god Yojo, a hunchbacked "Congo idol" of "polished ebony" (p. 22) uncannily resembling images of the West African trickster god EsuElegbara, offers yet another alternative to the Bible as a means of structuring Moby-Dick. "A rather good sort of god, who perhaps meant well enough upon the whole, but in all cases did not succeed in his benevolent designs" (p. 68), Yojo instructs Queequeg to let Ishmael choose the ship on which they are to sail ship Yojo has already preselected but which Ishmael, if left to himself, will "infallibly light upon," as though "by chance" (p. 68). Meanwhile, Queequeg spends the day closeted with Yojo in a ritual of "fasting, humiliation, and prayer" (p. 69) that apparently serves to ensure Ishmael's salvation. The outcome of their fateful voyage on the Pequod hence owes as much to the intervention of an African trickster god and the propitiation of a Polynesian cannibal as to the providential design revealed in the Bible's prophecies.
Queequeg himself incarnates the spirit of human brotherhood, transcending barriers of religion and race. With his Polynesian tattooing, "Congo idol," and Indian tomahawk/peace pipe, he combines the attributes of three races victimized by white colonialism. Queequeg's hybridity, betokening the oneness of humankind, even causes Ishmael to take him initially for a white man tattooed by cannibals and later to notice his resemblance to George Washington. Through his conduct, Queequeg models an alternative to religious and racial conflict. "Melting" Ishmael's heart and "redeem[ing]" (p. 51) him from misanthropy and prejudice, Queequeg smokes a peace pipe with him, divides his possessions equally between them, makes him a present of thirty dollars in silverhe sum for which Judas betrayed Jesusnd teaches Ishmael that true worship consists not in upholding one creed over another but in "do[ing] to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me" (p. 52). The "marriage" the two celebrate in the landlord's conjugal bed (chapter 4)louting taboos against interracial as well as same-sex unionsxemplifies a loving partnership of equals. As such, it suggests the ideal toward which white Americans should aspire in seeking to resolve the problems of slavery and perpetual warfare with Indians. Within the microcosm of the Pequod, Queequeg and Ishmael's "marriage," broadened into an ethic of solidarity that embraces the entire crew, represents the antithesis of the unity Ahab forges among the sailors when he conscripts them into his "fiery hunt" (p. 195) unity forged in combat against an external foe.
INTERPRETING AHAB'S "FIERY HUNT"
How are we to interpet Ahab's "fiery hunt"? Is it a heroic battle against evil or a mad revolt against nature? Is Ahab a liberator seeking to free human beings from the tyranny of the gods, or is he a tyrant in his own right, driving his conscripts to their deaths in a war he has manipulated them into joining? The answers to these questions, which critics continue to debate, will determine how readers understand the novel.
Ahab openly admits that his prime motive for pursuing Moby Dick is vengeance: "It was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now. . . . It was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!" (p. 163). Yet Ahab rationalizes his lust for vengeance on a "dumb brute" lust Starbuck calls "blasphemous"y identifying the white whale with "an inscrutable malice" lurking beneath the surface of the world (pp. 163, 164). As Ishmael theorizes, Ahab has projected onto Moby Dick all his personal woesodily, intellectual, and spiritualnd "all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down" (p. 184). By turning Moby Dick into a concrete embodiment of everything he hates and fears, Ahab has given himself the illusion of being able to eradicate the source of his tribulations. He has made "all evil" seem "visibly personified, and . . . practically assailable" (p. 184) in a single target.
To enlist the sailors in his crusade against evil, Ahab must arouse their "unconscious" fears of a "great demon" that glides through the "seas of life" (p. 187), and he must appeal to their fighting instincts. He does so in a ritual that begins by whipping up their passion for the hunt and climaxes by literally intoxicating them with a liquor "hot as Satan's hoof" (p. 165) veritable devil's communion. Ahab supplements ritual with financial incentive, promising a gold doubloon worth sixteen dollars large sum for an ordinary seamano the crew member who first sights Moby Dick. He paralyzes opposition from Starbuck by exploiting the first mate's sense of racial superiority to isolate him from the "Turkish" infidels and "Pagan leopards" he officers (p. 164). As omens of disaster accumulate and murmurs of rebellion grow louder, Ahab awes the sailors with his command of technology, remagnetizing the inverted ship's compass. Finally, he resorts to undisguised brutality: "Down, men! the first thing that but offers to jump from this boat I stand in, that thing I harpoon" (p. 568).
Throughout the chase, Ahab insists that neither he nor his crew is free to change course, no matter how bleak the prospects of achieving their goal. "All your oaths to hunt the White Whale are as binding as mine; and heart, soul, and body, lungs and life, old Ahab is bound," he emphasizes (p. 508). When Starbuck attempts one last time to dissuade him, Ahab replies: "This whole act's immutably decreed. . . . I am the Fates' lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine" (p. 561). Ahab's belief in predestination absolves him of responsibility for leading his men to destruction and denies them any agency in shaping their own fate. Yet the question Moby-Dick raises, as Joyce Adler has argued, is precisely "whether man will continue to be directed to destruction by the 'death-dealing' spirit of war or will be saved by the spirit of life-preserving brotherhood" (Adler, p. 58).
Ishmael's gradual detachment from Ahab's quest and his survival on Queequeg's coffin proffer a tentative answer to that question. Despite his bond with Queequeg, Ishmael at first succumbs to the mass frenzy Ahab has incited. As he confesses: "I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul" (p. 179). In short, Ishmael has caught the contagion of terror and joined the collective demon chase to master his fear.
The metaphysical terror Moby Dick arouses in Ishmael, however, differs in kind from the fear experienced by his unphilosophical comrades. "It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me," he explains (p. 188). In one of literature's greatest virtuoso performances, Ishmael proceeds to dismantle the association of whiteness with "whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime" (p. 189), which lies at the basis of his culture's ideology of white supremacy. This association, Ishmael spells out, endows whiteness with a "pre-eminence" (p. 189) displayed in symbols of royalty throughout the world, from Burma to Austria "pre-eminence" that "applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe" (p. 189). Nevertheless, in a two-page series of subordinate clauses that grammatically subvert the principle of hierarchy and equate the symbols of nonwhite, non-Christian peoples with those of white Christians, Ishmael undermines the alleged "mastership" of white over nonwhite, exposing it precisely as "ideal" rather than real, an "idea" rather than a fact (p. 189). His main clause ends up overturning the very foundations of white supremacist ideology by associating whiteness with terror rather than holiness: "there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood" (p. 189). To account for the terror it arouses in him, Ishmael speculates that as the "visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors," whiteness may conjure up the "colorless, all-color of atheism" (p. 195). The atheist sees the universe in the light of scientific theory, which holds that color is only an illusion, like the rouge of a harlot, "whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within" (p. 195). But far from enabling him to see more truthfully, the atheist's refusal to wear the "colored and coloring glasses" (p. 195) needed to protect his eyes against intense light blinds him as he gazes at a universe shrouded in the whiteness of death, until he sees nothing at all. It is the terror Ishmael associates with white-nesseath, atheism, nihilismhat the white whale symbolizes for him, he concludes, and it is to overcome this terror that he has joined Ahab's "fiery hunt," even though he knows it may well prove fatal.
Two pivotal experiences eventually enable Ishmael to turn away from Ahab's deadly pursuit of evil and rediscover the loving fellowship of equals toward which Queequeg had earlier directed him. First, in a scene Ishmael portrays as both a baptism and a homoerotic orgy, the task of squeezing lumps of spermacetti back into fluid allows him to wash his hands and his heart of his oath to kill Moby Dick, free himself from "malice," and revel in "an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling" for his coworkers (p. 416). Second, after an evening of staring into the flames of the try-works, in which the whale's blubber is being rendered into oil, Ishmael falls asleep at the tiller and has a hellish vision of his comrades as fiends and of the Pequod as "the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul" (p. 423). Awakening just in time to prevent the ship from capsizing, he realizes that succumbing to Ahab's fixation on evil can only destroy him and everyone else on board.
As the sole survivor of the Pequod's wreck, Ishmael's mission is to share the wisdom he has learned from his voyage. Through the story of Ahab's vendetta against Moby Dick, he reveals the lethal consequences of seeking to cure the ills of the world by personifying them in an "evil" and "practically assailable" foe (p. 184)n impulse deeply rooted in his Puritan culture. And through the story of his redemptive "marriage" with Queequeg, Ishmael conjures up the dream of a future in which the spirit of human brotherhood will encircle the globe, empowering diverse peoples to live in harmony as equals.
The seemingly disparate strands of Moby-Dickhab's epic monster hunt and Ishmael and Queequeg's comic romance, cetology and whaling lore, biblical prophecy and pagan myth, religious satire and political commentaryurn out on repeated rereadings to be intricately intertwined. Recognizing the structural patterns that connect themes and chapters to each other, and understanding the purpose of the formal experimentation, yield access to some of the greatest pleasures the book affords. A few examples must suffice. Take the relationship between Father Mapple's sermon on the book of Jonah in chapter 9 and Ishmael's hilarious disquisition on "Jonah Historically Regarded" in chapter 83. While Father Mapple expounds the "lesson that the book of Jonah teaches" (p. 47), Ishmael parodies biblical exegetists who go to ridiculous lengths to prove the literal truth of the text, in the process missing its point. The gap between the two modes of reading challenges us to figure out how to read Moby-Dick.
Or take the interrelationships among chapters 24 ("The Advocate"), 81 ("The Pequod Meets the Virgin"), 82 ("The Honor and Glory of Whaling"), and 87 ("The Grand Armada"). In "The Advocate," which lays the groundwork for portraying whaling as an epic enterprise and Ahab as a tragic hero, Ishmael combats snobbish disdain for his trade as "unpoetical and disreputable" (p. 108). Whaling is as worthy of epic treatment, he contends, as war, the subject par excellence of the epic. The one is no more a "butchering sort of business" than the other (p. 108). In chapters 81 and 87, however, which describe the killing of the blind old whale and the winging of countless others, Ishmael exposes whaling as indeed both wanton butchery and war against a kindred specieshe implication of his title "The Grand Armada." This butchery, in turn, casts an ironic light on Ishmael's effort in chapter 82 to establish "The Honor and Glory of Whaling" (to which he had credited his art in "The Advocate") by claiming Perseus, St. George, Hercules, Jonah, and Vishnu as archetypal whalemen. At the same time, the juxtaposition of a Christian saint and a biblical prophet with Greek demigods and a Hindu god once again asserts the equal validityr fishinessf all religions.
Melville explicitly draws attention to the book's complex structure. "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method," Ishmael announces in "Honor and Glory" (p. 361). "Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters," he instructs us in "The Crotch" (p. 289). Such self-conscious reflections on his literary "method" invite us to ask why Melville frustrates the reader's desire for a linear plot, refuses to stick to first-person narration, and opts to mix genres.
Consider the anticlimactic placement of the chapter "Cetology" just after Ahab has called up to the mast-head and issued his first order to look out for a white whale. Ready for action, the reader is in no mood at this juncture for a treatise on cetology. The reading habit formed by plots organized around the exploits of epic heroes primes us to join rather than resist Ahab's hunt. Hence, Melville must thwart this impulse if he is to liberate the reader from Ahab's worldview. That is, Melville must teach alternative ways of reading. "Cetology" accomplishes that aim by satirizing learned authorities and the arbitrary systems of classification they have erected, whether biological taxonomies or literary genres. Ishmael's no less arbitrary division of whales and books by size instead of by internal characteristics casts doubt on the legitimacy of any classification system. In addition, it prepares the reader for Melville's violations of narrative rules and genre distinctions in the sequence that opens three chapters later with "The Mast-Head" and closes with "Midnight, Forecastle."
"The Mast-Head" picks up the narrative thread from the moment when Ahab shouts "Mast-head, there! Look sharp" (p. 132), just before Ishmael decides it is time for a cetology lesson. Although he has resumed the job of narration, Ishmael continues to resist Ahab's call. "With the problem of the universe revolving in me," he admits, "I kept but sorry guard" (p. 158). Describing his "reverie" at the mast-head, he shifts from first to third to second person and thus mimes the dissolution of his "identity" at the end of the chapter, as his mystical fusion with nature culminates in an imaginary fall from his perch that drowns him in the ocean. Appropriately, he now disappears as narrator for the next few chapters, giving way to a five-act play dominated by Ahab. In this play Ishmael's voice no longer mediates between the reader and the other characters, for he has become one with the crew swept away by Ahab's rhetoric.
And so has the reader, because dramatic form removes the mediating presence of a narrator and confronts the reader directly with the actors. Clearly Melville chose to switch genres for that very reason, so that the reader could experience Ahab's power as if on board the Pequod.
No single genre or point of view, Melville realized, could accommodate the many stories he wanted to tell, let alone succeed in transforming readers' consciousnessis ultimate goal. Nor can any single reading (in the sense of both perusal and interpretation) do justice to a novel as impossible to encompass as the whale of which Ishmael writes: "Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will" (p. 379).
Melville's readers of the 1850s rebelled against the demands his magnum opus made of them. Not until the 1920s, three decades after his death in 1891 and seven decades after the novel's publication in 1851, did MobyDick begin to secure its reputation as a literary classic. In the twenty-first century, however, faced with the grim legacies of slavery, genocide, religious absolutism, expansionist warfare, environmental depredation, and the threat of literal world annihilation, Moby-Dick has more lessons to teach the reader than ever.
See also "Bartleby, the Scrivener"; Battle-Pieces; Democracy; The Romance; Romanticism; Sexuality and the Body; Slavery; Typee
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Carolyn L. Karcher