What is Moby Dick about?
I joined a book club because I love to read and this month we are reading and discussing Moby Dick. I loved the book but I'm not very good with discussions. I don't want the ladies in my book club to think I didn't understand the book especially. They are a few years older than me and very well educated. I know that the book is about revenge and how it can blind a person (eg., Ahab is so blinded by his quest to kill Moby Dick), but is that all the book is about?
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You are off to a good start in your intepretation of the novel when you recognize that the book is interested in revenge. Revenge is what drives Ahab, in large part, in his suicidal pursuit of the great white whale. Yet there is more to his story, as to what his pursuit means symbolically, and there is quite a bit we can say about the meaning of Ahab's decisions as they determine the lives of his crew.
First, we should say that on the surface this is a novel about a whaling expedition. A whaling ship, the Pequod, sets out to hunt whales in as a commercial enterprise. Once at sea, Captain Ahab announces to the crew that they will be primarily pursuing a white whale. Ahab has had his leg bitten off by this whale and he wants revenge.
The monomanaical and oddly idiomatic Ahab presses the crew to swear allegiance to this aim. He speaks with a Shakespearean syntax. He is presented in the posture of a tragic figure. He curses god.
All of these things help to establish the meaning of his quest and, in doing so, help to establish the themes of the novel.
Ahab is rebelling against fate, the notion of fate, and the hand of god. He sees the whale as a figure of fate, an embodiment of the power of god, and he refuses to accept (1) the fate meted out to him and (2) the notion that god can determine his fate at all.
He will fight against fate, rather than resign himself to a divine providence.
We must say, then, that Ahab's quest is not only one seeking revenge but is also a quest seeking to unbalance the perceived order of the world with a god as the omnipotent arbiter of man's fate.
As Ahad persues his aims, he takes his crew with him. To some extent we have to admit that it is Ahab, not god, that dooms the crew. Although Ahab does not succeed in the end in fulfilling his quest, he does manage to upset the order of things and to become, in his tragedy, the arbiter of the fates of all his crew (but Ishmael).
Through Ahab, free will has been borne out, as we are reminded at the conclusion of the novel.
When, at the end of the novel, Ishmael, the lone survivor, is finally picked up and rescued by the Rachel, we are reminded that he had become a member of the crew as the result of an act of free will rather than necessity, as a means of escaping thoughts of death.
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