Category Archives: Herman Melville

Thoughts: Moby Dick, or The Whale

Moby-Dick; or, The WhaleMoby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very little of this drama, the plot itself, begs any question of me. In fact, Melville never really succeeded in suspending my disbelief. My frame of mind never left the reality of the world in which Melville wrote his masterpiece. I read the events and scientific diatribes as words in a murky book, not as real occurrences marooned on the land of readers’ imaginations.

How brilliant!

This grounding on the shore of reality, interpreting every word as a result of Melville’s pen rather than Ishmael’s…well…experience or imagination, causes me to ask so many questions which truly delve into the depths of the brilliance behind the book Moby Dick.

Why does Ishmael tell the story? Can we trust him? Do the events of the story really happen or does he only indulge his knack for story telling? Does he only want to bolster his own self-efficacy as a man of import, having witnessed such magnificent things? Do the answers matter? And why the Old Testament references? Why the insanity? Why do scenes starring Captain Ahab digress into Shakespearean rhythms? Why the textbook tutelage? Does this only serve Ishmael’s ego? And, ultimately, why whales?

The list of questions go on and on but I must assume that Melville makes his choices intentionally. But to what end? I don’t think he has a message to preach, but maybe a picture to paint of human existence.

Melville concocts Ishmael, the most famous first-person narrator in American literature. Of course, this leaves the entire story exposed to the scrutiny of the readers judicial branch. But would we contemplate this narrative as deeply if an omniscient third-person narrator dictated these events to us? Would we then swallow them as fact? Perhaps Melville doesn’t want us to suspend our disbelief. Maybe he wants us to consider Ishmael’s potential flaws precisely so we might think of his story as a possible myth or allegory. If we do, we open our minds to the ideas which myths and allegories pull best from our psyches. If we consider his word as truth, as we do with those who disseminate facts, we might find ourselves distracted from understanding our experience. One must also concede that the best way to understand our experience may be to listen to one who shares it with us.

Symbols abound in Moby Dick, though different readers might find different ones. Ultimately, among the list of incidental symbols, two formed my interpretation of this narrative.

In several instances, Ishmael likens the sea to the human soul. If we follow this idea, we can glean how the Pequod’s voyage might resemble mankind’s journey within himself. Then we consider how our souls resemble the frighteningly vast power of the world in which they exists. What a struggle for any person – between the abyss of themselves and the vast expanse of the world! We might consider how our psyche constantly wrestles to live within two fearful parallels of the soul and the world.

Also, I can’t believe that a man such as Ishmael, who deifies the Leviathan to such great lengths, does not somehow mean to symbolize God with Moby Dick. Ironically, the anatomy, history and science lectures – which usually serve to pronounce the falseness of a god – might better serve in this case to validate him. In an attempt to intellectually compartmentalize a being which he equally glorifies – by factually describing every part of him – he fails to understand the apparent intelligence in Moby Dick and fails to squeeze his essence into the same construct as the Pequod’s victims. Moby Dick does not fit the scientifically constructed mold of the whale as Ishmael describes it. Yet Moby Dick is physically and undeniably real – but only at the end. The crew must lean on hearsay and the words of captains, both insane and otherwise, to know of his existence. But at the end of the journey, after much toil and searching, they finally catch up to Moby Dick.

Now, considering these symbols (indulge me if you will), what can we take from the idea of a madman pursuing a God figure within the infinite realm of his own soul? By attacking this God figure, to we not, then, attack ourselves? According to the Old Testament, Ahab, Israel’s “most evil” king (1 Kings 16:30) shuns God. Even Elijah shows up to warn Ishmael and Queequeg from voyaging on the Pequod. Why does Ahab need to revenge himself on a God figure? Perhaps because Moby Dick physically harms Ahab, he needs to revenge himself on him. But why the insanity? Other captains came to physical and filial harm by Moby Dick but none lose their minds over it. Perhaps Ahab feels wounded by the idea that something within his soul proves more powerful than his conscious Self – that something dictates his life, his method of physical movement on one good leg. Or perhaps forces outside of Moby Dick govern Ahab’s motivations and lead him toward this interpretation of his circumstances. And these forces twist Ahab against himself, if the God figure exists within his own soul as Moby Dick swims in the sea. After all, Ishmael does introduce us to the mysterious stow-away with devil eyes who speaks in whispers only to Ahab. And we witness the touching moment when Ahab relents in his insanity to Starbuck, crying for peace. The conflict between Ahab and Moby Dick exists only in Ahab’s mind, mutated and twisted by the forces within his soul and without.

One might wonder if Man could live peaceably and happily, as Starbuck implores, simply by leaving Moby Dick alone. But can Man do this? Or, by doing so, would he fly in the face of his instinct? Is the pursuit of Moby Dick the result of an unavoidable force governing human life – wrought from fear and the maddening immensity of the abyss within our own soul, as in the sea, and the forces of the world we inhabit? Must we pursue and conquer Moby Dick in a final effort to control our existence – define it according to our small and insignificant, though comfortable and flattering, terms before the overwhelmingly vast nature of our souls and world crush our psyche? Or do those forces victimize man and inspire him to seek his own death – revenge upon himself?

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Posted by on April 11, 2014 in Herman Melville


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