Moby Dick is an epic piece of literature on a par with Homer’s Iliad and Shakespeare’s King Lear and the Bible’s Job. It is densely rich in language and structure, in character and story.
Its account of a man against a whale is a story that had never been told before with such grandeur. Yet, it parallels other efforts by master storytellers down the centuries to portray humans confronting the unanswerable questions of existence.
Like Job grappling with the question of why bad things happen to good people — indeed, why suffering is in the world.
Like Lear raging against the deterioration of the body, the betrayal of others and, even more, his own betrayals of himself.
Achilles, the unconquerable, fights and dies because of a fatal flaw. Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and has sex with his mother because of the blindness that every human being is born with, the inability to know everything, to understand the consequences of actions.
To fully understand Moby Dick would require months, probably years. And I read it just once.
I know how weak my understanding of the novel is. Still, I was able to spot certain aspects that I found deeply enrichening.
The poetry of Moby Dick
The richness of Melville’s prose is striking, from one page to the next — poetry, in fact, just not scanned as such.
I would find myself doing the scanning in my head, and, then, later, I did that on paper, as I explain in another posting. Here is an example:
“The Dying Whale”
It was far down the afternoon;
and when all the spearings of the crimson fight were done:
and floating in the lovely sunset sea and sky,
sun and whale both stilly died together;
then, such a sweetness and such plaintiveness,
such inwreathing orisons curled up in that rosy air,
that it almost seemed as if
far over from the deep green convent valleys of the Manilla isles,
the Spanish land-breeze,
wantonly turned sailor,
had gone to sea,
freighted with these vesper hymns.
The structures of Moby Dick
Oh, to be able to read Moby Dick again and again and take the book apart to clearly delineate its skeleton, to trace its sinews and muscles, to get a deep understanding of the texture of its skin.
In terms of the novel’s structure, my once-through reading of the Third Norton Critical Edition — containing Moby Dick in 410 pages as well as nearly 300 pages of commentary — led me to see at least three structures that were in use.
The first has to do with the two central figures of the book, Captain Ahab and the whale Moby Dick. Here it is:
- Section 1 — Introduction — 101 pages (25%) — The first quarter of the story is told without Ahab ever appearing.
- Section 2 — The Search — 289 pages (70%) — Ahab appears on the novel’s pages for the first time and leads the Pequod in its search for the white whale.
- Section 3 — The Whale — 20 pages (5%) — Moby Dick is spotted by Ahab and the Pequod’s crew. The chase takes place over three days with tragic consequences for everyone except one sailor knocked out of a boat (Ishmael) and Moby Dick.
The second structure I noticed can be seen as a more detailed version of the first, but I think it represents a parallel but separate organization of the story.
- Section 1 — Introduction — 101 pages (25%) — The first quarter of the story is told without Ahab ever appearing.
- Section 2 — Ahab, Part One — 48 pages (12%) — This is an intense section in which Ishmael (and the reader) see Ahab for the first time, and it is tightly focused on the captain’s thoughts and actions.
- Section 3 — The Search, Part One — 95 pages (23%) — Ahab is a strong presence here, but, on more than half of the pages (53), he’s not mentioned. Instead, much space is taken up by what I would call Melville’s essays on various aspects of whaling, such as the depiction of whales in paintings and drawings.
- Section 4 — The Search, Part Two — 92 pages (22%) — Here, Ahab has receded into the shadows even more, appearing in only 16 of the pages. The rest of this long section is taken up with other essays by Melville in chapters such as “Ambergris” and “The Cassock.”
- Section 5 — Ahab, Part Two — 52 pages (13%) — Suddenly, on page 339, Ahab is back, and, for the rest of the novel, he is front and center, dominating the scene, dictating the action until his showdown with the whale.
- Section 6 — Ahab and Moby Dick — 20 pages (5%) — The White Whale makes his first appearance, going head-to-head with Ahab, and bringing the novel to its thundering conclusion.
This structure, it seems to me, is aimed at giving the sense of a sea voyage — a lot of rigamarole getting ready to sail; then, a long, long, long search for Moby Dick; and, then, the adrenaline-fueled final days of the chase and fight.
A third structure of Moby Dick
A third structure of the novel, if you can call it a structure, involves various types of writing that Melville employs. I think “structure” is a good word for it because I get the sense from reading the novel that the author was very aware of using these types as building blocks, if you will, of his story. Just as a contractor will use brick for one part of a house and stone for another, steel for this, wood for that, so does Melville.
I am aware that, in a single reading of the novel, I don’t have as much of a sense of its blueprints as I’d like. Still, I got glimpses of a few of these types of writing:
- Poetry — As I mentioned above, there are many descriptions and statements in the novel that have such vibrant imagery and internal rhythms that they scan as poetry.
- Essays — These often chapter-long explanations are presented as generally objective facts that offset the more visceral sections about the voyage and the highly charged areas dealing with Ahab and his emotions. They’re not really all that objective since Melville (or is it Ishmael?) uses them for humor of one sort or another.
- Linked Monologues — In several places, Melville presents statements or thoughts of Ahab and his three mates (Starbuck, Stubb and Flask) one after the other that provide a quadruple view of the same subject. These linked monologues are an intense focusing of the reader’s attention on what’s going on at a particular moment. Each of these characters has a distinct voice, Ahab’s, of course, being the most distinctive. They also play off of Ishmael’s own authorial voice.
- The Bible — Woven throughout Melville’s story, inseparable from the account, are references and allusions to the Bible, mostly the Old Testament, which the author knew through the King James Version. Robert Alter, translator and literary analyst of the Hebrew Bible, details this in his meaty and muscular 2010 book Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Version.
- Shakespeare — Similarly, Shakespeare is part of the warp and woof of this novel. An example is the scene in which Ahab’s Parsee harpooner tells him that the captain won’t die until
- Stage directions — Melville employs stage directions in the first 30 or so pages in which Ahab has appeared and then, about two hundred pages later, when he has reappeared after being offstage for many chapters.
The essays of Moby Dick
To expand on the above, the essays provide, in their very prosaic way, a metaphor for the tedium of the sea journey that Ahab, Ishmael and the rest of the Pequod crew are engaged in.
This is, in its way, an adventure story, and, at various points, particularly in the final 20 pages, it is a rushing, thrilling, exciting ride. But the fact is that most of any long trek across the oceans is pretty boring. Hence, the essays.
In contrast with the adventure deering-do and with the descriptions of Ahab and the crew and with the rantings of the captain, the essays come across as at least a bit boring — which, I think, was Melville’s intention.
Consider these opening sentences of Chapter 65, “The Whale As A Dish”:
That mortal man should feed upon the creature that feeds his lamp, and, like Stubb, eat him by his own light, as you may say; this seems so outlandish a thing that one must needs go a little into the history and philosophy of it.
It is upon record, that three centuries ago the tongue of the Right Whale was esteemed a great delicacy in France, and commanded large prices there. Also, that in Henry VIIIth’s time, a certain cook of the court obtained a handsome reward for inventing an admirable sauce to be eaten with barbacued porpoises, which, you remember, are a species of whale. Porpoises, indeed, are to this day considered fine eating. The meat is made into balls about the size of billiard balls, and being well seasoned and spiced might be taken for turtle-balls or veal balls. The old monks of Dunfermline were very fond of them. They had a great porpoise grant from the crown.
The fact is, that among his hunters at least, the whale would by all hands be considered a noble dish, were there not so much of him; but when you come to sit down before a meat-pie nearly one hundred feet long, it takes away your appetite. Only the most unprejudiced of men like Stubb, nowadays partake of cooked whales; but the Esquimaux are not so fastidious. We all know how they live upon whales, and have rare old vintages of prime old train oil. Zogranda, one of their most famous doctors, recommends strips of blubber for infants, as being exceedingly juicy and nourishing. And this reminds me that certain Englishmen, who long ago were accidentally left in Greenland by a whaling vessel—that these men actually lived for several months on the mouldy scraps of whales which had been left ashore after trying out the blubber. Among the Dutch whalemen these scraps are called “fritters”; which, indeed, they greatly resemble, being brown and crisp, and smelling something like old Amsterdam housewives’ dough-nuts or oly-cooks, when fresh. They have such an eatable look that the most self-denying stranger can hardly keep his hands off.
This could be one of those click-bait internet temptations, a bunch of fun-ish facts, filled with intellectually empty calories.
In fact, this excerpt and Melville’s essays aren’t that bad. There is a flair that can be discerned here, such as when he writes, “The fact is, that among his hunters at least, the whale would by all hands be considered a noble dish, were there not so much of him; but when you come to sit down before a meat-pie nearly one hundred feet long, it takes away your appetite.”
Not only is that funny, but it’s wittily phrased.
The linked monologues of Moby Dick
There are many contrasts in Melville’s novel, such as the dominant presence for 300 pages of Ahab and his obsession and the dominant presence for 280 of those pages of the idea of Moby Dick (and the always front-and-center reality of the absence of the target of Ahab’s obsession) and the suddenly dominant presence for the final 20 pages of the whale itself.
Ishmael, of course, is always present in some manner since he is telling the story although, after the first 100 pages, he is more present as the narrator and much less present as a character.
The three mates — Starbuck, Stubb and Flask — provide a middle ground between Ishmael’s (relatively) objective laying out of the saga and Ahab’s white-hot person and mania. This role is played to its greatest extent in the linked monologues in which their reactions to an event are placed cheek-to-jowl with Ahab’s. Here’s an example for the second to the last page of the novel:
Hearing the tremendous rush of the sea-crashing boat, the whale wheeled round to present his blank forehead at bay; but in that evolution, catching sight of the nearing black hull of the ship; seemingly seeing in it the source of all his persecutions; bethinking it—it may be—a larger and nobler foe; of a sudden, he bore down upon its advancing prow, smiting his jaws amid fiery showers of foam.
AHAB staggered; his hand smote his forehead. “I grow blind; hands! stretch out before me that I may yet grope my way. Is’t night?”
“The whale! The ship!” cried the cringing oarsmen.
“Oars! oars! Slope downwards to thy depths, O sea, that ere it be for ever too late, Ahab may slide this last, last time upon his mark! I see: the ship! the ship! Dash on, my men! Will ye not save my ship?”
But as the oarsmen violently forced their boat through the sledge-hammering seas, the before whale-smitten bow-ends of two planks burst through, and in an instant almost, the temporarily disabled boat lay nearly level with the waves; its half-wading, splashing crew, trying hard to stop the gap and bale out the pouring water.
Meantime, for that one beholding instant, Tashtego’s mast-head hammer remained suspended in his hand; and the red flag, half-wrapping him as with a plaid, then streamed itself straight out from him, as his own forward-flowing heart; while Starbuck and Stubb, standing upon the bowsprit beneath, caught sight of the down-coming monster just as soon as he.
“The whale, the whale! Up helm, up helm! [said STARBUCK] Oh, all ye sweet powers of air, now hug me close! Let not Starbuck die, if die he must, in a woman’s fainting fit. Up helm, I say—ye fools, the jaw! the jaw! Is this the end of all my bursting prayers? all my life-long fidelities? Oh, Ahab, Ahab, lo, thy work. Steady! helmsman, steady. Nay, nay! Up helm again! He turns to meet us! Oh, his unappeasable brow drives on towards one, whose duty tells him he cannot depart. My God, stand by me now!”
“Stand not by me, but stand under me, [said STUBB] whoever you are that will now help Stubb; for Stubb, too, sticks here. I grin at thee, thou grinning whale! Who ever helped Stubb, or kept Stubb awake, but Stubb’s own unwinking eye? And now poor Stubb goes to bed upon a mattrass that is all too soft; would it were stuffed with brushwood! I grin at thee, thou grinning whale! Look ye, sun, moon, and stars! I call ye assassins of as good a fellow as ever spouted up his ghost. For all that, I would yet ring glasses with ye, would ye but hand the cup! Oh, oh! oh, oh! thou grinning whale, but there’ll be plenty of gulping soon! Why fly ye not, O Ahab! For me, off shoes and jacket to it; let Stubb die in his drawers! A most mouldy and over salted death, though;—cherries! cherries! cherries! Oh, Flask, for one red cherry ere we die!”
“Cherries? [said FLASK] I only wish that we were where they grow. Oh, Stubb, I hope my poor mother’s drawn my part-pay ere this; if not, few coppers will now come to her, for the voyage is up.”
These three are the most prominent contrasts with Ahab in the novel, but I suspect that similar groupings, such as of the harpooners or of certain workers, e.g., the carpenter, would also provide interesting insights into the captain and the events that are occurring.
The Shakespeare of Moby Dick
At many points in the course of its pages, Moby Dick calls to mind a Shakespeare play or character or plot.
Perhaps none more than in this scene from late in the novel in which Ahab gets promises from his Parsee harpooner that call to mind Macbeth and the promises he received that no one born of a woman could harm him and that he would be safe until the seemingly impossible happened, Great Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. Here’s the scene:
Started from his slumbers, Ahab, face to face, saw the Parsee; and hooped round by the gloom of the night they seemed the last men in a flooded world. “I have dreamed it again,” said he.
“Of the hearses? Have I not said, old man, that neither hearse nor coffin can be thine?”
“And who are hearsed that die on the sea?”
“But I said, old man, that ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America.”
“Aye, aye! a strange sight that, Parsee:—a hearse and its plumes floating over the ocean with the waves for the pall-bearers. Ha! Such a sight we shall not soon see.”
“Believe it or not, thou canst not die till it be seen, old man.”
“And what was that saying about thyself?”
“Though it come to the last, I shall still go before thee thy pilot.”
“And when thou art so gone before—if that ever befall—then ere I can follow, thou must still appear to me, to pilot me still?—Was it not so? Well, then, did I believe all ye say, oh my pilot! I have here two pledges that I shall yet slay Moby Dick and survive it.”
“Take another pledge, old man,” said the Parsee, as his eyes lighted up like fire-flies in the gloom—“Hemp only can kill thee.”
“The gallows, ye mean.—I am immortal then, on land and on sea,” cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision;—“Immortal on land and on sea!”
Both were silent again, as one man. The grey dawn came on, and the slumbering crew arose from the boat’s bottom, and ere noon the dead whale was brought to the ship.
As in Macbeth, these promises turn out to be as fatally true for Ahab as they were for the Scottish thane.
I come away from my reading of Moby Dick with the wish to read it again.
And with another wish — to find some attempt by a scholar to look at Moby Dick, the Iliad, King Lear, Job and other great works of world literature.
It seems to me that these works get to the heart of what it means to be human.
Patrick T. Reardon