17th March 2023
This epic novel – 624 pages in 135 chapters in the excellent Penguin Classics edition of 2013 – is one of the most lauded in American literature (though it was a commercial failure when first published). I was previously aware of the basic theme – Captain Ahab’s obsessional quest to kill the White Whale – but, until reading the book, unfamiliar with the specific details of the tale.
We are introduced to our narrator in the famous opening line – “Call me Ishmael” – and it is either through his eyes or in a conventional descriptive form that the bulk of the tale is presented. The reader is challenged by Melville’s grammatical style, however: occasional scenes are guided by Shakespearean stage directions – “(Ahab to himself)”, “(Ahab goes. Pip steps one step forward)”; various uncommon adjectives and adverbs are used; the prose style varies from high rhetoric to seaman’s slang; and many sentences are broken into discrete phrases bordered by semi-colons. And, of course, in this story, the author has an obvious requirement for a plethora of nautical terminology (on which more below).
The narrative begins with Ismael travelling to Nantucket in New England – the whaling capital of America – in order to sign up for a voyage to the South Seas. We learn that he is an experienced sailor, though in merchant vessels, rather than whalers, the voyages of which could be three or four years in duration. Later, he also tells us of his other work experiences – schoolteacher, stone mason, ditch digger, etc.
Ishmael is a sympathetic character and we warm to his tolerance and wry humour: “I cherish the greatest respects towards everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical”; “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian”. That he is a man of intelligence and learning is shown in his various references to literature, history, geography, the ancient classics, Shakespeare and the Bible. Ishmael also reveals his knowledge of science, specifically the refraction of white light into its component colours.
Although Captain Ahab is not mentioned until page 80 and not seen by Ishmael until page 134, he is – of course – one of the central figures of the story. It is not long after leaving Nantucket in command of the Pequod that he announces to his 30-man crew that the principal purpose of the voyage is to find and kill the White Whale – the other central figure, of course – in unadulterated revenge for Ahab’s previous encounter with Moby Dick: “… suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab’s leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field”. Only Starbuck, the chief mate, initially demurs; the rest of the crew – including Ishmael – are enthusiastic in their support.
It is clear that Melville – through Ishmael – has a huge respect for those who manned the whaling ships and for the vessels themselves. His admiration for the bravery, skill and physical effort of the crew – especially in hunting and killing the whales and then in extracting the oil and other produce from them – no doubt resulted from his own experience as a sailor (including on a whaler) between 1841 and 1844.
The Pequod’s journey from Nantucket across the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope, up through the South China Sea (avoiding the pirates) and into the Pacific Ocean towards “The Line” (i.e. the Equator) takes place in a variety of conditions – calm seas, favourable trade winds, a typhoon. A number of encounters – or “gams” – with other vessels are made, beginning with the Goney (Albatross). Ahab’s initial address to the ship’s captain – “Ship ahoy. Have ye seen the White Whale?” – sets the tone for all the subsequent gams, the responses to his impatient queries invariably recounting tales of destruction and loss of life.
At various stages, the Pequod enters the known grounds in which the sperm whales – usually the prime targets of the whalers – are to be found. Notwithstanding his stated personal – and sole – objective, Ahab also recognises that conventional sperm-whale hunting must also be undertaken in order that revenues can be earned for all those – including the crew as well as the ship’s owners – with shares in the profits of the Pequod’s voyage.
At the book’s half-way point, there is a detailed description of the first kill – from the preparation of the harpoon line through to the second mate, Stubb, “eyeing the vast corpse he had made” lying in the water. This is followed by securing the dead whale next to the ship overnight (which attracts what appear to be thousands of sharks) and the next day’s “cutting in” in which, using an intricate system of blocks and tackles, the mammal is partially lifted from the water and rotated so that its blubber is stripped from the carcase like the rind from an orange. (After this kill, Ishmael, who signed up for one 300th of the expedition’s net proceeds, estimates that the blubber from the single leviathan will produce 10 tons of oil). Again, Melville’s detailed description of the disassembly of the whale allows the author to reveal his appreciation of the crew’s technical expertise.
In many of the chapters, Melville does not move the narrative forward in quite the same way, but allows a sense of drift. These are more reflective pieces covering every detail of the background circumstances of the voyage. We learn about some of the crew – the mates Starbuck, Stubb and Flask, the blacksmith Perth, the cook Fleece, the chief harpooneers Queequeg, Tashtego and Daggoo and the diminutive black cabin boy, Pip, who endures his own sad mental deterioration as events proceed.
Melville’s digressions include the etiquette of meals in the captain’s cabin (i.e. the order and contents of the respective portions given to the captain and the three mates), the experience of keeping the watch from the top of the mainmast, the validity of “the historical story of Jonah and the whale” and the intricate physical characteristics of the sperm whale -“… of the largest magnitude, between eighty-five and ninety feet in length, and something less than forty feet as its fullest circumference, such a whale will weigh at least ninety tons”.
The long voyage to the South Seas also gives time for philosophical rumination, for example by Ishmael on the contrasting extremes of “whiteness”. On the one hand, “the emblem of many touching, noble things – the innocence of brides, the benignity of age, the holy pomps of the Romish faith” as given in the attire of the pope. On the other hand, the ferocity of the polar bear or the Great White shark, the hideousness of the Albino man. Uncomfortably for the modern reader, included in the former list, his pre-eminence within the human race is described as “giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe”.
I suspect that the present-day readership might be much more impressed with Melville’s recognition of the possibility – no more – that sperm whales could be hunted to extinction as (through Ishmael) he draws a potential comparison with the near extermination of the buffalo on the prairies of Illinois and Missouri. “Whether owing to the almost omniscient look-outs at the mast-heads of the whale ships… and the thousand harpoons and lances darted along all continental coasts… the moot point is whether Leviathan… must not at least be exterminated from the waters”. He ends up rejecting the idea for what appear to be sound reasons, but the very raising of it is certainly perceptive for its time, I think,
For completeness, I also note that there is a discussion over three chapters of the portrayal of whales in art and sculpture. Much of it is critical, but praise is given to the French painters “Garnery” and “H Durand”. [We have the luxury of being
able to follow up the references to the work of Ambroise Louis Garneray
(1783-1857) and Jean Baptiste Henri Durand-Brager (1814-1879) on
Wikipedia. It is well worth doing].
The Penguin Classics edition of Moby-Dick has an Introduction by a Melville biographer Andrew Delbanco and Explanatory Notes by Tom Quirk on some of the references in the text. I found the latter to be useful, although the reader should be warned that they do include spoilers for a couple of important plot developments. The Annexes also contain detailed sketches of the rigging, sails and decks of a whaler and the harpoons and other implements used by the whalers in addition to a map of the voyage undertaken by the Pequod and a glossary of nautical terms. If you do not know your capstan from your larboard or your gunwale from your kelson, the last of these is very useful indeed.
As might be expected, within academic circles, the Moby-Dick industry has generated a host of interpretations of the story and its underlying meaning(s). As for me, I like the straightforward one of the comparison between the odyssey across the seas that the crazed and fanatical Captain Ahab is making in search of his ultimate nemesis and the (hopefully) more sedate and reflective one that we all make in our journey through life.
Significantly, I think, Ahab recognises his condition. Quite early on in the piece, he utters: “They think me mad… but I’m demoniac. I am madness maddened!” And a little later: “Ah God! What traces of torments does that man endure who is consumed with one unachieved revengeful desire. He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms”. In Moby-Dick, we know that we are on a journey with Captain Ahab and we know how it will end for him.
As for how it ends for Ishmael, all is revealed in an exquisite one-page Epilogue.