Still puzzled by “Moby-Dick”…

I have been delaying putting down my thoughts on Moby-Dick, as I wanted to allow some time to let it settle in my mind. Well, it’s been a few weeks since I finished it, and it hasn’t settled yet. I doubt it ever will.

It is unlike any other novel I know of. At times, I wondered whether what I was reading could be described as a novel at all. It’s easy to say it’s flawed, but that hardly helps matters: indeed, perhaps it isn’t flawed at all; perhaps what Meville wrote was precisely what he intended to write. On reading The Brothers Karamazov lately, I found myself thinking that, yes, there is much wrong with this, much that one may take issue with; but given there’s so much that is so uniquely, so breathtakingly brilliant, why focus on its shortcomings? But this is not how I feel about Moby-Dick. While there is much here also that is uniquely, breathtakingly brilliant, I am not sure that I understand Melville’s vision well enough to be able to point out possible shortcomings with any degree of confidence.

It is, quite clearly, an experimental novel. Melville makes his narrator Ishmael say at one point: “I try all things; I achieve what I can”. The entire novel may be seen as a series of experiments, of “trying all things”; and if some, or even most, of these experiments fail, then that in itself does not betoken failure, as the novel seems to me intended, at least on one level, as a record of these experiments, successful or otherwise: even failed experiments deserve a place here. And of course, on those occasions where the experiment succeeds, or even only partially succeeds, what we get defies belief.

But what is the end of all these mad experiments? The white whale, Moby-Dick, is, as everyone knows, a symbol. But the question “What does it symbolise?” is incapable of being answered. However, the question has to be asked, as the mainspring of the entire novel – Ahab’s monomaniac desire to destroy the White Whale – comes from Ahab himself seeing Moby-Dick as a symbol. But these two impossibilities – the impossibility of not posing this question, and at the same time, the impossibility of ever answering it – grind against each other to create at times an almost unbearable tension.

But much of the time, the narrative tone is surprisingly light, even humorous. By the time the Pequod sets sail, we are some fifth of the way into the book, and, barring some passages of dark introspection (including the magnificently titled opening chapter, “Loomings”), any reader unaware of the novel’s reputation may well think they are reading a comic work, a patchwork of light and mainly humorous seaman’s tales.

Even after setting sail, there is, to begin with, little indication of what lies ahead, despite the ominous absence of Ahab. But Melville rather curiously moves away from a narrative mode to give us very full and detailed accounts of whales and of whaling. There is barely any aspect of the subject he leaves untouched – from the natural history of whales to its various classifications; the economics of whaling; the techniques of whale-hunting; how the oil is extracted from whales after a successful hunt; the anatomy of whales; whales in history, religion, and folklore; and so on. The narrator, Ishmael, is tremendously erudite, referring with ease to various writers, philosophers, and religious beliefs from around the world. And he can even be whimsical, as when he compares the skulls of a right whale and of a sperm whale hanging on either side of the ship to philosphers:

Can you catch the expression of the Sperm Whale’s there? It is the same he died with, only some of the longer wrinkles in the forehead seem now faded away. I think his broad brow to be full of a prairie-like placidity, born of a speculative indifference as to death. But mark the other head’s expression. See that amazing lower lip, pressed by accident against the vessel’s side, so as firmly to embrace the jaw. Does not this whole head seem to speak of an enormous practical resolution in facing death? This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years. This reminds us that the Right Whale really has a sort of whisker, or rather a moustache, consisting of a few scattered white hairs on the upper part of the outer end of the lower jaw. Sometimes these tufts impart a rather brigandish expression to his otherwise solemn countenance.

These chapters dealing with the various aspects of whales and of whaling are not digressions, as the greater bulk of the novel is taken up with them; indeed, it’s the narrative chapters that appear discursive.

So why does Melville do this? On one level, it’s a sort of delaying tactic: he could not cut straight to the hunt for Moby-Dick immediately after setting sail. Of course, Melville could have filled up the gap with, say, sailors’ yarns, but that would have distracted attention from the main thrust of the novel. But this does not seem a good enough explanation: surely, Melville did not fill up the greater part of the novel with chapters on whales and whaling simply to fill a narrative gap? Unlike many readers, I actually found the content of these chapters fascinating, but I nonetheless find myself at a loss to answer to my satisfaction the question “What purpose do these chapters serve?” To anyone looking simply for an exciting adventure yarn, these chapters are obviously irrelevant; but they seem less than relevant also to the reader looking for glimpses something deeper.

As the novel progresses, we are increasingly given glimpses into this “something deeper”, and these glimpses terrify. In “The Whiteness of the Whale”, one of the most remarkable chapters of a novel full of remarkable chapters, Ishmael muses on the terror that the very thought of the White Whale inspires in him. Ahab, for much of the time, is kept away from the action, but as the novel accelerates towards its denouement, he appears more frequently. And when he does so, he speaks lines of Miltonic grandeur, unlike anything, I suspect, ever spoken by any character in novels. For this is a figure who belongs not to mere paltry novels, but to epic poetry, or to blank verse drama: indeed, one suspects that it wouldn’t be too difficult to turn his utterances into lines of Miltonic or of  Shakespearean blank verse:

Hark ye yet again, – the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.

Ah! constrainings seize thee; I see! the billow lifts thee! Speak, but speak! – Aye, aye! thy silence, then, that voices thee. (Aside) something shot from my dilated nostrils, he has inhaled it in his lungs. Starbuck now is mine; cannot oppose me now, without rebellion.

This speech, with its image of striking through the pasteboard masks, is famous, perhaps too famous to allow the reader to perceive it from a fresh perspective. But it is a speech that belongs to drama rather than to the novel. Even the stage direction “aside” towards the end betrays its provenance. But whatever its provenance, this speech poses far more questions than it answers. Of course, it is not the purpose of a work of art to answer questions: enough that they are asked. However, if we take the pasteboard masks to be outward appearances; and if Ahab means to discover the truth of what lies beyond these masks by “striking through them”; then how can this be achieved by destroying the White Whale? What does Ahab hope to perceive by destroying Moby-Dick?

Ahab does not accept God (“Who’s over me?”), but has a dread of nihilism: he suspects, and fears, there may be nothing beyond these pasteboard masks. But he has to find out. And he knows also that the White Whale is a metaphor (“To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.”) – a metaphor representing all that prevents him from apprehending some truth beyond external appearances. But why should he think that he will be able to see beyond these appearances better by destroying what is, in essence, but a metaphor? There is a mystery here that I cannot fathom – that, possibly, cannot be fathomed – but it is presented in terms that have assumed the proportions of mythology.

Throughout, there are echoes of the Bible, of Milton, of Shakespeare. Here, for instance, is the scene between Ahab and the ship’s blacksmith:

“…What wert thou making there?”

“Welding an old pike-head, Sir; there were seams and dents in it.”

“And can’st thou make it all smooth, again, blacksmith, after such hard usage as it had?”

“I think so, Sir.”

“And I suppose thou can’st smoothe almost any seams and dents; never mind how hard the metal, blacksmith?”

“Aye, Sir, I think I can; all seams and dents but one.”

“Look ye here, then,” cried Ahab, passionately advancing, and leaning with both hands on Perth’s shoulders; “look ye here – here – can ye smoothe out a seam like this, blacksmith”, sweeping one hand across his ribbed brows; “if thou could’st, blacksmith, glad enough would I lay my head upon thy anvil, and feel thy heaviest hammer between my eyes. Answer! Can’st thou smoothe this seam?”

I find it hard not to think of Macbeth speaking to the doctor:

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

Similarly, when Ahab is struck by the ravings of the mad boy Pip, and insists that Pip stay with him, it’s hard not to find echoes of Lear’s insistence on keeping with him the mad Poor Tom:

KING LEAR  Noble philosopher, your company.

EDGAR  Tom’s a-cold.

GLOUCESTER In, fellow, there, into the hovel: keep thee warm.

KING LEAR Come let’s in all.

KENT This way, my lord.

KING LEAR  With him;
I will keep still with my philosopher.

The final part of the novel breaks the bounds of what we may imagine a novel can achieve. Ahab refuses to help the ship Rachel, weeping for its lost children; he himself weeps precious tears into the sea. And then, we come face to face with the White Whale itself. The final three doom-laden chapters possibly rank with some of the finest of Dostoyevsky as the most exciting of any novel; and, as in Dostoyevsky, the excitement here is more than merely physical. When, finally, the Pequod goes down to Hell taking a bit of Heaven with it, one can but gasp in astonishment, even without understanding what it may betoken.

Did I understand what it was all about? No, I don’t think I did. But perhaps one is not meant to understand it anyway. Were there longueurs? Yes, a great many. But no matter. What other novel can provide an experience to compare with this?

6 responses to this post.

  1. Many thanks for that, Himadri – I really enjoyed reading your searching and insightful thoughts about this fascinating work.

    It’s well over twenty years since I last read and studied ‘Moby-Dick’ – so it’s a daunting task to try to talk about such a complex novel armed with only hazy memories and quick re-reads of snatched passages from my dusted off copy…

    But, reading your post, there are a few things that leap into my mind in response.

    I really do think that Melville controls his material in a way that matches his intention. Theme and structure are bound together to create a piece of literature that, in its very fabric, demonstrates what it explores. This, I think, gives an explanation for the deeper meaning behind those many chapters dealing with those detailed, factual elements of whales and whaling. You mention those impossibilities that ‘grind against each other to create at times an almost unbearable tension.’ This tension, it seems to me, is the very thing the novel seeks to create – to reflect.

    That terrifying ‘something deeper’ glimpsed in the novel, by its very nature, can never be captured, never explained, never bound by man’s mind or understanding. Melville is reaching to the very outer limits of human understanding – reaching for those very biggest questions. In all the complexities and contradictions of the symbolism of the whale, is held in tension that very impossibility of knowing. Out there, overarching our existence, is the unknowable – whether God or void. Between man and that scary, limitless, unknowable universe is a barrier – a ‘wall,’ a shadow line – if we cross it, if we reach beyond it, that way lies truth and yet the very antithesis of reason. There, I think Melville is saying, we are left with nothing to hold on to – to keep us afloat, anchored, sane. Humans impose structure, meaning, purpose to the world with daily tasks, routines, tools for specific jobs, facts, labels, names – minute, quantifiable details which can be shared, measured and agreed upon as true and unwavering. They give us a sense of order and reasoned purpose, shutting out an awareness of chaos or a terrifying blankness of the unknowable that exists outside our own self-made mental anchors or masks.

    By inserting those factual chapters – about types of whale, practical uses for their oil, explanations of different nautical gadgets for specific purposes etc – Melville writes the novel’s themes and tension into the very structure of the novel. He demonstrates, by fluctuating our reading experience and our reactions (between explorations of the edge of terror and retreat to the known), these very tensions in action. I have to admit that, unlike you, I wasn’t held fascinated by all the factual chapters when I read ‘Moby-Dick’ all those years ago. I remember fighting off sleep on more than one occasion in my efforts to wade through some of them… but maybe even that reaction to the novel’s fluctuations of structure can tell us something about the effects of life’s layers of existence too! Perhaps, this is part of Melville’s explorations of reason and truth; perhaps in all that is mundane, ordered, reasoned we are asleep to truths. Like Shakespeare’s fools and Lear on the heath, Melville’s Pip, in almost drowning, reaches a state where – ‘man’s insanity is heaven’s sense.’

    Anyway, I don’t know if my interpretations here will seem at all plausible to you, Himadri. So they may or may not help with your sense of puzzlement… And, of course, there are so many more strands to all the complexities you highlight and to Melville’s intentions and theme…

    …’Moby-Dick’, by the very nature of what it explores, contains enough for us to puzzle over forever, I think! But, at its heart, I do think there is a very definite purpose at work, very much woven into the novel’s theme, language and structure. All those things you mention – the philosophy, religion, myth, literature and relationship to Shakespeare etc woven into the text are very deliberately placed threads of the novel’s whole fabric and explorations, I think.

    Sorry for the long ramble!



    • Hello Melanie, and thank you very much for that.

      The more I think about this novel, the more I think you are correct: far from being “flawed”, as is often alleged, Melville achieves precisely what he set out to achieve – to give us glimpses into the unknowable, the intangible; to give expression to that which cannot be expressed. The power of the work is obvious, but exactly what it is that is depicted with such power is unanswerable. And all that is so puzzling is intended to be puzzling.

      Ahab’s psychology I continue to find particularly mysterious. I can understand his burning desire to “strike through the pasteboard masks”, to come to the truths he knows we are asleep to in our ordered, mundane lives. What I find hard to grasp is why he thinks hunting down the white whale will help him get to these truths, why he thinks this will help him “strike through the pasteboard masks”. Perhaps this is something else we aren’t intended to understand.

      Sometimes, I can find myself fascinated by a work even though I find myself unable to understand much of it. This is certainly the case with The Brothers Karamazov. There is much in that novel that still doesn’t make sense to me, but, for reasons I can’t quite articulate, I find it haunting my imagination. I can well imagine Moby-Dick having a similar effect on many readers: there are some works of art that aren’t meant to be fully understood. Perhaps these are the works that reflect life most accurately, as we never quite understand life either. But, while I can certainly sense the depth and the power of Moby-Dick, it does not exert quite the fascination that the Brothers karamazov does. Why, I cannot explain.

      Which is not to say, of course, that I do not recognise the extraordinary imaginative power of this masterpiece. But on the whole, it inspires, for me, respect and admiration rather than love: it was not a work I feel particularly close to on a personal level.


  2. one suspects that it wouldn’t be too difficult to turn his utterances into lines of Miltonic or of Shakespearean blank verse

    Yes. Although that example is from Melville’s next novel, Pierre, not Moby-Dick. For the latter, see Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, chapter 12.

    If you would really like to see Melville fail, his third novel, Mardi, is the place to go, his first attempt to put everything he and everyone else knows into a single book. It is a sight to see.


    • Melville is a writer I always keep meaning to read mpre of, but keep putting back. So far, I have managed Moby-DIck, Benito Cereno, Bartleby and Billy Budd, and think they are all remarkable works. Billy Budd, especially, I thought was magnificent. But Melville was, of course, an experimental writer, and teh problem with experiments is that they don’t always succeed. No problem with that, as such: if the successful experiments are worthwhile, then I am happy to cut some slack – in some cases, a lot of slack – for the ones that fail. Rather a writer who aims high and fails than some plodding mediocrity. But Pierre and Mardi – well, some day,I’m sure!


  3. Posted by journalofastarvingartist on November 24, 2014 at 10:29 am

    Excellent post!

    I too prodded through Moby Dick some months back, and loved it to my very core.

    I personally interpreted the ‘White Whale’ to be a metaphor for God’s will / fate. Ahab had an inability to simply accept what had been “decreed” for him vis-a-vis the loss of his leg. He even says in one chapter that it’s not the whale that he hates but “that thing behind” the whale. i.e. what truly controls the whale, and all creatures and events.

    The fact that the ominous “Fedallah” always had his turban fixed in such a way that it resembled “two horns,” -this same Fedallah that never speaks, that was a “secret” passenger on the ship, and who first spots the White Whale and goads Ahab into giving chase, is an obvious metaphor for Satan, who is there to “make sure” Ahab continues to give vent to his rage against God’s decree, whereby assuring his worldly and other-worldly destruction.

    In this sense, the “story” of the novel was actually not a novel, but a myth disguised as a novel. It was a myth in the same vein as the Greek/Roman mythologies, but using Western “Gods” and imps as the characters, rather than foreign ones.

    My thoughts, for what they are worth!



    • Hello, and thank you for that.

      Every time I re-read, or think about, Moby-Dick, I realise how little of it I understand. And I can’t help reflecting that we aren’t meant to understand it fully, any more than we are meant to understand life fully. Your interpretation is certainly coherent, but it’s hard – for me, at least – to understand why Ahab should be so obsessed with destroying something that he knows is but a symbol.

      The novel will always remain an enigma, but it haunts the imagination. I still don’t understand it – but nowadays, I’m not so worried about not understanding it!

      Cheers, Himadri


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