Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick (Norton Critical Edition)Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

[Note: all quotations from essays, letters, and reviews below come from documents included in this Norton Critical Edition.]

In his 1850 manifesto-essay in praise of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” Herman Melville scorns the Anglophile polish and traditionalism of Washington Irving, then considered the greatest American fiction writer, and affirms instead that “it is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation. He who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great. Failure is the true test of greatness.” This credo of the modern or even modernist writer from Blake to Beckett is the first step to approaching Moby-Dick, a novel sufficiently original that its contemporaries did not know how to value it. Even at this late date, online reviewers complain about its miscellaneousness and bizarre structure and generic variety; in this, they echo the earliest reviews, included in this Norton Critical Edition, that called the novel “an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact” and “a singular medley of naval observation, magazine article writing, satiric reflection on the conventionalisms of civilized life, and rhapsody run mad.” At least we no longer charge Melville with blasphemy or lunacy.

In short, Moby-Dick is very strange, a truth we should not allow ourselves to forget just because the book is old or venerable or assigned in school. Not exactly a novel, it mixes at least five genres: 1. a sea adventure story and travel narrative with a boisterous young narrator who thrillingly encounters foreigners, eccentrics, and wild marine life; 2. a metafictional satire inspired by Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, in which the same narrator of the boy’s own adventure expatiates in skeptical mock-philosophical and mock-sermonic essays on the mysteries of the universe; 3. a gritty piece of fictional realism or even ahead-of-its-time naturalism that details the lowly laboring life of a quintessential modern industry, down to the blood-and-guts that underlie the conveniences of civilized life, such as grisly amputations from mens’ toes to whale’s penises; 4. a semi-parodic non-fictional catalogue of known scientific, mythological, historical, and economic facts about whales and whale-hunting; and 5. a grandiloquent attempt to renovate Shakespearean tragedy for modern times, with a maddened and magnificently flawed great man, surrounded by flunkies and prophets and even a fool, as he stomps around the stage soliloquizing furiously and driving himself and his world to death. No single one of these aspects of Moby-Dick would necessarily have been original on its own, but their incongruous combination in one apparently unified work of narrative art makes for one of the most singular fictions in our tradition.

Complaining to Hawthorne in an 1851 letter, Melville explained that he was torn between a personal compulsion to write uncommercial fiction and an economic imperative to produce entertainments; consequently, “all my books are botches.” Moby-Dick is a botch, I think, a great one, one licensed by its narrator’s avowed anti-philosophy, as I will explain shortly. It does not end or even proceed as it begins; it is a voyage and an adventure in more ways than one. To Sophia Hawthorne, who had just read the novel, Melville confessed, “I had some vague idea while writing it, that the whole book was susceptible of an allegoric construction, & also that parts of it were,” both recalling and contradicting Ishmael’s protestation to the reader that the book should not be taken as “a hideous and intolerable allegory” (which is rich coming from a character who asks us to refer to him by a plainly allegorical name out of the Bible). But Melville knew that allegory was the Puritan hermeneutic, deployed and subverted by his beloved Hawthorne, and he knew that he was writing an anti-Puritan—and even, to an extent, anti-Christian—book.

Ishmael’s narrative procedure makes a mockery of allegory. Faced with a fact—e.g., the great fact of the whale—he masses etymologies, quotations, and above all metaphors. In Ishmael’s narration, we perceive whales and everything else through a kaleidoscope of tropes, shifting the view with every paragraph, sometimes every sentence. I open the book at random: the beginning of chapter 58 likens brit, or the film of small crustaceans through which whales swim, to “boundless fields of ripe and golden wheat”; then Ishmael compares the inside of a Right Whale’s mouth to a Venetian blind; then he compares the whales to “morning mowers” advancing with scythes through “the long wet grass of marshy meads”; then he compares the whale-backs to “lifeless masses of rock”; then he notes the resemblance of his own watch over the whales to behavior in “the great hunting countries of India.” The fixities of allegory—this equals that—can get no purchase in such a flood of metaphor and symbolism.

Ishmael’s “factual” chapters generally satirize the making of abstract meaning from phenomena. They follow a formula, beginning in fact and ending in a sermon on what the fact means. Chapter 58, for instance, ends with a comparison between human souls and islands and with a warning not to push one’s soul off to sea. These little essays that take up much, probably more than half, of the book are superb exercises in the rhetoric of Romantic irony, comparable with Carlyle and Emerson—statements that somehow both advance and deride philosophical propositions and cosmic wisdom. The chapter called “Cetology,” for instance, seems to categorize whales completely but is actually a demonstration on the folly and arbitrariness of all categorization, all human artifice (including the making of books, to which whales are likened as folios, octavos, and duodecimoes): “any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that reason infallibly be faulty.”

But the sense that Ishmael is always half joking, always a bit facetious, leaves him an equivocal figure. Even his most admirable qualities—his universal relativism (“there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men”), his mild equanimity in the face of the Other (“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian”), his sharp eye for the hypocrisies of his own society (“Cannibals? who is not a cannibal?”), his self-critical awareness of his own shortcomings as dreamy malcontent full of secondhand Byronism (“Beware of enlisting in your vigilant fisheries any lad with lean brow and hollow eye”)—begin to grate and annoy, as if broad-mindedness were an excuse never to come to any conclusion. Ishmael’s characteristic (anti-)political gesture, for example, is to note some specific instance of exploitation and oppression and then to universalize it absolutely: “Who ain’t a slave?” he asks, as Frederick Douglass did not.

If Ishmael does not satisfy, there is Ahab, the monomaniacal Quaker who hijacks his own ship to seek vengeance on the white whale for “dismasting” him by devouring his leg. Ahab at bottom shares Ishmael’s perspectivism, but he uses it as a weapon, transfixing his crew with a gold doubloon—as prize for raising Moby Dick—to which each man brings his own meaning (“this round globe is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own self”). Ahab’s relativism, though, is a stop on the way in quest of final answers. The white whale is for him an allegory for the wall that screens off the truth—of why we are here and why we must suffer—from miserable humanity. Ahab represents the other side of Romantic personality from Ishmael’s wandering skeptic: the satanic-heroic Promethean daring to steal from the gods to give to humanity. His defiance is not only satanic but American, Emersonian: “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. […] Who’s over me? Truth has no confines.” So far from a naturalistic character, so much a grand dramatic personage, Ahab almost does not work in prose and at times declines into Shakespearean parody.[1]

But he is made sufficiently complex, especially in his beautiful sympathy for the maddened black boy, Pip, that we can almost feel affection for him (and his sharing of his cabin with Pip, which balances Ishmael’s sharing a bed with Queequeq, indicates that the whiteness that so horrifies both captain and narrator is also whiteness as socially conceived). His sublime will ballasts the long novel so that Ishmael’s unremitting irony does not totally destabilize it. There is surely as much of Melville’s titanic literary drive and anarchic attitude toward the world in Ahab’s fury as in Ishmael’s skepticism[2]. His sense of Ahab as emblematic of humanity in general, a god-captive king toiling for freedom, who is the gnostic father of all us dispossessed kings and queens on this intolerable earth ruled by mocking usurpers, is hard to forget:

…yet Ahab’s larger, darker, deeper part remains unhinted. But vain to popularize profundities, and all truth is profound. Winding far down from within the very heart of this spiked Hotel de Cluny where we here stand—however grand and wonderful, now quit it;—and take your way, ye nobler, sadder souls, to those vast Roman halls of Thermes; where far beneath the fantastic towers of man’s upper earth, his root of grandeur, his whole awful essence sits in bearded state; an antique buried beneath antiquities, and throned on torsoes! So with a broken throne, the great gods mock that captive king; so like a Caryatid, he patient sits, upholding on his frozen brow the piled entablatures of ages. Wind ye down there, ye prouder, sadder souls! question that proud, sad king! A family likeness! aye, he did beget ye, ye young exiled royalties; and from your grim sire only will the old State-secret come.

Speaking of the family resemblance between Ishmael and Ahab or Ahab and us all: in a passage in chapter 114, one of my favorites, Melville implies that both the seeking of absolutes and the recognition that the search for absolutes is unending are both necessary to the weave of the world:

Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:—through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.

According to Parker and Hayford’s footnotes in this second Norton Critical edition, there is some dispute as to whether these words should be assigned to Ishmael or Ahab. “This has implications for any critical argument that takes Ishmael and Ahab as embodying opposing values,” conclude the editors. The passage suggests, however, that there are no fixed opposites in life but only the traversal of an endless cycle, which means that monomaniacal Ahab’s here becoming ironic Ishmael in his allowance that life offers no final answers, or ironic Ishmael’s here becoming monomaniacal Ahab in his insistence that answers be sought unwearyingly, should not come as a surprise.

As with The Magic Mountain earlier this year, there is so much to write about this endless book—and so much that has already been written—that I could not possible say it all. I have unanswered questions: to name only one, what about those mysterious, symbolic, and seemingly extraneous characters Bulkington and Fedallah (and from what reserves of Orientalism does this supposedly non- or anti-racist book draw the latter figure, an unearthly Eastern fire-worshipper who seems to have Ahab mesmerized, thus clouding what should be the clear conflict between the captain and the whale)?

What, in the end, are this novel’s politics? I would call them confused and contradictory, as in all the greatest works (the greater the work of art, the farther it is from propaganda). Though Ishmael early and famously calls on the “great democratic God” to help him aesthetically dignify his crew of “mariners, renegades, and castaways,” this never amounts to much but a representational strategy, and not even much of one, as almost all these characters prove ineffectual—particularly the mates Starbuck and Stubb, who stand for the social failures of pious faith and cynical sensuality, respectively. Only the black boy Pip is made equal to Ahab and Ishmael in visionary capacity, though he has to almost drown to attain it and then is not heeded by anyone but the captain, which makes him no laboring hero even if he is a sign, however ambiguous, of racial equality: “He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.” And Ishmael is sufficiently clear about the horror of the crew’s labor that celebrating their work as such or workers as a class is ultimately out of the question—no one can read the beauties of “The Grand Armada” chapter (“We saw young leviathan amours in the deep”) or of the sufferings of the sick old whale pitilessly killed by Flask in chapter 81 and feel easy about humanity’s battening on nature.

Finally, inspired by the excerpt from Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae included in the back of the Norton Critical Edition, I wonder not only about the absence of women from the book (barring the temperance busybodies who furnish the ship, a couple of female whales, and, according to Paglia’s sexual decoder ring, the eponymous squid of chapter 59), but from its entire sexual cosmos. The novel’s well-known homoeroticism comes in varieties both utopic (Ishmael and Queequeg together in bed, representing a wedding of the world’s peoples) and dystopic (the infamous circle-jerk in “A Squeeze of the Hand,” a lotus-eater fool’s paradise of entranced self-loving benevolence), but how would this novel’s vision of community change if it had to admit a female presence in any capacity? Melville, much more than Hawthorne despite the latter’s comments on “scribbling women,” was obviously writing against a set of cultural constraints he identified with female authority.

There is much more to say—about cannibalism and geography, time and humanity, Plato and Spinoza, structure and metafiction, Peru and Japan, and God knows what else. Have I really not even quoted from “The Whiteness of the Whale”? I first read Moby-Dick as a teenager and predictably found it a deeper, richer book upon re-reading now, but not a more unified one. A miscellany and a botch, it, like the sea and the doubloon, reflects its beholder. One passage that impressed me both then and now is a plea for tragedy against all meliorisms or progressivisms, including Melville’s own, and here, for lack of any better place on our circumambulation of the world, I will stop:

Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia’s Dismal Swamp, nor Rome’s accursed Campagna, nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon. The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth. So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true—not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. “All is vanity.” ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon’s wisdom yet. But he who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing graveyards, and would rather talk of operas than hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Rousseau, poor devils all of sick men; and throughout a care-free lifetime swears by Rabelais as passing wise, and therefore jolly;—not that man is fitted to sit down on tomb-stones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.


[1] Calling for an American Shakespeare is part of Melville’s program for the literature of the young republic. In the “Mosses” essay, he declares himself “bound to carry republican progressiveness into Literature” and accordingly insists that Shakespeare was not a singular occurrence, limited to the class-bound Old World, but that “Shakespeares are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio.” I note, without necessarily comparing myself to Shakespeare (or Hawthorne or Melville), that I was born on the banks of the Monongahela, just a mile or two upstream from where it joins the Ohio.

[2] We can discern that Melville sympathized as much with Ahab as with Ishmael from an 1851 letter in which Melville praises Hawthorne in terms that oddly make the diffident New England romancer sound like the mad captain:

There is a certain tragic phase of humanity which, in our opinion, was never more powerfully embodied than by Hawthorne. We mean the tragicalness of human thought in its own unbiassed, native, and profounder workings. We think that into no recorded mind has the intense feeling of the visable truth ever entered more deeply than into this man’s. By visable truth, we mean the apprehension of the absolute condition of present things as they strike the eye of the man who fears them not, though they do their worst to him,—the man who, like Russia or the British Empire, declares himself a sovereign nature (in himself) amid the powers of heaven, hell, and earth. He may perish; but so long as he exists he insists upon treating with all Powers upon an equal basis.

On a related note: comparisons to empires notwithstanding, the tradition of twentieth-century criticism conflating Ahab with Hitler or Stalin is inapt, as inapt as seeing an identity between Hawthorne and those totalitarian leaders. While Ahab may tyrannize over his crew, he has no political goal, makes no claims on behalf of any collective, insists on no distinctions of race or nation or even class, and does not deliberately slaughter the people under his authority (though he is reckless with their lives). He is a fanatic and a rebel—the antitype to Jonah, “patriot to heaven,” per Father Mapple’s sermon—but this corresponds to no clear archetype in modern politics. As Ishmael likens whales to everything from Egyptian pyramids to aristocratic ladies, so critics have compared Ahab to everyone from John Brown to George W. Bush, which suggests that Moby-Dick is even less a direct political allegory than a religious or philosophical one.



  1. Thank you. I had just finished my first reading of this magnificent epic. I read it all, including the “boring” digressions. Sometimes I felt bored. Sometimes I felt it dragged. But I wouldn’t change much of a thing about this epic masterpiece. It’s a great book. One of my own personal favorites now. A second reading, I trust, will give me a greater impression of this great and large epic as vast as the sea, as robust and grotesque as Rabelais, as cosmic as Milton, as profoundly tragic and comic and profound as Shakespeare.

    It’s like the literary masters of the seventeenth century arose and made love with the Romantics of the nineteenth century, and then also made love to the American cosmos and nation, and Moby-Dick was born.

    • Thanks! You put it well. I agree with your sense of the novel’s heterogeneity in tone and tradition, and enjoyed re-reading it as a genuinely and deliberately various work, instead of seeking out all the artistic, psychological, mythical, religious, or political unities that critics have found in (or imposed on) it.

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