Blood and Thunder: some thougths on Moby-Dick

Back when I was doing the 30 Day Book Challenge (which I didn’t complete as I got tired with it and wasn’t enthusiastic about the last few questions), I included Moby-Dick as the book you tell people you’ve read, but haven’t or haven’t actually finished. Well, guess what? I finally managed to get through the behemoth, and I figured I’d put together a blog detailing my reaction to it. Also, I want to get into the habit of writing out my thoughts on books that I’m reading; not really reviews or even critical analyses, just thoughts.

First, I’ll start off by stating clearly that there are *SPOILERS* through out. I’ll try and warn you when some overt plot details are coming up, but beyond that I make no promises. Besides, if you’re really jacked on what happens to Ishmael, Ahab, Queequeg, and the whale itself, maybe you should just read the damn thing yourself.

My history with Moby-Dick is fairly complex. It’s one of my father’s favorite stories (I specify story here because I’m pretty sure he’s never read the whole thing). As a child we watched John Huston’s celebrated screen adaption, written by Ray Bradbury, and staring Gregory Peck as Ahab. I also have memories of seeing the version with Patrick Stewart as Ahab, but I’m not sure if I’ve seen it in its entirety. Also, I read a children’s version, which was heavily annotated and illustrated.

In 2006, still a teenager, I tried reading it. I got about 100 pages in and then let it sit until finally just giving up. I recognized Melville’s genius, highlighting passages that I thought were particularly brilliant, writing in the marginalia attempts at understanding some of the more complex symbolism, but at that point I lacked the patience to appreciate the narrative. It wasn’t until this winter that I decided I would give it another shot.

As a graduate student, my day consists of reading writing for the better part of the day, so when I want to read my own stuff I have very little energy left by the end of the day, my eyeballs too dry and my head throbbing. To cope with this, I’ve started downloading audiobooks and following along with my own text. It takes away some of the heavy lifting, andI can still pause it whenever I wish to reread things that I find interesting, and highlighting, underlining, or noting things that pique my attention. I committed myself to reading a few chapters every night before I go to bed, and approximately two months – and several other books – later I finally finished it.

Of “classic” books, Mark Twain said, “A book which people praise and don’t read.” Accordingly, as a “classic” text, Moby-Dick is not for everybody. Aside from a few passages (and the last 100 pages, which is some of the best writing I’ve ever read, but more on that later) the book moves like cold molasses. My biggest challenge with Melville’s style was the brief, fragmentary chapters. One of the surprises of Moby-Dick is that, despite its gargantuan size, there isn’t much in the way of plot. Ishmael goes to hotel, meets Queequeg, they board the Pequod, and eventually they confront Moby-Dick in the book’s climax.  Amongst those plot points, Melville goes to great lengths characterizing the various crew members of the Pequod, and the other characters we meet along the way, as well as the myriad details concerning whaling – I cannot emphasize this enough, Melville spares no expense in the great lengths to which he delves into the world of whaling, from all the rigging, the harpoons, how to use a compass, and questionable biological expositions on whales (which Ishmael insists are fish).

I would argue that you could divide Moby-Dick into three parts. The first chunk is Ishmael’s meeting with Queequeg, boarding the Pequod, setting sail, and finally meeting Ahab. This first third of the book follows a fairly linear movement, with a relatively clear plot chugging along. However, the middle chunk more or less abandons the plot and is all over the map. Here, I would guess that Melville had a whole bunch of things he wanted to say and didn’t bother trying to create some kind of subplot to pacify finicky readers. That’s not to say this part is indulgent of useless; functionally speaking, they immerse the reader into the universe, establishing various vernaculars, familiarizing the reader with the world of whaling, and building the symbolic significance of the books’ signifiers. Finally, the last one hundred pages or so returns to the plot and starts building towards the confrontation with Moby-Dick.

However, he splits all of this up across 135 chapters (excluding the various experts that preface the narrative). My edition is fairly large hardcover version, and is 726 pages long.  That gives us an average of 5.3 pages per chapter, which is pretty damn small. My issue is that when I read, I like to commit to a chapter, take a break, read another chapter, etc. Conversely, if each chapter bleeds into another, then I’ll try to get through a few before taking a break. With Moby-Dick, though, the chapters rarely blend together, especially once we got out on the sea, which makes up majority of the book. Otherwise, Melville will often use each chapter to focus on some minutiae on whaling, or a philosophical meditation on nature and our relationship with nature, each other, and everything else under the sun (including an analysis of the color white, but more on that later).


What I admire most about Moby-Dick is perhaps Melville’s commitment to his universe. As I said, Melville writes a tome with little to no plot, choosing instead to focus primarily on characterization and the all the incidental considerations that arise along the way, which turns out to be everything. Not only does Moby-Dick answer whatever questions you may have concerning 19th century whaling, but it also manages to explore the major metaphysical and epistemological questions in the history of philosophy. It is these latter points upon which I would like to focus.

Reading Moby-Dick, my biggest question was the symbolic significance of the titular character. Ahab makes reference to him in 163, and from there we get various accounts  on how he took Ahab’s leg, destroyed various other ships, killing numerous crew. But it is not until 690 that we actually encounter Moby-Dick, starting the final 3 chapter climax. Even then we don’t really get any answers.

(SPOILERS) Ahab provokes Moby-Dick, chasing him for three days, until the whale finally destroys the Pequod, leaving all drowned except Ishmael, who presumably survives to tell the tale. We get the sense that Moby-Dick’s violence is the survival instinct of a threatened animal, but the way he targets the Pequod suggests a kind of intentionality. That being said, even if we accept Ahab’s argument that Moby-Dick is autonomous, I don’t think we can find fault with something that destroys its assailants when antagonized.

Also in reference to the climax, I was surprised to see that it was in fact Fedallah that was tied to the whale and not Ahab, as is famously depicted in Huston’s adaptation. Of course this makes sense, as it answers’ Fedallah’s Macbethian premonition. Some commentators have suggested this actually an improvement on Bradubury’s part, but it’s been so long since I’ve seen the film. Of course, there’s no arguing that Huston created an iconic image. (SPOILER END)

A lot of interpretations claim that Melville is being purposefully ambiguous in his characterization of Moby-Dick, which is not incorrect, but I think this is an incomplete assessment of Moby-Dick. For me, Moby-Dick represents the vitality of nature/the universe, which is disinterested in human fate. We, as humans, at a loss trying to understand our lot in the universe, anthropomorphize it, projecting human motivations upon a universe that is only a heap of matter, solid all the way through and through.

When we suffer from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, we ascribe to the universe a certain kind of malice, which is in fact our own feelings of resentment and pain. On Ahab, Ishmael tells us:

Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the East reverenced in their statue devil; – Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred White Whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it.

Ahab is melancholy, obsessive and angry. He projects his own inner-turmoil onto Moby-Dick.

Moreover, in “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Ishmael tells us:

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows- a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues- every stately or lovely emblazoning- the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge- pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

Moby-Dick is the void beyond the veil. The whiteness of the whale represents the indifferent ambiguity of the universe. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche wrote, “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Ahab has gazed into the abyss and has consequently been transformed by it. Now he wishes to destroy Moby-Dick, thinking he can sublimate the void that now exists inside him. Of course this is impossible, even from a logical point of view: how can you destroy or sublimate chaos?


Is Moby-Dick a good book? Like all “classic” books, I would argue that’s almost a pseudo-question at this point. Moby-Dick is undoubtedly brilliant, and has some of the greatest passages I’ve ever read. Also, it’s incredibly immersive; I felt like a member of the Pequod, and was sad to leave the universe behind, the telltale sign of a great read. That said, I sympathize with readers who complain about the length and pace, but how does one edit something like this? Melville creates a holistic field of signifiers that expand meaning, building the symbolic significance through out. As long as you don’t go into this without expecting The Da Vinci Code type excitement, it is highly rewarding.



~ by braddunne on May 12, 2012.

2 Responses to “Blood and Thunder: some thougths on Moby-Dick”

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