I posted about this on my Facebook page a couple days ago, and a few people worried I’d been alone too long (I’m hiding out by myself in New Mexico, in the mountains, for some much needed quiet time and hermitude for spring break) because Moby-Dick is about as exciting to them as a dictionary. And I’ve been dreading reading this book–my advisor asked me to include it on my reading list, so there it is.
I read it once when I was twelve. Can’t say I knew what was going on, and I had no idea what Melville was going on about in the “Cetology” chapter, but there were passages, like this one, that simply stole by breath:
I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.
Yonder, by the ever-brimming goblet’s rim, the warm waves blush like wine. The gold brow plumbs the blue the diver sun–slow dived from noon–goes down; my soul mounts up! she wearies with her endless hill.
This, from Chapter 37, titled “Sunset” as Ahab sits alone in his cabin. He just delivered his speech to his crew, demanding an oath and swearing an oath that they will seek vengeance on the white whale. The passage is still beautiful, poignant, and heart-rending, particularly amongst all the humor (yes, humor) that lives in the pages of this novel.
I’m not an expert on 19th C American Lit, though I do know a little. I’ve never really researched Moby-Dick, though. It’s sort of a joke, sometimes, because so many have written about it, and so many have tried to determine what the whale actually symbolizes. As I read it, I’m slightly inclined to agree with Ron Swanson in Season 6 of Parks and Recreation when he says “It’s just a fucking fish.” But, of course, I know that’s not what’s actually going on in the novel. Moby-Dick is just a whale; it’s the reactions to the whale that Melville was most interested in, the ways that people behaved toward each other and toward nature. The whale has nothing to do with it.
Maybe that’s an oversimplified reading, but I’m inclined to believe that Moby-Dick is a sort of Hamlet, or Macbeth because it grapples with madness, it deals with Captain Ahab’s PTSD. Of course, they didn’t know what PTSD was back then, but, really, the novel seems to be about what happens when a human being faces something terrible, and then is expected to face it again. Rather than live in fear of the whale that took his leg, Ahab is trying to confront it, kill it, so he doesn’t have to live in fear any longer. So of course, the novel is about much more than a fish. But really, the whale is just a whale. It’s what’s going on in the minds of the characters that counts.