I just finished reading Moby Dick. It is amazing. Melville submerges the reader in a flood of symbolism so hauntingly powerful that, even though the meaning completely eludes you, still hits you with such force that at the end, as the last ripples are emanating from the spot recently occupied by the Pequod, the only appropriate response is “whoadang”.
Moby Dick is part enthralling narrative, part rote description of whaling details. In fact, there was less attention paid to Ahab’s maniacal pursuit of the white whale than I expected. Large sections of the book are devoted to the physiology and behavior of whales, the practice of whaling, its history, an apology for it, etc. Moby Dick is an epic not just about the white whale, but about whales and whaling in general. And that’s not all. Libby suggested to me half jokingly that the novel was about everything. Whaling, religion, fate, free will, obsession, man vs. nature, etc., etc., etc. Yeah, “everything” sounds about right.
I’ve heard it suggested that the primary theme is man vs. nature. There is certainly an element of that in the novel’s descriptions of sailing and testosteron-laced whale-killing, but I think the central pursuit of Moby Dick is about something else. The white whale actually strikes me as more deity than nature. He possesses astounding, malicious intelligence, is impervious to harpoons, is occasionally spoken of as a god by the sailors, and seems to act as a guardian of the whales – more than once appearing out of nowhere to bring doom upon a whaling party, allowing the whales being hunted to escape1.
Even in the sometimes tedious descriptive sections, something is going on. Melville will suddenly wax metaphorical and relate some obscure detail of whaling to an aspect of life. I began to wonder if there was any part of whaling that wasn’t like life. At first I suspected there was some common thread tying all these whaling metaphors together ,and if I could just grasp it the novel would fall into place as a unified whole in one of those brilliant moments of clarity that makes reading good literature so worthwhile. But later I decided that there probably was no thread. The point of those metaphorical side-notes, I think, is to establish whaling as a microcosm. The world we encounter over the course of the novel stands for the whole world, Unfortunately, that doesn’t get me any close to an “I get it!” moment of clarity. It just engenders more questions.
Everything seems to have some inscrutable meaning in Moby Dick. Why are all the harpooners pagan? Why do they go down last, each clinging to the top of one of the Pequod’s masts? What in the world is going on between Ahab and Pip? Why did Starbuck get a chain of coffee shops named after him?
That just about exhausts my musings on Moby Dick. I miss being in college and being able to brainstorm with a bunch of smart people who were all reading the same books that I was.
1Of course, nature can appear malevolent and impervious, too. I'm currently reading Into Thin Air, about the tragedy in the summer of '96 when 19 climbers froze to death at the top of mount Everest. The storm that cost those climbers their lives certainly seemed malevolently intelligent and overwhelmingly powerful.