Alright, let’s get this over with…
I have read Moby Dick twice. The first time I read it was six years ago and I did not understand it at all and I absolutely hated it. I read it for the second time this past semester and I continue to dislike it, although now I can at least say I understand it and even respect it as a literary work. And so, with the help of last semester’s notes and some research articles, here are my study notes on Moby Dick for the M.A. Exam. And just as an FYI, I am using the 150th Anniversary Edition of Moby Dick published in 2001 by the Northwestern University Press.
Once again, I am going to reiterate my problems with placing certain books within a genre. And the fact that Moby Dick is so incredibly dense and complex does not help matters. It could probably be most easily classified as an adventure novel. The crew of the Pequod sets sail on a fairly typical 19th century whaling voyage, except their captain is not so much concerned with making a profit from the oil found in sperm whales as he is with finding the one albino whale that recently took his leg. And concerned is not really the word I should be using. Obsessed could work, as could fanatical, fixated, or probably best of all, possessed. Finding and killing Moby Dick is Ahab’s single focus, and if accomplishing this goal means sacrificing the lives of his crew, then that is what he is willing to do.
Adventures involve risk as well as dangerous and exciting experiences. Ahab’s desire turns this simple whaling expedition into an adventure that takes everyone’s life but one. Of course that one is Ishmael, the novel’s narrator. And because Ishmael is the sole survivor, his word is the only one the reader can go on, which leads to unreliable narrator issues, which is…but I need to move on to theme.
The questions of theme for Moby Dick is again a complex one because it is incredibly difficult (and somewhat short-sighted) for anyone to say that Moby Dick is about any one certain thing. This is what makes Lisa’s quote in my blog profile so interesting (at least to me), and Homer’s part is what makes it funny (again, at least to me). When I first heard the quote after reading Moby Dick the first time, I felt like I was finally told in plain language what the book was about. And although the book does make the point that taking revenge on an animal is fairly nonsensical, especially when said animal was only acting out of self-defense, it still is not all of what Moby Dick is about.
It can be argued that Moby Dick is simply about whaling, or even just whales. It could be about the dangers of having such a single-focus such as Ahab’s as it led to his death and the death of others. Moby Dick also involves race relations in 19th century America as the Pequod is a sort of floating Babel of racial stereotypes. Some have argued that it is about slavery as to violence done to the whales reflects the violence done to runaway slaves at the time (large black creatures with scarred backs being chased on their run northward until they are captured for a profit). There is also religion, revenge, politics, and even economics. And once again, there is the issue of the unreliable narrator, whose name we do not even know (“Call me Ishmael”), but again, I’ll spare you my rant on that one…
I could go on and on when it comes to theme on this book. There is plenty to choose from, as long as you can explain it well and with plenty of supportive evidence.
Moby Dick was published in 1851. This was a period of time that also saw the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
It is said that Melville poured over documents that told the story of the Essex, a whaling ship that was rammed by a whale and consequently sunk, much like the Pequod in Melville’s novel, for about 20 (I think) years before finishing Moby Dick. The difference between the Pequod and the Essex is that for the crew of the Essex, the sinking of the ship was only the beginning of the horror. The entire crew would endure illness, starvation, and even cannibalism before being rescued.
Melville also used information he was able to gather about a real-life albino whale called Mocha Dick that was known to terrorize ships off of the coast of Chile. With these two real life events as his main sources of information, combined with his own experiences in whaling, Melville wrote Moby Dick.
At this time, this is really all I have to say about this particular monster novel, at least when it comes to the M.A. Exam. Well, not really, there is so much more that could be said and I probably will have to come back to this particular novel only because it is so dense, and although I am not a big fan, it does indeed deserve the extra attention.
Next week, I will attempt to come up with sample questions that might work on the exam for this particular book. I really could (but again, I won’t), talk at great length about Ishmael’s unreliability as a narrator, and if anyone wants me to, I could do an entire post just about that. Also worth mentioning would be the fact that the first time people read this book, the “Cetology” chapter seems to go on forever when in reality it is only about 11 pages long (in my edition). I may also in future go deeper into race relations within the book, as well as the issue of the whiteness of the whale. And of course, if there is something you want me to touch on or feel that I am ignoring, please let me know.
And so, I will end with one of the few passages in the book that I did particularly enjoy:
“But by her still halting course and winding, woful way, you plainly saw that this ship that so wept with spray, still remained without comfort. She was Rachel, weeping for her children, because they were not. (533)”