Moby Dick: A Novel that Changed Novels

“Moby Dick is a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.” -Ishmael, Moby Dick

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”

moby_dick_final_chaseAs a middle schooler I tried to read Moby Dick, and got about 4% into it. I stopped after meeting Queequeg, which I distinctly remember as the only interesting thing at the time.

After finally reading it this year, what strikes me the most about this classic is how it switches genres so much, not just jumping from genre to genre within the text itself, but even defying what kind of book it is supposed to be. In a way, it is its own mammoth book, a Bible of a novel. I think this is exactly what Herman Melville intended. Moby Dick is a travelogue, a sermon, a shanty compendium, an encyclopedia, a meditation, an epic, a tragedy, a drama. He honors ancient sources in a way that places his almost in the same canon.

“Meditation and water are wedded forever,” Ishmael remarks. Having been a whaler, Melville must have taken to meditation more than any art of sailing, putting him in the place of not only writing based on his travels, but exploring them with such depth and breadth.

Most classic American novels seem to be pioneers, trying to carve new frontiers in writing just as the new country expanded its borders to a vast and adventurous land, conquering new thematic territory and carving out a new tradition of writers (Last of the MohicansScarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn). Melville may have inadvertently done that, but his purpose seems much the opposite, concerning himself more with the timeless frontiers of the ocean, the human mind, and the heavens. His meditation is on an ancient beast, an ancient occupation, ancient themes of fate, revenge, and ambition.

But what separates his work from that of Europeans is that it sets off from an American coast, both in terms of the plot and the context of the writing. His horizon is not that of the new frontier, but the old ocean, and yet he still seems to be doing something new, something novel. It’s the audacity of how he tells his story, surpassing any one particular form of writing, and encompassing so many in one hefty volume. The prospect of the ocean to Ishmael is “unlimited, but exceedingly monotonous and forbidding,” like the prospect of writing a volume about whales. Melville plumbs the depths of his topic as if it were a doomed effort. At the time, of course, it was. Sales of his book didn’t necessarily skyrocket.

A large bulk of the tale isn’t plot at all, but rather a detailed, encyclopedic account of the bodies of whales, as if in between reading of this whaling adventure we are given the spliced pages of a taxonomic book on a species. Yet even these portions are placed and written for a purpose more than showing off how much Melville knows about the creature. It mirrors the very reverence we gives to any theme we obsess over. We want to know it inside and out, become familiar with its parts, measure its magnitude. There is something in the enormity of the whale and the enormity of Melville’s own novel that both echo the enormity of everything else enormous to us—the ocean, continents, the sky, Heaven, God, ourselves, the mind, the heart, and every mystery.

What Ishmael calls “a sublime uneventfulness” on the ocean many days in between whale chasing seems to exist in the uneventful gaps in the narrative. Nothing happens, yet mundane information seems to bring great truths to us. Ishmael’s meditations are on real things, making the fiction cross over into the realm of non-fiction.

Melville is laying it all out for us. The stripping of every whale for its parts is not only a gory and fascinating scene, but a mirror of what we do with texts and their themes. We tear a book to the bare bones to understand its meaning, harvest it for all we can get. Melville is an author who practically tells us what to think of the meaning of a symbol, so that when he stumbles upon mystery, we are as speechless as he is. He is up front about his allegory, but not about what it is an allegory of, or why. That is left to us. If he knew exactly, he wouldn’t obsess over it, attempting to “detail to you all the specialties and concentrations of potency everywhere lurking in this expansive monster.”

We keep wondering at times, is he talking about the whale or about his own book? Does this sentence or this paragraph have any more meaning than the size and shape of this here whalebone?

A mighty book (or combination of books) for a mighty theme (or combination of themes). As Ishmael observes, “no great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea.” (Is that a stab at Donne?) It is as if Melville said, “I want to make a thud on the world with a loud and heavy novel. I’ll pick the one loud and heavy magnificent thing I know, and write about that.”

I unashamedly say that it’s a whale of a book, and self-consciously so. Melville knew what he was doing, and wanted us to know. His opening sentence invites us to trust him by trusting his fictional narrator’s identity. Each reader is invited to embark on the hunt with little or no change in their pocket and hunt down the meaning of this novel for themselves. Obsess over any novel enough, and you’ll drown in its pages.

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