“Judge, then, to what pitches of inflamed, distracted fury the minds of his more desperate hunters were impelled, when amid the chips of chewed boats, and the sinking limbs of torn comrades, they swam out of the white curds of the whale’s direful wrath into the serene, exasperating sunlight, that smiled on, as if at a birth or a bridal.”
“I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb.”
When I was a college student one of the best teachers I ever had, Mr. Van Vactor, declared to my English class that the two greatest American novels ever written are Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Melville’s Moby-Dick. (Incidentally, he also claimed the three greatest novels of all time, written in any language, to be Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. So Dostoevsky is the supreme novelist, according to Mr. Van Vactor.) My teacher also declared the white whale in Moby-Dick to symbolize life itself, which is an idea that I will attempt to refute eventually.
In fact discussing the symbol of the whale is at present my main interest in discussing Moby-Dick; but I feel that there are some preliminary issues that should be dealt with first, including, and please forgive me, the belabored recent theme of political correctness. I don’t want the discussion of the great mystical symbol to be sullied by postmodern politics, so I quarantine the latter here in a more comprehensive, introductory discussion of the novel.
Huckleberry Finn has already been censored, bowdlerized, and/or banned in school systems across the United States, primarily because it is racist—exemplified most obviously by one of the main characters being called Nigger Jim. Jim is a good person, and a deeply religious one, and his character was based on a black slave that Twain particularly liked and respected when he was a boy; but he talks funny (for example he says “den” instead of “then”) and is a slave, plus of course he’s called a nigger. Like just about any fiction written before the late 20th century, it’s sexist, homophobic, and transphobic too, but we needn’t get into that, because I’d rather discuss Moby-Dick.
Melville’s great novel also could be called racist (and sexist, and homophobic, and possibly Islamophobic as well), despite the fact that it contains zero use of the word “nigger.” Actually, at the time Moby-Dick was first published, it was extraordinarily, outrageously non-racist, with contemporary critics condemning Melville’s repeated suggestions that non-European non-Christians can even be superior in certain ways. In the novel, the protagonist Ishmael’s dearest friend aboard the whaling ship Pequod is Queequeg, a South Sea Island cannibal with his teeth filed into points, who exhibits more fearlessness, more “Christian charity,” and more of a sense of honor than most or all of his white companions. All three of the black secondary characters—the huge African harpooneer Daggoo, the cabin boy Pip, and the old cook Fleece—are described with obvious respect and sympathy as human beings, but Fleece talks with pretty much the same substandard English as Jim (one line in his classic Sermon to the Sharks is, “You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned”), and of course all the higher officers aboard the ship are patriarchal white men. There are almost no female characters at all, which may be viewed as sexist, and homosexuals and shemales are not mentioned at all, which nowadays may be condemned as politically incorrect heteronormative propaganda. So for all I know Moby-Dick also, the other of the alleged two greatest American novels, may be disapproved reading in American academic institutions.
One fairly obsolete way in which the novel is politically incorrect is the fact that to some degree it glorifies the hunting and killing of whales. Commercial whaling has pretty much gone the way of chariot-making, so nowadays people probably don’t take so much offense to Ishmael’s livelihood as they would have in the 1980’s. But in defense of 1840’s-era Nantucket whalers, most of them were still sincerely of the opinion that whales are just a kind of really big fish, and they had little idea of ecology, so they didn’t realize that whaling could be considered an ethically criminal act. Also, in those days whalers did not shoot whales with deck-mounted cannon firing explosive-tipped harpoons; rather, men in wooden sailing ships would lower rowboats and chase whales to kill them with hand-thrown steel harpoons and hand-held spears; and the sperm whale, being the world’s largest known predator, would sometimes fight back, causing the sperm whale fishery to be a particularly dangerous one. Many whalers were killed by enraged bull sperm whales fighting for their lives. So at least the whales had a fighting chance. I’ve considered that traditional Spanish bullfights also at least give the bull some chance at winning, which is a better deal, methinks, than simply being trucked to a slaughterhouse.
Moby-Dick is definitely a guy book. No woman could ever, ever have written it. Ever. There were no females on board the Pequod; and considering the rough and very dangerous nature of sperm whale hunting in the mid 19th century, I would guess that there were extremely few, possibly zero, female American sperm whale hunters in those days. In fact the book is such a guy book that it may be quite archaic, like the Iliad or Beowulf, since it still harbors a primeval sentiment of masculine heroism (although much tempered and refined with philosophy and deep feeling), with few civilized men nowadays inclined to live such an outrageously daring lifestyle. They wouldn’t have much chance to live like this even if they wanted to, unless maybe they want to be elite military commandos, or maniacs who hunt grizzly bears with bows and arrows.
For those of you unfamiliar with the book, I suppose I should summarize the plot a little. A man calling himself Ishmael, our narrator, feels a restlessness for the sea and a calling to go on a whaling voyage. So he signs up to be an able-bodied crewman aboard the Nantucket whaler Pequod. Strangely, the captain of the ship remains in seclusion until after the voyage begins, so Ishmael knows little of him, except that one of the ship’s owners referred to Captain Ahab as a great-souled, godlike, yet troubled and gloomy man. It turns out that on his previous voyage Ahab and his crew had tried to kill a huge white sperm whale called Moby Dick. The whale destroyed the pursuing whale boats, so Ahab, much too proud and maniacal to admit defeat, actually jumped into the water with a small knife, in a futile effort to kill the creature. At this point Moby Dick sheared off one of Ahab’s legs with its twenty-foot-long, twisted, scythe-shaped lower jaw. All this happened during the cruise prior to the one on which Ishmael signed up.
Having his leg bitten off, and being defeated and humbled in such a way (with the loss of his leg suggesting a kind of emasculation), causes the extremely proud Ahab to essentially go insane. He becomes a monomaniac completely obsessed with one thing: gaining total revenge on the white whale (despite the obvious fact that he was trying to kill it when it bit his leg off). So Ishmael’s whaling cruise becomes highjacked by its own captain’s mania as the ship sails the oceans of the world to seek and do battle with Moby Dick, implied to be the biggest, baddest whale in the whole world. They eventually find him in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, and do battle with him there, and the white whale, the legendary, biblical Leviathan, in accordance with his mysterious nature, fights back.
The writing of the story was inspired, evidently, mainly by three things. First, Melville himself, although descended from an aristocratic old Dutch family in New York, had the wanderlust as a young man and actually served as a harpooneer on a sperm whaling voyage around the year 1840. This accounts for his very detailed accounts of how a whaling voyage is conducted. Also, the story was partly inspired by the final, fateful cruise of the American whaling vessel Essex, which was rammed and sunk by an infuriated bull sperm whale in the South Pacific in 1820, resulting in the deaths of most of the crew. Also it was inspired by the historical fact of an albino sperm whale called Mocha Dick which was usually encountered off the coast of southern Chile, and which had a reputation for being a dangerous fighter, having learned successful tactics in its combats with rowboats filled with humans trying to kill it. (A sperm whale, after all, has the largest brain of any animal on earth, including humans, so it is presumably a relatively intelligent being.) Before Mocha Dick was finally slain in 1838 he was alleged to have survived at least one hundred attempts on his life, sometimes involving him turning upon and smashing the boats which pursued him. He was finally killed while trying to defend a wounded female sperm whale. Old Mocha Dick reminds me a little of the Apache hero Geronimo: both of them fought a righteous fight, even though it was doomed to ultimate failure.
The reason why men risked their lives to hunt these beings is that the sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus, has a body suffused with very high quality oil. The bulbous “case” of a sperm whale’s head alone may contain 500 gallons of the stuff, with the blubber, when rendered, yielding very much more. The whale apparently uses a head full of fine oil in part as a lens for focusing sound, as it is the loudest animal in the world, using blasts of noise for echolocation and to stun or even kill its prey, which in adult males is almost exclusively the deep-sea giant squid. Eventually sperm oil was rendered obsolete by petroleum; which, although of lower quality as a lubricant at the time than high-grade spermaceti, was much more plentiful in the world, and less dangerous and expensive to harvest. But on with the book.
The story is overflowing with symbols, and evokes layer upon layer of meaning. At some levels it is an allegory, and at one level in particular an apocalypse, describing how a kind of great-spirited genius/antichrist (Ahab), overflowing with heroic yet demonic and destructive pride, leads the whole world (the Pequod with its international crew) to its destruction. In this apocalyptic respect it is similar to Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It also resembles the legend of Dr. Faustus, who sells his soul to the diabolical Mephistopheles (symbolized by the Parsi oracle and harpooneer Fedallah) to obtain his heart’s desire. It also reflects a few elements of King Lear. Also there are numerous references to the biblical Book of Jonah. But probably the one character in all of literature that Ahab is most compared to is the fallen angel Lucifer, once God’s right-hand man, in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The unfolding story itself is more about Ahab than Ishmael, as the obsessional old sea captain gradually realizes that he is driven by Destiny or the fate of his own character to attempt what is hopelessly impossible, to defy the highest, irresistible power just for the sake of asserting his own dignity, or at least his own rejection of a reality, an order of things, that he has come to hate as unjust and the cause of everything bad in his life.
One other character, aside from Ishmael, Ahab, and the Whale Itself, plays a major, central role in the story, and that is the first officer of the Pequod, Mr. Starbuck. As I’ve already mentioned, there are no women on the ship, and almost none in the entire story; and largely because of this, Starbuck, more than anyone else, displays the feminine aspect, the feminine spirit, of humanity. He is brave, and has slain many whales with his own lance, yet he is sensitive, quiet, and devoutly religious. He leaves home for years at a time to pursue his profession, but he deeply misses his wife and son the whole time, and prays for them. He is the only person on the ship who dares, or has the wisdom, to oppose the Captain in his quest to kill Moby Dick. He repeatedly tries to talk him out of it, and on one occasion even seriously considers murdering him for the good of everyone else…yet he is too gentle, too passive, to actually save the world. He also is restrained by a sense of duty, and he dutifully obeys his commanding officer even though he knows him to be wrong, and possibly even evil. In a way, I think, he symbolizes Ahab’s conscience, which is a good conscience, yet which is insufficiently robust and forceful to restrain Ahab from his quest for vengeance and impious self-justification. A whole book could probably be written just on Starbuck. Probably it’s already been written.
There is so much to investigate, and so much to remark upon in Moby-Dick. Some symbols are so enigmatic that one wonders if Melville himself really could articulate what he was trying to convey by them. Consider the seaman Bulkington, for example. He is a tall, well-built, good-looking, and quiet man who is a great favorite among his shipmates. He returns to Nantucket after a years-long whaling voyage, and almost immediately signs onto the crew of the Pequod for another years-long voyage. Yet almost as soon as the Pequod leaves port he apparently falls overboard or jumps overboard and is never seen again. Why? Mysteries lurk throughout the story.
But the biggest, baddest symbol of them all is the Whale Himself, Moby Dick. And with all due respect to Mr. Van Vactor, I will explain what I think he (the white whale, not Mr. Van Vactor) stands for. That is the purpose of the next installment.
APPENDIX: DAGGOO AND THE QUESTION OF RACISM
Following is Melville/Ishmael’s introduction to Daggoo, one of the men of African ancestry aboard the Pequod. Judge for yourself whether this account could be called racist or anti-black (and remember that this description was published in 1851, a time when slavery was still legal in the southern USA).
Third among the harpooneers was Daggoo, a gigantic, coal-black negro-savage, with a lion-like tread—an Ahasuerus [i.e., Xerxes] to behold. Suspended from his ears were two golden hoops, so large that the sailors called them ring-bolts, and would talk of securing the top-sail halyards to them. In his youth Daggoo had voluntarily shipped on board of a whaler, lying in a lonely bay on his native coast. And never having been anywhere in the world but in Africa, Nantucket, and the pagan harbors most frequented by whalemen; and having now led for many years the bold life of the fishery in the ships of owners uncommonly heedful of what manner of men they shipped; Daggoo retained all his barbaric virtues, and erect as a giraffe, moved about the decks in all the pomp of six feet five in his socks. There was a corporeal humility in looking up at him; and a white man standing before him seemed a white flag come to beg truce of a fortress. Curious to tell, this imperial negro, Ahasuerus Daggoo, was the Squire of little Flask [the third mate], who looked like a chess-man beside him.
Human equality without sameness: an ideal that some modern ideologues seem incapable of comprehending.