The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Moby-Dick was written by Herman Melville. Melville (1819-1891) was an American novelist best-known in his lifetime for his nautical adventures. Now he is best-known for the titanic Moby-Dick, a competitor (and favorite) for the title of The Great American Novel.
Ishmael is an American schoolmaster who feels the need to go to sea to rid himself of the November of his soul. On arriving in New Bedford, he finds the only bed available to be shared by a tattooed Polynesian harpooner, Queequeg. After an initial fright, Ishmael discovers that Queequeg is actually a nice guy, and the two become intimate friends and decide to ship out together. They sign on to the Pequod, despite warnings against doing so and despite not meeting the captain, Ahab. Eventually they do see him–he has a wooden leg, having lost his flesh one to the cursed white whale, Moby-Dick, and Ahab is furthermore scarred on one side of his face.
Eventually Ahab summons the crew and tells them that the purpose of the voyage is to hunt down and kill Moby-Dick, who is Ahab’s nemesis. Through personal magnetism, and despite the misgivings of first mate Starbuck, Ahab leads the crew to agree to focus especially on Moby-Dick rather than on hunting sperm whales in general. From then on, whenever the Pequod runs into another ship, Ahab always asks that ship’s captain if he has any news of Moby-Dick. (They also kill some sperm whales and drain them of their sperm, but the goal of the voyage is always to hunt down Moby-Dick). The answer is usually negative, but when they reach the Indian Ocean they meet a ship whose captain lost his arm to the white whale, and who tells Ahab where he encountered Moby-Dick. Ahab takes off after the whale and pursues it, ignoring various bad omens and the strange prophecies of one of his crew. Eventually they spot Moby-Dick, and for three days the chase is on. Despite the crew landing three harpoons in him, Moby-Dick keeps shattering the whaling boats. On the third day of the chase, Moby-Dick goes after the Pequod itself and sinks it. Ahab is caught in the rope of one of his own harpoons and dragged into the sea, the crew of the Pequod drowns, and Ishmael is the only survivor.
Moby-Dick is a great novel—according to some critics, the greatest novel that America has yet produced. It wasn’t always seen that way, however. Moby Dick was a critical and popular failure upon initial publication, and it wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s, when the Melville Revival began, that Moby-Dick gained its due reputation, which it has retained ever since. The average student assigned to read Moby-Dick may question this reputation, but it is an accurate one.
Part of the problem with appreciating Moby-Dick is that it isn’t just one thing, as a novel. Some of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century–Bleak House, George Eliot’s Middlemarch–can be easily described in one phrase, as a “mystery” or “romance.” But Moby-Dick is not one thing, it is many, and describing it as a “whaling novel” is to do it a grave injustice. Moby-Dick is a novel of many parts: part sea story, part picaresque, part psychological novel, part epic quest, part romance (in the old sense, meaning a heroic adventure story), part tragic drama, part travel book, part essay on cetology (the study of whales)–Moby-Dick is many things at once, and is far too complicated to be easily summarized as the other great Victorian novels are.
A large part of its complexity is due to the layers of meaning and symbolism Melville incorporated into the book. As Kenneth Atchity puts it,
Many of those themes are characteristic of American Romanticism: the “isolated self” and the pain of self-discovery, the insufficiency of conventional practical knowledge in the face of the “power of blackness,” the demoniac center to the world, the confrontation of evil and innocence, the fundamental imperfection of humans, Faustian heroism, the search for the ultimate truth, the inadequacy of human perception.1
And the symbolism is rich and constant. Nearly everything in the novel has at least one meaning beyond its surface, from Ishmael’s famous opening sentence, “Call me Ishmael,” to the very ending, when Ishmael is found floating on Queequeg’s buoyant coffin. An entire industry has developed around Melville and Moby-Dick, so that nearly any interpretation of the novel, from Marxist to New Historical to postmodernist, can be found.
Moby-Dick is, in other words, an incredibly rich novel, and moreover was deliberately written so by Melville. Some of the novels covered in this work–Kim, Les Miserables, The Moonstone–were written because the author wanted to be paid, and whatever symbolism and deeper meaning there is to be found in these novels is coincidental or unintentional. But Moby-Dick is different. Melville intended it to be a complex masterpiece from the beginning.
In truth, no one essay or book entry can encompass the novel. Moby-Dick is many things—anything a reader or critic wants it to be:
Moby-Dick is an epic, as Kenneth Atchity points out, “replete with the characteristic elements of that genre,”2 from the “piling up of classical, biblical, historical allusions to provide innumerable parallels and tangents that have the effect of universalizing the scope of the action”3 to the “alienated, sulking hero”4 to the novel’s “didactic purpose–to inspire the reader to become an epic hero.”5
Moby-Dick is, as Chris O. Cook points out, “protean formalism as American allegory—the people comprised of all peoples, flowing into the government improving upon all others. It was, after all, the avowed intention of Melville's New York circle to create a conspicuously American literature.”6
Laurie A. Sterling writes, “Money, finance, buying, and selling permeate Moby-Dick. The novel makes it quite clear that whaling is an industry and that whales are products with great commercial value. How might you read Moby-Dick as a commentary on economics and the process of commodification?”7
Daniel Burt writes, “Ishmael's attempt to make sense of his experiences and the speculative testing of everything he encounters give the novel its peculiarly modern tone of indeterminacy as open-ended questions of free will and determinism, the source of human identity, purpose, and destiny, and what with any certainty can be known are debated,”8 and “with his massive, destructive ego, ‘a crucifixion in his face,’ and a tendency toward iambic pentameter, Ahab is one of fiction's most oversized, suggestive characters, derived from Attic and Shakespearean tragedy and the brooding, romantic questers of Byron and Shelley.”9
There are Gothic elements, from the flashing eyes of Captain Ahab to the “pervading Gothic unspeakability the whale suggests”10 to their ascendance when, as Kris Lackey writes, “Melville wishes to develop sympathy for a character's gloomy or paranoid cast of thought."11 There are the aforementioned Romantic themes. There are a continuing series of homoerotic moments, most especially during the early sections of the novel, with Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship. There is “presentational duality,” as Chris Cook writes, “Ishmael is and is not the narrator–Moby-Dick (the book) as both chronicle and allegory; Moby-Dick (the whale) as both meaning and nothingness; and Captain Ahab as both hero and villain are only a few central ones.”12
These are just a few of the aspects and interpretations of Moby-Dick, which gives you an indication of how complex the novel is and how open to interpretation it is, and what a rich read it is.
There is more to the novel than symbolism and themes, of course. Relatively speaking, there’s not a lot of plot. Melville does love his digressions. But Melville is so skilled at altering his narrative voice, going from circumlocutious and long-winded to bombastic to wry to written in dialect to parodic, that the digressions become of interest to the reader, in addition to the main plot. Those readers who skim the digressions can be forgiven for doing so, but miss out on some interesting writing. Most interesting will be Ahab’s monologues, which contain some great quotes.
Moby-Dick is a masterpiece, one of the greatest novels in the English language. Its complexity is such that no one critic or criticism can encompass it. In Harold Bloom’s words, “it remains the darker half of our national epic, complementing Leaves of Grass and Huckleberry Finn, works of more balance certainly, but they do not surpass or eclipse Melville’s version of darkness visible.”13
Print: Hermann Melville, Moby-Dick: or, the Whale. New York: Modern Library, 1992.
For Further Research:
David Oakey Dowling, Chasing the White Whale: the Moby-Dick Marathon, or, what Melville means today. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa, 2010.
Nathaniel Philbrick, Why Read Moby-Dick? New York: Viking Adult, 2011
1 Kenneth Atchity, “Moby Dick,” in Frank Magill, ed., Masterplots, Revised Edition (New York: Salem Press, 1949), 3995.
2 Atchity, “Moby Dick,” 3996.
3 Atchity, “Moby Dick,” 3996.
4 Atchity, “Moby Dick,” 3996.
5 Atchity, “Moby Dick,” 3996.
6 Chris O. Cook, “Moby Dick,” in Abby H.P. Werlock, ed., The Facts on File Companion to the American Novel (New York: Facts on File, 2015), 781.
7 Laurie A. Sterling, Bloom’s How to Write About Herman Melville (New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2009), 114.
8 Daniel Burt, The Novel 100: A Ranking of the 100 Most Influential Novels of All Time (New York: Checkmark Books, 2010), 27.
9 Burt, The Novel 100, 27.
10 Cook, “Moby Dick,” 782.
11 Kris Lackey, “‘More Spiritual Tenors’: The Bible and Gothic Imagination in ‘Moby-Dick,’” South Atlantic Review 52, no. 2 (May, 1987): 39.
12 Cook, “Moby-Dick,” 781.
13 Harold Bloom, “Introduction,” in Harold Bloom, ed., Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007), 6.