Books That Have Made a Difference: Moby-Dick

by Derrick G. Jeter

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; . . . then, I account it high time to get to the sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.” [1]

With these opening lines, Herman Melville introduces us to Ishmael, the narrator of his masterwork, Moby-Dick, and lays before the reader the disturbing question of suicide. Perhaps that’s what it was like to go a-whaling—a sort of self-death by giving up your life for three or four years where your home and your country was a small ship, and the only people on the face of the earth were the twenty or thirty men who shared that small floating nation.

Death is a dominate theme in Melville’s whaling adventure, just as it was a dominate reality on board a whaling vessel. Whales died because they were rich in oil; whalers died because the oil could not be gotten without risk. It was not suicide that drove these men to ply their trade on seas uninhabitable for man, but rather the slippery liquid gold rendered from the whale’s blubber. And no one has captured, in all its brutality, the dangers and the death of whaling with such gripping imagination like Melville.

Herman Melville knew of what he wrote. His family had deep ties to the American founding—one of this grandfathers, Thomas Melvill (the “e” was added later by Herman’s mother) took part in the Boston Tea Party, and his other grandfather, Peter Gansevoort, served as a general during the American Revolution. But the shine wore off, if not patriotically, at least economically for Melville and his immediate family. Their importing business when bankrupt in 1830, and the family moved to Albany, New York. Two years later, his father died a madman and Melville and his brother dropped out of school to support the family.

Melville first went to sea as a cabin boy, aboard a ship bound for Liverpool, England. Eventually, he became a school teacher, but dissatisfied with that life he left Albany and signed on as a whaler on board the Acushnet. Sailing from New Bedford, Massachusetts, on January 1, 1841, the Acushnet made her way around Cape Horn on her way to the whaling grounds of the Pacific Ocean. It was in the open ocean of the Pacific that Melville had a chance encounter with another New England whaling vessel that would become the seedbed for his story, Moby-Dick.

Twenty years before, another whaling ship from Massachusetts, the Essex, was sunk in the Pacific. She was laid low by a sperm whale, which had rammed her bow, splitting a seam in her hull. Some twenty men were set adrift upon the vast ocean—3,000 miles from the South American coast. After more than 90 days the men were rescued by other whaling ship, but not all. Some men succumbed to starvation and dehydration and where either cast to the deep or consumed by their shipmates. While others were asked to sacrifice their lives and so became nourishment for their friends. The first mate of the Essex was Owen Chase, who later wrote a narrative of their frightful journey on the Pacific.

This was the story Melville heard from the 16 year old son of Owen Chase on that fateful day when two whaling ships met in the middle of the vast Pacific.

Though Melville published other novels before Moby-Dick, most notable Typee and Omoo—based upon his adventures in the Marquesas Islands and in Hawaii—the novel he poured his soul into was the story of the great White Whale. Melville intended to write a romantic adventure, in the vain of Typee and Omoo, but the book became dark and brooding—perhaps because of the influence of his friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose many novels are woven with melancholy threads. Or perhaps Moby-Dick is so mournful because of the subject matter itself. In any case, Melville’s novel of the whale, with its themes of light and dark, good and evil, righteousness and sin, threw a pall over Melville’s writing career. At the time, Moby-Dick was a dismal failure and sunk any dreams Melville had of making a living as a novelist. He died in obscurity on September 28, 1891, after a 19 year career as a New York City customs inspector.

The novel itself only gained attention after an unfinished novella, Billy Budd, Sailor, was posthumously published in 1924. Critics then began to hail Moby-Dick as revolutionary. Melville’s descriptions are intricate and imaginative. And his prose varies from reflections on whales and whaling, to insight on the human character, to a romping good adventure. He creates the story’s theme by lacing together western literature and history with biblical religion, mythology, philosophy, and science. Almost one half of the novel is devoted to sections which don’t advance the plot—lengthy passages on different types of whales and whaling techniques, and discussions on the color white and the importance of the crotch—the forked support which holds the harpoons in the whale boat.

Moby-Dick is one of the most intriguing and complex pieces in the American canon of literature. And like a whale, it is notoriously difficult to get your arms around. As one critic put it:

The fateful voyage of the Pequod epitomizes many themes—the perilous destiny of America in the world; Western civilization at a turning point in history; the mind encountering nature and alien peoples; the soul’s quest for redemption while caught in the downward pull of the world; the demise of the person of ego and the rise of a new sensibility. Above all, in the midst of the torrent of destruction wrought by the enmity between the human will and the natural order, Moby Dick presents an epic vision of a cosmos in harmony with itself.” [2]

The story is set onboard the whaling ship Pequod. Thirty men inhabit that little floating nation; men representing diverse races, languages, and tribes—just like the men who inhabited the thirty states of the United States in 1850 when Melville penned the novel. The crew of the Pequod is made up of Queequeg, a South Seas islander and cannibal who serves as a harpooner; Tashtego, a native American Indian and harpooner; and Dagoo, an African harpooner. The Pequod and her crew sail under the watchful eyes of three mates: Starbuck, the Quaker first mate; Subb, the second mate, who always wears a smile and and clinches a pipe between his teeth; and Flask, the third mate, who hunts whales with a vengeance, as if they had insulted. Ishmael—our narrator—like his namesake of old was an outcast from society, at least he feels so in his soul, and will become a literal outcast in the novel. And then there is Ahab, the peg-legged and scared captain.

Captain Ahab, like his biblical forefather, did wicked in the sight of the Lord. But a more interesting comparison is not with Israel’s wicked king, but with Israel’s disobedient and reluctant prophet, Jonah (who plays a significant role at the beginning of the book). Both stories involve the sea and a very large fish. Both Ahab and Jonah are self-absorbed and obsessed with accomplishing a goal for their own selfish ends. Both hold human life cheaply. Both are angry. And both are seeking revenge. Ahab mercilessly pursues the White Whale, not because, as he says, he hates the whale for taking his leg but because he hates the thing behind the whale—God. And though Jonah originally intended to run away, he mercilessly pursues the people of Ninevah for their worship of false gods. Finally, both are brought to account for their sins. One is killed by the whale and the other is saved by a whale.

In the end, one man’s madness, through the awful grace of God, saved a large nation entire. While another man’s madness, through the awful wrath of nature, doomed a small nation entire—save one.

“Owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was with the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.” [3]

[1] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or The Whale, reprint (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1993), 1.

[2] Bainard Cowan, “Herman Melville: Moby Dick,” in Invitation to the Classics: A Guide to Books You’ve Always Wanted to Read, eds. Louise Cowan and Os Guinness (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 245.

[3] Melville, Moby-Dick, 479.