Extract from an article originally published by Wordsworth Editions…
The Whale (renamed Moby-Dick at the last minute) was birthed after an 18-month labour including a substantial rewrite that saw Melville sailing so close to the wind that he was still editing proofs when the novel went to print in the autumn of 1851. Although the original plan had been another ‘straightforward’ sea story about a belligerent captain and his doomed ship, Moby-Dick’s composition is seeped in Melville’s reading at the time, a heady mix of Shakespeare and Coleridge, Carlyle, Rousseau, the Bible, Owen Chase’s memoir of the Essex,and Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839), as well as his lengthy dialogues with Hawthorne. What came out of Melville in those 18 months was probably the most remarkable book of not just the 19th but any century. His design blends the forms of the Homeric epic and the Shakespearean tragedy with modernist and postmodernist masterpieces yet to be written – like Joyce’s Ulysses and Pynchon’s Gravitys Rainbow – with American history, maritime lore, the philosophies of religion, phenomenology, epistemology, and ontology. It is, as D.H. Lawrence wrote of it in his Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), ‘one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world’.
At the heart of the novel, the sea story is still there, as demonstrated by Ray Bradbury’s script for John Huston’s film adaptation of 1956 starring Gregory Peck as the tortured and monomaniacal Captain Ahab. Bradbury and Huston retain some of the novel’s symbolism through action and dialogue, but the focus is on Melville’s through-line, his main plotline: Ahab versus whale; whale wins. (This was not dissimilar to Melville’s first complete draft, which was finished in under a year and then substantially rewritten, taking a much more epic turn in the truly Classical sense.) This is a cracking yarn in its own right, but in the original novel Melville loads this tale of obsessive revenge with multiple layers of metaphysical meaning. Like Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1836), which he was reading at the time, Moby-Dick was to be a romantic vision of the cult of the individual, with Miltonic/Satanic undertones, simultaneously fact and fiction, serious and satiric, and both speculative and historical. At the same time, Melville was also moving beyond the European and American Romantic traditions towards what the academic Harold Beaver has called ‘a drama of an individual human soul’; with his fictional double Ismael pared back to his essence during an intense period of crisis, beyond the concerns of nationality, race, religion, social class, and profession, crossing, he wrote to Hawthorne, ‘the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag – that is to say, the Ego.’ The novel is dedicated to Hawthorne, ‘In token of my admiration for his genius.’
And, like Ismael – the narrator but arguably not the protagonist (he’s rather Nick Carraway to Ahab’s Gatsby) – the structure of the novel also goes on a long and complex journey. Alongside rich and evocative narrative prose, the text comprises sermons, prophecies, dreams, songs – notably the sea shanty ‘Farewell and adieu to you, Fair Spanish ladies’, the Ahab-like shark hunter Quint’s theme in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws – poetry, multiple epigraphs (‘Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian’), catalogues, travelogues, quotations, mythology, and wildly contradictory symbolism. There are also long digressive reflections, for example, Ismael’s meditation ‘On the whiteness of the whale’ (Chapter 42) which explores the absence of colour in natural objects, both beautiful and terrible. There are also chapters presented like scenes from a play, with stage directions and dialogue, and Shakespearean soliloquies and asides. Some of Ahab’s dialogue, in fact, can be rearranged as blank verse:
By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world,
Like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike.
And all the time, lo! that smiling sky,
And this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore!
Who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish?
Where do murderers go, man!
Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?
Then there’s the elaborate cetology, an encyclopaedic commentary on the leviathans of the deep as well as the history and practice of whaling. (There’s even a chapter – ‘The Cassock’ – that deals solely with whale penises that is so dense that the English censors missed it!) Ishmael also repeatedly refers to the act of writing the book itself: ‘But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught.’ Every chapter is a cypher, and Ismael is the cryptographer who doesn’t know the code. Such a level of literary experimentation makes for a reading experience that is as exhilarating as the core story itself.
‘Ismael’, not that we know if this is his real name or a clever pseudonym, and who may or may not be another semi-autobiographical portrait of the author, is an experienced sailor (though not a whaler), who periodically goes to sea to fend off bouts of melancholia:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to 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.
Ismael’s attitude to suicide seems to anticipate Camus in Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942), which famously begins: ‘Il n’y a qu’un problème philosophique vraiment sérieux: c’est le suicide.’(‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.’) For Camus, the ‘philosophy of the absurd’ lies in the juxtaposition between the fundamental human need to attribute meaning to life and the ‘unreasonable silence’ of the universe in reply. He finally arrives at the position that this existential realisation does not require suicide but ‘révolte’. For Ishmael, the ‘cure’ for depression, emptiness and pointless inner searching is the sea, upon which a man can truly come to know himself. For his textual counterpart, Ahab, it is the revolt against all that there is: ‘Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.’
The Ismael of Genesis, the first son of Abraham, has come to symbolise orphans, exiles, and social outcasts, a connection Melville makes explicit in the novel’s epilogue. Whereas his biblical namesake is banished to ‘the wilderness of Beer-sheba’, Melville’s Ishmael wanders in ‘the wilderness of water’. In Genesis, Ismael’s mother, the handmaiden Hagar, was visited by the Angel of the Lord who told her to name her unborn son Yishma’el, which means ‘God shall hear’. Ismael was later saved from dying in the desert by a miracle, just as Melville’s Ismael survives shipwreck ‘by a margin so narrow as to seem miraculous’.
In the Bible, the desert or wilderness is a common setting for a vision. But whether God hears, or Ismael is granted revelation is ultimately unclear. In a modernist, Joycean sense, there’s probably an argument to be made that the entire narrative is one continuous epiphany, but what all this may ultimately mean has been keeping academics busy since the Melville revival of the 1920s. Ismael, meanwhile, seems to be looking for insights rather than some grand unifying narrative, and, unlike the intransigent Ahab, prefers to keep an open mind. While Ahab’s worldview is fixed and rigid, Ishmael’s is much more expedient, changing as knowledge and experience is gathered and reflected upon, leading to fresh perspectives and realisations, ‘for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard’. This also makes Ismael appealingly free of many of the prejudices of the day, most notably racism and the myth of American exceptionalism. On his first awkward meeting with the quintessential ‘noble savage’ Queequeg in the Spouter Inn, who will become his best friend onboard the Pequod (named, incidentally after the first Native American tribe to be exterminated by white settlers), Ismael cheerily reflects: ‘Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.’
This is an extract from two related pieces on Herman Melville and Moby Dick. To read the complete essays, please visit the Wordsworth Blog: