Herman Melville
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

I have just been floored by Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. It is a novel wrought of elemental stuff with a style honed with so much more craft than ever I had expected. It’s not a what-happens-next page-turner; that’s already known. I felt that my progress through the book - not unlike Ahab’s progress along the bulwarks to his pivot-hole - was illuminated with ‘elbowed lances of fire’. It is a literary masterpiece invested with incalculable greatness, punctuated by bolts of rhetorical lightning. But - and here is the catch - whaling and the horrors mankind visits upon whales makes parts of Moby-Dick tough-going and will keep a good number of otherwise keen readers away.

Melville does not spare us the gruesome details. What more terrible witness could there be to man’s slaughter in the natural world than by seeing nineteenth century whaling close-up? We see Melville’s harpooners hurling their lances. We see whales bleed and choke to death. We voyage alongside the Pequod’s own benighted crew but our remission as readers is that we remain on dry land, unslaughtered, free to reflect on the savagery - and significance - of it all.

Moby-Dick is not a tract on whales and whaling, though what you learn from it will be difficult to unlearn. It is first and foremost a novel, arguably a ‘pre-modernist’ one (written, yes, in 1851), in that Melville plots its course through digressions and departures from the narrative. It is part encyclopaedia, part reference book and part history text. Moby-Dick’s plot’s outline is already known: the Pequod is sailed to its watery grave through the monomaniacal desire for revenge by its captain, the ‘dismasted’ Ahab, looking ‘like a man cut away from the stake’, bent on pursuing the sperm whale Moby Dick, victim to his own ‘fatal pride’. We know in advance that all aboard but Ishmael will perish. There are few twists and turns to intervene between the ship’s departure from Nantucket and its inevitable destruction. The bulking out of that plain narrative with Melville’s endless inventiveness transforms the novel into a truly great work of literature. Moby-Dick is a dystopian quest, a crusade of vaulting folly, and an abuse of power in which we may find our own contemporary parables, be they bosses or presidents.

The narrator: Ishmael or Melville?

Herman Melville, painted by Asa Weston Twitchell, 1846-1847
Herman Melville,
painted by Asa Weston Twitchell,

Many commentators consider that Ishmael is Herman Melville’s alter-ego, that he is a character device through whom Melville’s voice can be heard and that we are not supposed to consider him as a youngish man in his own right. How else can this voice come from a whaler but speak of the classics, on the first page cite the philosopher Cato, and continue unabated with a torrent of learned references, from Pythagoras to Seneca, Plato to Spinoza, Locke and Kant?

Key to this conundrum is that Melville has Ishmael foresee things - the Pequod’s eventual fate included - as only an author can. The narrative perspective is an all-seeing one which speaks of experiences that are beyond those that the young Ishmael could claim for himself. Yet we allow Ishmael a breadth of worldly wisdom and settle to his omniscient narration, comfortably colluding with Melville over this blurring of identities.

The famous and enigmatic “Call me Ishmael” with which the novel opens could thus be a direct call from Melville for us to think of him as Ishmael. And we do. It’s a masterly device, thrown at us from the epic’s very start. We pass over it mildly puzzled, semi-curious, and our absorption of its significance takes some while to sink in, by which time we are hooked on this conflation of a sage in the body of a young whaler. It’s a stroke of genius that shifts the locus of the writer’s voice and places it somewhere between the author’s writing desk and the deck on which Ishmael himself stands. It has a presence that is both physically invested in the story and eminently detached from it. That opening sentence is a conversational invitation that puts us at our ease and yet unsettles us: ‘if you aren’t Ishmael, who are you?’ It also positions us to be attuned to multiple meanings, not the least of which is that by the end we know less about Ishmael than about everyone else. The novel is awash with such ambiguities.

Whales in general and the White Whale in particular

Melville’s digressive interlacing of the narrative about the Pequod with numerous chapters on whales and whaling gives us an endlessly unfolding compendium of cetacean history and natural history. The whaling industry’s contribution to industrial and domestic life in the mid-1800s is set out. Detail is anatomical - literally. The book’s 135 chapters are bite-sized and any of them can be digested at a single read. The majority stand outside the narrative and serve as accompanying texts, and this interleaving of the documentary among the fictional deepens the significance of the novel’s fateful path. The more Melville tells us about whales in general, the more tragic their slaughter becomes, the more monstrous the pursuit of Moby Dick appears. As Melville’s investment in our education about whales and whaling broadens, our role as advocate of these creatures deepens.

Peche Du Cachalot coloured aquatint by Ambroise Louis Garneray and Frederic Martens, 1834
Peche Du Cachalot coloured aquatint by Ambroise Louis Garneray and Frederic Martens, 1834.
Melville wrote (chapter 56): “But, taken for all in all, by far the finest, though in some details not the most correct, presentations of whales and whaling scenes to be anywhere found, are two large French engravings, well executed, and taken from paintings by one Garnery. Respectively, they represent attacks on the Sperm and Right Whale.” This representation is of a sperm whale.

That Melville wants us to marvel, even revere whales in general can’t be in doubt. Much of the book is a paean of praise for their very nature. We are supposed to fall under their spell. How else can one explain this wonderful scene when a boat from the Pequod harpoons a large male sperm whale and gives chase right into the still heart of an armada of the creatures?

… however it may have been, these smaller whales—now and then visiting our becalmed boat from the margin of the lake—evinced a wondrous fearlessness and confidence, or else a still becharmed panic which it was impossible not to marvel at. Like household dogs they came snuffling round us, right up to our gunwales, and touching them; till it almost seemed that some spell had suddenly domesticated them. Queequeg patted their foreheads; Starbuck scratched their backs with his lance …
But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;—even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulfweed in their new-born sight. (Chapter 87)

In the midst of the chase, this soul-stilling interlude appears with such resonant force to profoundly unsettle the crew that witnessed it - and us, the readers, as the ultimate witnesses. It evokes in us what contemporary whale-watching might do, a perfectly human response to an encounter with a marvel of the natural world. Then on the next page it’s havoc once more as the whale to which they had attached a razor-sharp cutting spade reappears thrashing its flukes left and right: “So that tormented to madness, he was now churning through the water, violently flailing with his flexible tail, and tossing the keen spade about him, wounding and murdering his own comrades”. From carnage, to calm and back to carnage in the space of a short chapter.

As the whales being hunted in this episode are seen to thrash about in panic, Melville typically drops in “Best, therefore, withhold any amazement at the strangely gallied whales before us, for there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men” as though to remind us that Moby-Dick may appear to be about a whale but is at its heart about the madness of men.

For this madness is seeded by Melville in steady plantings throughout the text as Ahab’s view of Moby Dick’s malignity is repeated and magnified. Revenge for injuries inflicted before the narrative opens what motivates Ahab, so to the whale is ascribed an “unexampled, intelligent malignity” and “dread powers” more than “any other object in living nature”. The “elemental strife at sea” in which Ahab lost his leg to Moby Dick long tormented the captain so that when Ishmael first sees him on the quarter-deck he sees how the Pequod’s officers showed the “consciousness of being under a troubled master-eye”. “It was Moby Dick that dismasted me”, Ahab declares, “Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now … Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razed me”.

Melville’s ability to invest Ahab with hatred of the White Whale is a source of the book’s immense power. The short chapter 37, Sunset, has Ahab musing in just over 500 words that he “leaves a white and turbid wake” and wears a captain’s crown made not of gold but of iron, split so that the jagged edge galls him. He ruminates further:

Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more. This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne’er enjoy. Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned, most subtly and most malignantly! damned in the midst of Paradise! (Chapter 37)

Of Ahab’s officers and crew, he considers that “my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve” … “Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run.” Melville’s depiction of a soul stewing a soup of revenge is masterful.

It is not probable that this monomania in him took its instant rise at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment. Then, in darting at the monster, knife in hand, he had but given loose to a sudden, passionate, corporal animosity; and when he received the stroke that tore him, he probably but felt the agonizing bodily laceration, but nothing more. Yet, when by this collision forced to turn towards home, and for long months of days and weeks, Ahab and anguish lay stretched together in one hammock, rounding in mid winter that dreary, howling Patagonian Cape; then it was, that his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another; and so interfusing, made him mad. (Chapter 41)
Ah, God! what trances of torments does that man endure who is consumed with one unachieved revengeful desire. He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms. (Chapter 44)

“Hast seen the White Whale?” asked Ahab of each passing ship in the limitless ocean until he “found himself hard by the very latitude and longitude where his tormenting wound had been inflicted”. Melville added that at that moment “Ahab’s purpose … fixedly gleamed down upon the constant midnight of the gloomy crew”. All hope seemed to have been ground to dust “in the clamped mortar of Ahab’s iron soul”. Ahab’s recognition that “for this hunt, my malady becomes my most desired health”, sets the scene for the disaster that ensues. The passage to this point has been inexorable, ratcheting up in the narrative as if wound by some infernal capstan. Though much detail is devoted to explaining how whales had indeed been driven to their own intolerable madness in the foaming chase, the malignity in truth belonged to Ahab not to Moby Dick.

Melville’s seeking inspiration from the language of the King James Bible, Shakespeare and Milton

There’s a fascinating article by William Giraldi in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Writer as Reader: Melville and his Marginalia, in which Giraldi discusses the significance of marginalia made by Melville in a two-volume edition of John Milton that once belonged to Melville. This is a very close cousin to more recent digital text analysis conducted by Dr Christopher Ohge, and reported on by Katy Thompson, concerning the marginalia made by Melville in his copies of Shakespeare’s plays - Lear, Henry VIII and Macbeth were apparently a great influence. Giraldi’s main point was that no matter how much inspiration Melville may have drawn from these different sources, it is what in the end he made from them with his own voice that matters. Even so, as we read Melville ourselves it’s reasonable that we ask what resonances, if any, there are from any of his own readings of these sources.

The novel’s third word, “Ishmael”, pushed its first tap root through our language’s sediments down into the very text to the bible, alluding to the prophet Abraham’s son who was banished to wander the wilderness; that name now traditionally means an outcast. Melville fixes a succession of further allusions to the Old Testament as the narrative unfolds. There is Ahab (a wicked biblical king of Israel was by some considered to be excluded from bliss because of his sins, 1 Kings 16:30); Elijah in the chapter The Prophet (the stranger who gives obscure warnings to Ishmael and Queequeg about signing on with the Pequod’s crew, who warns Ahab in 1 Kings 17:1); and there is the thunderous sermon delivered from the pulpit-prow by Father Mapple about Jonah and the whale and how there is no forgiveness without repentance (Jonah 1:17 and Matthew 12:40). The “weeping” ship Rachel set on searching for their captain’s lost son but finds Ishmael, the Pequod’s only survivor, is counterpart to the “weeping Rachel” from Jeremiah 31:15. Readers of 1851 are likely to have understood these allusions. These backward-looking references frame the godless Pequod’s voyage in a mostly god-fearing society and amplify the story’s tragic significance. There’s more than half an echo of the 1620 Mayflower bound for a new world but dystopianly inverted.

On a different level, Melville’s adoption of stylistic elements of the King James Bible (1611) propels the story with greater force, lending elemental qualities to his epic as if it were an allegory straight out of the Old Testament. “Prominent Fijee … nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers”, “Where sayest thou Pip was, boy?”, “I durst not so much as dare”, are phrasings that could come straight from the bible. Pepperings of archaic forms abound: present tense verbs (‘goest’, ‘goeth’, ‘dost’, ‘hast’, ‘hath’, ‘saith’), auxiliaries (‘shalt’, ‘wilt’) and prepositions (‘thee’, ‘thou’, ‘ye’, ‘thy’ and ‘thine’) add to this elemental force of Melville’s text, each cadence acting like a tiny backward-pulling motor. That the narrative of Moby-Dick is so irreligious and godless, the passionate inclusion of these biblical archaisms in Melville’s poetic prose amplifies the book’s power n-fold.

Another tap root with which Melville anchored the style of Moby-Dick is one that pulled up inspiration from the language of Shakespeare. We know that Melville was an avid reader of Shakespeare. Indeed in 1848 he wrote that “if another Messiah ever comes he will be in Shakespeare’s person”. Unwary readers who know their Shakespeare will happen upon this infatuation in diverse places. The phrase “can hardly help suspecting them for mere sounds, full of Leviathanism, but signifying nothing” (from Chapter 32) calls to mind Macbeth’s Act 5 soliloquy, on hearing of his wife’s death, that life is but “a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing”. We cannot read Ahab’s thoughts in Chapter 114 that culminate in “But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally” without thinking back to the ‘seven ages of man’ meditation of Jaques in As You Like It. This is not plain borrowing from the bard: where Shakespeare’s one-way progression is towards toothless senility, in Melville it becomes a cyclical repetition of unlearning within the same life, Ahab’s living torment.

In the article, cited above, concerning recent computational analysis of Melville’s marginalia, the author quotes Melville from his Hawthorne and His Mosses:

But it is those deep far-away things in him; those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality;—these are the things that make Shakespeare, Shakespeare. Through the mouths of the dark characters of Hamlet, Timon, Lear, and Iago, he craftily says, or sometimes insinuates the things, which we feel to be so terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint of them.

This seems to go to the very heart of anything in Melville that we might think of as arising from Shakespeare. These ‘quick probings’ that Melville saw in Shakespeare seem to show themselves in Melville as his ‘elbowed lances of fire’.

Then we have blind John Milton, the genius poet who forged Paradise Lost (1667). To him, Melville lowered one more tap root, searching for inspiration and wisdom and in so doing pulled up Milton’s Satan, on whom he could model Ahab - and mould a text that is vividly primordial.

The first lengthy quote from Moby-Dick that I chose above relates how some of the Pequod’s crew gazed over the side of their small boat and saw a watery world suspended beneath them. I now realise that at times in my own reading of Moby-Dick, I felt that I was looking through Melville’s text to the text of something deeper and even more elemental. Re-opening my dusty copy of Milton’s poems and turning to pages of Paradise Lost filled with my student scribbles, it was if I had found those deeper currents that it is likely Melville too had located. Giraldi’s view was that Melville’s:

rereading of Paradise Lost during the composition of Moby Dick significantly altered the novel’s meaning and mythic scope. The extraordinary fact is that as late as 1849 (Moby Dick was published in 1851), Melville had yet to conceive of Captain Ahab and was focused instead on the non-epic bildungsroman of a shipmate called Ishmael. Take Milton’s Satan away from Melville and you can forget about the earthshaking achievement of Moby Dick …
Melville remains one of the best American examples of how every important writer is foremost an indefatigable reader of golden books, someone who kneels at the altar of literature not only for wisdom, sustenance, and emotional enlargement, but with the crucial intent of filching fire from the gods …
Out at sea for many perilous months at a time, holed up in cramped quarters, Melville took with him on those voyages only the necessities. And among those necessities were always scores of books, the deathless classics of Western literature that were as critical to him as the rations and water that would keep him healthy. (William Giraldi, cited above.)

Melville’s imagination and inventiveness

Moby-Dick is a roller-coaster of a read which has left me sea-sprayed and salt-encrusted with Melville’s inventiveness. At times I thought he was entering a Flaubertian or Joycean dead-end of unnecessary detail, but on every occasion it turned out to be comprehensively worth sticking with him. Much of this ‘reader loyalty’ can be attributed to the plain fact that Melville constantly rewards his readers with the sweep of the narrative and the style of its propulsion. This is orchestral stuff. Sometimes the melodic sweep of the narrative is what carries one along; at others it’s the specific instrumentation, perhaps of a surprise aside, innocuously slipped in, that is so utterly rewarding and illuminates the narrative with ‘elbowed lances of fire’.

Once one’s read Moby-Dick from cover to cover, it can then become one of those rare books that one can dip into simply to savour the density and craft of Melville’s prose. On that basis, here are some fine examples of Melville’s prose, extracted for light examination as exemplars of his craft.

AThere will be clarion calls of ‘There she blows!’ later in the book. These will come from the mast-heads where crew are stationed night and day. Kindly guide that he is, Melville needs us to visualise these mast-heads, getting up to them - and into them - and accordingly sends us aloft with Ishmael early in the book. After a rumination of examples of such lofty standing - including no less than Nelson in Trafalgar Square - Ishmael delivers the following mesmerising comparison. Note the vocabulary: ‘serene’, ‘dreamy’, ‘infinite’, ‘ruffled’, ‘indolently rolls’, ‘drowsy’ and ‘langour’. Everything is soporific, matching Ishmael’s day-dream. There is a genius here in exchanging masts for stilts and effectively transitioning the prose to poetry. It’s undemanded by the context yet typical of Melville to seize the opportunity to embellish the scene this way.

In the serene weather of the tropics it is exceedingly pleasant the mast-head; nay, to a dreamy meditative man it is delightful. There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea, even as ships once sailed between the boots of the famous Colossus at old Rhodes. There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled but the waves. The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor. (Chapter 35)

BIf you have the misfortune to drink Starbucks coffee, then don’t forget that that name derives from Starbuck, the Pequod’s first-mate, the sole resistance to Ahab’s madness. Melville, surely, gave us Starbuck as a stand-in for the common man, one who voices what we all as reader’s might think of saying to Ahab if we were on board the Pequod. His is the voice of reason. Note here how Melville has him say ‘but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance’. These two seven-syllable phrases opposing the contractual against the contractual deviation, give Starbuck’s words a counterpointing calm against the words that Ahab will give in reply (in quote C that follows). These are words not to be spoken in haste but with steady deliberation.

I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow; but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market. (Chapter 36)

CWhen Starbuck continues his resistance to Ahab by saying that revenge on ‘a dumb brute that simply smote thee from blindest instinct …’ is ‘… madness’, Melville has Ahab retort with words that seem to be the novel’s very heart of darkness, as if conjuring up Milton’s Satan. These words are only a handful of pages after Ishmael’s placid dream at the physical summit of the Pequod, emanating now from the quarter-deck below. Ahab claims unique powers of perception in being able to divine what lies behind ‘the pasteboard masks’ of all visible objects. Note the force of the vocabulary here: ‘strike’, ‘thrusting’, ‘shoved’, ‘sinewing’, ‘hate’ and ‘wreak’. But darker than all these is Ahab’s elemental storm of “He tasks me; he heaps me”, which confirms Starbuck’s verdict of madness beyond all doubt.

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. (Chapter 36)

DLet’s not forget that Melville drip-feeds doses of humour throughout the book. In this brief glimmer he is comparing whaling to piracy. In adding a second possible meaning to ‘elevation’ - by gallows, not in social rank - that should be joke enough. But he continues with a double image around ‘elevated’/’altitude’ and ‘high lifted’/’no solid basis’ which runs much like a Falstaffian equivocation, turning the comparison into something mercurial and much more sophisticated.

Because, in the case of pirates, say, I should like to know whether that profession of theirs has any peculiar glory about it. It sometimes ends in uncommon elevation, indeed; but only at the gallows. And besides, when a man is elevated in that odd fashion, he has no proper foundation for his superior altitude. Hence, I conclude, that in boasting himself to be high lifted above a whaleman, in that assertion the pirate has no solid basis to stand on. (Chapter 53)

EOur education by Melville spares us few details. To help us appreciate the Sperm Whale (Moby Dick’s type), Melville has the crew hunt and kill numerous individuals in advance of them encountering Moby Dick. The process of extracting the prized oil from the whale’s head involves its decapitation after which the head can be hoisted against the Pequod’s side. In the chapter entitled The Sphynx Melville has Ahab approach such a suspended head and address it. It is a melancholy one-sided conversation, made when everyone else was below decks, in which Ahab’s weaves a diverse stream of possible events which the whale might divulge had it the power of speech. It belies the normally crazed behaviour that we by now associate with Ahab and seems to depict a degree of empathy that Melville has him show nowhere else. It’s a fine scene, full of mystery, which - as one amongst many - helps lift the book onto a higher level.

A short space elapsed, and up into this noiselessness came Ahab alone from his cabin. Taking a few turns on the quarter-deck, he paused to gaze over the side, then slowly getting into the main-chains he took Stubb’s long spade—still remaining there after the whale’s decapitation—and striking it into the lower part of the half-suspended mass, placed its other end crutch-wise under one arm, and so stood leaning over with eyes attentively fixed on this head.
It was a black and hooded head; and hanging there in the midst of so intense a calm, it seemed the Sphynx’s in the desert. “Speak, thou vast and venerable head,” muttered Ahab, “which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world’s foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou hast been where bell or diver never went; hast slept by many a sailor’s side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down Thou saw’st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sank beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them. Thou saw’st the murdered mate when tossed by pirates from the midnight deck; for hours he fell into the deeper midnight of the insatiate maw; and his murderers still sailed on unharmed—while swift lightnings shivered the neighboring ship that would have borne a righteous husband to outstretched, longing arms. O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!” (Chapter 70)

FContinuing with his readers’ education, Melville turns to the whale’s head, in particular the fact that each eye is so far back on the side of the head ‘that he can never see an object which is exactly ahead’. “In a word, the position of the whale’s eyes corresponds to that of a man’s ears; and you may fancy, for yourself, how it would fare with you, did you sideways survey objects through your ears”, he wrote. His elaboration of this puzzle is typical of Melville harrying an idea to an adequate conclusion, which in this case turns from the apparent strangeness of the whale’s physiognomy to what observable behaviour that may manifest.

How is it, then, with the whale? True, both his eyes, in themselves, must simultaneously act; but is his brain so much more comprehensive, combining, and subtle than man’s, that he can at the same moment of time attentively examine two distinct prospects, one on one side of him, and the other in an exactly opposite direction? If he can, then is it as marvellous a thing in him, as if a man were able simultaneously to go through the demonstrations of two distinct problems in Euclid. Nor, strictly investigated, is there any incongruity in this comparison.
It may be but an idle whim, but it has always seemed to me, that the extraordinary vacillations of movement displayed by some whales when beset by three or four boats; the timidity and liability to queer frights, so common to such whales; I think that all this indirectly proceeds from the helpless perplexity of volition, in which their divided and diametrically opposite powers of vision must involve them. (Chapter 74)

GThe try-works on the Pequod is where whale blubber is rendered into oil. It involves a brick-kiln containing two large try-pots being fired up on the roomiest part of the deck, between the foremast and the mainmast. A fire is lit under the pots using wood shavings provided by the carpenter and, once going, the flames are stoked with scraps of whale blubber so that, in effect, ‘the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body’. It is then the task of the harpooners to feed chunks of blubber into the scalding pots, which the heat converts to oil to be decanted off into barrels.

One night, Melville has Ishmael stand at the helm, and survey this infernal scene. His hallucinatory premonition of this punches off the page. The power of the first paragraph of this quote is created by a dozen active verbs in short phrases, and one could break these lines up into blank verse with an almost regular rhythm. The longer, more deliberative hallucination that follows serves to foreshadow the Pequod’s eventual doom. The dystopia of ‘whatever swift, rushing thing I stood on was not so much bound to any haven ahead as rushing from all havens astern’ is clear. Ishmael’s momentary inversion of the ship’s controls acts as a seeringly powerful metaphor, one which adds to the inversion that Starbuck cites in his exchange with Ahab (in B above). It is a stomach-churning moment. There can be few worse nightmares for a helmsman than to utterly lose one’s bearings. If that is also a spiritual loss, which I think Ishmael hints at in the third paragraph of this extract, so much the worse.

… as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.
But that night, in particular, a strange (and ever since inexplicable) thing occurred to me. Starting from a brief standing sleep, I was horribly conscious of something fatally wrong. The jaw-bone tiller smote my side, which leaned against it; in my ears was the low hum of sails, just beginning to shake in the wind; I thought my eyes were open; I was half conscious of putting my fingers to the lids and mechanically stretching them still further apart. But, spite of all this, I could see no compass before me to steer by; though it seemed but a minute since I had been watching the card, by the steady binnacle lamp illuminating it. Nothing seemed before me but a jet gloom, now and then made ghastly by flashes of redness. Uppermost was the impression, that whatever swift, rushing thing I stood on was not so much bound to any haven ahead as rushing from all havens astern. A stark, bewildered feeling, as of death, came over me. Convulsively my hands grasped the tiller, but with the crazy conceit that the tiller was, somehow, in some enchanted way, inverted. My God! what is the matter with me? thought I. Lo! in my brief sleep I had turned myself about, and was fronting the ship’s stern, with my back to her prow and the compass. In an instant I faced back, just in time to prevent the vessel from flying up into the wind, and very probably capsizing her. How glad and how grateful the relief from this unnatural hallucination of the night, and the fatal contingency of being brought by the lee!
Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. (Chapter 96)

HAt the very end of the Try-Works chapter which resulted in Ishmael’s hallucination (in extract G above), Melville offers the following metaphor (via a Melville/Ishmael mix of voices) that offers a homespun view - using the image of an eagle from the Catskill Mountains north of New York - of the need to keep above the fray. The implication is that the need to remain impartial in judgement is something that Ahab has lost and which has set the Pequod on its madly-lurching voyage. ‘Diving down’, ‘soar out’ and ‘lowest swoop’ give the lines a poetry, a musicality suited to the bird’s flight.

But even Solomon, he says, “the man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain” (i.e., even while living) “in the congregation of the dead.” Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar. (Chapter 96)

IAhab suffered a mishap returning from the Samuel Enderby ship when his ivory leg half-splintered. He enlisted the ship’s carpenter’s help in making him a new one which he did using jaw-ivory accumulated on the voyage. The chapter that follows, The Carpenter is arguably one of the finest in the novel and I’m tempted to quote all its 1,034 words here. Instead, here are just over 200 words in which Melville’s inventiveness achieves one of its summits. It is as if Melville recognised in the ‘multitooled’ carpenter an inventiveness in the material domain that is the equal of his own in the intellectual. It’s also a clear depiction of what a ship needed from its carpenter by way of resourcefulness thousands of miles from land. The passage is characteristic of Melville: just when you thought he had wrung plenty from his examination of something, he squeezed more and in this case his pen birthed the solilioquising and the sentry-box image.

He was like one of those unreasoning but still highly useful, multum in parvo, Sheffield contrivances, assuming the exterior—though a little swelled—of a common pocket knife; but containing, not only blades of various sizes, but also screw-drivers, cork-screws, tweezers, awls, pens, rulers, nail-filers, countersinkers. So, if his superiors wanted to use the carpenter for a screw-driver, all they had to do was to open that part of him, and the screw was fast: or if for tweezers, take him up by the legs, and there they were.
Yet, as previously hinted, this omnitooled, open-and-shut carpenter, was, after all, no mere machine of an automaton. If he did not have a common soul in him, he had a subtle something that somehow anomalously did its duty. What that was, whether essence of quicksilver, or a few drops of hartshorn, there is no telling. But there it was; and there it had abided for now some sixty years or more. And this it was, this same unaccountable, cunning life-principle in him; this it was, that kept him a great part of the time soliloquizing; but only like an unreasoning wheel, which also hummingly soliloquizes; or rather, his body was a sentry-box and this soliloquizer on guard there, and talking all the time to keep himself awake. (Chapter 107)

JThe inventiveness of the ship’s carpenter clearly fascinated Melville; he continued with him as his subject for the following chapter, Ahab and the Carpenter, in which Melville has the two characters engage in dramatic dialogue as the carpenter worked on the impatient Ahab’s replacement leg. Much of the carpenter’s role is uttered sotto voce to himself, as are these lines. The first sentence is beautifully crafted, a sequence of mostly one-syllable words that contrast the carpenter’s own short stature with the gloriously ‘heron-built’ one of the captain - even if one of those heron legs had been fashioned by himself!

Then, a short, little old body like me, should never undertake to wade out into deep waters with tall, heron-built captains; the water chucks you under the chin pretty quick, and there’s a great cry for life-boats. And here’s the heron’s leg! long and slim, sure enough! Now, for most folks one pair of legs lasts a lifetime, and that must be because they use them mercifully, as a tender-hearted old lady uses her roly-poly old coach-horses. But Ahab; oh he’s a hard driver. Look, driven one leg to death, and spavined the other for life, and now wears out bone legs by the cord. (Chapter 108)

KMuch of the power of Moby-Dick is in our own discovery of how Melville delivers a story whose ending we already know - or think we know. I have laid some store here on Melville’s writing style, particularly on the imagery he uses, as being what entertains us as the story whose ending we know in advance unfolds. The detail of how he ends the book is thus hugely important - and does not disappoint. He gives us the Pequod sinking below the waves - as we had anticipated all along - but ‘the hammer and the wood’, ‘the submerged savage beneath’ and ‘the bird of heaven’ with which Melville garnished the scene are without equal. Chapter 135 ends in such a dazzling display of penmanship that I’m going to leave you to discover that for yourself.


I have been ruminating on why Moby-Dick has so surprised me and conclude that it has largely been through the book’s near-complete absence from A/AS level, O level and GCSE courses in English Literature . Either as student or as teacher, I never encountered it or heard mention of Melville’s name. Unlike for our American friends, whose literary diet when young may well have contained too much blubber and ivory, we in Britain have therefore enjoyed something of an advantage: when we do come round to reading Melville, we do so afresh and with less resistance.


  • The internet being the amazing thing that is it, it’s no surprise that we can find the full text of Moby-Dick on Project Gutenberg, available for searching and copying.
  • You might not have envisaged the wonderfully creative Moby-Dick Big Read from the University of Portsmouth where you can find the complete book read aloud (all 30 hours of it, available also in podcast format, each chapter twinned with its own artwork) with a fascinating range of readers, including Simon Callow, Will Self, Tilda Swinton and, oh so appropriately, Sir David Attenborough reading Chapter 105 Does The Whale’s Magnitude Diminish? - Will He Perish? I defy you not to well up with tears to hear Sir David read Melville’s following words from that chapter:

But still another inquiry remains; one often agitated by the more recondite Nantucketers. Whether owing to the almost omniscient look-outs at the mast-heads of the whale-ships, now penetrating even through Behring’s straits, and into the remotest secret drawers and lockers of the world; and the thousand harpoons and lances darted along all continental coasts; the moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.
Comparing the humped herds of whales with the humped herds of buffalo, which, not forty years ago, overspread by tens of thousands the prairies of Illinois and Missouri, and shook their iron manes and scowled with their thunder-clotted brows upon the sites of populous river-capitals, where now the polite broker sells you land at a dollar an inch; in such a comparison an irresistible argument would seem furnished, to show that the hunted whale cannot now escape speedy extinction. (Chapter 105)

  • If you are sufficiently intrigued to track down even more of the marginalia that Melville produced during his own reading, there is - perhaps not surprisingly - a complete website devoted to the analysis of this in/on a substantial collection of literary sources: Melville’s Marginalia Online.