Monday, September 21, 2015


Intimidated by its size and reputation, I lugged this book around for most of my adult life before making a serious attempt to read it. As leviathanic as the white whale itself and every bit as elusive, it's a tale that exists on many levels. Unfortunately for Melville it was also a white elephant, sinking with scarcely a gurgle when it was first published in 1851.


Superficially it's about a man obsessed with hunting down the whale that took his leg, but there are also entire chapters that do not advance the plot, being devoted to whales and whaling, along with numerous footnotes, making it a sort of docu-novel. The reader is forewarned at the start by several pages of quotations from an eccentric variety of sources, including “The Rape of the Lock” and “Something Unpublished.”

Biblical Whaling

It's a heavily moralistic tale riddled with references to gods and religion and the bible, and lurking with symbolism and philosophical musings. It also has a mythic quality, not unlike the Odyssey, presided over by deities such as Queequeg's Yojo and the Almighty of Father Mapple, who gives a sermon about Jonah from a pulpit like the prow of a ship. Other biblical names include two of the main characters, Ahab and Ishmael, ship owners Peleg and Bildad, prophetic utterances by Elijah and Gabriel, and the vessels Rachel and Jeroboam. As the story nears its conclusion, Ahab speaks more and more like a biblical character. A typical passage:

Thou canst not tell where one drop of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet with thy impotence thou insultest the sun! Science! Curse thee, thou vain toy. [Chapter 118]


For me, the most surprising thing about Moby-Dick was its humour and playfulness, beginning with Queequeg, a tattooed cannibal with whom Ishmael shares a bed at the Spouter Inn, and in whose arms he awakens in the morning. Queequeg peddles shrunken heads in Nantucket, and uses his harpoon to shave with and to spear chunks of meat at the breakfast table.

There are witty turns of phrase and flights of fancy. In a droll chapter entitled “Cetology,” the difference between whales with teeth and baleen is eschewed for one based purely on size. Thus they are categorized like books: folio whales, octavo whales, and duodecimal whales.

In a later scene Ahab speaks to Captain Boomer and Dr. Bunger, who sound like a comedy team when they exchange facetious remarks.


On one level the book is a tragedy like Lear or Macbeth with some chapters presented like scenes from a play complete with stage directions. There are successive soliloquys from Ahab, Starbuck, and Stubb, followed by a scene where the main deck becomes a stage for sailors “standing, lounging, leaning and lying in various attitudes, all singing in chorus.” (Chapters 37-40)

At times there are positively Shakespearean utterances. Here is Ahab, not sounding at all biblical:

Here I am, proud I am so rich, I could have given bid for bid with the wealthiest Praetorians at the auction of the Roman empire (which was the world's); and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with. By heavens! I'll get a crucible, and into it, and dissolve myself down to one small, compendious vertebra. So. [Chapter 108]

Scenes with the Ahab and the ship's carpenter reminded me of Hamlet (the grave-digging scene, Ahab's phantom limb). Starbuck contemplating the sleeping Ahab is not unlike Hamlet contemplating Claudius at prayer.


The story begins with Ishmael as narrator, but is interrupted by passages in which we are privy to the thoughts and feelings of other characters. Towards the end Ishmael disappears almost entirely, being replaced by an omniscient observer, and only returns in a brief epilogue.


Moby Dick is the hero and Ahab the villain. Queequeg the most likeable character.

Readers were not ready for a cetacean hero until the 20th-century. Now, knowing how whale stocks have been devastated by whaling, it's hard not to root for Moby Dick when he is being relentlessly pursued by a madman. He was not the instigator of the conflict. How else to describe his actions except as heroic?

Ahab sees the whale as evil, but the truth is revealed by his ivory pegleg: Moby Dick's evil is really an extension of his own ungodly and monomanical self. He inaugurates the voyage with an idolatrous act -- nailing a gold coin to a mast -- and later conducts a pagan ceremony that involves the quenching with blood of a newly forged harpoon head. “I'd strike the sun if it insulted me,” he says.


One of the book's great strengths is how visual it is, which explains in part why Moby Dick the whale has become such an icon, and why Moby-Dick the book had been brought out in so many illustrated editions, not to mention other formats such as comic books, graphic novels, and movies. It's popped up in a popup book, card game, and opera, and in a fantastic retelling (Railsea) by China Mieville in which giant moles are harpooned from trains and the captain of one of them is obsessed with hunting an ivory-coloured mole that took his arm.

Farther afield Starbuck is memorialized in the coffee chain, as well as in (along with Boomer) Battlestar Galactica.

When I re-read the book, and I will, I want to use an illustrated edition, such the Rockwell Kent version published in 1930. (It has something in the order of 300 illustrations, 23 of them full-page.)


Eight Great Dicks
Rockwell Kent & Evan Dahm
Moby Dick - or The Card Game 
Online audio version (a different reader for each of the 135 chapters)

A Natural History of the Ocean's Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature

Before tackling Moby-Dick I imagined that Dr. Johnson's comment about Paradise Lost would be applicable, but I was wrong. I not only wanted to read it again, I also wanted to know more about whales and whaling. In this regard The Great Sperm Whale by Richard Ellis is the perfect companion to Melville's masterpiece.

Ellis is an artist and marine biologist who's written numerous books about denizens of the sea. Published in 2011, The Great Sperm Whale was clearly inspired by Moby-Dick, and is more substantial than the 11 chapters, one appendix, and 368 pages might suggest. There are 16 colour plates and numerous black-and-white illustrations throughout.

In addition to the natural history of sperm whales, it covers the evolution of whales, a history of whaling (including a chapter called “The War on Whales”), and conservation efforts. Chapter 2 is devoted to “Mr. Melville's Whale” and gives an overview of Melville's sources, Moby-Dick's critical reception, and notable editions. He also mentions some of the novels, music, art, and movies the book has inspired. Melville and Moby Dick are also referenced in subsequent chapters.

One of the things I was curious about was Melville's factual accuracy regarding whales. Ellis tells us that through Melville's reading and personal experience he knew as much about whales as anyone else in the 19th century, though the overall knowledge at the time was pretty thin. What is important from a reader's standpoint is that any inaccuracies are irrelevent, especially considering Melville's penchant for playfulness, hyperbole, and mythologizing.

On Sperm Whales

  • “the largest predator that has ever lived”
  • “the largest brain of any animal that ever lived”
  • “the loudest sounds made by any living creature”
  • “the biggest nose in history”

They are known to dive as deep as 3700 feet, and capable of immobilizing their prey with “laserlike focused sound beams that emanate from complex components in its nose.” This ability is crucial for hunting in the abyssal depths, and especially for prey like squid, which are faster and more agile.

They are also bottom feeders, apparently using their narrow underslung lower jaw as a plough. They have teeth only in their lower jaw, and unlike other whales have only a single nostril.

The nose may take up as much as a third of their total length. So when a sperm whale sank the Essex, it did it by ramming with its nose.

In the stomach of one dead sperm whale was found a squid weighing 405 pounds, and in another the mutilated body of a Newfoundland sealer.

On Moby-Dick

  • Moby-Dick (hyphenated) is the title, Moby Dick (unhyphenated) is the whale.
  • “Moby Dick is the single most famous animal in American literature.”
  • Moby-Dick was written and published at the zenith of the world-wide sperm whale fishery; its home port of New Bedford was the richest city per capita in America.”


Entitled “The Adventures of a Whale Painter,” it gives an account of Ellis's development as an artist, which is rather apt since Melville himself devotes three chapters to paintings and other representations of whales. So how good is Ellis the artist? One look at the beautiful dust jacket is all you need.