A couple years ago I decided I’d try to read an entire book online while simultaneously creating an online copy of the book.

The point was supposed to be to demonstrate that serious online reading was possible if only proper care was made to format the text. The text I chose was Moby-Dick. The project didn’t work, but not for the reason you might have guessed. Instead of closely reading the book, I became obsessed with formatting — making sure every em-dash was correctly rendered, every quotation mark was curled in the right direction. The process of creating the online book became too distracting, and so I couldn’t read it properly.

But I’ve always wanted to read Moby-Dick, so for this trip I decided to bring it along in paper form. I finished it yesterday afternoon.

It is, of course, a masterpiece, but it’s a troubling book. In case you haven’t read the book, I’m going to put the rest of this post below the fold, because what troubles me most is the ending.

Even if you haven’t read Moby-Dick, you know that it’s about a maniacal sea-captain’s quest to kill the great white whale, Moby Dick. But, as any student of literature knows, what we really want to know about any great book is not what it’s about, but what it’s About. That’s what’s troubling me.

Almost as great as Ahab’s obsession with capturing the whale is our narrator Ishmael’s obsession with describing the whale. Ishmael describes every part of the whale’s body, even its penis, in meticulous detail. When he finds a whale skeleton on a remote tropical island, he tatoos its dimensions on his arm so he won’t forget them.

If whales are fascinating creatures, then the men who hunt them are also fascinating. Yet it seems that every whale hunter has flaws — they are vain, naive, overcautious, reckless, ignorant, overthoughtful, or all of the above. In some scenes, Melville has each whaler describe the same object, so we can contrast their characters.

This lengthy description of the whales, the whalers, their ships, and so on, continues for hundreds of pages. It’s not till halfway through the book that we experience our first whale-hunt, which is only briefly described. The climactic battle with Moby Dick takes only 27 pages at the end of the novel.

But the final confrontation with Moby Dick can hardly be called a battle. It’s a massacre, with the whale first toying with his pursuers, then destroying them. The men never have the chance. Ahab has circled the globe, effectively abandoned his wife and child, wasted 40 years of his life, for this?

This is why we slog through 600 pages? This sense of loss, of waste, of hopelessness, is probably at least partly what the book is About, but what I’m trying to grasp is the point of that evocation. Is Melville saying that most men waste away their lives in pursuit of unattainable obsessions?

Does the whale symbolize God? Is the whale-hunt Ahab’s Babel? Or is the point that there is no God. Maybe the whale is simply death — all-powerful, but ultimately meaningless.

If that’s the case, the book says little about the point of life, which I think is what makes it so profoundly troubling. It’s also possible, however, that I’m missing something. I still don’t think I’ve read the book under ideal circumstances — on airplanes, before I drift off to sleep, in noisy hotel rooms. I’m still on vacation, so I’m not even giving this blog post the thoughtful treatment it deserves.

One simple explanation of the book elevates the writer to quite an impressive stature. Ishmael, our narrator, is the sole survivor. Of course, he has to survive, or the story would never have been told. Is Melville saying that writing is the only way to achieve immortality? That seems to me just as vain and naive as Ahab’s pursuit of the whale. Of course, it worked for Melville, so maybe that is the point. Ishmael has his flaws, of course, and at times it’s quite clear that he’s unreliable. But despite their flaws, writers have the surest chance of living on through their words after they die. But that sounds rather trite for a work of this scope. Is that really the reason we write? I hope not, even as I find myself repeatedly succumbing to it.

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3 Responses to Moby-Dick

  1. HannuHoo says:

    Dave, hello there!

    Now, I am a finn who just by a chance jumped on to your pages. It so happens that I am just finishing The “White-jacket” and have had same kind of guestionings while reading it, not so articulate ones though. I am no man-of-letters so disecting the world of a man-of-war has to be left. But this “why did he write it” occurred and (if I remember wrigh) such was the case some 40 years ago with Moby Dick.

    But I am a painter. Who knows, may be wrote like Frans Hals used his brush, for pure joy!
    And .. may be he was wise man something we don’t know anything regarding Hals. Anyway, he really was a master and commander of his words like the dutscman was in his huge paintings.

    O.K. your postings were really intresting, I thank you for them really.

    Ps. If in Florenz consider Fiesole. The view towards the dale of Florenz in Twilight time can be something.

    By, Hannu

  2. Crittermonster says:

    Hi Dave,
    Just stumbled across this while researching something else. I loved Moby-Dick, especially for the ending.

    While it is indeed a complex book, I think the story be considered a straightforward tragedy: tragedy, in the oldest sense of the world, meaning a story about the inevitable. Because no matter how detailed, how examined, how beloved and obsessively documented our lives are, they will inevitably end–and however important the end seems to be, it is always triggered by a trivial occurence.

    Thus the whole book, all its mysticism, all its beauty, the grand and frightful things we see happen, the ferocity of Ahab’s obsession…all come down to that harpoon rope, which wayyyy at the very beginning of the cruise Ishmael had warned us must be correctly coiled or else it could kill someone.

    For me, Moby-Dick ramming the Pequod and its terrible sinking are not the real “ending” of the story. The real end is that blindingly simple moment when, from one second to the next, Ahab’s life ends for a reason he had forgotten to bother about.

    It totally gave me the chills. Way braver than a big fight-it-out ending (like in the movie). Once more, Melville has dared to hold the mirror up to life.

  3. Robbie Manson says:

    Fascinating insights into a one of the greatest novels ever written. You’ve nailed its higher meaning. For me, it is Melville’s lyricism, the rhythm of his language, the complexity of character that elevates it to the realm of the masterpiece. His message, as you say, may be relatively simple, even superficially trite when compressed to a page, but his way of delivering it is masterful.
    Great work.

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