Marya: A Life - Back in Print
A Bloodsmoor Romance: back in print
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism

Moby Dick: An American Book of Wonders

by Joyce Carol Oates

Published 1988 in (Woman) Writer 


Why is it that Moby Dick, our greatest native work of prose fiction, strikes us as so uniquely American?—the product of a successful young writer at the peak of his somewhat precocious powers (Melville was only thirty-two years old at the time of its publication in 1851); a tour de force of brilliantly sustained metaphor, in which an albino whale and his fanatic pursuers enact a tragic drama as old as the race; the most sympathetic and unsentimental exploration of monomania in our literature; a novel of ideas—many ideas—imposed upon an epic adventure of the high seas; a compendium of data on whales, whaling vessels, and the men who made up their crews; a prodigious assemblage of humor, and philosophizing, and prose poetry, and monologues reminiscent of the great soliloquies of Shakespeare; a work that reveals on virtually every page its youthful author's exuberance, as, daringly, sometimes recklessly, he addresses the reader in defiance of authorial decorum? Herman Melville is not content merely to tell his baroque tale, he must guide our reading of it, stepping forward at will (in the chapter titled "The Affidavit," for instance) to interrupt his melodramatic narrative with an amplification of whale lore and an insistence upon the literal reality of "the whole story of the White Whale." Granted that the novel Moby Dick is very much a fable, an allegory, a work rich (if not occasionally over-rich) with symbolic meanings, it is urgent that the reader be assured that the White Whale himself exists—that he is, for all his supranatural powers, no "monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory."

Which is to say, Moby Dick; or, The Whale, while as self-consciously and as elaborately written as anything in our language, and as intercalated with portents and omens as any Gothic work of fiction, is nevertheless a "real" story, fundamentally, and must be approached in that spirit. The chapters provide us with information and then conclude, usually, with the author's—or Ishmael's—commentary on it; a typical chapter, "The Mast-Head," for instance, consists of pages of documentary data, then ends with a description of what it feels like to be on duty high on the mast: the growing ennui, the hypnotic lull, the "opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie" that steals from the sailor his identity, so that he begins to take the ocean below him for the image of "that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature." So enchanted, the man high on the masthead is in danger of losing his sense of self completely and of falling to his death. The language in which Melville speaks in the chapter's concluding paragraphs is very different from his "documentary" language, but rises quite naturally from it. And the warning to Pantheists who would confuse the outer world with their interior worlds, abrupt as it is, also emerges without strain from Ishmael's commentary: "While this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. And ... at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise forever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!"

Like all great works of art, Moby Dick will support many readings, many interpretations. Yet, chapter by chapter, its meanings are not at all obscure; if Fedallah and the other members of Ahab's "shadow crew" have a symbolic significance, for instance, Ishmael will tell us what it is, just as he will tell us what Pip's terrible madness means, and how it relates to us all. Indeed, repeated readings of Moby Dick confirm one's sense of Ishmael/Melville as a voice of remarkable subtlety, intelligence, and variety; and though it has often been charged against Melville that his narrator "disappears" into the narration, one might argue that the novel's innumerable voices (in the dramatized sections, for instance) are but ingenious manifestations, recollected after the fact, of the novel's central voice. (By which I mean that, as Ishmael has escaped the catastrophe and is, indeed, the sole survivor, the "authentic" chronicle he tells us is purely his.)

A distinctly American voice, ambitious, daring, endlessly resourceful; perhaps rather outrageous, set beside the high-toned dignity of Hawthorne and Emerson; and certainly boastful, as if Herman Melville could have known he was writing a "great book." Such high spirits—such brashness—will depart from Melville forever after the publication (and commercial failure) of Moby Dick, to return in bitter transmogrified form in the prosy, clotted, heavily ironic Pierre and in the mysterious but finally lifeless The Confidence Man, a "novel" of ideas in which the physical world scarcely appears. But in 1850 young Melville sensed himself at the height of his powers, moving with ease from the straightforward (but frequently quite lyric) prose of White-]acket; or, The World in a Man-of War, to the exuberance of Moby Dick. Consider this remarkable outburst, in the chapter titled "The Fossil Whale":

One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor's quill! Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe. . . . Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.

This is the voice of a writer in whom raw energy freely burns, consuming itself even as it illuminates; the voice of an Ishmael who has survived, in triumph, but who will, before long, be writing to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom he admired above all men and to whom "in admiration of his genius" he dedicated Moby Dick:

Until I was 25 I had no development at all. From my 25th year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between now and then, that I have not unfolded within myself. But I feel that I am now come to the inmost leaf of the bulb, and that shortly the flower must fall to the mould.

Moby Dick, the product of the "inmost leaf of the bulb," would not have been written (as a tragic epic of Hawthornean and Shakespearean subtlety) without the example of Hawthorne's allegorical fiction. Melville's reading of the Twice-Told Tales in 1850 virtually changed his life, inspiring him to recast his "romance of the whale fisheries" into a work of high seriousness and dignity. (Consequently the reader should be forewarned that the novel's tone changes considerably as it progresses: the opening section is brisk, chatty, funny, engaging, but relatively slight when set beside the magisterial chapters to come—from approximately "Ahab" onward.) Melville's irony on the subject of Transcendentalism and Pantheism (at the conclusion of "The Mast-Head" in particular) is in response to the writings of Emerson and his circle—which could not have failed to strike the young man, with his arduous seafaring experience, as the products of a bookish life. (Emerson's Essays, First Series, were published in 1841; the Second Series in 1844; Representative Men in 1850.) And one should bear in mind the achievements of this extraordinary era in general—Poe's The Raven and Other Poems (1845) and Tales (1845); Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850); Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852); Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854); Longfellow's Hiawatha (1855); Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (first edition, 1855). (Though Emily Dickinson began writing her poems in the early fifties they were not to be assembled and published until 1890.)

Moby Dick; or, The Whale, a novel like no other before or since, is nonetheless a product of its era; and Herman Melville, the best-selling author of Typee; or, A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and Omoo (1847)—good-natured "travel/adventure" romances of no special literary or intellectual distinction—realized his genius by way of his fellow writers.

Herman Melville was born in 1819, died in 1891 (virtually forgotten, as melancholy legend would have it), and wrote his most brilliantly sustained work long before the midpoint of his career. His successes Typee and Omoo were never to be repeated, though Redburn (1849) and White-]acket (1850), each cast in the popular mode of first-person accounts of the sea, sold well; and when Melville began writing Moby Dick in 1850 there was every reason for the optimistic young writer to believe that greater success lay immediately before him. The novel's composition took place in cramped and impoverished circumstances (for the most part in a farmhouse near Pittsfield, Massachusetts), but Melville's mood was robust, often euphoric; he set himself the task of recalling his seafaring experiences of 1841, when, desperate for work, he had signed on the whaling ship Acushnet, with near-disastrous results. (Melville deserted, in the Marquesas Islands, in the summer of 1842.) Consequently he was able to write for long feverish stretches at a time, confident of his powers, fired with an exuberance that is communicated to the reader in the novel's every line. The Pequod and its crew are doomed—all save Ishmael, who alone has escaped to tell us:

. . . liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin lifebuoy 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 sheated sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last.

Ishmael, speaking for Melville, instructs us throughout in the reading of Moby Dick. Even when he seems to disappear from the narrative for long periods (when, for instance, we are privileged to overhear Ahab's eloquent soliloquies, or those of his mates, or to be told in tireless detail of the history and nature of whales), it is Melville's intention that Ishmael remain our central, guiding consciousness, an absolutely reliable witness. His voice undergoes a change once the Pequod sets sail and Captain Ahab appears, but the novel's primary theme of man's comic helplessness in the face of "Providence" is struck at once; and Ishmael explains to us, succinctly and poetically, the ineffable power of the sea:

... still deeper [is] the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

Ishmael also confides in us that seafaring for him is a way of thwarting the "damp, drizzly November in his soul" that urges him to suicide; he tells us that it is the "overwhelming idea of the great whale itseIf"—the "grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air"—that draws him to a whaling vessel. Most significantly he instructs us in the eerie "whiteness of the whale" in the famous chapter (XLII) of that title, a rhapsodic prose poem of nine pages that seeks to explore the symbolic meaning of the albino whale, in spiritual terms:

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, as in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless all-color of atheism from which we shrink? [Colors] are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like a harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself. . . pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us like a leper; and like wilful travelers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored. . . glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

In this extraordinary passage Ishmael's and Ahab's voices seem to blend. While in many of its aspects, says Ishmael, the visible world seems formed in love, "the invisible spheres were formed in fright."

Herman Melville was clearly one of those figures of the mid- and late nineteenth century who suffered the absence of God with as much passion as his Puritan and Calvinist predecessors suffered God's probable wrath. The will to believe, to have faith, is so poignant a motive in Melville's major works—Pierre, The Confidence Man, and Billy Budd, in addition to Moby Dick—that it is no exaggeration to say that it informs their very conceptions. The white whale is the most celebrated (and, in literary terms, the most inspired) of the images of an unknowable God; the spirit made flesh, so to speak; a creature called a "dumb beast" by Starbuck, but granted a demonic and highly intelligent will by Ahab and, later, Ishmael. (Moby Dick is also believed by superstitious sailors to be both ubiquitous and immortal—an "unearthly conceit" that nearly grants him Godhead.) In Ahab's grandiloquent cosmology, in which the phenomenal world is but a pasteboard mask cloaking God (or God's maddening absence), one must, in seeking revenge, "strike through the mask"—one must take vengeance upon God by way of God's creatures. In tones worthy of Shakespearean tragedy, Ahab declares ("The Quarter-Deck"):

[The white whale] 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. Talk to me not of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me.

Ahab is not an atheist but an anti-theist, one who would destroy God, had he the means (like Satan, perhaps): the diabolism which gives him such furious energy is the very passion that underlies Moby Dick as a work of imaginative fiction. Melville and Ahab are not one—the differences between them are considerable—but Ahab's rebelliousness in language is certainly akin to Melville's. In brooding upon the nature of tragic "greatness," Ishmael concludes that morbidness, even disease, underlie it ("The Ship"), sentiments that echo Melville's own; Ahab boasts that he never thinks, "he only feels, feels, feels; that's tingling enough for mortal man" ("The Chase—Third Day"), just as Herman Melville, in a letter to Hawthorne of June 1852, declared, "I stand for the heart. To the dogs with the head!"

Though Captain Ahab is fifty-eight years old he is fired with a passionate, seemingly indefatigable energy; Ishmael calls him a monomaniac and a lunatic—but admires him nonetheless. It is clear that Melville wishes to align him with the greatest rebel of all in our tradition, Satan, as Milton imagined him: "I am darkness leaping out of light," Ahab proclaims. Only late in the voyage ("The Symphony") does Ahab confess to Starbuck that he is, in truth, exhausted, as though he were Adam, "staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise."

God! God! God!—crack my heart!—stave my brain!—mockery!—mockery! Bitter, biting mockery of grey hairs, have I lived enough joy to weary ye; and seem and feel thus intolerably old?

No Romantic figure of Byronic or Faustian excess, Ahab reveals himself in such rare passages as a human being exiled from his species by the accident (or was it design?) of the white whale's "malevolence." He knows, yet seems not to know, that, in giving chase to Moby Dick, he must die, as the fulfillment of a prophecy; yet it is not possible for him to turn back. His character bears a remarkable resemblance to Melville's own, as Hawthorne sketched it in his notebook for 1854, when, in Hawthorne's judgment, he was suffering from "constant literary occupation, pursued without much success." His late writings seemed to Hawthorne to indicate a "morbid state of mind."

Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had "pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated"; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists—and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before—in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can never believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.

(A portrait, for all its admiration, of a lonely, brooding, obsessive man, confirmed in his bitterness, with the passage of time, by the failure of his most ambitious books.)

In his Studies in Classic American Literature, D. H. Lawrence reads Moby Dick as a peculiarly American work. The Pequod, containing "many races, many peoples, many nations, under the Stars and Stripes," is the ship of America's soul; it can be no accident that the ship is governed by a mad captain embarked upon a fanatic's hunt. Moby Dick is the "deepest blood-being of the white race," hunted by the "maniacal fanaticism of our white mental consciousness." Being a whale, a mammal, he is hot-blooded; hunted by monomaniacs of the Idea; incapable finally of being destroyed, but capable of wreaking great havoc upon his pursuers.

Lawrence's famous reading is biased, impulsive, rather slapdash, like much of his most perceptive criticism, yet it seems to me a wholly legitimate and convincing interpretation. He might have discussed the amplifying fact that the pursuit of the white whale—the pursuit of whales generally—was a commercial venture primarily: an assemblage, whether "democratic" or merely representative of humanity, of men bent upon exploiting Nature because, in order to live, they must do so. Were the whales themselves carnivores, the reader might feel less sympathy for them, but Melville is unsparing in his delineation of what actually happens in whaling—what is killed, how it is killed, and who the killers are. Moby Dick may enjoy the invulnerability of a creature of legend, but his kin, pursued by harpooners, are not so fortunate. Consider the powerful descriptive passages in such chapters as "The Virgin," in which Melville sets aside his allegorical philosophizing in order to write as succinctly, and as brilliantly, as he can:

It was a terrible, most pitiable, and maddening sight. The whale was now going head out, and sending his spout before him in a continued tormented jet; while his one poor fin beat his side in an agony of fright. Now to this hand, now to that, he yawed in his faltering flight, and still at every billow that he broke, he spasmodically sank in the sea, or sideways rolled toward the sky his one beating fin. So I have seen a bird with clipped wing, making affrighted broken circles in the air, vainly striving to escape the piratical hawks. But the bird has a voice, and with plaintive cries will make known her fear; but the fear of this vast dumb brute of the sea, was chained up and enchanted in him; he had no voice, save that choking respiration through his spiracle, and this made the sight of him unspeakably pitiable.

It is discovered that the whale is blind, that bulblike growths protrude from his eyes; but the harpooners have no pity for him. "For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes," says Ishmael, "he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merrymakings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all." It is the Christian's pursuit of the helpless dumb beast in order to reduce him to mere material, mere whale oil (to be used in lamps): a diabolism of rampaging Man, without pity and without compassion. And it may well be true, as Lawrence argues, that Man, in hunting down animals, hunts down his own "blood consciousness"; and that, in systematically destroying Nature, he destroys himself. Could any vision be contemporary and more terrifying? "Doom! Doom! Doom! something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America," says Lawrence.

But the splendid white whale Moby Dick does escape. Provoked to both savagery and cunning by the Pequod's three-day chase, he destroys the ship, kills everyone but Ishmael, disappears. And, for a brief moment, we are privileged to see Nature emptied of Man, as if Man had never been:

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

Moby Dick is so powerful a work of prose fiction because it allows us to feel, for ourselves, this extraordinary prophetic vision; to read it is a profound experience, scarcely to be suggested by way of critical commentary. Like Thoreau's Walden it is in part a cautionary work, warning that the wages of sin (our plundering of Nature) is death for our own species. Like Walden it is composed of numberless elements, a mosaic of sorts containing the diverse ideas, impressions, recollections, insights, moments of humor and satire, and above all the incomparable observations of the physical world, that strike the writer, without necessary regard for the old conventions of "unity" and "coherence"—even, in Melville's case, of probability.

Moby Dick is our most daring and our most thoroughly American work of prose fiction, a book of wonders yet to be—like its enigmatic whale—thoroughly comprehended.