I did not begin the two hundred thousand words plus of Moby Dick expecting to be surprised. Herman Melville’s book has been on my reading list shelf for years, always an intended read but never opened. Its iconic status has always proved too much of a barrier to its starting. The motivation eventually came, however, from a particularly moving production of Benjamin Brittten’s opera Billy Budd, itself based on a Herman Melville story, that prompted a decision to start Moby Dick, the whale sized book about whaling, and I had a whale of a time. A copy of Billy Budd, incidentally, was not to hand at the time. This must be remedied.
The bare whalebones of Moby Dick are very simply arranged. The story is told by Ishmael, who is seeking work as a sailor. Paradoxically, perhaps, we learn very little about Ishmael. It seems he is cast almost like some detached observer, able to discern the motives of others, but usually unable to declare his own feelings. He is, however, undeniably a character, not a mere vehicle for a writer’s declamation.
In Nantucket, Ishmael befriends Queequeg, a fellow sailor, who is ethnically and religiously different from himself. They soon share a room and even a bed. How the cultural difference and the male camaraderie are described is one of the more memorable aspects of this thought-provoking book. Both men are recruited onto the Pequod, a whaler under the command of the initially anonymous and even mysterious captain Ahab. Ostensibly, they are joining a factory ship on a standard mission to harvest whales for the extraction of profit via oil. The source of the profit and the means of realising it may run counter to our current assumptions, but the capitalist nature of the activity remains central to our contemporary interactions.
Once on board, however, they, along with the rest of the crew, discover that their now revealed captain has been all but destroyed in an encounter with a vast animal called a white whale and that their ship, the Pequod, is embarking upon a mission to extract vengeance. Captain Ahab is intent, nay single-mindedly obsessed with hunting down his attacker and repaying its compliment. A simple irony about Ahab is that having lost his leg in his encounter with Moby Dick, he now supports himself on a false leg made of whalebone, tapered at the base so it locks in a deck socket for stability. Thus anchored, supported by the very material he seeks to destroy, he surveys the sea for evidence of his prey. He does find his goal and pursues it for three days. Ishmael lives to tell the tale. But those particular events are more than one hundred and thirty chapters in the reader’s future after first encountering Ishmael seeking work in Nantucket.
In Moby Dick Herman Melville places us firmly in the middle of the nineteenth century. Modern readers must bear in mind that assumptions will be challenged by what has changed in the intervening decades. This was an age before electricity, before mass travel, before immediate communication over distance. But it was also an age when the industrial exploitation of the earth’s resources, animal as well as mineral, was not just under way, but was seen as an essential and desired end that might provide employment, generate wealth and benefit human life. As readers today, we must therefore attempt, for that is all we can do, to relieve ourselves of our novel positions on the activity the book describes. This was an era when killing whales for extraction of profit was quite normal, if, for most people, still a distant, dangerous, even fabulous activity. Reading a whodunnit does not indicate acceptance of murder, so exposure to Moby Dick does not imply support of whaling. And making this required mental shift will unlock the tremendous power, immediacy and indeed wisdom of this masterpiece.
That whaling happened, that a large industry grew up and was sustained by the activity and that people lived the life that it demanded is indisputable. Like all history, we are never condemned to repeat it, but we are also reminded that, though we remain free to reinterpret it, we are powerless to change it. And this book, almost like no other, is replete with the whaling experience which is now so foreign to us. We do, via Herman Melville’s magnificent narrative, enter into that world, that pursuance of life and death, and the experience is not for the faint hearted.
But what is most surprising about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is its form, or indeed its lack of it. The effect is strikingly modern, in that the novel is not presented as a linear narrative. Instead, Moby Dick presents facts about whales, descriptions of the whaling process, details of its contemporary setting and, above all, portraits of the characters who populate the Pequod and are pressed into partnering Ahab’s mission. In some ways, Moby Dick presents a total experience of a microcosm, often so focused it does its subject literally to death, but in other ways so lacking in focus that a reader can profitably dig in and out of the book almost at random.
And despite the location of the subject matter in a particular time, some of its themes are also relevant to our contemporary society. For example, through Ishmael’s narrative Herman Melville addresses the question of what kind of animal the whale might be. He is aware of Linnaeus and the modern concept of species. He is aware of the evidence that whales, unlike fish, give birth and suckle their young with mother’s milk. The Bible, however, describes Jonah’s encounter as being definitively with a fish, and so that is that, and thus the question is unarguably answered. The whale has to be a fish, since God may not be contradicted. What more perfect example of fact-ignoring fake news or conspiracy theory could one imagine?
Ahab, certainly, is a tyrant, but he is perhaps not the totalitarian dictator that some interpretations demand. He is driven by a personal mission and recruits others, perhaps by deceit, perhaps by stealth, to further his ends. Now a flawed human being, he uses the able bodies of his recruits to pursue his ends and rise above his own limitations. But though he does conduct his pursuit on his own terms in his own autocratic way, eventually he leads his own chase, his personal vendetta and tunnel vision relieving him of his better judgment, whereas a modern dictator would have the exit strategy ready before any risk might be considered. Essentially, Ahab is the ultimate politician who recruits unquestioning and loyal followers who become part owners of individual drive. And then, like any politician who needs to exert pressure, he calls upon his followers to amplify himself, albeit unsuccessfully. All political careers, we are told, end in failure.
Overall, once the paradigm shift in the reader’s assumption is made, Melville’s Moby Dick presents a thoroughly modern and therefore a thoroughly surprising experience. The subject matter may not be fashionable today, but then it reminds us that today’s preoccupations and assumed values might soon themselves appear both pointless and, indeed, repulsive.