More to Think About

Moby-Dick is such a rich book with so much going on that I’ve left just tons of things by the wayside that I would love to have picked up and run with. Some things you might think about as you digest the book:

  • The tension between land/grass/prairie and the sea. The book is just brimming with these contrasts. Does Melville draw this contrast so starkly (and almost systematically) merely for effect or is there some more significant reason for it?
  • Moby-Dick is published in the decade prior to the Civil War with slavery as a backdrop. The fear of mutiny makes an appearance several times in the book (not least of all in one of the longest chapters, “The Town Ho’s Story”). Melville also wrote about conscription and mutiny in other works (Billy Budd comes to mind). To what extent and to what effect is Melville writing here about freedom of will and, by extension, about slavery?
  • Was Melville gay? Lots of historians have suggested that he may have been (some even that he may have made a sort of pass at his good buddy Hawthorne, effecting something of an estrangement). How much of Moby-Dick is it reasonable to read with homosexuality as a focus?
  • I’ve written already about the two Moby-Dicks, but I think it would be fascinating to trace the idea further and to see how much water that theory really holds.
  • Is there any use in considering the almost total absence of women in Moby-Dick? Or do we just figure that whaling was a predominately male-run industry and move on to another topic? (Or do we suggest that, as women are largely absent from Melville’s work as a whole, he was perhaps uncomfortable writing about women? And if so, do we add this supposition to the gay question?)
  • There are a lot of interesting — and potentially significant — names in Moby-Dick. George Stewart examines some of these in his article about the two Moby-Dicks in an effort to understand the different modes of composition (ie, does using particularly symbolically significant names suggest a higher style, and do significant names devoid of any traceable symbolism suggest a lower style, and the two styles a shift in mode of composition?). Stewart’s project aside, I think it’d be fun to do a detailed analysis of all the major names, their historical significance, and how they bear on the character (or ship) they’re attached to.
  • In flipping through the edition of Moby-Dick I used during college (I used a different edition this time around), I found a bunch of places where I had marked poetic scansion, typically scanning roughly as iambic pentameter. This isn’t really a terribly uncommon meter even in natural, spoken English (a professor once cited the example “a footlong hot dog all the way to go”), but I still perk up when I’m reading along and find a line that just stops me in my tracks with its sudden unmissable meter. A careful examination of the meter of Moby-Dick would be painstaking but fascinating.
  • Those who have done film or stage adaptations of Moby-Dick have mined it for drama. But I’ve never done a systematic survey of all of the book’s dramatic elements. Might be fun. (By the way, I had lined up an interview with a member of the Dallas opera’s production of Moby-Dick, but it seems to have fallen through.)
  • If you’re like me, you finally wind up just getting tired of looking up all the references to historical or mythological people or events you don’t know much about (I’m looking at you, Xerxes). Powermobydick glosses most (if not all) of these, but I crave a proper and thorough index complete with discussion of the particular relevance of these references to the text.
  • Melville writes a lot about darkness and light. No doubt some enterprising Master’s student has written a thesis on this.
  • Hawthorne and Melville were good buddies during much of the composition of Moby-Dick. Their friendship has been considered at some length in various places, but I never made much of it here. And what about Transcendentalism (or anti-) as an influence on Moby-Dick?
  • I have a bad habit of romanticizing the past. People sat around talking philosophy and reading all day long and were generally just a whole lot smarter and more widely-read than we are now, I tend to think. But consider this: Fewer than 2500 copies of Moby-Dick were sold in the three years following its publication in America, and over a period of 35 years, it sold 3,215 copies (roughly 27 copies a year). Did people merely loan books to one another a lot more than we do now, or was there really that little interest? I know Moby-Dick did not sell well, but was it vastly atypical? What kind of sales did Hawthorne (a very popular author) have, I wonder? Did he sell 5,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 copies of his popular books? What would the answers to some of these questions say about the true state of reading and of the intelligentsia of Melville’s time compared to now?
  • Life after Moby-Dick for Melville was really sad. He was something of a drinker and wound up going on speaking tours at the events of which he mumbled through his speeches. Under the right circumstances in private life, he was an animated speaker, though. One of his sons committed suicide, and though Melville seems to have been affected by that, he was by some accounts not a terribly kind man to live with. The tenderness that appears through much of Moby-Dick makes this all hard to swallow. He died more or less forgotten.
  • Delbanco writes of Melville as something of a precursor to the postmodern writers (I’ve touched on this before). It’s not something I had ever thought about prior to this read (having really encountered postmodern literature some time after my first few encounters with Moby-Dick). A survey of some of the ways in which he anticipates less conventional modes of writing has no doubt been done and would make an interesting read.
  • Who is the hero of Moby-Dick? Matt Bucher asked a question along these lines at the beginning. Paul (either here or at his own blog) saw a glimmer of the heroic figure in Queequeg, and George Stewart suggests that Queequeg may have been a the hero in Melville’s early conception of the novel, but he fades into the background. Ishmael can hardly be called the hero, and Ahab — though possessed of the tragic elements of a tragic hero — probably lacks the heroic elements of a hero. Is there a main character or hero in Moby-Dick? Who? Why?

Thanks for reading along over the past few weeks. I’ve really enjoyed having an excuse to read the book (and related matter) with some care, and I’ve found a lot of the reactions to Moby-Dick (e.g., that it’s full of humor) to be very gratifying. I suspect there’ll be a few more straggling posts about Moby-Dick (I know that artist Matt Kish has a few more planned), but this post probably marks my last on the book. I’m mentally composing a post about my first beef with Ulysses already.

6 thoughts on “More to Think About

  1. Paul July 1, 2010 / 11:12 am

    Thanks Daryl, for this post and all you did for M-D. I’m hoping to do a recap post on Monday (which I’ll post here too). I’ll definitely be thinking about these issues before posting, too.

  2. Aadam Aziz Ansari July 1, 2010 / 12:08 pm

    If anything, I would consider Ahab the antagonist and Moby-Dick the protagonist. A monomaniacal captain destroys himself and everything around him in pursuit of a creature who’s only sin is defending himself against his hunters. He just happens to be very good at killing whalers.

    His whiteness is usually described as symbolizing death and destruction, but I tend to think that this is because Ahab, Ishmael and others react with horror at this color. Why can’t his whiteness reflect his purity and simplicity, whereas Ahab et al.’s revulsion reflect their own lack thereof? He is, after all, just a whale.

    You could also squeeze a Man and Technology v. Nature discussion out of this if you were so inclined, but I am not.

    • Aadam Aziz Ansari July 1, 2010 / 12:11 pm

      Double post:

      Think about this – If all these events were written from the perspective of the whale, would you consider Moby-Dick as anything other than the hero?

    • Sorrento July 2, 2010 / 12:16 am

      But if you do conflate the whale with death (but not with evil) and nature, then Ahab (imo) becomes very sympathetic. The whale forced Ahab to confront his own mortality. And he balked at it. Instead of accepting it (which would be the healthy, simple, pure, and natural thing) he tries to defeat it. Of course we know that he must fail (man vs. nature, or whatnot) but I think we can sympathize with the idea of just not-accepting death. After all, isn’t an awareness of the inevitability of death a key part of being human? Ahab’s attempt at immortality may be immature and even evil on some level, but it is human in a way that the whale and nature can never be.

  3. Daryl L. L. Houston July 1, 2010 / 3:21 pm

    It seems to me that the jury’s out (for Ishmael, at least) on whether or not Moby Dick is in fact just a dumb brute. I have trouble not thinking here of the claim often made at the time (and used as a justification for slavery) that black people were also just dumb brutes incapable of reason. I’ve read an interpretation that some of the cetology and classification in Moby-Dick emulates the way people used to classify one another (ie, white people at the top of the great chain of being and black people just above or on par with the more intelligent animals, and then going down and down from there). I may be conflating a couple of interpretive questions here, though. I don’t think I’d go so far as to call Moby Dick the protagonist, but I can certainly agree that Ahab is a sort of antagonist, or at least a very special type of protagonist.

    Your second comment reminded me that John Gardener wrote a version of Beowulf told from the perspective of Grendel.

  4. Sarah July 14, 2010 / 4:34 pm

    Fascinating points, Daryl. I found myself wondering about the lack of women also. Plenty of wonderings, not much in the way of answers. I was also thrilled to recognise the different kinds of phraseology. Not thinking in terms of scansion and iambic thingy, but just recognising direct parallels with specific quotes from Shakespeare and occasionally the Bible.

    I regret not completing my personal project as regards blogging, but I am delighted to have finally read (and thoroughly enjoyed) the book, laying to rest what turn out to have been some totally unneccesary ghosts. Big thanks to you for running this fantastic project.

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