The Maybe-Reliable Narrator

In fiction the narrator is the person or persons who tells the story. This could be a character in the story, or the narrative could come from somebody who is not in the story — a voice that the author chooses to write in. The Fiction Dictionary defines narrator as “the consciousness that tells the story.” Choosing this consciousness is almost always a difficult job for the writer. Often a very, very difficult job.

When a character within the story is the narrator and tells the story from his/her point of view, the reader almost immediately feels great interest in both the story and in the narrator, mainly because the point of view seems so personal. Classic examples of novels with first-person narrators are Great Expectations (Pip is the narrator) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Huck is the narrator). A more modern example is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, whose narrator is 15-year-old Christopher, who is autistic.

Multiple first-person narrators are represented by Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, some of whose chapters are told by Benjy, some by Quentin, and some by Jason, all of them in their own first-person point of view. Thus the reader gets to know three different narrators.  

There is also the first-person plural narrator, as employed by David Levithan in Two Boys Kissing. In this book the narrators are a collective group (thus they speak as “we”) of dead gay men who were victims of AIDS.

Some first-person narrators fall into the category known as “unreliable narrator,” others into the category of “naive” narrator. The naive narrator is usually too young to understand the story she or he is telling, or too inexperienced or perhaps not intelligent enough. 

The unreliable narrator is one who can’t be trusted to tell the story objectively, or perhaps even truthfully. Examples abound in Poe’s short stories (you do not want to trust some of his narrators, such as the one in “The Tell-Tale Heart”). And while the narrator of Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” seems objective, he is not (as the reader eventually learns) a reliable narrator.

A first-person narrator is most often the book’s protagonist, but there are also minor character narrators. Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance is narrated by a minor character, as is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The Sherlock Holmes stories are narrated by Watson, who is not the main character. 

What a writer might gain by having a minor first-person narrator is the ability to present things about the major characters that they couldn’t present if they themselves were the narrators. Among other things, this includes physical descriptions, as well as any deeds that might seem like bragging if mentioned by the major character. And brilliance: Sherlock Holmes seen by Watson is brilliant beyond belief. Seen from his own point of view, he might not appear so supreme because he would have to share his reasoning with us as he told the story, rather than spring it upon us at the end.

What a writer might lose by having a minor first-person narrator is reader interest. When reading first-person narrator, minor character, I often question why the person telling the story isn’t  more immediately involved in it, isn’t the person who drives the action forward. A minor character narrator puts a certain distance between the reader and the protagonist. 

When a story is told from the third-person point of view, the narrator is a consciousness outside the story, not a character inside the story. Third-person point of view can be omniscient, meaning that the consciousness telling the story knows everything about everybody. Or it can be limited, meaning that the consciousness looks into the mind of only one character, or only a few characters.

Dickens’ Bleak House is an excellent example of the third-person omniscient,  as is Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The omniscient narrator was popular in the 19th century but is much less popular today. Although this narrator technique might feel easy to handle, it’s difficult to master. Bad handling of the omniscient narrator results in what’s called “head-hopping” — the consciousness jumps from the head of one person into the head of another, sometimes in the same paragraph or even the same sentence. 

Modern-day novels that employ third-person limited narrators are the Harry Potter stories and the Harry Bosch novels.

And then there’s the intrusive narrator, which is an omniscient narrator who suddenly — from way out in the universe where he or she is hovering  —  speaks to the reader! As in, “Dear Reader, what do you think of this situation?” 

In previous centuries such addressing of the reader was, if not common, at least not exotic. But I was quite surprised (startled, even) when I began to read Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux and, lo and behold, the omniscient narrator spoke to me. I soon adjusted to this aspect of Despereaux, and I thought DiCamillo handled it very well. Her technique helped give the story a far-away, old-time, fairy-tale kind of atmosphere.

Sometimes the idea for a story comes to a writer without the narrator. That is, the writer sees the characters and events that will become the story, but doesn’t see who is telling the story. When the idea for a story arrives this way, the writer may have great difficulty deciding how to tell the story. First Person? If so, major or minor? reliable or unreliable?  Third person? If so, omniscient or limited? If limited, then limited to how many characters?

Sometimes the decision is so difficult that a writer makes a guess and writes the story, or part of it, with the selected narrator — but then feels that’s not right, so changes to a different narrator. This means rewriting EVERYTHING, because narrators do not experience, see, or feel the same things. So the whole story has to be rewritten, presenting it to the reader through a new consciousness.

In fiction the depth and pervasiveness of the narrator is of great importance to a reader’s enjoyment of and understanding of the story. And that is why choosing a story’s point of view (and thus choosing the narrator) is such a difficult part of writing.

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She’s on First is told in third person limited, from the points of view of four different characters.

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Part II

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel was somewhat easy to write, probably because I had been thinking about it for three years. Some chapters took me a day to write, some two or three days. I went at it steadily, so that I would never lose touch with the purpose of the book and the tone of the book.

After I finished, I let a couple of weeks go by, and then I sat down with the manuscript and read it critically, marking it up heavily. From these marked-up pages I wrote the second draft. I showed that draft to my first two readers, listened to what they had to say, and wrote the third draft. I showed that to two more readers, and wrote the fourth (final) draft.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, my actual working title for this book was Writing the Mystery Novel, even though there were a few books with that title already out there. I knew that at some point I would change the title. When that time came, I read up on what constitutes a good nonfiction title. And subtitle. 

Many articles suggested making the title humorous and the subtitle serious. But I felt I wanted the main title to carry the message of what the book is, so that anybody searching for it could find it easily. And I wanted the subtitle to reflect what was in the book. Once I decided to title the book Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel, it took me maybe a minute to come up with the subtitle, Lots of Examples. I liked the down-to-earth feeling of the word “Lots,” which is of course colloquial. 

It’s amazing how our subconscious works parallel to and in step with our consciousness on occasions. No sooner had I deliberately, consciously chosen the colloquial Lots of Examples than, out of nowhere, my subconscious prodded, Plus Dead Bodies.

So I spent maybe three hours reading up on and thinking about nonfiction titles, about five minutes deciding on my main title, and about two minutes coming up with the subtitle. But the five minutes and two minutes would never have given me the solution had I not spent those three hours researching and thinking.

Every time I decide to self-publish a book, I ask Robin Koontz to design the cover. I’m always thrilled with her cover designs, and this one is no exception. It was Robin who came up with the idea of crime scene markers for the subtitle of the book and also for the inside chapter titles. I love it! In fact, even though I know about crime scene tape, I was unaware of crime scene markers — but I am so glad that Robin was aware of them! 

Robin also came up with the dead body (don’t ask how!), the layout, the colors, and the typefaces. An immensely appealing cover, I think. (Thank you, Robin!)

Designers put great thought into not only the front cover of books, but also the back cover. Personally, I find back covers difficult to decide on. The back cover of She’s on First contains review quotes: such testimonial blurbs are the most common back cover item. The back covers of Dirty Proof and Sound Proof contain book descriptions: sort of what the inside flap copy would be like in a hardback book.

The back cover of Research Notes Volume 1 contains extensive about-the-author information. The back cover of Volume 2 contains two long review quotes about Volume 1. The back cover of Jack and Larry contains five testimonials from sources with clout. The back cover of my poetry collection, Crossing the Skyway, contains nothing but the continuation of color from the front of the cover.

For Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel, I was seriously thinking of describing the contents of the book (as with Dirty Proof and Sound Proof), but Robin Koontz came up with a better idea. She took the topics discussed in the twenty-five chapters and created an attractive, intriguing, eye-catching collage of these topics for the back cover. This is my favorite of all the back covers of all my books.

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel was the eighth book I self-published, but it was the first of those books to contain an index. If I were using such a book as Guide and had finished reading it, then at a later date wanted to refresh my memory about what the author said about, say, subplots, I would want an index — because I couldn’t assume that every comment about subplots would be within the chapter on subplots.

So I asked Sharon Johnson, a friend who’s a professional indexer, and who indexed Women at Play back in 1993, if she would create the index. She said she would (Thank you, Sharon!), and the book has an index. I hope that many people find this index useful.

It’s interesting how things work out. If I hadn’t written my first mystery, Dirty Proof, I wouldn’t have written a second mystery with the same detective hero. And if I hadn’t written that second mystery, Sound Proof, and used it when teaching, I would have never written Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. In fiction, one thing leads to another. Just as in life.

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Barbara Gregorich’s most recent book is Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers. 

The Beguilement of Subplots

Subplots are secondary plots within a novel, less important than the main plot but, in most cases, tied to the main plot.

Sometimes a subplot is strongly related to the main plot, perhaps providing contrast to it or perhaps running parallel to it. In Sound Proof the main plot revolves around Frank Dragovic trying to discover who murdered the fiddler. The subplot involving blackmail notes runs parallel to the main plot and even complicates it.

Some subplots have little relationship to the main plot. Instead, they seem to exist mainly to provide a change of scene or to inject a note of humor. They are diversions from the main story. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the subplot in which Tom attempts to get his friends to whitewash the fence is not related to the main plot.

Of the two types of subplots (related to main plot; outside the main plot), I as a reader strongly prefer the former. It seems to me that such subplots enrich the main plot significantly. They are like an intricately patterned Celtic knot, all entwined. The “outside the main plot” subplots are like two pieces of rope laid side by side. Not that interesting.

Adult novels might have three or four subplots for sure, and perhaps more, depending on the writer’s style and intentions. Too many subplots, though, and their sheer weight and number will detract from the main plot. A novel is a planned dinner with a featured entree — not a smorgasbord with twenty dishes to choose from.

Sometimes an author chooses to make backstory a subplot. I’ve always found this interesting, because there’s a tension between the story from the past and the story from the present, the moving back and forth between them. In She’s on First, the Amanda backstory is a subplot.

Like the main plot, each subplot will have its own story arc. It will contain action; it may occur in a different location; it may occur at a different time; and it may contain different characters. The key here is that a subplot has its own development: it’s a story within a story.

By its very nature a subplot interrupts the main story and thus breaks up the linear narrative. This provides relief from the main plot, giving readers a time to breathe and to consider something else . . . something intriguingly related to the main plot. (Or not.) Well-developed subplots end up increasing reader understanding of the story.

Subplots help develop characterization in a novel, by showing us things from somebody else’s view, or showing us parallel or contrasting events from another time. They help develop theme for much the same reasons.

I’m rewriting a 10,000-word early chapter book and have to stop to think whether it contains any subplots. I realize that, yes, it does contain one subplot which runs parallel to the main plot and then, at the end, intersects with the main plot.

I, along with many other readers, find great satisfaction when a subplot intersects with and becomes part of the main plot. Sometimes this occurs midway through the novel, which means that particular subplot is no longer a subplot but has become part of the main plot. Sometimes, as in my early chapter book, it occurs near the end of the novel, in which case the subplot is a subplot for a longer period of time.

In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler states that each subplot in a story should have at least three “beats.” That is, it should appear at least three times in the story. This gives the subplot weight, helps establish it in the reader’s mind, and helps anchor it to the main plot in one way or another.

When I’m forced, for one reason or another, to outline one of my manuscripts, I type the main plot in black, flush left. I type each subplot in a different color, flush right. That way, I can easily see the relationship of subplots to main plot. Is there a subplot in every chapter? Every other chapter? Are all the subplots lumped together? If so, I need to separate them and space them better throughout the story. Typing up an outline in this manner allows me to better develop the relationship between the main plot and the subplots.

Subplots have been around at least since Shakespeare’s time, indicating that master storytellers know the importance of weaving subplots into their main story. It’s difficult to imagine a novel that doesn’t contain subplots — I think such a work would be so single-minded as to feel thin, no matter the theme. Subplots add richness to the mixture.
 

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Barbara Gregorich begins Sound Proof with the main plot and one of the subplots developing in the first chapter.

Rewriting: Macro

One of the most difficult things about rewriting is knowing where to begin. The first draft of a book consists largely of the writer telling the story to herself, making things up as she goes along, creating characters and conflict, creating rising action, climax and conclusion. A lot can — and does — go wrong during this process. Knowing that there are many things wrong with a first draft, a writer is often overwhelmed with how and where to begin the changes.

Enter the Sorting Hat, which may divide your rewrites into two boxes. Perhaps three. Maybe, even . . . four. The first box is always Macro — Big Things That You Need to Change. There may be a Middle box, and there will be a Micro Box: small things that need to be polished.

sorting-hatThe problem is, the Sorting Hat merely lets you know there are at least two boxes. It’s up to you to read your manuscript critically and decide what the macro changes are. In fact, you end up doing the sorting yourself while the Hat looks on, doing nothing.

I believe it’s critical to separate all the medium-sized changes and small changes your novel may need from the BIG changes it needs. Don’t try to make all the necessary changes in one rewrite: it’s usually much too difficult to be dealing with correcting big things and little things in the same go-round. In fact, human nature being a bit on the lazy side, many people will ignore the big things and correct only the little ones, thinking they’re doing a good job of rewriting.

Macro problems can include structural problems, character problems, balance between scene and summary, and plot problems, for example. Overwriting (purple prose, explaining too much, heavy exposition, and so on) might be a macro problem, but I usually think it’s a Medium problem: at least in comparison to structural problems, point of view problems, and character-development problems.

A writer must deal with the macro issues before attempting the micro rewrites — it does little good to have powerful words and beautiful sentences in a book that has major flaws in structure, conflict, point of view, and narrative.

Probably the first thing any teacher of writing will explain about rewriting is that before you rewrite, let the manuscript rest. Relax. Idle. Do nothing. After I finish the first draft of a manuscript, I try to let both fiction and nonfiction sit around untouched for anywhere from one to three months before I attempt my first rewrite.

Resting time is important because the writer, having spent a year or more writing a book, is too “into” the manuscript to see what major rewriting the story may require. Letting the manuscript rest allows you to go on with other things in your life (preferably without thinking of the manuscript in much detail) so that when you do return, you can see the story with more objectivity — you are distancing yourself from the “you” who wrote the first draft. When approaching my first rewrite of a book, I adopt the attitude that the person who wrote it is somebody I know and like, but somebody whose story I am going to improve greatly by looking at it objectively.

imagesAlmost always, the first draft is full of flab: loose, excess flesh. Not a pretty image, I know. The flab must be toned up. The toning comes from cutting. You must cut paragraphs, pages, entire scenes or chunks of narrative that you labored over for months or years. This cutting will do wonders for your story which, now free of excess, looks leaner, meaner, and fit.

How much of your first draft is flab? That varies, of course. My first draft of She’s on First (my first novel) was 400 pages long. My agent told me: “Cut 100 pages and then I’ll represent it.”

I did cut 100 pages. (102, if I recall.) What I cut mainly was repetition . . . descriptions that weren’t necessary . . . transitions that could be replaced by wordless white space . . . scenes that could be summarized or shortened. At first I thought this would be painful. But it wasn’t. In fact, it felt good to improve my story and my writing by tightening it.

In the macro rewrite, a writer needs to look at balance — the balance between showing and telling or, to use technical terms, the balance between scene and narrative/summary.

The more common error is to write too much narrative and not enough scene. That’s probably because narrative is easier to write: we just sit down and begin typing. Scene is more difficult. If we’re writing fiction, we must imagine our characters in conflict and show this with realistic dialogue and action. If writing nonfiction, we can still include scenes, but then we must watch for too much detail, too much description.

An easy way to see whether you have some sort of balance between scene and summary is to take a yellow marker and highlight the scenes. If they’re few and far between, this means your book is almost exclusively narrative. That might work for some nonfiction, but it doesn’t work for fiction, whose readers want drama.

Backstory and flashbacks are devices the writer sometimes needs to tell the story. But in the first draft we tend to use these devices in Big. Chunks. that are Pages. Long. In the macro rewrite, it’s necessary to pulverize these chunks into smooth granules and sprinkle them throughout the book. In my first rewrite of Sound Proof I was able to eliminate all the backstory I had stuffed into chapter two and sprinkle it in a few places throughout chapter one.

Often character problems fall into the Macro box. In writing She’s on First I needed to develop several of the characters more, which meant I needed to think about their goals, their motivation, and their actions. Developing characters in a different or additional way is difficult for me: they seem to be what they are when I’ve completed the first draft, and changing my perception of them is hard. But sometimes this must be done, and I’ve found that it can be done, no matter how difficult it appears at first. Sometimes, though, the main problem with a character is . . . he or she isn’t necessary to the story. That means (Gulp!) Getting. Rid. Of. The. Character. Believe me, this is even more difficult than  improving a character’s motivations.

Most writers, I suspect, find the macro rewrite difficult. I do. It involves a lot of major changes, and these aren’t easy. But when I finish my first rewrite, I always feel good. The roadbed has been bulldozed and leveled, the pavement put down. What remains to be done is a lot more fun than all that heavy work. I will talk about micro rewriting in another blog — after I recuperate from all this heavy work.

 

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Earl Derr Biggers rewrote each of his novels once, publishing the second draft. Barbara Gregorich rewrites most of her books three times, usually publishing the fourth draft.

Keeper of the Keys: A Delightful Conceit

UnknownA conceit can be an artistic effect or an imaginative notion. In novel-writing a conceit can be thought of as a concept or setup. In Earl Derr Biggers’ last novel, Keeper of the Keys, the conceit works to control the structure of the plot and also to entertain the reader. The conceit (which must have delighted Biggers) is this: five more-or-less ex-husbands of the same diva meet in an isolated Lake Tahoe home in order to answer a question. The diva herself is invited to attend the meeting. The result is murder.

Did ex-husband number one kill her because she had hidden a secret from him for seventeen years? Or was it ex-husband number two, who was both angry and humiliated by her running out on him after a few brief months of marriage. Perhaps it was ex-husband number three, a calculating sort who was actually hiding the information that number one craved.

Ex-husband number four isn’t really an ex, not until the Reno divorce becomes final. Once the diva is murdered, however, the divorce isn’t necessary, and number four hopes he inherits all her wealth. Is he the guilty ex?

Or perhaps it’s husband-to-be number five, himself a talented singer who happens to be fifteen years younger than the diva. And, yes, who has been promised that he will inherit all her houses and all her wealth.

Charlie Chan is hired by Dudley Ward (ex number one) to visit his Lake Tahoe home and attend a dinner party at which the other exes will be present. A dinner party at which Ward will ask each of the ex-husbands whether it’s true that, after she divorced him, Ellen Landini bore a son whom she gave up for adoption. Chan’s job is to detect whether the other exes are telling the truth when answering Ward’s question.

Literary critics have written that of the six Chan novels, Keeper of the Keys is the one in which Biggers does a classic job of putting clues in plain sight, thus allowing readers an opportunity to fit the pieces together and solve the crime. I will say that when I first read this novel, at the age of sixteen, I wasn’t able to put the clues together and solve the mystery. In fact, I’m pretty sure I missed the main clue altogether. However, like the murder method in the first Chan novel and like the solution to the fourth Chan novel, the revealing clue in the sixth novel is memorable. In each of my subsequent readings of Keeper of the Keys, I remembered what the clue was and thus who the murderer was. In many ways this book reminds me of an Agatha Christie novel (whose title escapes me) in which the murderer is known to have a physical deformity — which turns out to be something quite unremarkable, but which I remember each time I read the book.

Having come to national fame as a writer of romantic escapade novels (Seven Keys to Baldpate, 1913), Biggers never constructed a plot that didn’t contain a romance. In the first Chan novel the romance was the main thread, the mystery a tad secondary. By the time he wrote his sixth Chan, Biggers clearly relegated the romance to second place. In Keeper of the Keys the romance doesn’t enter until after the murder.

Granlibakken-TMW-112416-3-4As always, Biggers excels at creating setting. His Lake Tahoe and Truckee of the early 1930s are vivid, and Charlie’s delight at experiencing snow for the first time is wonderful to read about.

Perhaps because the setting is cold, Chan is more physically active than in any of the previous novels. He climbs trees, he tracks footprints in the snow, he wrestles with an opponent in the dark, and so on. Though he’s at a disadvantage because of his age and obesity, Chan wins out over his adversaries.

One of Biggers’ greatest accomplishments in his final Chan novel is the criss-cross pattern of character revelation. When we first meet Ellen Landini, we see her as self-centered, selfish, and oblivious to anything other than what she wants at the moment. As Chan observes of her constantly looking for a husband other than the one she currently has: “Ginger grown in one’s own garden is not so pungent.” Landini’s line of character revelation starts out at the bottom: but by the time the book ends, new information moves that line upward.

The murderer’s line of character revelation, on the other hand, starts out at the top, with the character being perceived as congenial, fair, and considerate. But by the book’s end, new information moves that character line downward, toward the bottom. The paths cross in a giant X, with the murderer starting out at the top left of the X and plummeting downward; the victim starting at the bottom left of the X and moving upward.

Had Biggers not died at a relatively young age, he would have gone on to write more Chan novels. Based on his evolution as a mystery writer in just six books, it seems fair to say that he would have come up with even more fascinating conceits, settings, and character development.

 

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In Sound Proof Barbara Gregorich employs a delightful conceit of three different crimes — theft, blackmail, murder — committed at the same music festival.

 

The Great White Whale: Part 2

UnknownIn my most recent re-reading of Moby Dick I was struck by the organization of the book — something I paid scant attention to in previous readings. Specifically, this time around I became aware that Ahab doesn’t enter the book until a quarter of the way through; that the first whale is killed about half way through; and that only the last three chapters contain the face-to-face confrontations between Ahab and the crew on one hand, the great white whale on the other.

This time around it felt to me as if Melville had artfully designed a trawling net, wide at the front end (the first half of the book), tapering to a narrow end where the fish/readers are inevitably led. I realized as I neared the last quarter of the book how I had been led into a more and more focused world (Ahab’s wish to kill Moby Dick). Everything that came before seemed to push toward this end — and there was no escape.

It was an especially gloomy feeling to me to know that for the men on board the Pequod, there was likewise no escape.

During my most recent reading I found to my surprise how many of the symbols I remembered. For example, I remembered that “all men live enveloped in whale lines.” Likewise, we are tied to others through monkey-ropes.

One of my favorite symbols appears in the chapter titled “The Tail,” where Ishmael describes the whale’s tale: “Being horizontal in its position, the Leviathan’s tail acts in a different manner from the tails of all other sea creatures. It never wriggles. In man or fish, wriggling is a sign of inferiority.”

Moby_Dick_final_chaseAlthough Ahab’s single-minded, unheeding obsession with the great white whale bothered me even the first time I read the book, only in subsequent readings did I come to realize the immorality of Ahab’s actions: not just toward the natural world, but also toward his fellow humans, chief among them his crew, but also fellow sailors he encounters on the high seas.

This inhumanity is highlighted toward the near end of the book, when a man he knows, a fellow captain from Nantucket, begs for his help, for only 48 hours. The captain’s young son has been lost at sea in a whaling boat that didn’t return and can’t be found. Even Stubbs’ heart turns for the better: ‘We must save that boy!” he cries.

But Ahab cold-heartedly refuses and orders the captain off his ship. Ahab is for pursuit of Moby Dick and will let absolutely nothing stand in his way.

As Ahab pursues the White Whale, getting closer and closer, the omens and symbolism increase. During the typhoon, the lightning turns around the Pequod’s compass needle so that it points to the opposite of reality: the needle points East when the ship is sailing West. Ahab himself turns around reality: all he sees is what Moby Dick did to him (bit off his leg). Which is significantly less than what he tried to do to Moby Dick (kill him.)

Once the great white whale is sighted, the book rushes toward its conclusion in a very dramatic way. The last three chapters are titled “The Chase — First Day,” “The Chase — Second Day,” and “The Chase — Third Day.” Each of the first two days, Ahab is warned. The first day, Moby Dick bites the whaling boat in half and Ahab falls into the sea, saved by the Pequod.

e2c146a3fdc967d78893f68a79d8a8ee--penguin-classics-melvilleThe second day Moby Dick breaches, which all see as an act of defiance. Having breached, the great white whale turns and heads for the three crewboats, smashing each of them. The whale then moves on, going its own way.

On the third day Ahab realizes he was “befooled, befooled!” That is, he fooled himself into thinking he was immortal. Even knowing that — even knowing that his crew and ship will perish if he persists — Ahab plunges on. That is when Moby Dick turns on the Pequod, smashing it in half with his majestic forehead. The ship goes down and all but Ishmael perish.

“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.”

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Barbara Gregorich has read Moby Dick four times, siding with the great white whale each time.

The Great White Whale: Part 1

images-3Call me Captivated. That’s how I felt when, at the age of 19, I first read Moby Dick. It was unlike any book I had read — at once intimate but academic, earthy but technical, wide in its subject matter yet focused on Ahab’s pursuit of the whale. I felt in the hands of a writer who was going to take me on an important voyage.

Before I actually read the novel, I had been aware of the story. When I was eleven or twelve years old, I read a Classic Comics version of Moby Dick. The art, the narrative, the dialogue, the way the story moved, the subject matter — I loved all of these things. My parents took my brother and me to see the movie, which came out in 1956 and starred Gregory Peck as Ahab. I don’t remember much about the movie . . . I think I found it long and not as interesting as the Classic Comics version.

Despite the fact that he wrote a long, highly technical, intricate novel, Melville (unlike the authors he was surrounded by such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne) never went to college. “. . . a whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” he wrote in Moby Dick.

Before he became a writer, Melville was a whaler. As such, he knew of the 1820 real-life wreck of the whaling ship Essex, sunk by a sperm whale, and he read the first-hand account about that wreck, written by the ship’s first mate, Owen Chase.

One can imagine what the whale must have felt, relentlessly pursued by a ship that wanted to murder it. If whales think, it surely must have thought or felt: “I must strike back.”

And so it did.

I like to think that Melville sided with that whale.

Moby Dick wasn’t much appreciated during Melville’s lifetime. Readers and critics of the 20th century, however, came to understand this vast, awe-inspiring novel. Perhaps one of the first to start what is now called the Melville Revival was British author D.H. Lawrence, who in 1923 published a small but insightful book, Studies in Classic American Literature. This book was one of my reading assignments for an undergraduate American Literature class. I found myself laughing at many of the passages in which Lawrence mocked American obsessions. But beneath his humor and mockery, Lawrence had the greatest respect for Moby Dick. He concluded: “. . . as a revelation of destiny the book is too deep even for sorrow. Profound beyond feeling.”

Just a few years ago I read a small but powerful book, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby Dick, published in 2011. I highly recommend this pithy 21st century look at a masterpiece.

Each time I read Moby Dick, I’m struck by the powerful beauty of the great white whale, “. . . seen gliding at high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings.”

It is this natural beauty that Ahab pursues, in order to annihilate it, just as whalers annihilated whales to near extinction.

New Zealand was the first of the twentieth-century whaling nations to give up whaling. That was in 1964. A few years ago I saw the traveling exhibit, “Whales: Giants of the Deep,” presented by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. One of the many things I learned was that there are very rare whales about which little is known. If I recall, they swim very deep and spend much of their time underwater.

Considering how humans have hunted whales, these rare whales may be doing the wise thing. Perhaps they, too, know the story of Moby Dick . . . but from the whale’s point of view.

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Barbara Gregorich has read Moby Dick four times, siding with the great white whale each time.