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.