In the New York Times Book Review Zadie Smith revealed that her father gave her a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses before he passed away. He confessed he never read it. In turn, Zadie Smith wrote that she never read Moby Dick. It is not unusual. During a college tour a professor gave a short lecture called “The Whale”. He polled the parents attending, most of whom never read Moby Dick.
In England, Moby Dick was aptly published under the title, “The Whale”. There it was published in three volumes. The work is principally non-fiction. Melville reveals more than you might ever want to know about whale anatomy and the business and culture of whaling from the ancients to the 19th century. At times it is arguably a promotional brochure for whaling.
The story of Moby Dick, is at best, a novella within a much larger work of non-fiction. It was not a popular book at the time of first publication. It was not revered as a masterpiece of American literature until the early part of the 20th century. Taken as a whole I share the earlier view of the book. I lumbered, if not suffered, through it.
I read the edition with an introduction by Clifton Fadiman. It is his viewpoint that the book should not be read as a novel, but as a myth. It is not a story, but a myth of evil and tragedy. To him it is an un-Christian epic; the product of “unfaith.” First published in 1851, Melville imparts abolitionist and perhaps homosexual acceptance through the one or more of the harpoon savages: Queequeg, Tashego and Daggoo.
I do not share Mr. Fadiman’s point of view. Ahab is not inherently evil to me. He is revengeful and as many ship captains, dictatorial, yet fair. He is consumed, as was his Biblical namesake, by being the embodiment of God. His compassion toward Pip’s family and his soliloquy in the chapter “The Symphony”, nonetheless reflect human introspection about his life’s wasted pursuit. In the end he reinforces Ishmael’s fatalist opinion about the voyage that is life. It might be a Calvinistic viewpoint, rather than un-Christian.
Like the Bible the novel is replete with ambiguous symbolism. Is the Leviathan an embodiment of Evil or of God? “Now the Lord prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.”
Have mortals learned the lesson? Melville writes, “That same ocean rolls now; that same ocean destroyed the wrecked ships of last year. Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two-thirds of the fair world it yet covers.” Paradise Lost recognizes the whale as God’s greatest creation: “That sea beast Leviathan, which God of all his works Created hugest that swim the ocean stream.”
There are some who believe that the novel is a reflection of manifest destiny. The contrast between the endless Midwestern prairie and the Pacific Ocean, in the chapter aptly named “The Pacific” might lend scant credence to this, but for me it is not compelling.
The demise of the Pequod, like the Connecticut Pequot indian tribe, in part may have been based on the sinking of the Nantucket whaler, the Essex, by a whale in 1820. Melville drew from historical, scientific and literary resources in compiling this work.
For me Moby Dick would be more readable if the predominant non-fiction elements were exorcised and only the novella remained.