Moby Dick, or The Whale (1851)
Amazon.com Top 100 Books of the Millenium (29)
Ah, God! what trances of torments does that man endure
who is consumed with one unachieved
Perhaps no other great book suffers to the degree that Melville's classic does from the tendency to abridge the Great Books for easy consumption by High School students. Sure, when you read it, in 10th grade or whenever, you get that essential tale of Ahab's monomaniacal pursuit of the White Whale, but you don't get much of the fascinating detail of the whaling industry nor much of the symbolism that makes the book one that rewards repeated readings.
In fact, Melville's fiction is so densely packed with symbolism and allusions that it's sometimes hard to believe that he has any central message. This is particularly noticeable in the great short story Bartleby, the Scrivener. One finishes the story with no idea whatsoever why Bartleby has stopped working and given up on life, but the story is so open that you can give it any number of meanings and argue them all plausibly. Moby Dick is similarly amenable to many different interpretations. After initially being understood as a tale of the struggle against evil, it is now taken, mainly in the academy, to be an indictment of capitalism and industrialization.
Personally, I like to think of it as a joyous answer to the dour Existentialists, with their insistence that life is meaningless drudgery. It is a curious thing that we should so admire men like Ahab, clearly grown demented in his pursuit of Moby Dick, or even a character like Don Quixote, whose immersion in the fiction of chivalry has obviously left him brain-addled. What is it we find so compelling in such figures ? I think it is their unalterable sense of purpose, however deranged. What after all is Existentialism but an expression of the desire that they too were guided by such a singular vision of the purpose of life ?
Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man!
Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not
Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering
whale; to the last I grapple with thee;
We easily recognize that this is not the vow of a well man, but it's awfully hard not to get caught up in the passion, and the absolute conviction, that he evinces. To me it suggests that any man's life can be made heroic by his devotion to a noble purpose; though, as the tragedy that ensues makes clear, this devotion is best tempered by some sense of perspective.
In the end, perhaps what Melville is best at isn't conveying a conventional moral or a message; perhaps what he does best is to tangle the reader up in the psychological mood of his central characters. Though the novel incorporates many classic themes--particularly the Biblical themes of crucifixion and resurrection and the great American theme of men fleeing the suffocation of civilization--it is truly unique. If you haven't read it since you were a teen, give it another try now; you'll be surprised at the complex and multi-layered tale you'll find in these pages.
See also:Herman Melville (3 books reviewed)
Amazon.com Top 100 Books of the Millenium
-WIKIPEDIA: Herman Melville
-PODCAST: 10 Essential Questions About Moby-Dick: From The History of Literature Podcast with Jacke Wilson (History of Literature, January 30, 2023)
-ESSAY: What Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” Tells Us About Memory Loss: Dasha Kiper on Understanding and Caring For Dementia Patients (Dasha Kiper, March 23, 2023, LitHub)
-ESSAY: Melville Reborn, Again and Again: A scholar traces Herman Melville’s reputation in American and British literary circles. (Matthew Wills September 28, 2014, Jstor)
-ESSAY: Ishmael’s Real Name Was Jonah: The Interpretive Key that Allows Us to See Melville’s Work as a Unified Whole (Will Hoyt, 8/29/20, University Bookman)
-ESSAY: Cooking with Herman Melville (Valerie Stivers April 16, 2021, Paris Review)
-ESSAY: Herman Melville and the Desolation of Solitude (Jason Katz, 11.23/20, Ploughshares)
-REVIEW: of The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade By Herman Melville Edited by Hershel Parker and Mark Niemeyer (Roger K. Miller, Philadelphia Inquirer)
-REVIEW: of The Value of Herman Melville, by Geoffrey Sanborn (Daniel Ross Goodman, Imaginative Conservative)
Book-related and General Links:
-ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: "herman melville"
-ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "Melville, Herman"
-ETEXTS : Herman Melville (Bartleby)
-The Herman Melville Page (1819-1891) (Palo Alto College)
-Melville.org : The Life and Works of Melville
-Herman Melville (Academy of American Poets)
-Literary Research Guide: Herman Melville (1819 - 1891)
-The American Renaissance : Herman Melville (A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page)
-EXCERPT : Melville, Typee; Omoo, Mardi, Moby Dick (Section by Carl Van Doren from the Cambridge History of American Literature)
-ESSAY : Melville in Manhattan (J. Bottum, First Things, October 1997)
-ESSAY : Melville's Magic Mountain (William T. Vollmann, Civilization, 02/01/98)
-ESSAY : Our Jerusalem (Jonathan Rosen, NY Times Book Review)
-ESSAY : Writers Can be Friends (Linda Bamber, NY Times Book Review)
-ESSAY : COLLECTING HERMAN MELVILLE (William S. Reese, From The Gazette of the Grolier Club, 1993)
-LINKS : Herman Melville (Books Unlimited uk)
-ARCHIVES : "Herman Melville" (Find Articles)
-REVIEW : of JOURNALS By Herman Melville. Edited by Howard C. Horsford with Lynn Horth (James D. Bloom, , NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of HERMAN MELVILLE By Elizabeth Hardwick (Erica Da Costa, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of Herman Melville, by Elizabeth Hardwick Another Brief and Daring Bio: Teasing, Tangled Melville Yarn (David Michaelis, NY Observer)
-REVIEW: of "Herman Melville" by Elizabeth Hardwick A great critic takes on a great novelist, finding agony, homoeroticism and, ultimately, mystery (Maria Russo, Salon)
-REVIEW : of Melville by Elizabeth Hardwick (Thomas Curwen, LA Times)
-REVIEW : Go East, Young Man Trekking to the Holy Land. American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania by Hilton Obenzinger (Bruce Kuklick, Books & Culture)
-REVIEW : of Herman Melville A Biography. Volume 1, 1819-1851. By Hershel Parker (Paul Berman, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of MELVILLE A Biography. By Laurie Robertson-Lorant (David Kirby, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of THE CIVIL WAR WORLD OF HERMAN MELVILLE By Stanton Garner (Christopher Benfey, NY Times Book Review)
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Why are there so few articles reviewing Moby-Dick? I had to look forever to find one! This one helped a lot!
- Apr-03-2007, 17:53
This article did not help me to find the symbolism in this book, which were my search keywords. It is well written though, but lacks some content. <3
- Mar-17-2006, 12:36
Not so much about the book, but the site. I am writiing from Wales. UK. I have been surfing the net for over a nd hour to find info on Moby Dick and this site has been an oasis. Congratulations, an amazing site. Thank you,
- chris howells
- Jun-16-2003, 21:19
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