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Moby Dick, or The Whale () Top 100 Books of the Millenium (29)

    Ah, God! what trances of torments does that man endure who is consumed with one unachieved
    revengeful desire.
           -Herman Melville, Moby Dick

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
    thy back on the compass.

    Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee;
    from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all
    hearses to one common pool and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still
    chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!

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.


Grade: (A)


Herman Melville Links:

    -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: 100 YEARS OF BILLY BUDD (Lafayette Lee, 3/23/24, IM1776)
    -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)
    -ESSAY: Satire, Symbolism, and the “Working Through” of Historical Ghosts in The Confidence-Man (Alex McDonnell Articles, Issue 10 2020-21, Irish Journal of American Studies)
-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)
    -REVIEW: of Cook, Neither Believer Nor Infidel: Skepticism and Faith in Melville’s Shorter Fiction and Poetry (Zach Hutchins, Irish Journal of American Studies)

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) : 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)

    -ETEXT : Moby Dick or, The Whale (1851) By, Herman Melville
    -Online Study Guide : Moby Dick (Jia-Rui Chong , Spark Notes)
    -SUMMARY : Moby Dick  by Herman Melville (1819 - 1891) (Awerty Notes)
    -An Interactive version (etext & essays)
    -Nantucket's Tried-Out Moby-Dick: Robert A. diCurcio's COMPANION READER to Melville's Masterpiece
    -ARCHIVES : "Moby Dick"  (Find Articles)
    -ESSAY : Literary Leviathan  Survives Critics,  Harpooning Profs  "Moby-Dick" is America's inkblot.  (ERIC GIBSON, November 9, 2001, Wall Street Journal)
    -ESSAY : MEN, BOYS AND WIMPS  (George Stade, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : MOBY-DICK (Milton R. Stern, ADE Bulletin)
    -ESSAY : The Scared White Doe: Glimpses of Hawthorne's Influence on the Composition of Moby-Dick (Andy Cline, English 518, Great American Writers I, fall semester 1996, UMKC)
    -ESSAY : Ishmael's New Testament:  Salvation in Moby Dick (James Bair, Electronic Eclectic)
    -ESSAY : Boiling Down the Blubber in "The Try Works" (Jon DeCristofaro)
    -ESSAY : Moby Dick: Mystery and the Chase (Greg Dixon)
    -ESSAY : What's Eating Ahab? The Logic of Ingestion and the Performance of Meaning in Moby-Dick.(Mark Edelman Boren, Style)
    -ESSAYS : on Moby Dick by American Experience II 1996-1997 GlenOak High School, Canton OH
    -ESSAY : Old Fleece and Religion (Rolin Moe, Engl 307, Dr. Hendricks)
    -ESSAY : The Golden Carp and Moby Dick: Rudolfo Anaya's Multi-Culturalism (Theresa M. Kanoza, Melus)
    -ESSAY : The Power of Blackness: Richard Wright Re-Writes Moby-Dick. (Elizabeth Schultz, African American Review,  Winter, 1999)
    -ESSAY : Notes on Moby Dick
    -REVIEW : of Moby Dick (Bryan Appleyard, New Statesman, March 13, 1998)
    -REVIEW : of MOBY DICK By Herman Melville. Adapted and illustrated by Allan Drummond (Molly E. Rauch, NY Times Book Review)

    -REVIEW : of MEN AND WHALES By Richard Ellis (Robert Finch, NY Times Book Review)

    -ARCHIVES : "The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex" (Find Articles)
    -INTERVIEW : In The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship 'Essex' Ray Suarez talks to Nathaniel Philbrick about his book, In the Heart of the Sea (Online Newshour, PBS)
    -ARTICLE : Wreck of the Whaleship That Spawned Moby-Dick : The true story that inspired Herman Melville is back in print: The  Wreck of the Whaleship Essex by Owen Chase recounts a harrowing experience (Duncan Spencer, Insight on the News)
    -REVIEW : of IN THE HEART OF THE SEA The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex By Nathaniel Philbrick  (Richard Bernstein, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of STOVE BY A WHALE Owen Chase and the Essex. By Thomas Farel Heffernan (Walter Goodman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE JONAH MAN  By Henry Carlisle (Timothy Foote, NY Times Book Review)

    -ESSAY : Fabricating ideology: clothing, culture, and colonialism in Melville's 'Typee.' (S.X. Goudie, Criticism, March 22 1998)

    -ANNOTATED REVIEW : (Medical Humanities, NYU)

    -Billy Budd Guide
    -ETEXT: Herman Melville: Billy Budd (Bibliomania)
    -Annotated ETEXT: Herman Melville  BILLY BUDD,  Sailor
    -ESSAY: Billy Budd and Capital Punishment:  A Tale of Three Centuries  (H. Bruce Franklin, Rutgers)
     -ESSAY: Lovers of Human Flesh: Homosexuality and Cannibalism in Melville's Novels (Caleb Crain, Columbia)
     -The Curse of the Somers: Billy Budd's Ghost Ship

    -REVIEW : of American Sea Writing A Literary Anthology. Edited by Peter Neill. Foreword by Nathaniel Philbrick (William F. Buckley Jr. , NY Times Book Review)