Preface: Boring is as boring does.
Moby Dick is often acclaimed as “the great American novel.” But it is a book more honored than read. People say that it may be great but it is boring. And if you take a conventional approach to reading the book, it may be. But it does not have to be that way.
History as Choice and Moby Dick.
Call me Ishmael. Outcast. Outsider. Wanderer. Seeker. Needing continually to choose how to live with others and how to make a decent way through life. A model for an existentialist hero from Sartre or Camus. Experiencing life as a succession of voyages of discovery. Surviving the destruction of the whaling ship Pequod by the white whale Moby Dick to tell its tale. And continually facing his own history as a series of choices.
Moby Dick is a history book. It is also a mystery, a romance, a gothic story and many other things. But it is first and foremost a history book that combines a fictional history of the Pequod’s last voyage with a factual history of whales and whaling as these things were known circa 1850. The author, Herman Melville, has alternated chapters that follow the storyline of the Pequod Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal obsession with killing the white whale with chapters that describe and discuss whales and whaling in general. The conventional approach to reading and understanding Moby Dick focuses on the Ahab storyline and essentially dismisses the book’s discussion of whales and whaling as some kind of extraneous complement to the Ahab story. Approached in this way, the chapters on the whales seem to clog up the works and get in the way of the Ahab storyline, and the book as a whole may seem more tedious than it is worth.
In focusing on Ahab’s monomania as the sole moving force in the book, the conventional approach to Moby Dick is similar to most conventional approaches to history. It is, like them, essentially a one-dimensional explanation of events based on a simple chain of causation and, like them, it is unsatisfactory. But the book can also be approached through the lens of history as choice. Taking this approach, we can look for the debates in the book, the alternatives available to the characters, and the choices they make. And we can evaluate their options and choices compared with our own. The book becomes like real life.
Instead of a one-dimensional narrative, the book becomes a multi-layered story portraying a multi-tiered series of choices, a voyage of discovery for the narrator, the characters, and the reader that dramatizes many of the social and intellectual issues of Melville’s time and ours. Looked at as an example of writing, reading and thinking about history as choice, the book becomes, complex, enlightening and exciting, including the chapters on the whales.
Competing Narratives: Whalers versus Whales.
While the conventional approach to Moby Dick focuses almost solely on the Ahab narrative line, the book in fact consists of two equally important narrative lines. One follows Ahab, Ishmael and his fellow whalers on the Pequod as they hunt for whales, especially for Moby Dick, and ends with Moby Dick’s destruction of the ship. On the whole, this narrative line is almost always interesting and often exciting.
The other narrative line consists of a series of intermittent essays discussing whales and whaling. Many of these essays, especially those in the first part of the book, are dry as dust and seem boring to most readers. These essays are the primary reason why the book is more honored than read. No sooner do many readers encounter the first such chapter entitled “Cetology” than they decide that this is not a book they want to continue reading. But tedious as some of the early chapters on whales may be, they are not merely an extraneous add-on. Rather, they are crucial to Ishmael’s voyages of discovery in the book and the reader’s as well.
The two narrative lines develop for the most part in opposite directions but often clash, reflecting Ishmael’s changing opinions and ambivalence about his two main subjects, whalers and whales, as he narrates his story. In the early chapters, whalers are idealized and idolized as heroic specimens of humanity. Whales are presented as merely specimens of fish that are useful for commercial exploitation. (Ishmael insists on defining whales as “spouting fish with horizontal tales” and dismissing their resemblance to mammals such as humans.) But as the book proceeds, the whales are described in progressively more humane and even human terms. And the whalers are portrayed in an increasingly negative light, their skills and derring-do a mask for their brutality, until they are sometimes portrayed as inhuman killers of heroic whales.
In Chapter 87, “The Grand Armada,” for example, Ishmael describes a large congregation of whales. When attacked by the Pequod’s crew, the whales arrange themselves into a series of concentric circles. The adult whales swim furiously around and around in what seems to be an effort to expose themselves as targets for the whalers while protecting the baby whales and pregnant females sitting quietly in the middle. In the next chapter, “Schools and Schoolmasters,” Ishmael describes the way in which female whales will stay with and nurse wounded whales despite the danger to themselves and the likelihood they will be attacked by whalers who will take advantage of their vulnerability. Although Ishmael remains ambivalent in his internal debate about whalers and whaling, readers might conclude that the whalers on the Pequod, as much as we like and admire most of them, got what they deserved in the end.
In the conventional approach, Moby Dick is the personal tragedy of Ahab, a man who blasphemously seeks vengeance against God through attempting to kill what he sees as God’s instrument, the white whale that bit off one of his legs. Presented in this way, much of the book’s discussion of whaling and whales seems irrelevant and immaterial. But the book can be seen more broadly as a tragedy of all the whalers on the Pequod and even humans in general, who may act godly toward each other and behave heroically in fulfilling their social obligations, but do evil in slaughtering whales and mistreating other sentient creatures of the Lord. Looked at in this way, the whale chapters become important to the book and interesting to think about.
Competing Narrators: Ishmael the Sailor, Ishmael the Whaler, and Ishmael the Prophet.
Melville changed his mind about the nature and direction of the book several times as he was writing it. One of the ways this plays out in the finished work is in the way Ishmael displays different and changing attitudes toward whales and whalers in his various roles as a character in the story, a narrator who tells the story as it unfolds, and a commenter on the story after the fact.
We encounter him first as a naive sailor on his maiden whaling voyage, then as a participant observer of the activities on the Pequod, and finally some years after the destruction of the ship as a mature thinker about life and humanity. In each of these roles, Ishmael debates with himself issues concerning whalers, whales and the world, and the choices he and we should make in our lives. His views change and sometimes conflict with each other, and his roles shift and sometimes conflict with each other. But in this way he is like a real person.
Ishmael the Sailor. The book begins as a simple adventure story similar to Melville’s previously published novels that were based on his own seafaring voyages. Ishmael tells us in the opening that whenever he gets fed up with the constraints of being a landsman, he takes to the sea for an air of freedom. There is an irony to Ishmael’s claim that life as a sailor in cramped quarters under the dictatorial rule of a ship captain feels like freedom. At sea, he is free from the social expectations that he experiences and the myriad of choices that he has to make as a landsman. He merely has to follow orders and do his job, and he experiences this as freedom.
Ishmael tells us that he has formerly been a sailor on merchant ships but is now looking for work on a whaling ship. We are regaled in the early chapters with numerous pitfalls and pratfalls that he experiences as he makes his way to a job on the Pequod, including some high jinks when he befriends the cannibal Queequeg who becomes his shipmate and soul mate. The book seems at this point to be a voyage of discovery for Ishmael and for the reader about whaling as a heroic enterprise and whales as a worthy and worthwhile object of that enterprise.
Ishmael’s naive joy and enjoyment of sailing appear throughout the book. He is continuously bemused by the wonders of whaling and whales and amused by the antics of his shipmates. But he is also frequently struck by the brutality of whale hunting and the butchery of whales. And he faces questions about the morality of the enterprise and the perennial question of whether and how to evaluate the relative goods, evils and overall worthiness of human enterprises.
Ishmael the Whaler.
After the first few chapters, the tone of the book changes as we are introduced to the character of Ahab. We are privy to forebodings about Ahab’s hubris and what soon becomes his misappropriation of the Pequod in his personal quest for vengeance against Moby Dick. Ishmael begins to confront social and political questions that concern his life on the Pequod and ultimately determine the fate of the ship. What sort of community does the Pequod constitute and what is and should be the relationship of its members? By what rights and within what limits does Ahab as captain proceed? What is the nature of the relationship of the Pequod’s sailors to their captain? What rights and abilities do they have to resist him?
The book now takes on the aspect of a voyage of discovery through some of the social and political debates that were prominent in the mid-nineteenth century and are still important today. Three main ideologies vied for acceptance at that time: the traditional republicanism of the founding fathers, a communitarianism derived from the Puritans and the practices of local communities during the eighteenth century, and laissez-faire individualism which was a new idea at the time.
Traditional republicanism was a mercantilist philosophy of social control and economic development managed from the top down by elite leaders who would provide a government of the people and for the people but not for the most part by them. It was a philosophy of benevolent paternalism. This program was promoted at the time by national leaders such as John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. It is represented in Moby Dick by the two retired ship captains who are the primary owners of the Pequod. They are pacifist Quakers who have named their ship seemingly in honor of the native Indians of Massachusetts who were annihilated during the late seventeenth century by English settlers. Ironically the ship’s owners have no problems with slaughtering whales whom they consider to be beneath their concern. They are, however, benevolently concerned that the ship hunt whales safely and effectively so as to produce the maximum profit for both the ship’s owners and the crew. The crew of a whaling ship were paid a percentage of the profit produced by a ship’s voyage. As such, everyone had a shared interest in the success of a voyage. On board the Pequod, this traditional republican view is represented by the first mate Starbuck who presents the only opposition to Ahab’s mad pursuit of Moby Dick.
Communitarianism was a philosophy of social control and economic development managed from the bottom up by ordinary people in cooperative local communities. Communitarianism fitted in well with the way that most Europeans settled in America. From the Pilgrims and Puritans on, most immigrants from Europe had come in groups that had lived in the same locality in their old country and then settled together in the same place in the new country. Likewise, when European-Americans moved westward across the continent, they generally moved in groups and first set up new towns and community institutions before attempting to attract more people. The community came first, individual people came after. This ideology was promoted nationally by Horace Greeley and Albert Brisbane. Communitarianism is represented in Moby Dick by the crew of the Pequod who work and live together cooperatively and for the most part without being ordered about by the ship’s officers. Ishmael tells us that these sailors floundered on land as isolated individuals — “isolatoes” he calls them — but lived as a community on the ship.
Individualism was a philosophy of society based on the egoistic strivings of individual persons, leading to a competition of each person against every other and a struggle for mastery and dominance over one’s fellows. It was represented by American leaders such as Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren who saw the enormous expansion of the territory and the economy of the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century as an opportunity to down-size the role of government and emphasize the aspirations of self-made individuals. This idea is represented on the Pequod by Captain Ahab.
Ishmael is initially impressed by the paternalism of the ship’s owners and by Starbuck’s good sense. He is later carried away with the comradeship and cooperation of the ship’s crew and becomes part of their community. But he is finally overwhelmed with the rest of the crew by Ahab’s charismatic domination and determination to kill Moby Dick at all costs, a determination that costs the lives of all of them except for Ishmael. While Ishmael is impressed by the ability of the multinational and multicultural crew — sailors of all colors and religions from all over the world — to live and work together peacefully, he is depressed by the way they and he were so easily cowed and manipulated by Ahab. He thereby confronts the question of whether people can live together democratically and cooperatively or whether they will invariably fall prey to strong-willed demagogues and desperados, a question we still face today.*
Ishmael the Prophet.
By the end of Ishmael’s story, it seems clear that Moby Dick is merely a whale who has been minding his own business and who did not want anything to do with Ahab or the Pequod. But when Ahab and his crew would not leave him alone and repeatedly attacked him, he finally does the only rational thing he could choose to do. He destroys the ship and kills as many of the whalers as he can.
Ishmael tells us early in the book that he has been a school teacher so that we know he is book-learned man. We see this book learning reflected in the erudition of his later philosophical discussions and his whale chapters. Ishmael also indicates to us in several asides scattered throughout the book that he has been on several additional whaling voyages after the demise of the Pequod and has done considerable research and reflection on whales, whaling and the world. It is this mature Ishmael who seems responsible for the insertion of the counter-narrative about whales and whaling that develops in the course of the book and the philosophical reflections that are scattered throughout. Ishmael thereby takes himself and us on a voyage of discovery through competing theories and beliefs about man’s place in the universe.
The first signs of this theme appear early in the book at the end of a sequence of three chapters, “The Chapel,” “The Pulpit” and “The Sermon,” about a visit by Ishmael and his cannibal friend Queequeg to a church in New Bedford before shipping out on the Pequod. The first two of these chapters are written in the whimsical tone in which the book begins, with this visit to the church as seemingly just another scenic episode in what is apparently going to be a lighthearted adventure story narrated by Ishmael the Sailor. But the tone changes dramatically in the chapter on “The Sermon” in which Father Mapple, an old whaler turned preacher, gives a sermon from the Bible on Jonah and the whale that swallowed him.
For most of the sermon, Father Mapple concentrates on the consequences of Jonah’s defying the Lord, and Jonah’s travails with the whale seem to be a foreboding of Ahab’s blasphemous attack on God through Moby Dick and the demise of the Pequod as a consequence. The sermon thus seems to serve as a prequel to the Pequod crew’s trials and tribulations and the narration of Ishmael the Whaler.
But at the end of his sermon, Father Mapple emphasizes a second lesson of the Jonah story which opens up a new theme. He notes that Jonah’s initial sin was in refusing to give the inhabitants of Nineveh some bad news from God for fear of their reaction against him. Father Mapple then emphasizes that a person must not fail to tell what he thinks is the truth for fear of what the reaction of others might be. This lesson seems to serve as a prequel to Ishmael’s role as a Prophet in his narration of the book and especially in his counter-narrative on whales and whaling. Ishmael has a message that he must deliver to the whalers with whom he has been living and working: that whales are intelligent and sentient creatures and that killing them for profit is immoral. He leads us to that message gradually and through story form rather than thundering at us as Father Mapple does in his sermon. But the message is clear.
Ishmael’s developing crisis of conscience reflects many of the religious and ethical debates that occurred during the mid-nineteenth century and that are still with us today. The United States was in the midst of what has been called the Second Great Awakening. This was an evangelical Christian upsurge that turned many people toward abolitionism and other humane reform movements and led many to rethink the place of humans in the universe. They engaged in controversies over the nature and historical accuracy of the Bible, including debates over the Biblical Creation story versus pre-Darwinian theories of evolution, and whether God and God’s commands can ever be truly known by man. Many of them spoke out despite the adverse and sometimes violent reactions of their fellow Americans.
As the sole survivor of the Pequod’s destruction, Ishmael seems to feel that, like Jonah, he has been chosen to deliver a message to his fellow whalers and to humankind as a whole. Ironically, Ishmael has gone to sea in order to avoid the social obligations and moral choices that he had to face as a landsman but finds that, like Jonah, he cannot run away from his obligations and must make the moral choice to deliver a message that his hearers might not like.
The message he delivers through his narration and comments on the story of Ahab and Moby Dick is that God is unfathomable but His creation is sacred. That Biblical literalism will not get you to the Word of God. That the difference between humans and other sentient creatures is not as great as it seems in the Bible and does not justify the oppression and murder of them. That defying God through attacking His creatures is vain and self-destructive. And finally that we must all learn to live together or we will perish together. This message continues to be poignant, pertinent and controversial today.
Ishmael and History.
Ishmael repeatedly warns us that he does not consider his theories and conclusions to be definitive. He tells his story, his history, as he understands it at the time of his telling. Time may alter his and our assessment of the facts and his conclusions. He adjures us to continually ask new questions about our situations in the world based on new evidence and changing concerns, and to consider all of the available evidence, options and arguments in coming to a conclusion and choosing a course of action. Ishmael is approaching history as choice, a method that works with great fiction as well as with factual history.
You can analyze a significant social or historical situation repeatedly and get something new each time. Likewise you can read a great book repeatedly and get something new and different from it each time. Moby Dick is a great book that deals with a significant social and historical situation. Approached through the lens of history as choice, it can be endlessly interesting, enlightening and exciting, especially the whale chapters.
What do you think?
* This issue is discussed at greater length in the chapter entitled “Choice #8: The Golden Age of American Utopianism, 1820’s to 1850’s: Why not Perfection?” of my recently published book Was the American Revolution a Mistake? Reaching Students and Reinforcing Patriotism through Teaching History as Choice (AuthorHouse, 2013).