Enjoying "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville
by Ed Friedlander, M.D.

"... that wild whaling life where individual notabilities make up all totalities." -- Ch. 71.
If you are a student assigned to read Moby Dick, or an adult approaching the book for the first time, you have an enjoyable challenge. This page is a non-expert's thoughts on approaching this difficult book.

Most people will enjoy Melville's thrilling tales of the whaling industry, and especially the climactic three-day chase. Many people will find pleasure in learning about the lifestyle and adventures of the whalemen of the 1800's. The book is full of ironic humor, and metaphors for life from the whaling industry.

Today's most popular living writer is probably Stephen King. You can enjoy Moby Dick as a horror novel. In H.P. Lovecraft's "Cthulhu mythos" and the Stephen King novels that continued it, chaotic cruel monsters lie in hiding behind the veneer of familiar reality. You can understand Moby Dick as the same kind of story / myth, only more subtle -- we never learn whether Ahab's dark insight is true.

Melville only suggests the supernatural wonders and horrors that the white whale may embody. As the book opens, we are reminded that whenever people want to be philosophical, they are drawn to large bodies of water. Ishmael had dreamed of whales, particularly one white one, before deciding to go whaling (ch. 1). Later, Ishmael thinks that perhaps the horror that whiteness inspires is like an animal's instinctive sense of things that it has not seen (ch. 42). Elijah, Gabriel, Fedallah, and Pip are all mad prophets. We do not learn what Steelkilt said to the captain that caused him to turn away from flogging him, but perhaps it was "Moby Dick". The white whale seems to be the instrument of just revenge upon Radney (ch. 54), and seems to single out the "Jeroboam"'s Macey, who had defied Gabriel and pursued the white whale (ch. 71). A mysterious spout, perhaps the white whale's own, precedes the "Pequod" on its chase across the world (ch. 51). Ahab, talking to the silent "sphynx" head of the killed whale, reflects that animal has seen all that is wrong, and must know the dark secrets of the world (ch. 70). The whalemen believe that Moby Dick can be in several places at once, or has supernatural means of travel deep beneath the ocean (ch. 41). Exhorting the crew to kill the white whale, Ahab calls him the "pasteboard mask" worn by the supreme inscrutable evil (ch. 36). Ahab proposes to strike back at all that is wrong everywhere by striking "through the mask." In contrast, the good Christian Starbuck sees the white whale only as a natural animal, without malice or supernatural power. Unlike the modern horror thriller, the reader must decide for himself whether Ahab or Starbuck is right. Melville has given us what has made Stephen King so popular -- only he did it even better.

Moby Dick was written in an era in which books commonly exhorted people to conventional morality. Protestantism, with "family values", a work ethic, and heaven for the faithful, was the dominant religion in the US. Also very influential were the many rationalists who promoted common sense, rational inquiry, and common kindness without identifying as Christians (Tom Paine, Voltaire, and the rest of the Enlightenment). Many of these latter thinkers were openly hostile to metaphysical speculation, believing that God did not exist, or had left the world to run by itself (deism), admiring Jesus only as the great moral teacher, etc., etc. Today we might call them "secular humanists".

The New England Transcendentalists offered philosophic and metaphysical ideas without any overriding system or dogma. And here is the key. Moby Dick differs from other books, particularly from its time, in offering a host of different perspectives without any single moral. Moby Dick is about different points of view.

The philosophical ramblings in Moby Dick cover a huge range of perspectives. Collegians focused on minority group grievances will find both old ideas about the superiority of the white race bringing learning and technology to the rest of the world, and descriptions of physically and spiritually superior people of color. Melville is obviously thrilled by the dangerous adventure of killing whales. But people who are troubled by the cruelty of whaling, then and now, and who are concerned about the humane treatment of animals, will be surprised by Melville's horror of slaughterhouses and meat-eating. People who have different attitudes about orthodox Christianity will see Starbuck as a self-sacrificing saint or a superstitious fool. You will find dozens of additional examples of the different, contradictory perspectives that Melville shares. Each can be the basis for a fine term paper. But true to the central theme of Moby Dick, Melville never tells us which perspective we should decide is "the correct one".

The theme of different points of view pervades the novel. Ishmael leaves the land and the ordinary thinking of a schoolteacher to voyage on the ocean, which for Melville holds the great mystery, from which the mind can never return (ch. 53). A bench becomes a bed. A ship's forecastle is a pulpit. A shark's fin is the gnomon of a sundial (ch. 32). A whaleboat becomes a pastry for the whale to enjoy. A coffin is a canoe is a chest is a lifebuoy. Three men looking at the same gold coin see three entirely different things (ch. 99). Nine gams each provide a different view of Moby Dick. The whale has its eyes on opposite sides of its head, so it sees two entirely different views of the universe at the same time ("contrasted view" -- ch. 74). Father Mapple tells the faithful that "if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves" -- we must learn to see things in other ways. You will enjoy finding hundreds of other examples.

Ahab destroys himself and his ship and crew because he cannot give up the quest, even though he knows it is crazy. Starbuck, the pacifist Quaker, cannot kill Ahab, even though he knows it is the way to save the lives of the crew. Stubb sees only fun, and Flask sees only his own interests. As in many ship novels, the "Pequod" is a microcosm of the human race, each member having a point of view that isolates him from others and from a full view of the world. Only Ishmael, who has always tried to see the other person's point of view, survives.

Some of your literature instructors may be postmodernists, who say that all perspectives are equally valid, and that truth is whatever your grievance-group says it is. We hear nowadays that people cannot really understand each other across racial, gender, or cultural lines.

What I like best about Moby Dick is the under-theme of friendship and understanding. Ishmael's relationship with Queequeg is the story of a white American coming to understand and love a man from a different culture, to be open to his religion and customs, and to find a common human experience underneath the differences. For Melville, humanity's hope is that we CAN come to understand and love each other in the midst of conflicting points of view.

In my own college days, some of my friends read "Moby Dick" together. Using the language ("starboard" instead of "right", "shipmate" for anybody) and pretending we were harpooners was good fun. The guys called Ishmael's huggy harpooner friend "Queerpeg".

I'm a camper, a fraternity member, a jock, and a clean-living single man with a great buddy system. I've learned over the years that some men like sleeping close with ordinary friends, while other men don't. I've also noticed that this is pretty much independent of sexual orientation. Now, I really like an occasional group snooze with the guys. But the description of Ishmael and Queequeg in bed enjoying wrapping their legs around each other is a little cozy even for me.

A social liberal might see Melville's description as a courageous and enlightened treatment of the forbidden subject of homosexuality. A social conservative might see Melville offering a model of chaste friendship as an alternative to sex between shipmates, which must have been common, if hidden.

Whose interpretation is right?

Like everything else in Moby Dick, it all depends on your point of view.

To include this page in a bibliography, you may use this format: Friedlander ER (1999) Enjoying "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville Retrieved Dec. 25, 2003 from http://www.pathguy.com/mobydick.htm

For Modern Language Association sticklers, the name of the site itself is "The Pathology Guy" and the Sponsoring Institution or Organization is Ed Friedlander MD.


Moby Dick -- Public Literature
Moby Dick -- Text
Mocha Dick -- historic (?) white whale who was the source for Moby Dick
Power Moby Dick -- great site especially for beginners. Lots of hard work; thanks Professor Guroff!
Melville Server
diCurcio's commentary on Moby Dick
Roger Norton on "the honeymoon of Ishmael and Queequeg" (link is now down). Repeats the false story that ejaculation is usual in public hangings, Captain Vere "becomes an erect penis", traditional critics "are mostly pro-heterosexual if not actively homophobic", etc., etc.

Jolly Roger, a large site devoted to defending the classics against postmodernist nonsense. "Truth is the most fundamental form of private property. To deny that words harbor intrinsic meaning, as has become fashionable upon the postmodern campus, is to deny students their right to own the private property that provides the cornerstone of classical liberalism -- the Western Heritage as embodied in the context of The Great Books." Quotes Moby Dick's "august dignity" tribute to democracy (ch. 26).

I'm Ed. I'm an MD, a pathologist in Kansas City, a mainstream Christian. a modernist, a skydiver, an adventure gamer, the world's busiest free internet physician, and a man who still enjoys books and ideas.

"I hereupon offer my own poor endeavors. I promise nothing complete; because any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that very reason infallibly be faulty." -- Moby Dick.

I hope you like Moby Dick, and that I've been of some help.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci
Oedipus the King -- including something about the "tragic hero" business
Romeo and Juliet -- just a short note
Julian of Norwich
The Knight's Tale
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
The Book of Thel
The Lady of Shalott
The Seven Against Thebes
The Tyger

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