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Part 4 in a series of profiles on sea monsters.

Moby-Dick

A big book about a big whale

Moby-Dick“Call me Ishmael.”

So opens Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece. Some consider Moby-Dick to be the Great American Novel (although perhaps more consider that to be The Great Gatsby). This country’s greatest novel or not, one thing’s certain: it is the American Beowulf: a tome equal in length to the proportions of its monster, dense, feared by college students, a national treasure.

Take it from someone who’s never read it.

See, I was one of those college students who tried to dodge Moby-Dick. But sooner or later, that great white whale found me. Fortunately, I had a great professor for it, who probably realized he was dealing with a roomful of kids who simply weren’t going to read Melville’s 600-page tome. He must have felt it was nonetheless vital that we leave his class with some kind of understanding of the work, because he would give us reading assignments, and then summarize the reading and explain it for us during the next class. By the professor’s own admission, much of Moby-Dick strays from the well-known conflict between the monomaniacal Captain Ahab, and the great white whale that robbed him of his leg. Often, it devolves into a whaling manual, or a seven-page description of a painting. Its meandering structure seems to be something of an open secret among literary enthusiasts, and for those to whom Moby-Dick especially appeals (such as another English professor of mine, in high school, whose claimed Moby-Dick as his favorite book), I think its flaws are a significant part of the novel’s appeal. I can appreciate this, and when the inevitable day comes when I finally break down and attempt to read Moby-Dick cover to cover, I will do so with my mind set on appreciating its digressions and oddities.

Herman Melville

Herman Melville

This portion of a letter from Melville to his contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, written days before Moby-Dick‘s publication, indicates that the great novel’s tragic flaws were evident from its inception:

You [Hawthorne] did not care a penny for the book. But, now and then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled the book—and that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul.”

(Incidentally, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” is one of my favorite short stories. But I use the word “short” liberally.)

But enough backstory! Cut to the chase! Here’s something I took away from my college course on Moby-Dick. The novel has two titles: Moby-Dick, or The Whale. Is this just another artifact of what might be viewed by some cynics as a literary pig-sty? Or is there something deeper going on here? Assuming there’s a reason to have two titles, so radically different, what might it be?

Moby-Dick title page

Two Titles: Literary Indecisiveness, or Thematic Significance?

Moby-Dick vs. Captain Ahab

Vengeful Ahab tangles with a vengeful God. Or does he?

One of the questions at the heart of Moby-Dick is this: is the titular beast an instrument of God’s wrath for Ahab? “The Hand-puppet of God” is a phrase that sticks in my head, but I regret to say I don’t know if this was a term actually used in the text, or a phrase coined by my college professor. When Moby-Dick chomps Ahab’s leg off, is it a wrathful God rising from the sea, wearing a sperm whale as a mask? Ahab believes it is, and assigns it a proper name, Moby-Dick, to specify this whale from any other whale, to imbue it with a mythical status equal to his rage.

On the other hand, is it just a whale? Is the world in fact a random, God-forsaken place, without deeper significance? Is Ahab’s peg-leg simply the result of… chance? Does Ahab’s stalked whale have any awareness of its role in the mad captain’s revenge play?

sperm whale

Sometimes a whale is just a whale

Join me for the next installment of sea monster profiles: Jaws, or The Shark.

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