Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Final Inquiry of Moby-Dick: Melville and I Disagree

Three Stages of Inquiry on Moby-Dick

This novel is so huge and deep that in my simple mind I cannot even begin to capture its enormity here in this lean analysis.

I.  Grammar Stage Inquiry [The What]

Who is the central character? Ishmael is the main character, a common man with an itch to go to sea, who also narrates the story from his perspective and in his opinion.  Ahab could be a second central character because Ishmael uses Ahab’s nature and circumstance to prepare his story and message.

What is the most important event in the book, in which the character changes? The most important event in the story is when Moby Dick is finally pursued, for three days, and he destroys Captain Ahab, the Pequod, and the entire crew, leaving Ishmael as the lone survivor until the Rachel recovers him.  But how that changes Ishmael, I do not know.

II.  Logic Stage Inquiry [The Why and How]

Is this novel fable or chronicle?  This novel is written to appear as a chronicle, thanks to all of the encyclopedia references to whales, whaling, and whale ships.  Ishmael does his best to convince the reader that what he knows is true and accurate; however, it is a fable considering that Moby-Dick is exaggerated: a bully-like, revenge-seeking whale almost sounds like “JAWS.” 

What does the central character want? On the surface, it would seem that Ishmael just wants to have an adventure on the sea because he desires to sail the ocean aboard a whaling ship since he has never done that before.  But because I realize that Ishmael is really Melville telling the story, it makes more sense that the main character wants to tell us this story to convince us of something far deeper.  I’ll get to that when I get to the argument.

What is standing in his way? What strategies does the character use to overcome his difficulties?
Building a story in order to convince someone of something is a process that Ishmael must go through.  Along the way there are small obstacles that Ishmael has to work through and experience.  He and the readers are experiencing the progression together.  What is it like to join a whaling ship?  What is it like to be an oarsman aboard a harpoon boat?  What is it like to dissect a whale?  What is it like to work under Captain Ahab?  What is it like to witness Ahab succumb to his own revenge?

Does the author use a repeated image or metaphor? There are probably a gazillion metaphors in Moby-Dick!  One metaphor I want to focus on is Moby-Dick because it is complex and interesting since he can go in many different directions.  Is he God?  One mariner claims that if God were a fish, he’d be a whale.  Is he nature in which man has no power over no matter how much he perseveres?  Is he all the hate and disappointment man experiences in his life that he cannot prevail?  Well, at least for Ahab, he could not accept his disappointment, which drove him to revenge.  It happens. 

Beginning and Ending:  What draws you in?  The first chapter drew me in with the explanation of why man is so drawn to water. Maybe it was because I was already sitting in a floaty chair in my pool enjoying the reflection of the rippling water around me, the subtle rocking motion that relaxed me, or the cool, refreshing water on my feet.  I immediately was on board with Ishmael.  Let’s go!

What is the resolution in the end?   The ending is abrupt.  For over one hundred thirty chapters we continue to read about the White Whale, Moby-Dick.  There are only five chapters left: will this ever end?  But, of course!  Ahab and his revenge meet their end.  The Pequod and its crew meet their end.  But Moby-Dick lives.  And so do revenge, greed, obsession, and self-destruction.  There is a sense that this destructive end is never over.  There shall be an Ahab somewhere else.

III.  Rhetorical Stage Inquiry [The So What]

Is this book an actual portrayal of life?  Is it true?  Certainly, we have learned from Don Quixote that madness and obsession are very real for some, so much so that they would self-destruct and bring others down with them.  Don Quixote was not as ferocious as Captain Ahab, but you get the point.

Is there an argument in this book? Are you convinced?  One small argument can be that revenge is a self-defeating end.  There is no purpose in it, nor is it productive.   Man certainly can be one-sided, selfish, and obsessive that he can be the cause of his self-destruction and that of many others around him. 

Another small argument can be about man’s greed.  It is rather shameful and messy what man can do to get what he wants.  Yes, this is true, but I disagree that Melville wrote Moby-Dick because he knew America would one day become “obsessed” with natural resources to be used to fuel a motorized vehicle or flying machines to take us all over the world without any care for the environment.  Sorry.  Not buying it.

But the big argument, I believe, is that if Moby-Dick is God, and human nature is to rebel against God and His will, can it be that Melville is telling us that we can never have it our way because God is cruel?  God’s will is always greater than our own.  Maybe Melville does not like God or he is frustrated with God.  He sees God as evil, vehement, and merciless.  In that case, Melville is making the point that God is a cruel God.  He took a part of Ahab, allowed him to live on without his leg as a reminder, evaded Ahab for years, only to turn around and pursue and chase Ahab, and finally to be the violent end to Ahab, preventing him from ever achieving his revenge.  God ruins man’s life and causes him to suffer through it; and in the end he beats him anyway. Melville is furious with God, and he wants us to see Him in all his cruelty.  Melville "says:" through all of our suffering and hell, God just simply does not care.  

Melville may have a great mind, far greater than mine, but in this last argument I cannot disagree with him more.  God is not the creator of evil.

While answering the final question, I became curious that if my argument is correct, that if Melville truly hated God, what happened to him to cause him to pick up arms against His Creator, and I found this awesome article that answered my question: 

The Absinthe Literary Review
Moby Dick: Baptized in the Name of the Devil
an essay by Gary Sloan


  1. Excellent analysis of Melville's novel, which I recently finished after many attempts over the years.

    There is also a strong sense of fate in the novel. Ahab hunts the whale because that's his fate.

    "... nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike."

  2. Thank you, Sir.

    Yes, I remember where Ahab was relentless to chase Moby-Dick even after Starbuck tried to persuade him otherwise; and Ahab claims that it is his fate to suffer this way. I suppose Melville wants us to believe that our whole lives are out of our control. Yikes!