Moby Dick is Herman Melville’s greatest work and is one of the greatest books ever written in English or really in any other language. Endless ink has been spilled about Ishmael, the sailor on board the whaling ship The Pequod and Ahab, the mad possessed captain of the ship, out to get his revenge against the greatest sperm whale of all, the great white whale, Moby Dick. Revenge against what? Earlier, Moby Dick had waged a war against Ahab’s ship when the whalers tried to kill the whale. In the course of the tumult and the whale’s attacks on the ship, Ahab lost his leg and now walks with an ivory peg-leg.
Really the best part of Moby Dick is the prose. I will print a few samples of it here so you can see how great it is.
Let us look at Ishmael talking.
Here the sea and the land clearly stand in for some deeper issues:
Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?
But in landlessness alone reside the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God – so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than to be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety.
Consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!
Two whale heads of killed whales are fastened to the ship as trophies:
Oh, ye foolish! throw these thunderheads overboard, and then you will float light and right…This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years.
He ponders the meaning of “whiteness,” of the obsessive themes of the book.
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?
Ishmael on what’s eating Ahab:
Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung.
…he strove to pierce the profundity.
The surface of the ocean and its deeper waters are obviously stand-in’s for weightier things:
Beneath this wondrous world upon the surface… another and still stranger world…
Ishmael dislikes philosophy:
So soon as I hear that such or such a man gives himself out for a philosopher, I conclude that, like the dyspeptic old woman, he must have ‘broken his digester.’
Yet he spends quite a bit of time philosophizing himself:
What things real are there, but imponderable thoughts?
And has not much use for religion either.
Hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling….
Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian…
…Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.
…a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world another.
Yet he also wonders about the same obsessions that haunt the religious:
Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance.
But he is brimming with great aphorisms:
…if you can get nothing better out of the world, get a good meal out of it, at least.
Starbuck, a sailor, is a budding capitalist who sees whales as nothing but another commodity:
I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? It will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market…
Pip, a castaway is rescued by sailor Stubb, only to jump off his ship. Stubb, another budding capitalist, albeit a vicious one, leaves Pip to flounder in the sea:
Stubb indirectly hinted, that though man loves his fellow, yet man is a money-making animal, which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence.
And Ahab has a few thoughts of his own:
All visible objects, man, are but pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing put forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?
To me, the white whale is the wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.
Ahab addressing a sperm whale, in a passage in which diving seems imply something deeper than plunging down into the sea:
Of all divers, thou has dived the deepest…
Great stuff or what?