Moby Dick is Not a Novel

An Anatomy of an Anatomy

Jacob Shamsian
Oct 20, 2014 · 8 min read

By Jacob Shamsian

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is a work of a different form, a rarer one: the anatomy. It’s an anatomy of two things – whales and Ahab’s diligence. The former is explored mostly biologically as a literal subject of dissection. The latter is a lens of exploring his fixedness, his evil, and his relationship with G-d and nature, among other topics. Disguised as the story of a crew hunting for a white whale while under the influence of a revenge-driven captain, Moby-Dick is actually a study of the meaning of whaling itself and whatever else Melville wants to talk about through his story.

Moby-Dick isn’t the only book in the anatomy form. There is also The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a study of the act of writing itself published in 1759, by Laurence Sterne. It pretends to be a biography of Shandy (who is fictional) but is filled with digressions about other subjects. The titular character famously isn’t even born until the third of nine volumes. Tristram Shandy plagiarized long passages from another famous anatomy, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621. Unlike Melville’s and Sterne’s books, The Anatomy of Melancholy doesn’t pretend to have a plot. It does, however, purport to be a medical textbook about the subject of melancholia (now understood as clinical depression) but is instead a lens through which Burton studies all subjects.

In his introduction, Burton explains what his book is about:

The subject of the book’s discourse are, in Burton’s words, “thou thyself.” His book, according to the title, is about melancholy, but it’s really a compilation of “joys” and “wand’rings” tied into the subject of melancholy. So too, Moby-Dick isn’t actually a book about a whale named Moby-Dick. Melville uses his many pages to talk about whatever he wants. His book wanders through plot, character descriptions, short essays about whaling, admiration of the ocean, and whatever else enjoys discussing.

Novels, short stories and plays all explore ideas through plot. The anatomy, on the other hand, has a purported subject which is actually a lens used to write about other subjects. Moby-Dick has many subjects, but its primary concerns are twofold. First, Melville sincerely likes writing about whales and whaling. Consider his cetology chapters, like 74 and 75, respectively titled “The Sperm Whale’s Head — Contrasted View” and “The Right Whale’s Head — Contrasted View.” Writing about the whale’s body is a way that Melville revels in the beauty of nature and the beauty of the English language we have to describe it. Here are a few sentences from chapter 75:

Then, again, if you fix your eye upon this strange, crested, comb-like incrustation on the top of the mass — this green, barnacled thing, which the Greenlanders call the “crown,” and the Southern fishers the “bonnet” of the Right Whale; fixing your eyes solely on this, you would take the head for the trunk of some huge oak, with a bird’s nest in its crotch. At any rate, when you watch those live crabs that nestle here on this bonnet, such an idea will be almost sure to occur to you; unless, indeed, your fancy has been fixed by the technical term “crown” also bestowed upon it; in which case you will take great interest in thinking how this mighty monster is actually a diademed king of the sea, whose green crown has been put together for him in this marvellous manner. But if this whale be a king, he is a very sulky looking fellow to grace a diadem. Look at that hanging lower lip! what a huge sulk and pout is there! a sulk and pout, by carpenter’s measurement, about twenty feet long and five feet deep; a sulk and pout that will yield you some 500 gallons of oil and more.

Look at the details Melville notices and brings up here. He’s clearly showing off his knowledge, terminology, and travel experience when he brings up the “crown” and “bonnet” synonyms. He describes said crown/bonnet with terms that relate to nature – a comparison to a grand oak, with live crabs nestling within. He also ruminates on the meaning of the crown, which coronates the whale as the “king of the sea.” And then he’s impressed by the whale’s scale, the “500 gallons of oil and more” it will provide. The cumulative effect of the whale descriptions throughout the book give the impression that Ahab is going after an important part of the world’s ecosystem, symbolically as well as in terms of sheer volume. But overall, it seems more that Melville just wants to write about how cool whales are. These descriptions don’t become a part of a larger conversation about something else unless the other chapters of the novel, concerning the Pequod’s voyage, are considered.

The Pequod’s voyage, of course, is Ahab’s voyage, the second main subject, his hunt for “the inscrutable thing” embodied within the whale. Once the whale is recognized as a symbol – the veil Ahab perceives between himself as G-d, a creation that defies man’s presumed dominance as the greatest species – the chapters describing the whale mean something else. Melville defies that interpretation by sticking so closely to biology (recall the “hanging lower lip”) and a natural resource (“500 gallons of oil and more”). The essays on whale biology nonetheless have a different meaning within the framework of the narrative chapters, because those essays on whale biology are precisely what Ahab is not interested in. Ahab is interested in “that inscrutable thing” for which the white whale is “agent” or “principle.” He doesn’t care that a whale’s lower lip hangs with impressive measurement, he isn’t even interested in the money the whale will net him. It’s the dissonance between the narrative chapters and the whale biology essays that make Moby-Dick an anatomy. They’re in the same book because Melville is writing a book about whaling, Ahab’s dualism and misotheism are secondary concerns. But in an anatomy, that doesn’t matter. It’s alright for subjects to be loosely joined together, because what’s really going on behind Moby-Dick is that Melville is writing about what he wants to write about. Drawing the reader into the story isn’t his concern, the story merely exists for him to write about whales and whaling and his philosophies.

The anatomy to some extent resembles the epic poem, at least in size and scope. Though the influence of The Odyssey obviously looms large over Moby-Dick – no epic seafaring story can escape it – Melville doesn’t name-drop Homer even once. And unlike The Anatomy of Melancholy and Tristram Shandy, Melville doesn’t constantly cite from other texts. Thematically, the anatomy and the epic are twin forms. Like The Odyssey and Dante’s Inferno, Moby-Dick deals with man’s relationship with higher beings and the elements of man that set him apart in ways that novels seldom deal with – those aforementioned themes of dualism and misotheism. The anatomy as a form is used to explore different subjects without sticking to the conventions of a usual form, and the subjects Melville explores are the same subjects found in the epics. It’s telling that Melville himself tried his hand at the epic poem. His longest work – and the longest poem in the English language – is Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, published in 1876, about a young man on a pilgrimage through the ruins of Israel. Structurally, however, the anatomy and the epic aren’t like each other. Like the novel, the epic is plot-driven, it has a beginning and an end and doesn’t digress too much. Moby-Dick is a compilation of texts loosely tied together with a powerful plot.

The other closest form to the anatomy is the messy novel. That is, a novel that is supposed to tell a story, but wanders frequently on excessive descriptions that verge on taking a life of their own. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is such a novel, as is Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. The relationship is chiefly in both types of books’ unflagging dedication to overdescription. Chapter 42 of Moby-Dick is titled “The Whiteness of the Whale,” a mediation of the color white. Look Homeward, Angel, too, is famous for its long descriptive sentences of everyday things that aren’t particularly important to the story – one might even say that the defining characteristic of Wolfe’s writing is to put in long, winding sentences that excessively detail an idea to the point where the description may even become repetitive and contain unnecessary and perhaps ham-fisted comparisons to nature, like an eagle riding on mountain winds into the deep forest of the night. Nonetheless, Look Homeward, Angel is ultimately the bildungsroman of Eugene Gant, which is a story. It has beautiful descriptions of North Carolina, but North Carolina is not the subject of the book.

If Melville wanted to make Moby-Dick a novel, he could have done it. His two previous books, Redburn and White-Jacket, published in 1849 and 1850 respectively, were both seafaring novels. But he wrote those books for money and was always ashamed of them. Of the serious books he wrote, he began transcending genre with Mardi, published in 1849, not letting himself be pegged as a writer of “romance” or “adventure” novels. With 1851’s Moby-Dick, Melville began transcending form, creating a work that intentionally and carefully fails to fulfill any definition of the novel form altogether.

As a collection of texts of different forms, Moby-Dick is composed of, as aforementioned, narrative chapters about the Pequod’s voyage and essays on whaling. It also includes some strange chapters that, like the work at large, are difficult to classify. Chapter 12, titled “Biographical,” is a biography of Queequeg told from Ishmael’s perspective, but it’s also a speculation on Queequeg’s future. Chapter 9, “The Sermon,” is a rousing retelling of the story of Jonah. Chapter 37, titled “Sunset,” is told from Ahab’s perspective, an internal monologue ranting about his inflexibility. Chapter 40 is perhaps the most famous for its oddness. After a series of chapters that jump from perspective to perspective from main characters in the crew, the chapter, titled “Midnight, Forecastle,” is a kind of panoramic piece of theater that has minor crew members, identified only by their nationality, say their part in idiosyncratic vernaculars. The narrative chapters aren’t even always novelistic. Melville wasn’t interested in doing anything that resembled a novel; he wanted to write an anatomy; he wanted to accumulate a variety of forms into one volume unlike anything else.

Because of the size inherent to every work in the anatomy form, no two works really resemble each other. Moby-Dick, Tristram Shandy, and The Anatomy of Melancholy are all categorized within the same form because of their sheer weirdness. There simply aren’t enough works in the anatomy form to give it an unwavering definition. But even if the anatomy as a form is hard to define, Moby-Dick is clearly not a novel. And if we must have a label for our literary forms, the book is an anatomy. With a narrative and with every other literary form under the sun, Melville created a unique combined work unlike anything else in literature. And it’s not a novel.

Jacob Shamsian

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Journalist at INSIDER and Business Insider. I’ve published work at GQ, the New Republic, Time, Entertainment Weekly, and Pipe Dream.