Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was published 167 years ago this week. With its experimentation and extravagance, the novel has puzzled and delighted readers for generations. Far from simply telling a maritime tale, Melville offers us panoramas of pinpoint description, cascades of symphonic sentences, and dives into philosophical depths. The richness and strangeness of Melville’s masterpiece brings readers back to its pages again and again. Let’s explore what makes this classic worth re-reading.
Though Moby-Dick is now considered a touchstone of American literature, its current place in the canon would have seemed to Melville as probable as spotting a flying whale from the crow’s nest. During Melville’s lifetime, most of his writing was received with either derision or disregard. Two of his early novels, the maritime adventures Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), garnered some critical and commercial success. But these were entertainments, embellished nonfiction accounts of Melville’s nautical travels that did not satisfy the ambitions he harbored. Melville had an insistent metaphysical itch to scratch. His next novel, Mardi (1848), marks a change of course into the deeper waters he hoped to explore. From below its seafaring plot, Melville’s true interests begin to stir and rise to the surface. Melville subtly voices his desire to discover new ground by turning inward and observing the workings of the imagination and the heart:
“And if it harder be, than e’er before, to find new climes, when now our seas have oft been circled by ten thousand prows, — much more the glory! […] But this new world here sought, is stranger far than his, who stretched his vans from Palos. It is the world of mind; wherein the wanderer may gaze round, with more of wonder than Balboa’s band roving through the golden Aztec glades” (Mardi, Chapter LXV).
Mardi bewildered the public and the critics alike, a reception that portended the rest of Melville’s publishing career. In the ensuing decade, Melville produced eight more novels. Some were bids for popular approval (Redburn), others, avant-garde experiments (Pierre; or, The Ambiguities). However, none of these titles thrived, and in 857, at just thirty-eight years of age, Melville gave up writing novels altogether. He had reaped scant sums in the publishing business and still scanter praise by critics. His work quickly began to slip into oblivion. Nobody noticed that in the midst of his brief maelstrom of fiction-writing, Melville had produced the most ambitious and important novel in American history.
In the 1920s, decades after his death, Melville’s reputation began to change course; its sails suddenly filled with favorable winds. American and British authors began to champion the author’s work. They particularly praised Moby-Dick, having found in its pages an enigmatic, dizzying prose poem in the place of a conventional adventure novel. Publishers began to print new editions of the book, often accompanied by lavish illustrations. Film adaptations — flimsy but popular — hit the silver screen. Generations of Americans studied the leviathan in school. Indeed, Moby-Dick harpooned the national imagination, and we cannot cut loose. To this day, Captain Ahab is the figurehead for our obsessiveness and monomania. “White whale” is the surest shorthand for our most persistent and ungraspable longings.
And yet, for all of the novel’s exposure in the last century, its greatest feats are often missed, just as they were by the critics of Melville’s age. While the novel is rightly lauded for its rousing story, it is most exceptional for its fine-grained descriptions, miraculous metaphors, lyrical language, and metaphysical flights. By attending to Melville’s artistry, we can arrive at the true heart of Moby-Dick, for the novel is not merely the story of Ahab’s hunt for the white whale at the helm of the Pequod; it is the story of Melville’s search for literary magic at the point where the pen strikes the page.
The World in Ink
“Take my word for it, you never saw such a rare old craft as this same rare old Pequod… She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies. All round, her unpanelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the sperm whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to. Those thews ran not through base blocks of land wood, but deftly travelled over sheaves of sea-ivory. Scorning a turnstile wheel at her reverend helm, she sported there a tiller; and that tiller was in one mass, curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe. The helmsman who steered by that tiller in a tempest, felt like the Tartar, when he holds back his fiery steed by clutching its jaw. A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 16).
Writing at the heart of the 19th century, Melville stood with his feet planted in two literary modes. The first is Romanticism, which seeks to transmute the world through the powers of the imagination, searching the world for images that reflect the writer’s soul. The second is realism, which studies the world as it is and presents the world on the page in the most accurate words. In Moby-Dick, Melville manages both feats, often at the same time. The world he gives us is at once highly realistic, replete with details, and also transfigured into metaphors that disclose the deeper currents of the novel and reveal the minds and hearts of the characters.
Before we study Melville’s metaphors, let’s look at how he achieves realism. In chapter 16, his description of the Pequod, Ahab’s whaleship, practically places its planks and riggings before our eyes. The visual imagery gestures at once towards broader impressions — “a cannibal of a craft” — and minuter images — the tiller “curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe.” In this way, Melville offers us the forest and the trees. Just as importantly, he selects and shapes the details a rich characterization of the ship. We see the physical form of the Pequod, but we also see, shining through that form, its essence. The details — the whale teeth studding the bulwarks, the sea-ivory tackle, the jawbone tiller — tell us that the Pequod is as predatory as its prey. It is a whaleship with the fearsome soul of a whale. Melville achieves this effect through realism; he sails the Pequod into the passages of the novel.
Miraculous Metaphors and Lyrical Language
“All the trees, with all their laden branches; all the shrubs, and ferns, and grasses; the message-carrying air; all these unceasingly were active. Through the lacings of the leaves, the great sun seemed a flying shuttle weaving the unwearied verdure. Oh, busy weaver! unseen weaver! — pause! — one word! — whither flows the fabric? what palace may it deck? wherefore all these ceaseless toilings? Speak, weaver! — stay thy hand! — but one single word with thee! Nay — the shuttle flies — the figures float from forth the loom; the freshet-rushing carpet for ever slides away. The weaver-god, he weaves; and by that weaving is he deafened, that he hears no mortal voice; and by that humming, we, too, who look on the loom are deafened…” (Chapter 102)
Careful readers of Moby-Dick will not be surprised to learn that Melville wrote poetry throughout much of his life. After he turned away from novel-writing, he devoted more and more attention to composing poems, which he did daily throughout his decades as a Manhattan customs clerk and up until his death. Melville’s prose writing was always tinged with poetic effects, nowhere more so than in the most lyrically intense passages of Moby-Dick. Melville brings the poet’s gifts for metaphor, meter, and rhyme to his prose, achieving a style so rich that many readers approach Moby-Dick as an epic poem rather than a novel.
Though there are countless passages of poetic richness to pick from, let’s look at Ishmael’s description of a South Pacific jungle in chapter 102, quoted above. The presiding metaphor in the passage is intricate and strange: the jungle is a great loom; the verdure and greenery of the jungle are the threads of fabric being woven together into a carpet; the sun is the shuttle weaving those disparate threads together; the leaves are the lacings at the edges of the carpet; and behind it all, the “unseen weaver” himself, the “weaver-god,” operates the loom. Melville proves himself a weaver by knitting together such disparate images into a coherent metaphor. The purpose of the metaphor is not merely to induce head-scratching or invite dissection. It allows Ishmael’s wonder at the workings the natural world to emerge through the text. The metaphor of the loom allows Ishmael to engage the weaver and ask him questions: “whither flows the fabric? what palace may it deck? wherefore all these ceaseless toilings?” These questions are impossible to ask of nature itself without the mediating structure of metaphor to give nature a human shape. We all instinctively use metaphors to understand the world, but the task of the poet is to use metaphors consciously, to weave each metaphor so that the pattern that emerges on the carpet is magnificent and enlightening. By that count, Melville succeeds.
The same passage yields musical riches, too. At the time of his composition of Moby-Dick, Melville was immersed in the works of William Shakespeare, and the bard’s rhythms deeply infected Melville’s writing. Dedicated readers should try to search for the ghost of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter line in the language of Moby-Dick; its animating force lurks throughout the novel, cleverly disguised as prose. The quoted passage from chapter 102 is largely composed in neat iambic rhythms, though not in pentameter. The phrases vary in length, and intentionally so — Melville carefully manipulates the rhythms of the passage to imitate Ishmael’s reaction to the jungle. As he initially describes the verdure, the phrases contain three, four, or more stresses. As Ishmael rises into a fervor of questioning, the rhythms become clipped and short, culminating in the monosyllabic “pause!” When the weaving continues ceaselessly without answer, the phrases lengthen more and more:
Nay — the shuttle flies — the figures float from forth the loom; the freshet-rushing carpet for ever slides away.
These phrases expand from one stress, to two, to four, and finally to six. This metrical expansion and acceleration conveys Ishmael’s sense that the weaver-god eludes him, forever continuing his mysterious work, heedless of Ishmael, “hear[ing] no mortal voice.”
Melville also infused his prose with rhyme, most often in the form of consonance and assonance. So melodious is the prose of Moby-Dick that it is clear Melville composed it with a poet’s ear, selecting each word for its sound — and its harmonies with its neighbors — as much as its meaning. If we consider again the excerpted sentence from chapter 102, we find a treasure-trove of alliteration and consonance. The f and l sounds gush forward in a torrent: “the shuttle flies — the figures float from forth the loom.” Hardly a single sound goes without echo. The sh in “shuttle” finds its echo in “freshet-rushing.” Even the initial word, “Nay,” stands patiently waiting for its partner until the final syllable of the sentence salutes it with a perfect rhyme: “away.” Melville constantly pushes at the edges of what is poetically possible in prose. To witness that endeavor is alone worth the price of admission.
The Metaphysics of Moby Dick
“Hark ye yet again — the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts 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 that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me…”(Chapter 36).
The white whale itself is so blank, so enigmatic, that readers often see their own allegories and interests written across its pristine surfaces. Yet this drive to allegorize is excusable, because the question of meaning beckons like a misty spout on the horizon: What is the whale about? What does it stand for, symbolize, represent? We readers are beckoned to solve the mystery of the whale that Melville sets before us, just as Ahab is obsessively driven to seek out Moby Dick and “strike, strike through the mask!”
In his speech to the harpooneers in chapter 36, Ahab shares some of his own allegorical reading of the whale. In an echo of Plato’s allegory of the cave, Ahab sees reality as a series of surfaces — masks and walls — whose true origins and purposes he cannot fathom. As he says, “to me, the white whale is that wall.” If he can but pierce the whale, he surmises, he might peer into the deeper forces that shape reality. Many readers frame Ahab’s quest in religious terms, seeing his obsession as a quest to verify the existence of God in an age when conventional faith was rapidly crumbling. But Ahab’s quest cannot be confined by any particular framework. His aim is to understand whether there is an intelligent order to the cosmos that accounts for the masks and walls of the world and — as in the biblical story of Job — explains his suffering.
One cannot say in any ultimate sense what the whale means, and that’s the point. The difficulty of discerning its meaning is central to its role in the book. Ahab’s hunt for the whale, the reader’s search for the meaning of the whale — both quests reflect the impossible task of reading the universe and understanding its fundamental nature. All of these endeavors lead us into a realm of mute whiteness, where sheer incomprehensibility takes hold. As Ishmael says of the whiteness of the whale, “by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe.” Melville guides us toward the mystery of those voids and immensities and leaves us in our confrontation, free of reductive chatter. Like the universe, like the white whale, Moby-Dick is to be experienced, not explained.
With the anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick upon us, this is the perfect moment to commemorate Melville’s masterpiece and its rescue from oblivion There are countless reasons to read — and re-read — Moby-Dick. It is a book that deepens with each passage through it. So manifold are Melville’s techniques and turns that reading the novel for the first time is like studying a map of its wide waters. To set sail and plow its distant deeps, we must return again and again. We can never be done with Moby-Dick, no more than Ahab can be done with the white whale. His quest forever rages onward on Melville’s pages, and there is always room for another passenger on the Pequod. So climb aboard!