|'Meditation and water
are wedded for ever'
The white whale might be the bane of Captain Ahab's existence--and indeed the existence of high-school students around America--but Moby-Dick is worth a second look. Herman Melville's sixth novel received a mixed reception in 1851, but has since been hailed as the "Great American Novel." Indeed, so many pages have been written about the whale by writers from Leonard Woolf to Toni Morrison that Moby-Dick criticism far surpasses even the daunting 600 pages of the text itself. But there is a reason for the enormity of the book and the criticism. "Meditation and water are wedded for ever," the narrator Ishmael tells us. As a book that recounts the adventure of the ship Pequod on the world's oceans, Moby-Dick revels in deep meditation, meditates upon a vast array of ideas, and also inspires the reader to think further on them.
Of course, its capacity for meditation does not mean it isn't funny. We can laugh at Ishmael, for instance, because our narrator sometimes goes overboard (literally) with cheesy enthusiasm. The way Ishmael gushes on about squeezing the spermaceti "till a strange sort of insanity" comes over him and exhorts, "let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness" can make us blush. But at least, Melville isn't afraid to allow his male characters to show their affection for each other.
Indeed, this book is all about affinity with other people. Ishmael depends on his fellow crewmen--Yankees, Native Americans, Africans, South Sea Islanders, Portuguese, and Englishmen--because they are now all "federated along one keel." The sweet and terrible danger of whale-hunting means that Ishmael learns to work along side with and love these men. He becomes yoked to a person he was initially very afraid of: Queequeg, a native of Kokovoko in the South Pacific. When he finds himself tied to Queequeg with a monkey-rope, Ishmael realizes that two people from completely different backgrounds still must look out for each other. "For better or for worse," he says, "we two, for a time, were wedded; and should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake." For the way that Ishmael comes to count himself as one of these "mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals" and the psychology of how Captain Ahab becomes obsessed with "the whiteness of the whale," postcolonial critics such as the Caribbean writer C.L.R. James have been very interested in this book.
The sympathy and sense of interdependence does not just apply to communities of men usually divided by race, ethnicity, and class, but also to man's relationship to his environment. In Melville's book, whales are capable of as much tenderness, awkwardness, and malice as the most individual of men. Ishmael sees into the "tornadoed Atlantic of [his] being " as he watches whales court each other, nurse babies, and kick their tails with desperation when wounded. The power of nature--whether asserted through storms or sharks--is awesome in this book. Indeed, the ending could be read as a cautionary tale for what happens when a man tries to assert his will over the world around him.
So this is also a book about leadership, monomania, insanity, and orphaning. Critics have read it as a parable of American history and an encyclopedic compendium of literary techniques. The fact that Moby-Dick can support all of these readings is why it's so great. Of course, it has omissions--there are very few women in this book, for one thing--but all of the characters Melville does create are profound and often hilarious. Moby-Dick is, above all, a good story--one that plunges "into that blackness of darkness" and also laughs at the world as a "vast practical joke." Read the book because Melville takes risks, showing how life is incredibly, deliciously messy.
'Meditation and water are wedded for ever'