Moby Dick was not the novel I expected. I was under the impression that it would be about seafaring and the whale Moby Dick. Instead, Moby Dick is a story about Captain Ahab’s obsession. There is very little in the story about the revenge itself, just about Ahab’s monomania. Out of 465 pages, only forty-two of them deal with the actual battle between Ahab and Moby Dick.
The novel places very little emphasis on actual seafaring. Ishmael never even steps on a boat until page seventy-four. Even when the ship finally leaves port, the mention of anything involving sailing or the life of sailors is kept to an absolute minimum.
There is, however, plenty of emphasis is on whaling, the anatomy of whales, and their behavior. The book goes into great detail describing the whalers of Nantucket, and gives in-depth explanations of the different types of whales, quoting several outside sources in the process. The narrator mentions the awesome size of the sperm whale, and how few books even try to describe it. He also shows great respect for people who go whaling, and describes the camaraderie that forms between them. This is an annoying inconsistency in the novel, since Ishmael (the narrator) tells the reader that he has never been on a whaling ship before, and has never seen a live whale.
The first twenty-three chapters focus on Ishmael’s thoughts and actions. He introduces the reader to whaling and describes the Pequod. After the ship sets sail, he seems to vanish from the story. At certain intervals, however, he plays minor roles, and it is Ishmael that survives to tell the story.
From chapter twenty-four onward, the novel is almost completely about Ahab hunting for Moby Dick. He has the blacksmith construct a special harpoon, made from the finest iron, and soaked in the blood of the three harpooners. The forging of the harpoon is somewhat ironic, since the rope attached to that same harpoon is what drags Ahab to the bottom of the sea.
Despite Ahab’s apparent madness, he still seemed able to reason clearly. He carefully and methodically located the region of the sea that Moby Dick is most likely to be in (an almost impossible task, considering the size of the Earth’s Oceans). When he first set sail, Ahab’s original plan was to hunt only Moby Dick and ignore other whales. Once he realizes that his men will abandon him if they do not make some sort of a profit while at sea, he encourages them to hunt other whales and boosts the morale of the crew.
Ahab is definitely the hero of Moby Dick, but he is a tragic hero. Everyone in the novel who knew Ahab prior to losing his leg considered him to be a great man, and one of the finest captains ever. After the loss of his leg during the first battle with Moby Dick, Ahab’s tragic flaw appeared. He was obsessed. He wanted revenge, and nothing else. Ahab considered Moby Dick to be the embodiment of all that is evil. This monomania is what sent the Pequod halfway around the world to the Pacific Ocean, where Ahab (and almost everyone else on the Pequod) died.
Ahab becomes focused on his one view of the whale. Ahab’s preceives the whale as the embodiment of evil. The whale’s white color lends an ambiguity to the image of the whale as evil.
The great White Whale, Moby Dick, symbolizes many different things. The first thing it represents is Ahab’s anger. The whale’s body is deformed, as is Ahab’s. The whale is driven by animalistic rage, mirroring the anger in Ahab. Ahab thinks Moby Dick is a monster, but it is really Ahab who has become the monster. The whale serves as a scapegoat for Ahab’s miserable existence.
Another thing Moby Dick can represent an unreachable goal. He is a legendary whale, and the object of a wild and exciting chase through three oceans. And, despite the efforts of the Pequod, they never defeated him. The whale was a goal that no one could achieve, but people still destroyed themselves trying.
One odd thing about the novel is that despite all the pain, death and destruction Moby Dick has caused, I do not consider the whale to be evil or monstrous. In fact, I was almost happy to see the whale turn on his hunters and destroy them. I cannot fully appreciate all the feeling about whales that the novel attempts to create.
When Moby Dick was written, whales were thought of as dumb brutes. They were found in large enough numbers that people hunted them endlessly, and never worried about killing them all. Whaling was an admired profession. People needed whale oil for their lamps. Spermaceti oil was used to make perfume and other cosmetics.
In today’s society, things are radically different. Whales are thought to be just as intelligent–if not more intelligent–than humans. Some scientists believe they have a complex language, something not mentioned in the book at all. Whales are an endangered species, almost hunted to extinction. In fact, many countries have outlawed whaling. Most people consider whaling to be cruel and inhumane. The Japanese are despised worldwide for continuing to hunt them. Television programs portray them in a positive light. Whale are mammals that nurse their young and breathe air, just like human beings. They are not giant fish. Today’s children are taught to respect whales, and are taken to aquariums to be educated about them.
After the invention of the electric light bulb, whale oil lamps were no longer used. Modern cosmetic products contain no spermaceti oil. Their manufacturers proudly make claims that no animals were harmed while making the cosmetics.
The real “dumb brutes” in the novel are not the whales, but the whalers. They are uneducated about the true nature of their prey. In a sense, Moby Dick was simply exacting revenge for the centuries of pain and death mankind has inflicted on whales.
In the time of Herman Mellville, man’s dominance over nature was idealized. Today, we are taught to respect and preserve our environment. This different frame of reference makes it very difficult to appreciate the symbolism in this novel. The main focus of the novel, however, is on obsession and its destructiveness.
One of the most important elements in a great literary work is universality. The main idea of the novel (destructive obsession) is universal, even though the symbolism is not. Moby Dick was clearly a great novel, although it was nothing like what I expected.