“Call Me Ishmael”: one of the most famous opening lines of any novel is spoken by the only survivor of a long hunt for Moby Dick – the White Whale. This epic tale of whaling, revenge, and fate works on multiple levels. Even Ishmael’s name is packed with meaning. Ishmael was Abraham’s first son born of his slave. When Abraham’s “real” son Isaac was born Ishmael was banished. Both Ishmaels were destined to live outside their tribes; our Ishmael after his shipmates die at the hands (head?) of Moby Dick.
The bare bones of the book are known to most: Ishmael and his new-found cannibal friend QueeQueg ship out on the Pequod captained by one-legged Ahab to hunt whales – and in particular the enormous Sperm Whale Moby Dick who took Ahab’s leg and “all but pierced his groin; nor was it without extreme difficulty that the agonizing would was entirely cured.” (p308). Ahab was single-minded and set apart: “Though nominally in the census of Christendom, he was still an alien to it. He lived in the world, as the last of the Grisly Bears lived in settled Missouri.” (p 109).
The novel has many themes but the one that stood out to me is fate. Ahab knows he is putting the ship and the entire crew in harm’s way in vengefully pursuing Moby Dick rather than going about the merchant task of bringing back whale oil. Did he have a choice?
“‘What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that agains all natural lovings an longings, I so keep pushing and crowding, and jamming myself on all the the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it Ï, God, or who that lifts this arm.”
I know at times I do things that are not in my best interest but I’m bound to it all the same.
To draw out his themes Melville continually references Judeo-Christian history, mythology and classical literature. I enjoyed the parallels to MacBeth who, it was prophesied would not be killed by a man of woman born or until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. Of course Macbeth thinks this makes him immortal until he comes to find that MacDuff was “not from woman born but from my mother’s womb untimely ripped”(caesarian section) and MacDuff’s troops have cut limbs from Birnam Wood to use as camouflage.
Likewise, Ahab’s henchman (the devil?) Fedallah tells Ahab he is destined to die by hemp and that Ahab will see a hearse of American wood pass by before he dies. Ahab is sure this couldn’t happen on the ocean! Indeed Ahab sees his American made sailing ship Pequod destroyed and become the death transport of his crew and then Ahab dies by being caught up in the rope tied to a harpoon stuck in Moby Dick.
The theme of death by rope is playfully introduced by Ishmael earlier “…in the case of pirates, say, I should like to know whether that profession of theirs has any particular glory about it. It sometimes ends in uncommon elevation, indeed; but only at the gallows. And besides, when a man is elevated in that odd fashion, he has to proper foundation for his superior altitude. Hence, I conclude, that in boasting himself to be high lifted above a whaleman, in that assertion the pirate has no solid basis to stand on.” (p166)
This is such a great example of how Melville weaves together motifs throughout the story.
Yes, this is a very long and dense novel, but the poetic turns of phrase as in Ahab ruminating about his fate: “the path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my sould is grooved to run” (p 119) make it enjoyable. I found it helpful to have a chapter guide at hand to help through the multitude of sailing, religious and mythical allusions and to help with some of the arcane language. Yes there are chapters upon chapters about the whaling business; almost like Melville did so much research and was loathe not to use it.
I was an English Major back in the 70’s and was assigned this novel in my first semester Major American Authors class. I’m ashamed to say I skipped through it at the time. My thought was because there were so few American authors compared to English, it didn’t take much to be “major”. I’m sorry I gave it short shrift; I think this is a must read.