I Can't Review Moby Dick

I just finished reading Moby Dick by Herman Melville, published in 1851. It took me one month, from March 18 to April 19, 2022. I read it along with A Public Space (APS)’s Yiyun Li, an editor there, and an author. She set a reading schedule and added some favourite quotes and comments each day. I read War and Peace along with her in 2021, a fabulous reading experience.

However it started, though, it became a bit more. This time, I read with a very awesome, small Instagram group.

Social media. A bane, right? That’s not always so, I’ve discovered, when you find a group of interesting and interested folks. I wanted to post about APS’s read-along, and asked the question on my post: anyone want to join me? Seven people did, and it ended up with about five of us who were more or less active on the DM chat group I set up.

The interesting thing about all of this to me is that I know little about my fellow Moby Dick readers. I know their IG handle, sometimes their name, probably their gender, and sometimes where they live. The group was from Canada (me and my neighbour!), maybe the US (I might be making assumptions there), South Africa and maybe elsewhere. I do know that we were united in wanting to read the book. I learned some of their thoughts on Moby Dick, passages that resonated, references they found useful and passed on, and challenging issues that we chatted about.

We all came to Moby Dick as interested readers, and I bet we all came away with vaguely similar thoughts about theme and meaning. I also suspect that if pressed, we’ll each have taken something different from the book. We’d all highlight different chapters and passages that spoke to us. We’d have interpreted its personal meaning to us–the things we really took away from it, and that will linger–differently.

This is because I feel Moby Dick defies singular interpretation on any level deeper than the very obvious narrative of Ahab obsessively chasing his nemesis, the White Whale, at the cost of everything else. The narrative of destructive obsession. Even typing that, I’m not sure if one can summarise the theme in one or two sentences. I’m sure some people have spent their whole careers writing scholarly articles, books and papers about Moby Dick.

I Googled this: “What is the broad meaning of Moby Dick?” I know it, just having shut the book, but I can’t seem to easily articulate it. I found the most interesting article in The Atlantic. Interesting not because I learned about the theme, but because it discussed how flummoxing it is to probe the depth of meaning and symbolism in the novel. In Joe Fassler’s article The Endless Depths of Moby-Dick Symbolism (August 20, 2013) he notes that many famous authors proclaim their attachment to the book, “But perhaps they all love a different Moby-Dick. It's been called a whaling yarn, a theodicy, a Shakespeare-styled political tragedy, an anatomy, a queer confessional, an environmentalist epic; because this novel seems to hold all the world, all these readings are compatible and true.” He interviews author David Gilbert, who says,
“It is so broad and so deep as to accept any interpretation while also staring back and mocking this man-made desire toward interpretation.

What does it mean? There are so many symbols as to render symbols meaningless. And yet, like Ahab, we insist on plucking the heart of its mystery. As Ishmael says, "And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload, as they do the hills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the Milky Way." Moby-Dick might as well be that enigmatic doubloon nailed to the main-mast, the prize for anyone who first grasps the white whale.”
Thus, I have come to the conclusion that I can’t review Moby Dick. I am not scholarly enough to have a clever interpretation, nor do I need to have one. As a more meaningful substitute, I’ve decided to write about a few things that spoke to me.

Here are some things that I don’t want to forget about reading Moby Dick:

➤The opening chapters where Ishmael meets Queequeg. These passages were written with humour and grace, so heartwarming. Ishmael overcomes his reticence to sleep in the same bed with a stranger, and when that stranger is known as a gigantic, swarthy South Pacific son of a cannibal king who returns to the inn after selling heads on the street, Ishmael has to dig deep to find commonality with him. And he does.
“For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself–the man’s a human being just as I am; he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”
The next morning, he wakes and, “I found Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.” A most sudden courtship! They become fast friends. I applaud this early narrative that shows us how racism and prejudice is difficult to maintain when face to face with the “other.”

➤The chapter on Whiteness, Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale. Moby Dick is a White Whale, and, “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.” Ishmael begins by listing many things that are white, and equates them with beauty and virtue, but soon takes a left turn into, “a ghastly whiteness,” signifying abject terror on considering its true nature. Indeed, white can be both divine and terrifying at once:
“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows- a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues- every stately or lovely emblazoning- the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, forever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge.”
It is this void, this meaninglessness and absence of context that we can lose ourselves in, and as we gaze into that, we realize terror. Perhaps that, for Ishmael, is the White Whale.

➤The sometimes tediously long chapters about each and every aspect of the whale’s anatomy. Overly detailed at times, and replete with arcanities…but in the end, taking the novel as a whole, they added so much. I suspect Melville was on some level fanboying on his love of whales, but nevertheless, the chapters became meaningful to me. Ahab sees Moby Dick as evil. He engages entirely in black and white thinking. But Ishmael cares about whales, is fascinated by them, and has researched them. By showing the reader the beauty of their anatomy and the majesty of their construction, he makes it impossible for us to buy into Ahab’s absolutism. The whale is a living, thriving being that deserves respect. When we confront Moby Dick in the last chapters, he is portrayed as bent on destruction, and malevolent, because we sit alongside Ahab. But we readers don’t have to adopt that narrative. I also saw a whale perfectly suited to its habitat, that had long eluded whalers when provoked, and wanted to be left alone. Melville shows us a complexity that defies “othering” once again, even othering non-human animals. This also suggests to me (the modern reader) an environmental message, as Melville prevents us from demonizing the White Whale, allowing us to see it as a creature just doing its thing.

➤Finally, I don’t want to forget Starbuck, the first mate. There is a little bit of Ahab in all of us, and Ahab’s the main figure here. Ahab is single minded, obsessive, blinded by revenge and hatred and has turned away from all else in pursuit of his goal to kill Moby Dick. But there’s perhaps a lot of Starbuck in most of us. Certainly me. He represents the voice of reason and balance as a counterpoint to Ahab’s singular vision. Perhaps he’s not exciting, but he’s a good guy, and he has his moments.
"Starbuck was no crusader after perils; in him courage was not a sentiment; but a thing simply useful to him, and always at hand upon all mortally practical occasions. Besides, he thought, perhaps, that in this business of whaling, courage was one of the great staple outfits of the ship, like her beef and her bread, and not to be foolishly wasted. Wherefore he had no fancy for lowering for whales after sun-down; nor for persisting in fighting a fish that too much persisted in fighting him. For, thought Starbuck, I am here in this critical ocean to kill whales for my living, and not to be killed by them for theirs; and that hundreds of men had been so killed Starbuck well knew."
Two chapters about Starbuck gripped me as turning points in the story.

First: The Musket. In a truly Shakespearean moment, Starbuck eyes a loaded musket, propped outside Ahab’s door, and he wrestles with the knowledge that he could kill Ahab, ending the terrible risk he foresees to all the ship and crew. It is a riveting, age-old question: kill the villain before he acts to save so many more lives? Do the ends justify the means?
“But shall this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship’s company down to doom with him?–Yes, it would make him the wilful murderer of thirty men and more, if this ship come to any deadly harm; and come to deadly harm, my soul swears this ship will, if Ahab have his way. If, then, he were this instant–put aside, that crime would not be his.”
He doesn’t do it. Of course he doesn’t, because he is Starbuck and not Ahab. And I don’t think I would either.

Second: The Symphony. Ahab and Starbuck meet on the eve of a battle to kill Moby Dick and in this quiet moment Starbuck uses all of his powers of persuasion to make Ahab see reason, to turn back from his doomed quest and save himself, the lives of his crew, and Starbuck himself. Starbuck evokes thoughts of hearth and home, eloquently pleading the case for balance, reason and the comforts of family and home.
“Oh, my Captain! my Captain! noble soul! grand old heart, after all! why should any one give chase to that hated fish! Away with me! let us fly these deadly waters! let us home!...Away! let us away!–this instant let me alter the course!”
There are two paths, and I felt breathless awaiting Ahab’s choice, hoping that reason could win the day…all the while knowing, of course, that it would not. Instead, Ahab: “like a blighted fruit tree he shook, and cast his last, cindered apple to the soil,” and he chose doom.

Starbuck is the crucial anthesis to Ahab, but nothing can stop Ahab’s quest for the White Whale. At least Starbuck really tried; he was a practical sort, in the end. It’s instructive, I suppose, that ultimately he went down with the ship. Was he a bystander? Should he have taken action, killed Ahab? Pushed him over the side of the boat in a quiet moment? Would any of us? I think maybe we need a good amount of Starbuck in us, with a scintilla of Ahab, and then just do our best to make good decisions. Life demands both sides of our natures because hard choices are rarely easy to make.

There are so many lessons in Moby Dick, profound quotations, deep symbols, and just some rip-roaring adventure, that it will stay with me. I can see a re-read at some point, or a weekend revisiting my favourite chapters. I will see its echoes in literature that I have yet to read, and will be richer for it. I’m also thankful that I had the chance to experience this amazing classic with some great Instagrammers.


During the course of reading Moby Dick, I had the opportunity to make a couple of pieces of artwork using a stencil my spouse cut out for me on a Silhouette cutter.  I got this amazing image from Cutting Curiosity on Etsy.  We spent time at an artist friend's studio to do some gelli plate printing, and I pulled this image: 

Her husband had a fantastic idea to put the original stencil on some random older, painted-over stencils and photograph it, and I think it turned out so wonderfully: 


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