Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 25, 2009

Making sense of … Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

Dec 26th 2008

Moby Dick isn’t hard to read, once you get used to Herman Melville’s style and the sea-faring lingo.  It’s easy enough to follow the plot too, but knowing that it’s full of symbols and allusions means that a reader knows there is more enjoyment to be found than appears on the surface.  On the other hand, I have no doubt that this story has been the subject of endless scholarly essays and researches, and that anything I might deduce at first reading is going to be inane by comparison.  So be it.  My days as a scholar of literature are over.  Now I read for the pleasure of it, and if this blog post merely repeats aspects of this story well known to everyone else already, I do not care.

Reading Moby Dick through Daily Lit rather than in a book is an interesting experience. The emails break up the story into short chunks, and I very quickly realised that I needed to sign up for at least four emails per day to get any sense of plot and character development.  Are there people who read stories like this on their mobile phones, sitting on the tram or train, or at morning tea in the office?  That would be a bizarre experience,  not to mention rather hard on the eyes.

Anyway, this post shares my irregular thoughts, as written in drafts before publishing.  I am up to chapter 21 – what have I noticed so far?

The characters are deliberately odd.  Ishmael himself is a loner, one who wishes to take ship for the adventure of it, but also to avoid society.  He believes that “in landlessness alone resides highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God” and would rather die at sea than be “dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety“. Queequeg is a cannibal who worships a small head in a mishmash of  religions considered pagan by Ishmael.  As they embark there are three captains aboard: Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad as well as Captain Ahab, who even at the point of departure is still nowhere to be seen.  Despite the omens – Elijah’s warnings, and the whispered snatches of conversation about the elusive Ahab – Ishmael considers there to be nothing  strange about this.

It is interesting to read in these modern times Chapter 24 (The Advocate) a defence of whaling. We in the 21st century are concerned with the welfare of the whale: its possible extinction and the fact that there is no humane way to kill one, even if we did need whale products, which we no longer do.  Ishmael, however, is worried about the attitude of society towards ‘harpooners’. He compares whaling with the butchery of war, and wonders why such carnage is noble when whaling is not, and reminds his readers that ” though the world scouts at us whale hunters, yet does it unwittingly pay us the profoundest homage; yea, an all-abounding adoration! for almost all the tapers, lamps, and candles that burn round the globe, burn, as before so many shrines, to our glory!”  (That is, C19th  lamps burn with whale oil).  Later on in Chapter 93, he reminds his readers that the source of highly prized ambergris – used for perfumes and pomades for the wealthy – comes from the bowels of sick whales, and this too is acquired at great risk to the whaler.  Young Pip’s misadventure is ‘common in that fishery’  (Chapter 93); so too, injury and drowning. Does the bravery of these whalers arouse admiration?  Not then, it seems, and certainly not now…

Dec 31st, 2008

Captain Ahab has finally come out of his self-imposed seclusion below decks and chucked his pipe overboard.  Considering how few pleasures there are, this is somewhat dramatic – and (according to one website I found) symbolises his decision to abandon all pleasures of the flesh in order to pursue his quest for the whale.  He is an arresting figure: he has a scar  (reputedly from a thunderbolt) that runs the length of his face and body, and the prosthesis for his missing leg is made from whale bone.  His mythic status is reinforced by a philosophical discussion about whether being kicked by the ‘ivory’ leg is the same as being kicked by a real one, and Stubbs (the second mate) decides that it is not, and therefore he does not need to take offence as he otherwise might.

Chapter 32 is a rather long and somewhat tedious explanation about the different types of whales, (written mostly, says the narrator, by people who’ve never seen one. )  Today, when all of us have seen countless David Attenborough documentaries about the whale, it seems superfluous, but I suppose in the context of Melville’s time, it was necessary.  Here, describing the whale, Melville makes many of his biblical allusions: his straight and single lofty jet rising like a tall misanthropic spear upon a barren plain; gifted with such wondrous power and velocity in swimming, as to defy all present pursuit from man; this leviathan seems the banished and unconquerable Cain of his race, bearing for his mark that style upon his back. This ‘mark of Cain’ is a chilling reminder for us of those images of frenzied killer whales we have seen, but Melville probably didn’t know about their ability to hunt together in packs like wolves do…

Jan 1, 2009  Chapter 35
One of the advantages of reading online, is that one can Google puzzling allusions readily. Had I been reading this in bed, I would have skimmed over the reference to Childe Harold, and forgotten about it. I would have assumed that it was alluding to a child, not to a candidate for the knighthood in medieval times, and wrongly inferred that Melville meant adolescent behaviour.

For when Ishmael self-mockingly – because he himself keeps ‘sorry guard’ – warns the ship-owners of Nantucket to avoid hiring for mast-head duty a young lad of ‘unreasonable meditativeness’, because he will fail to keep proper watch for the whales they seek….

Childe Harold not unfrequently perches himself upon the mast-head of some luckless disappointed whale-ship, and in moody phrase ejaculates:–

“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll! Ten thousand blubber-hunters sweep over thee in vain.”

Melville is invoking the Byronic hero…The poem – Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage – to which he is alluding is about a world-weary young man, just like Ishmael, who seeks adventure in far-off lands, and Ismael is identifying himself as ‘an outsider, and with a contradictory nature; sometimes cruel, sometimes kind, devoted but unfaithful, and never contented, but eternally seeking out new sensations’.   (Thankyou, Wikipedia, something else to add to my TBR!)

Captain Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick is finally revealed in Chapter 36.

It was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now. Aye, aye,” he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose; “Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!” Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: “Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.”

Starbuck remonstrates that it is wrong to take vengeance on a dumb animal that acted from instinct, but Ahab is obdurate.  The whale has a demonic quality that demands his hatred.  The tension begins to rise!


At last in chapter 41 we learn how Captain Ahab lost his leg.   This whale is different, for he seems to be no dumb animal at all!

Nor was it his unwonted magnitude, nor his remarkable hue, nor yet his deformed lower jaw, that so much invested the whale with natural terror, as that unexampled, intelligent malignity which, according to specific accounts, he had over and over dismay than perhaps aught else. For, when swimming before his exulting pursuers, with every apparent symptom of alarm, he had several times been known to turn round suddenly, and, bearing down upon them, either stave their boats to splinters, or drive them back in consternation to their ship.

The cause of Ahab’s irrational malice is revealed:

Suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab’s leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field. No turbaned Turk, no hired Venetian or Malay, could have smote him with more seeming malice. Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. ….  He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

Time passes, and his body heals, but not his mind.  Like the whale, he seems benign, but it masks cunning.

Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form. Ahab’s full lunacy subsided not, but deepeningly contracted; like the unabated Hudson, when that noble Northman flows narrowly, but unfathomably through the Highland gorge. But, as in his narrow-flowing monomania, not one jot of Ahab’s broad madness had been left behind; so in that broad madness, not one jot of his great natural intellect had perished.

Ishmael wonders at this, and how it was that Captain Ahab managed to influence his crew to share the madness.  He puts his own folly down to the isolation of the time and place, to that ‘abandonment’ which seemed to take possession of their senses.  Some of their terror, he thinks, is attributable to the whale’s colour: white – which symbolises fear and dread in everything from Coleridge’s antarctic albatross to the pallor of a dead man, ghosts and snow. Albinism is feared for no rational reason as the ‘crowning attribute of the terrible’, and not just by humans.  An albino whale is most terrible of all because of its size.


Chapter 48: And now we come to the hunt.  And immediately I am reminded of my husband’s delight and awe when he (while I was at the Writers’ Festival).  went whale-watching at Byron Bay.  He was captivated by the majesty of this animal, and still speaks of this experience almost reverentially.  Not so for Mr Melville:

Not the raw recruit, marching from the bosom of his wife into the fever heat of his first battle; not the dead man’s ghost encountering the first unknown phantom in the other world;–neither of these can feel stranger and stronger emotions than that man does, who for the first time finds himself pulling into the charmed, churned circle of the hunted sperm whale.

Do we, with our 21st century sensibilities, read this book differently to Melville’s readers?  While not indifferent to the dangers of whaling for the crew, I’m on the side of the whale.  I’m relieved when the attempt to harpoon the whale fails, and the crew end up in the water in the storm and the whale gets away!  Squall, whale, and harpoon had all blended together; and the whale, merely grazed by the iron, escaped.

Another feature that strikes me is the variety of narrative styles in this story. While it’s mostly first person narrative, now I’m up to Chapter 54, and Ishmail is recounting the Town-Ho’s story. Here he chooses to recount it in the same style as he told the story to some drinking mates:

For my humor’s sake, I shall preserve the style in which I once narrated it at Lima, to a lounging circle of my Spanish friends, one saint’s eve, smoking upon the thick-gilt tiled piazza of the Golden Inn. Of those fine cavaliers, the young Dons, Pedro and Sebastian, were on the closer terms with me; and hence the interluding questions they occasionally put, and which are duly answered at the time.

This is not the first time Melville has chosen a different narrative style: there’s a sermon, excerpts from the books about cetalogy (whales),  and the singing watch.  20th century writers and critics tend to imply that messing about with narrative styles is contemporary, but here was Melville doing it to great effect in 1851…

Chapter 55: Of The Monstrous Pictures of Whales is an interesting reminder of how privileged we are in the digital age where all of us can view fantastic film and video of these magnificent beasts, from above and below the water’s surface. Melville’s asserts that no one but whalers could really know what they were like, because all the pictures then available were based on beached whales, not healthy living ones.  Today on YouTube there are plenty of videos taken by irresponsible people who get too close for both whale and human safety, but there is no need for that: here’s a video of a baby albino whale, taken with telephoto lens from a light plane:

There are a couple of artists of whom Melville approves:  he mentions a French etching by Garnery is said to be ‘well-executed’. Thus, the foreground is all raging commotion; but behind, in admirable artistic contrast, is the glassy level of a sea becalmed, the drooping unstarched sails of the powerless ship, and the inert mass of a dead whale, a conquered fortress, with the flag of capture lazily hanging from the whale-pole inserted into his spout-hole. (This picture is from MIT’s Open Courseware Site Materials at so I assume it’s ok to reproduce it here with acknowledgement. )

Having treated us to an assortment of dissertations about whales, artists who draw and carve them, and the savagery of whalers, Melville then teases his reader with an apparition.  We, like Captain Ahab, think that Moby Dick has finally made his appearance, but no, it’s an albino squid, and then we get a very long explanation about the whale line used to capture the whale.  Stubbs kills a whale in Chapter 62, but it’s not the one they seek.  Since I’m only just past half way (No 132 of 260 instalments), I am beginning to wonder how much more Melville is going to pad out this story before the real action starts!  We shall see…. 


Ugh!  Melville pads his story out with a long and disgustingly detailed discussion about the merits of eating whales.  Today, only the Japanese hunt and eat whale.  One can only hope that this abhorrent practice can be stopped by international pressure – for there is no sign that the Japanese recognise how contemptible it is. However Melville treats us to, chapter-by-chapter, details about cutting up its skin and blubber, and beheading it,  and then more than I want to know about how sharks will sometimes tear it to pieces.  It is not pleasant to read these chapters, and I only scanned them, only to find that Stubbs and Flask then kill a Right Whale – which provides the opportunity for Melville to treat us to a comparison of the Right and Sperm whales’ heads, since they both were swinging side-by-side from the boat.  Then there is the retrieval of the oil, a rescue when a man falls overboard, and the barbarous killing of yet another whale.  

At the instant of the dart an ulcerous jet shot from this cruel wound, and goaded by it into more than sufferable anguish, the whale now spouting thick blood, with swift fury blindly darted at the craft, bespattering them and their glorying crews all over with showers of gore, capsizing Flask’s boat and marring the bows. It was his death stroke. For, by this time, so spent was he by loss of blood, that he helplessly rolled away from the wreck he had made; lay panting on his side, impotently flapped with his stumped fin, then over and over slowly revolved like a waning world; turned up the white secrets of his belly; lay like a log, and died. It was most piteous, that last expiring spout. As when by unseen hands the water is gradually drawn off from some mighty fountain, and with half-stifled melancholy gurglings the spray-column lowers and lowers to the ground–so the last long dying spout of the whale. (Chapter 81)

This poor creature was found to have a harpoon embedded in its flesh.  No wonder this book was none-too-popular in its day.  Whatever its literary qualities, it becomes a burden to read through all this horrid stuff.  I pity those poor students who must read through this with care in case there’s some biblical allusion or symbol of  importance!  As a mere general reader, I can scamper through these distasteful sections in hope that Mr Melville will soon revert to the story.  And unlike a student with assignments to pass,  I can – if sufficiently tempted – jettison the whole thing without finishing it…


Since my last post I’ve visited Tasmania, where in the Maritime Museum I saw an old B&W documentary about whaling.  There was actual footage of the hunt and the butchery, with a voiceover using text from Moby Dick.  Now as I read Melville’s distasteful bragging, I can visualise the torment the creature endures.  Reading the chapter about a baby whale being caught by its umbilical cord is truly nauseating.  Finishing this book is now just an endurance test…

However, there are very occasional compensations in this book…

In Chapter 89, discussing the vexed issue of ownership of a valuable whale struck by one vessel and cast loose (perhaps in a storm) then captured and killed by another, Melville scorns efforts to deal with the problem with legislation or the courts.  He says that it is best dealt with through the informal law of the sea, in which

•I.                    A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.

•II.                 II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.

For he says:

Is it not a saying in every one’s mouth, Possession is half of the law: that is, regardless of how the thing came into possession? But often possession is the whole of the law.

And he gives some rather disconcerting examples:

What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish, whereof possession is the whole of the law? What to the rapacious landlord is the widow’s last mite but a Fast-Fish? What is yonder undetected villain’s marble mansion with a door-plate for a waif; what is that but a Fast-Fish? What is the ruinous discount which Mordecai, the broker, gets from poor Woebegone, the bankrupt, on a loan to keep Woebegone’s family from starvation; what is that ruinous discount but a Fast-Fish? What is the Archbishop of Savesoul’s income of L100, 000 seized from the scant bread and cheese of hundreds of thousands of broken-backed laborers (all sure of heaven without any of Savesoul’s help) what is that globular L100, 000 but a Fast-Fish? What are the Duke of Dunder’s hereditary towns and hamlets but Fast-Fish? What to that redoubted harpooneer, John Bull, is poor Ireland, but a Fast-Fish? What to that apostolic lancer, Brother Jonathan, is Texas but a Fast-Fish?

And concerning all these, is not Possession the whole of the law?

But if the doctrine of Fast-Fish be pretty generally applicable, the kindred doctrine of Loose-Fish is still more widely so. That is internationally and universally applicable.

What was America in 1492 but a Loose-Fish, in which Columbus struck the Spanish standard by way of waifing it for his royal master and mistress? What was Poland to the Czar? What Greece to the Turk? What India to England? What at last will Mexico be to the United States? All Loose-Fish.

What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?

From defender of the indefensible, Melville has moved here to the moral high ground, attacking serfdom and slavery; rapacious economic systems; slum landlords; religious hypocrisy; hereditary land ownership; the occupation of Ireland and Texas; the colonisation of the Americas, Poland, Greece, India and Mexico; and the ostentatious pronouncements of mankind.  If there were more of this, Moby Dick would be much  more interesting to read!


I’m up to chapter 101, and instalment 201 of 260.  Moby Dick is, I suspect, about to make his long overdue appearance.  The obsessive Captain Ahab and the Pequod have met up and been contrasted with the English Captain Boomer of the Samuel Enderby:  Boomer lost an arm to Moby Dick, but  is philosophical about it:

No, thank ye, Bunger,” said the English Captain, “he’s welcome to the arm he has, since I can’t help it, and didn’t know him then; but not to another one. No more White Whales for me; I’ve lowered for him once, and that has satisfied me. There would be great glory in killing him, I know that; and there is a ship-load of precious sperm in him, but, hark ye, he’s best let alone; don’t you think so, Captain?”–glancing at the ivory leg.

(Ten minutes later)

Wrong again! No sign of Moby Dick at all.  Now there’s a dissertation on the differences between whalers from England, Holland,  New Zealand, and Denmark, and further chapters on the innards of a whale, fossils of pre-adamite whales and a dialogue between Ahab and the ship’s carpenter who has to make him a new leg when his ivory one is damaged.  Then there is a bizarre sequence where Queequeg is thought to be dying and demands a coffin be made because he fears being thrown overboard in his hammock.  Then he recovers.   I am baffled: why is this stuff thought to be one of the great works of American literature?  Why??

(Half an hour later, Chpater 124, The Needle)

They survive a storm,  their compasses fail, and Ahab impresses his ignorant crew by remagnetizing them.  They lose a man overboard, but they think this is a fulfilment of the bad omens they’ve had, not a portent of further misfortune.  Next they meet up with the Rachel, a ship which has lost a boat to Moby Dick.  (It’s chapter 128, and only 21 instalments to go).  The captain wants the Pequod to help in the search because his son is aboard the missing boat – and Ahab – having lost all humanity – refuses.  They meet another ship devastated by this whale –  the portents pile up – but they press on regardless.  Surely this whale must make its appearance soon!

Hurray! Chapter 133 and at last Moby Dick is sighted!

And thus, through the serene tranquillities of the tropical sea, among waves whose hand-clappings were suspended by exceeding rapture, Moby Dick moved on, still withholding from sight the full terrors of his submerged trunk, entirely hiding the wrenched hideousness of his jaw. But soon the fore part of him slowly rose from the water; for an instant his whole marbleized body formed a high arch, like Virginia’s Natural Bridge, and warningly waving his bannered flukes in the air, the grand god revealed himself, sounded, and went out of sight. Hoveringly halting, and dipping on the wing, the white sea-fowls longingly lingered over the agitated pool that he left.

Their first attempts land Captain Ahab in the water but no hands lost…on the second day of the chase they lose a man when he is grotesquely lashed to the whale’s body by his harpoon line , and then (at last! at last!) Moby Dick rams the boat and sinks it, Captain Ahab is launched into the sea by his harpoon and (almost) all hands are lost in the vortex…

The harpoon was darted; the stricken whale flew forward; with igniting velocity the line ran through the grooves;–ran foul. Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone. Next instant, the heavy eye-splice in the rope’s final end flew out of the stark-empty tub, knocked down an oarsman, and smiting the sea, disappeared in its depths.

For an instant, the tranced boat’s crew stood still; then turned. “The ship? Great God, where is the ship?” Soon they through dim, bewildering mediums saw her sidelong fading phantom, as in the gaseous Fata Morgana; only the uppermost masts out of water; while fixed by infatuation, or fidelity, or fate, to their once lofty perches, the pagan harpooneers still maintained their sinking lookouts on the sea. And now, concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.

Would there be anyone reading this book who’s be surprised by this utterly predictable ending?  There remains only one loose end to be tied up, and of course it is the Rachel, searching for the captain’s child lost overboard, who rescues Ishmael the narrator from the sea.

Well, if anyone after reading all this wants to know about themes, motifs and symbols, try Spark notes.   Having started out this post by saying that I read these days for enjoyment I’m not sure whether to be proud of myself for finishing it, or bemused by my determination to go on with something I disliked so much!

This book is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.


  1. Congratulations on making it through! Beyond Spark Notes there’s also, a complete online annotation.


  2. Thanks, Meg, but I think I’ve had enough of whale hunting for the time being!


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