Thursday, February 23, 2012

Moby Dick: The Novel That Stove My Heart

I don't usually take to works of literature that are considered "classics"--maybe because I don't like to go with the flow just because others keep telling me how great the flow is, or maybe because "classics" are what I was forced to read all throughout school until I felt like it would be worth inventing a time machine just to go back and punch Shakespeare in the nose. Whatever my reasoning may be, it wasn't until I read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein that I realized some books are classics because they truly speak to the innermost soul of the reader. For me, Herman Melville's Moby Dick is one of those true classics. It took me quite some time (135 chapters and an epilogue's worth of time) to decide whether I even liked the book. At the beginning, I loved it. Halfway through, I wasn't so sure, but I read on anyway and it started to grow on me. By the time I got to the end, I realized that I had become so consumed by this novel that I had to love it. But before I reached the point of discovering my true feelings, I analyzed the hell out of this novel and I feel like sharing that analysis. So if you have a lot of time on your hands, or just want to see what someone else thinks of this mind-boggling book, then sit back and enjoy.
**Spoilers abound (mainly for the very end)**

Illustration by A. Burnham Shute
It almost seems like a true story
Ishmael's narration makes it seem like a real 1st-person account of a whaling voyage because he goes into extreme detail of every instrument and operation involved in the whaling industry. This is due to the fact that Melville was a whaleman and used his own knowledge and experiences in the novel. But there's another reason the book seems so realistic: Each character has a distinct personality and is given a life-story to back up that personality. The fact that Perth's wife and children all died (and he later lost all his toes while wandering homeless through the snow) has nothing to do with his job as the ship's blacksmith, but it does go far to make even this rather insignificant character more lifelike. The same with Bulkington; Ishmael says what little he knows about him, refers to those few words as his shipmate's "stoneless grave", and then never mentions Bulkington again. In a real tragedy, there are some people you get to know better than others, but you still feel the need to tell everything you remember about those who didn't survive as if it were your duty to do so. Ishmael tries to be a good survivor, speaking for his lost shipmates and paying tribute to each one that he has even the faintest memory of.

Ishmael rambles...a lot
I know this semi-contradicts what I just wrote, but does anyone really need to know every little thing that is involved in whaling? Whole chapters are devoted to such topics as how to cut the blubber out of a whale, how try-works are used, and how the whale-line is rigged in the boats (which, shockingly, even Ishmael says is too tedious for him to describe in full). It's not the endless descriptions of standard procedures that bother me so much as the endless descriptions of the whales. After reading this book, I feel like I could pass a course in whale anatomy. There is one chapter in which our dear narrator delves into a scientific debate about whether a whale spouts water or vapor from its lungs. Several more chapters are devoted to the head, tail, and every other part of the whale. I understand that back in 1851, it was highly unlikely for anyone outside of the whaling industry and the field of marine biology to have ever seen a whale or even have a good idea as to what one looked like, so its reasonable that Melville wanted to give his readers an accurate and thorough depiction. But to modern readers who have been spoiled by Animal Planet documentaries, Ishmael's constant cetology lessons can be quite boring.
Image from Freshwater and Marine Image Bank

Shifting narration
Moby Dick starts out as a 1st-person narration and remains so throughout most of the book. But every now and then, the narration shifts to 3rd-person and sometimes stops altogether to create a stage-play format (in which, the only way you know what the characters are doing is by reading stage directions and picking up hints in the characters' dialogue). Now, the 3rd-person narration allows the reader to view scenes that Ishmael couldn't possibly have witnessed, and the play format is typically used whenever a character is giving a profound speech (I guess Melville thought a lack of narration would make the reader focus more on what the character was saying; he wasn't wrong). The downside to these shifts is that they take some getting used to. The first time the narration switched from 1st-person to 3rd, I was left wondering "How could Ishmael know about that? Isn't he the one telling this story?" And the first time it switched from 1st-person to play format completely freaked me out and left me feeling lost without the familiar narrator to act as a guide (although, that was probably how Melville wanted the reader to feel at that point).

Illustration by I. W. Taber
Anti-prejudice message
I am fairly impressed by the fact that an American novel written before the Civil War takes a stand against both racial and religious prejudice. As a pagan with Native American ancestry, I was pleased to see non-whites and non-Christians portrayed as honorable characters who possessed noble traits that many other characters lacked. Furthermore, I am impressed the basic equally displayed in the writing. It seems like Melville didn't set out to glorify non-whites or non-Christians, but rather to send the message that, although culturally different, all people of all races and religions are basically the same. Ishmael struggles to be accepting of all kinds of people (and he largely succeeds), but occasionally he'll lapse into a moment of ridicule only to be corrected the next moment by either Queequeg or his own better judgment. In fact, whenever any character displays prejudice toward another, he is either quickly put in his place or made to look foolish in comparison to the man he's discriminating against. The one exception to this rule is Fedallah, who is never redeemed for all the horrible things that Stubb says about him (but I think there's a reason for this, which I'll go into later).

Ishmael is actually quite witty and the book starts out with a good deal of humor. However, that humor starts to wane once he boards the Pequod, and second mate Stubb takes over most of the role of comedic relief. But Stubb has a downfall to his character that Ishmael fortunately doesn't have--he is one conniving, condescending, prejudiced SOB with a serious superiority complex. Nevertheless, he is the most comical character in the novel, so it's difficult to really hate him. But as much as I enjoyed Stubb's quips and his interpretation of the zodiac (which had an added bonus of teaching me the order of the signs), it still brought a smile to my face whenever he took a scolding from Ahab (which really should've happened more often).
"...Lord! how we suddenly jump, as Scorpio, or the Scorpion, stings us in rear; we are curing the wound when whang come the arrows all round; Sagittarius, or the Archer, is amusing himself..." ~ Stubb, Ch. 99 "The Doubloon"

Sexual undertones
First, I just want to say that I am not a fan of Freud. I think that anyone who sees sexual references everywhere and blames all the world's troubles on everyone's mothers has a few bats to clear out of his own belfry before he should start analyzing others. That being said, there are definite sexual undertones in this novel that even I couldn't ignore. There's a lot that can be said about this topic, but since I am an anti-Freudian, I prefer to ignore the whole harpoons-are-phallic-symbols bullshit and instead focus on the two sexual aspects that actually exist in the story.
(1) It is hinted to that Ishmael might be gay and in love with Queequeg. If your wondering what those hints are, here you go: At the book's start, Ishmael is opposed to sleeping in the same bed with another man and kind of freaks out when he's told he'll have to share a bed. It seems like he's either trying to run away from his sexuality or trying way too hard to convince the reader that he's not gay so as to avoid the shame that accompanied being labeled as a homosexual in the 1800s. Around this same time, Ishmael sees Bulkington for the first time, says "This man interested me at once", and proceeds to describe him in a very flattering way that suggests he's attracted to him. (Note: Lengthy descriptions of physical appearance are only given for the male characters; the few female characters are never described in detail, suggesting that our narrator wasn't paying much attention to their features.) Later, once he and Queequeg have become "bosom friends", the two of them continue to sleep in the same bed even though they no longer have to, and marriage is frequently used as a metaphor for their relationship. Also, Ishmael refers to his friend as "my beloved Queequeg" a few times and expresses a deep admiration for him that I defy anyone to claim is not love. And if none of that has convinced you, there is an ecstasy-filled chapter called "A Squeeze of the Hand" that contains so much innuendo that it reaches a level of eroticism Walt Whitman would be proud of.
(2) As if there weren't enough reasons to feel sorry for Ahab, a month before the Pequod set sail, he took a fall and was stabbed in the groin by his own whalebone leg. (That had to hurt!) To hide this embarrassing injury, Ahab stays out of sight for over a month until the wound heals, but whether he ever makes a full, uh, recovery is never really mentioned. To put this into perspective, before his injury, this old sea captain in his late 50s got his very young wife pregnant after only one night with her. But after his injury... Well, I'm guessing his pride was hurt just as badly as his physical being. He was already raving mad over the loss of his leg, and this second wound just added to his fury. And it is explicitly mentioned in the novel that Ahab blamed Moby Dick for all of this, because if the whale hadn't bitten off his leg, he never would've been stabbed by the replacement leg.

For some reason, I couldn't find an actual picture of St. Elmo's Fire on a ship. I understand that it's rare, but so is Bigfoot, and yet there are plenty of "photos" of him. Since I live next to the docks in the thunderstorm capital of the U.S., maybe I can take a photo for you. But until then, all I can give you is this somewhat lacking drawing to go along with my next point. (Remember Ahab's speech to the corpusants?)
Are they insane, or are they so sane that it blows your mind?
Is anyone in this world really sane? I seriously doubt it. Insanity is beautifully depicted in Moby Dick as being the result of extremely profound thinking. Ahab and Pip most clearly demonstrate this. What they say seems ridiculous unless you actually think about their words for a while; then it's easy to see and even agree with their rationale. For example, like many amputees, Ahab can still feel his leg even though it physically no longer exists. And if the feeling of that leg still exists without the physical component, then who's to say an entire non-physical person can't exist? Is it really so hard to understand why the captain would talk to someone who can't be seen? Starbuck's superstitions and reliance on omens, Stubb's desperate attempts to stay jolly and never think too deeply, Flask's materialism, and the carpenter's total lack of empathy could also be considered a kind of insanity. Yet Ahab is the one who is famous for being crazy. In my opinion, he's not entirely deserving of that reputation.

Illustration by I. W. Taber
Fate: Ahab and Fedallah
(1) The loss of his leg and the jab to the groin are only part of the reason Ahab wants to kill Moby Dick. There was a prophecy that said Ahab would be dismembered, but the captain paid it no attention and managed to go 60 years living his life by his own free will until that notorious whale came along and fulfilled that prophecy. From that point on, Ahab saw Moby Dick as a representation of all the cruelty of fate and its control over people. If he could destroy that, then he would not only get revenge against fate, but also take back control of his life. He wanted to be a defiant conqueror; he wanted to be free. Tragically, he learns that he has no control over his vengeful quest and everything that he thought was his own free will was really just another part of fate's plan for him. This realization crushes his spirit and he repeatedly tries to convince himself that it's not true. But even when he wants to give up and go home, he feels the pull of destiny refusing to let him. I don't believe in fate, and to see Ahab suffer so damn much while trying to escape it--and then suffer again when he realizes his life and his thoughts aren't his own--is nothing short of heartbreaking.
(2) I mentioned before that Fedallah is the only one who is never redeemed for the horrible things said of him. I think this is because Melville wanted him to be a complete enigma who is impossible to like or dislike. The reader has no way to form a real opinion about this man because he speaks maybe twice in the whole novel and doesn't do anything but stand without moving for countless hours at a time. The characters' opinions of him are based on their own prejudices and superstitions, so they can't be trusted. Stubb refers to him as "the devil" who's trying to corrupt Ahab, Starbuck calls him Ahab's "evil shadow", Ishmael takes a more unbiased view by calling him "a shadow", and Ahab seems afraid of him at times. The connection between Ahab and Fedallah is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. The captain is the one who brought (or rather, stowed away) Fedallah on board the ship and is the only one who ever talks to him, but to say that they are friends would be a stretch. Fedallah has a natural way of tormenting Ahab; whether he does this deliberately or not is never revealed. As a Parsi prophet, Fedallah sees into the future and tells Ahab (in vague descriptions) how he will die. The captain is already being hounded by fate and out of desperation, he chooses to interpret these prophecies in a way that agrees with him. But if he's trying to escape fate, why did he bring a prophet on board? Is he trying to torment himself? Does he want Fedallah around to interpret his own frightening dreams? Or did he not know that his bowsman was a prophet when he hired him?

No resolution
Most plot lines have a rising action, a climax, and a falling action. This novel has no falling action. Nothing gets resolved at the end and many questions are left unanswered. What was Ahab's "deadly skrimmage with the Spaniard afore the altar in Santa", and why did he spit into a silver calabash (unless he was helping to make chicha)? What was Bulkington running away from? What happened to Elijah's left arm? None of these questions is answered. Also, I had expected there to be something about Ishmael returning to Nantucket on the Rachel and seeing Bildad's and Peleg's reactions to the loss of their friends and their ship. I had expected something to be said about Ahab's family and Starbuck's family. But none of this happens; the book just ends and it hits you like a Mack truck carrying a ton of bricks.

Illustration by A. Burnham Shute
Moby Dick, the hero/villain 
This goes along with the above statement about the end. If Melville had shown the readers the impact that the characters made in the lives of those onshore, then those characters would've become tragic heroes. By ending the story so abruptly, the last thing we see is the mariners failing to accomplish anything. They all die and all of their efforts throughout the book amount to nothing. The only one who accomplishes anything is Moby Dick. It's so easy to adopt Ahab's view and see the whale as a villain--after all, he kills over 30 people who all have families and friends waiting for them to come home; and the only one who survives is Ishmael who, ironically, has no one waiting for him. But Moby Dick is just a whale who is relentlessly pursued every time he tries to swim for his life and he eventually decides to fight back. Moby Dick is a hero because he defeats his enemies and escapes with his life. You can't blame him for wanting to live, but you still can't help but see the whale as that representation of fate and be angry that fate wins.

Is Ishmael okay?
At the end of the novel, Ishmael doesn't individualize the deaths of his shipmates--not even Queequeg. It could be that it's less painful for him to recount the destruction of the Pequod and its crew as a whole than it is to tell of what happens to each one. But Ishmael never says how he feels about this tragedy and there are subtle hints throughout the novel that suggest he may never have mentally recovered from the trauma. At one point, he mentions two Dons in Peru that he claims are good friends of his, yet neither of these men seem to know his name. It could be that Queequeg was the last real friend that he ever had. When he talks about Bulkington's running away from shore life to escape some deep pain, he seems to understand this pain all too well.  Whenever Ishmael talks about his life, it always has something to do with a whaling voyage--possibly because he hops from one ship to another, like Bulkington, without taking time to really get to know anyone before moving on and losing touch with them (sadly, I know exactly what that's like, and it sucks). And when describing the widows whose husbands have been lost at sea--he clearly feels their pain too. So even though Ishmael survives, he doesn't go on to live happily ever after. None of the characters find peace.

Moby Dick, with all its philosophical views on life, definitely got to me. The brutal reality of the ending and its message that, no matter how strong-willed you are--no matter how much you try to succeed at something--you can still end up a failure with nothing to show for all of your effort, is harsh but true. The old saying "You can do anything you put your mind to" is a lie; the world doesn't give people that kind of freedom, and Melville's novel clearly demonstrates that. And so I say that this book took my heart and stove it by making me empathize with the characters only to see them meet with such a bitter fate. Just like real life, there are no happy endings and no heroic accolades. They die without any legacy and the world goes on without noticing its loss.

No comments:

Post a Comment