THE KEY TO MOBY-DICK.

Since Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick came up in the comments under the article on crowd-sourcing a list of the greatest literature at all time, Dr. Boli thought he would give his readers a little help with that famously difficult work.

The book is often dismissed as “boring” by students who have been forced to read it, and then force-fed their professors’ pet theories about the meaning of it. As one woman of Dr. Boli’s acquaintance put it, “It’s a good story if you skip every other chapter.” This perception, Dr. Boli believes, comes from the almost inevitable association of the book with the haze of academic theories that surrounds it when it is encountered in the classroom.

The problem is that the academic theories are all wrong, and they obscure what is truly exciting and revolutionary about the book.

Ask the Internet, “Who is the hero of Moby-Dick?” You will find all manner of discussions about how, although Ishmael is the narrator, Ahab is really the “Shakespearean tragic hero.” These are not, however, the only possibilities. There is indeed a Shakespearean tragic hero at the heart of Moby-Dick; but it is not Ahab, and it is not Ishmael. The tragic hero of Hamlet is Hamlet; the tragic hero of Othello is Othello; and the tragic hero of Moby-Dick is right there in the title.

Now you understand the reason for all those chapters on cetology and whaling lore; why there is a chapter on the meaning of the color white; why the narrative seems to be constantly interrupted by facts about and ruminations on the mysterious world of the briny deep. Herman Melville accomplished the impossible feat of making a non-human character into a Shakespearean tragic hero, and in order to do that, he had to make us see the whale as a person—as an individual with a character and even a tradition of his own. By the time we have read all those chapters that would have been irrelevant if Ahab or Ishmael had been the hero, we know Moby-Dick and Moby-Dick’s world.

Dr. Boli does not know why other critics have ignored this obvious truth. He has a dark suspicion, however, that the clever ones among them know it, but they do not wish to sully their literary treasures by sharing them with the unwashed rabble. As for the rest of the critics, they have probably read only summaries of the book in saddle-stitched paperbacks with yellow striped covers.

Comments

  1. Unfortunately, the reason Ahab is a TRAGIC hero is not that he spends his life trying and ultimately failing to get revenge on a whale; but because he is in effect trying to get revenge on a force of nature. Moby-Dick is not a hero or a character in his eponymous story any more than the tornado is the hero or even the villain in Twister. A tornado is a mere force of nature, it does not seek out its victims or chase down one particular Kansan who got away. It blindly goes where the blind laws of physics push and pull it. Moby-Dick is a sperm whale who just wants to hunt squid in peace. The day Moby-Dick took his leg was the most important and terrible day in Ahabs life; for Moby-Dick, it was Tuesday. Even the sinking of the Pequod was a minor annoyance in Moby-Dick’s week, like hitting slightly heavier traffic than usual during a boring Wednesday commute. For Ishmael and the rest of the sailors, those months helping Ahab seek vengeance were the most exciting months in their lives, well worth chronicling in a book for the lone survivor. For Moby-Dick, it wasn’t even the third most exciting day that week, he cared far more about the epic battles he fought with his giant-squid dinner the day before.

    I count myself a fan of Heinlein, Clancy, and David Weber. I like a good historical digression, a good author filibuster on some topic of interest, a good infodump of expository technobabble. But even though I am interested in marine biology, history, and maritime technology, those endless chapters on the history of whaling in Moby-Dick are painfully boring to slog through. It’s not a novel, its a good short story or maybe a novella padded out to novel length by inserting a bunch of infodumps that would be edited out of even a late Tom Clancy novel.

    • Captain DaFt says:

      ” those endless chapters on the history of whaling in Moby-Dick are painfully boring to slog through.”
      In my opinion, that’s the most interesting part of Moby Dick, a close look at a chapter of American history, an industry that provided many resources to a young, growing nation.

      Stripped of that, and you’re left with:

      Hi, I’m Ishmael.

      I was out of work, and needed a place to stay, so I found an inn where I could split a room.

      At first, my room mate was freaky, but we ended up hitting it off, and he helped me get a gig on a whaling ship.

      Turns out the Captain had a major hangup about losing his leg to a whale years ago, and kept going on and on about it. My roomy got such a doom funk from this, he actually had a coffin made!

      Anyway, the job went well, hard, dangerous work, but rewarding, until we ran across the whale the Captain was so hung up over. He threw everything we had at the whale, which just ticked it off, and it ended up sinking the ship.

      Everybody drowned but me, because I found my roomies coffin, and used it as a liferaft. Ironic, huh?

      Hardly the stuff of legends.

      • Ben Ieghn says:

        I quite agree with Dr. Boli and Mr. DaFt, and it might also be noted, although Melville surly hoped his novel would survive into posterity, he was writing foremost for the (his) present audience, when boys and young men (at least in New England) still dreamed of romantic adventure on the high-seas; however still, Melville does have the enduring “haze of academic theories that surrounds it” to thank for preserving him a place in contemporary classrooms.

  2. Lars Walker says:

    My brother read Moby Dick in elementary school, and warned me that it was the most boring thing he’d ever read. For this reason I never read myself it until I was in college, and I read it then just because I was curious. I loved it, and still do. My theory about the book’s reputation is that too many people are forced to read it when they’re kids — and. kids. are. stupid. This is a book for grownups, preferably ones who appreciate Shakespeare.

  3. John M says:

    As with many other great works of fiction, the reason so many find Moby Dick boring is that they were forced to read it by literature teachers who graded their students on how well they regurgitated that particular instructor’s theory of the underlying meaning of the story’s imagery. How much better it would be to ask the students what they thought of a book, rather than telling them what they should think.

    Literature professors have ruined many good novels for their students in this manner.

  4. I recall, in 1972, when I was living and working as a linguist in the island of Yap, visiting another expatriate friend there, who taught, amongst other things, English at the high school. I dropped into his house one evening for a chat (and to chew betel nut – part of our lives there). I said I had finished reading something or other – science fiction, perhaps – and could he recommend anything.

    “Oh, I don’t know; have you read Moby Dick?”

    “Moby Dick??!! That’s a kid’s book!”

    “Kid’s book??!! You Philistine!!”

    He began, “Call me Ishmael…” – and proceeded to quote, from memory, about five minutes from the book – and succeeded in preventing me from interrupting – an achievement which many of my friends and above all my wife and children must admire.

    He handed me the book and told me to go and read it and not to bother him until I had done so. I have read it three or four times since – once, aloud, at table, to my wife and four children.

    The ‘hero’ of Moby Dick is an indifferent (or hostile) universe – Tennyson’s ‘nature, red in tooth and claw.’

    jj

  5. To add to books that are in a developed world of Melville’s – now definitely indifferent, not at all hostile – a book which I have read twice and will read again – is Ross Lockridge, Jr’s “Raintree County.” My God, what a book!

    jj

  6. Gina P says:

    I love Moby Dick, and have read it several times through. But I read it as an adult, not in school, and am also a known bore.

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