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.