Before I decided to perform an official reading of Herman Melville’s magnum opus, my previous experience with Moby Dick entailed that in which the novel was given to me as a gift, in hardback form. It was a big, thick book. I didn’t know what to do with it. Since I didn’t immediately dive into it, the person who gave it to me decided to give it a go. I distinctly remember the hours she spent on the bed, in a seeming state of torture, the cuss words emerging from her lips at times, before she ultimately tossed the book aside three-quarters of the way through. From that point the book became an item to chew on for her half-pug/half-chihuahua dog. In taking note of the teeth marks, ultimately I opted to donate the fabled tome to charity without ever once perusing a single page. That was ten years ago.
The novel reemerged in my life when I performed miserably on the GRE subject test. Ishmael? Queequeg? Who were these guys? Of course I knew about Captain Ahab, and something about a whale, but after completing my thesis and deciding to retake the GRE, I decided it was time to simply sit down and read the darn thing. My oh my, what an experience this has been.
Since I chose to work my way through in one series of sittings, I felt like the book owned me. I couldn’t get on with the other things in my life. And a feeling developed in which I felt as though I, too, were at sea, only my world was an ocean of words and concepts, philosophies and religions, characters and, of course, whales. As I read, I had to do much referencing to understand the material and invariably, I stumbled across not only a myriad of critical essays regarding the piece, but a few opinions as well.
I tend to agree with those who felt the work was tedious and disproportionate. Having an understanding of a well-structured, plot-sequenced novel, I was keenly aware of the disrupted flow of the story. I was drawn in by the Ishmael/Queequeg character developments only to realize, as everyone else who’s read Moby Dick, that I was being seriously sidetracked by an immense amount of seemingly irrelevant details about whaling. I understand, now, that everyone knows this, and that I have simply arrived late to the party.
One opinion piece, however, felt he’d been short-changed by the ending, and on this point, I couldn’t agree. I felt the power of language and I felt the Shakespearean undercurrent. I felt the power of the story and accordingly, I felt purpose in Melville’s many digressions as they seemed to converge to render the ending entirely appropriate. I sense that modern day editors would skewer the book, try and whittle it down to a standard 75,000 word narrative pronounced with the absurd mandate most notoriously known throughout post-modern publishing — that everything must be SHOWN and not told. And in light of this fact, I am glad the novel is just the way it is. Without the detours and side-shifting of the narrative perspective, the novel would not be renowned as a unique American classic.
Captain Ahab, of course, occupies the centrality of the story. Wherever a critique is found about him, the aspect of his “monomania” is pervasive. But what is monomania? The Free Dictionary defines it as a “pathological obsession with one idea or subject” or “intent concentration on or exaggerated enthusiasm for a single subject or idea.” Undoubtedly, this figures into Ahab’s fixation on the whale, but the term denotes a negativity that is hard to avoid.
I agree with the idea that Ahab was fixated, but I didn’t view it quite as negatively as maybe I should have. I saw his need to get Moby Dick as a representation of the need to set goals and achieve them. Ahab was determined to succeed in his goal, and I don’t believe he intended to harm others in his endeavor. He had no idea that The Pequod was going to sink, and his affection for Pip displays a sense of humanity that lies within him. And because the venture included the capture of other whales, I didn’t view Ahab’s orders as wholly authoritarian. They traveled east, caught some whales, and towards the end of the novel, they got on to Moby Dick’s trail. Ahab wanted to control matters, but the voyage seemed not altogether abnormal; and I don’t get the sense that he wanted to kill people needlessly.
Ahab offers the doubloon as a reward to manipulate his crew into his service, and even though this a mental maneuver, I think it stands as an attribute of his ability to think critically. It is a diplomatic tactic that helps him move towards completion. And that he has his harpoon baptized in the blood of his mates who have opted to help him, I see this, along with the doubloon offering, as symbolic of the teamwork that is often required to achieve goals. Captain Ahab is fanatical and ritualistic about it, but such behaviors reinforce the framework of his strategy to reach the level that is accomplishment.
At this point it is important to understand that I am not out to produce a critical essay on Moby Dick; I save that for my 18th Century studies. With that being said, I can understand that casting a positive light on Ahab’s obsession to catch the white whale may seem unorthodox. It’s just that as I was reading, I could not help but feel the valiance of the man and his mission. Captain Ahab was determined to succeed, and this determination in an American novel reflects the determination ingrained in the spirit of America and its citizens. The tragedy that is Ahab’s story, that he lost everything and the whale got away, does not sum up Melville’s novel from my perspective. Ahab’s attitude of perseverance, the ongoing meditations outside his cabin, his willingness to give up addiction (when he tosses the pipe), the continuous rhetoric and psychological tactics he employed, these all lead me to believe that Captain Ahab and the spirit of America is not one of quitting or shying away from a challenge, but one of the willingness and the drive to succeed.