Archive for February, 2010

Feb 28 2010

The Sperm Whale’s Head

Published by under Science or Cetology

Great Sperm Whale Video

In chapter 74 Ishmael discusses the sperm whale’s head.  As with many other discussions of cetology and the business of whaling in this book, Ishmael uses scientific fact to produce insightful metaphors.  He opens this chapter: “Here, now, are two great whales, laying their heads together; let us join them, and lay together our own” (295).  Ishmael and the reader join their heads together, and the lessons of Moby-Dick are imparted to those who are willing to subtilize their minds.

Ishmael first gives us a sense of general appearance.  This is not the awe-inspiring white emptiness of Moby Dick, with elements of divinity and innocence, but rather a dignified old “grey-headed whale.”  It is a proper subject for study.

Ishmael goes on to a fascinating discussion of the sperm whale’s eyes as compared to a human’s.  At first, the whale, with the darkness in between its two windows, seems to be at a disadvantage.  But then Ishmael makes an interesting point:

“…anyone’s experience will teach him, that though he can take in an undiscriminating sweep of things at one glance, it is quite impossible for him, attentively, and completely, to examine two things—however large or however small—at one and the same instant of time…” (297)

This reminds of the old Indian story of the blind men and the elephant.  It has been reproduced many times elsewhere.   Wikipedia provides a few versions of the story, this one the most succinct:

A number of blind men came to an elephant. Somebody told them that it was an elephant. The blind men asked, ‘What is the elephant like?’ and they began to touch its body. One of them said: ‘It is like a pillar.’ This blind man had only touched its leg. Another man said, ‘The elephant is like a husking basket.’ This person had only touched its ears. Similarly, he who touched its trunk or its belly talked of it differently.

This tale can be read as a parable on Moby-Dick and many great literary works for that matter.  The book is too large a mass to take in as a whole.  The maelstrom of Moby-Dick can only be understood by observing one object at a time.

If this is the case, Ishmael’s description of the whale’s sense of sight has haunting implications:

True, both his eyes, in themselves, must simultaneously act; but is his brain so much more comprehensive, combining, and subtle than man’s, that he can at the same moment of time attentively examine two distinct prospects, one on one side of him, and the other in an exactly opposite direction?” (297)

Oh, what a loathsome lot, to be born such a lesser creature than the fearsome Leviathan!

Ishmael, in his discussion of the size of the whale’s sensory organs, gives the readers a hint to understanding life with their limited ability of sight.  He says that enlarging a whale’s eyes or ears is totally unnecessary, considering its proposed superiority to humans in that regard.  He tells us: “Why then do you try to ‘enlarge’ your mind?  Subtilize it” (298).   Melville, in studying whales and whales only, discovered themes, characters, and drama that seem to refer to all of human experience.  He is a perfect example for us.

Each man sees a different creature.

Each man sees a different creature.

(New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

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Feb 28 2010

Whales in the Stars

Published by under Environment, Nature

At first glance, chapter 57 (“Of Whales in Paint […]”) appears to be mainly about pictures and carvings of whales. However, Melville is actually making a much larger comment about nature and man’s role (and whale’s role) in it. Although there are many sections in the text in which Melville seems to address environmental concerns, this chapter makes several interesting connections between man and whales/nature. Melville describes how whales (in various forms) are found “cut in profile out of the small dark slabs of the noble South Sea warwood,” and “[a]t some old gable-roofed country houses you will see brass whales hung by the tail for knockers to the roadside door” (245). These whale portrayals have also been seen in “bony, ribby regions of the earth” and “in mountainous countries where the traveller is continually girdled by amphitheatrical heights” (245). Melville seems to be pointing out how whales are a vital part of nature and the world, and their influence can be felt everywhere (even in landlocked mountainous regions). In this way, whales are not of vital concern only to the whalers or sailors, but rather to humanity. Clearly this text can be viewed as a struggle of humanity to overcome nature (Ahab comes to mind), yet Melville might be suggesting that humans should (and sometimes do) have a closer relationship to nature instead of merely attempting to conquer it. Melville even goes on to say that whales can be found in the stars:

Nor when expandingly lifted by your subject, can you fail to trace out great whales in the starry heavens, and boats in pursuit of them; as when long filled with thoughts of war the Eastern nations saw armies locked in battle among the clouds. Thus at the North have I chased Leviathan round and round the Pole with the revolutions of the bright points that first defined him to me. And beneath the effulgent Antarctic skies I have boarded the Argo-Navis, and joined the chase against the starry Cetus far beyond the utmost stretch of Hydrus and the Flying Fish (246).

This passage is fascinating to me because it appears to provide a complicated account of whales and man’s relation to them. By seeing whales among the stars, Ishmael adds a mystical and mythical association to whales and places them in relation to ancient Greek myths about gods and battles in the skies. However, it is also implied that Ishmael sees these whales among the stars because he is so preoccupied with whaling and the search for Moby Dick. There is also an implication that Ishmael (and perhaps Melville) views whaling as a battle that has been waged for as long as man has set to sea. This makes it appear that whaling could be viewed as part of the natural cycle of the Earth and the heavens (a great circle and cycle that provides balance in nature). Could Melville be providing this passage as a way of showing that whaling has begun to spiral out of control, that this great natural balance is beginning to be lost? If whales can be found and seen almost everywhere on Earth (either alive or artfully represented), what does it mean for man to hunt them (perhaps to the brink of extinction)? Is Melville commenting on how humans have gone from being a part of nature to attempting to conquer and destroy it?

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Feb 28 2010

God the Puppet Master

Published by under Religion and the Bible

What drives a man to give up a normal life on land to pursue a whale at sea? Is it revenge? A power struggle? An insane madness that does not cease? Or perhaps it is something else entirely different, something divine. For Captain Ahab, the desire to destroy the white whale does not seem to come solely from revenge; it also comes from God. In Chapter 132 “The Symphony,” Ahab reveals what he believes is the real source of his quest to kill the whale:

Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, or God, that lifts this arm? If the great sun moves not of himself, but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I (521).

In what seems to be a radical departure from the confident Captain of previous chapters, Ahab shows a side of him that seems uncertain of his own free will. Is Ahab fighting God because God makes Ahab do it, or is this God fighting Himself? Ahab paints God as a sort of puppet master, a being that plays an active role in the lives of its creations and makes them do what it wants. This type of Christian God seems to derive from Calvinism, a branch of Christianity that did not believe that people could have a personal relationship with the divine. Calvinists also believed in predestination — God controlled their lives and ordained before a person’s birth whether or not he or she was to be saved or damned. It is interesting that throughout the novel, Ahab seems to be fighting against God by forging his own destiny, but now he questions whether it was Ahab or God who controlled his fate.

This depiction of God as a puppet master is not entirely surprising, however. Given the time period and Melville’s own religious beliefs, this image of God is almost to be expected. The fact that it appears so late in the novel is, however, of interest. Perhaps Melville does this to show that we can never truly escape God no matter how hard we may try. We are all simply puppets on God’s strings. Still, there is something to be said about Ahab’s humbling speech; the idea of a God that literally controls every aspect of one’s life (from breathing to thinking) is a disturbing yet comforting thought. On the one hand, to imagine a being that directs your life, that “lifts your arm,” suggests that one literally has no control whatsoever over one’s life. On the other hand, it also means that one is not accountable for one’s actions, which could be an excuse for otherwise inexcusable or unexplainable behavior.

Ahab’s statement also raises a thought: if Ahab is pursuing the white whale (which could be viewed as God or a symbol of God) and he is doing this because God wills it, does this mean that God is fighting Himself? And if this is so, then why? To be honest I don’t have answers to these questions; I can only speculate that Melville is challenging his readers to consider all possibilities. One thing is certain: Ahab commits completely to his cause to destroy Moby Dick, no matter how foolish he believes it to be in the end. Whether this is an act of God or out of Ahab’s free remains a mystery.

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Feb 28 2010

More on Jonah

Published by under Religion and the Bible

A more detailed discussion of Jonah is in order.  We first hear of him in Father Mapple’s sermon.  Jonah is the prophet in the apocryphal Bible story who refuses his calling and escapes to sea.  He brings trouble to the ship, is tossed overboard, and then God sends a whale to swallow him.  He begs God to save his life, and he is returned to dry land to fulfill his duties as a prophet.  Jonah is usually a model for repentance.  Father Mapple says: “Shipmates, I do not place Jonah before you as a model for repentance.  Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah” (41).

The story of Jonah ends strangely.  Jonah returns to land to tell the city of Nineveh of the punishment its people will receive from God for being wicked.  The people repent and refuse food and water, hoping to appeal to God’s compassionate nature.  This convinces God to have mercy on the city.

After this, Jonah becomes angry.  He tells God: “was not this my saying, when I was yet in mine own country? Therefore I fled beforehand unto Tarshish; for I knew that Thou art a gracious G-d, and compassionate, long-suffering, and abundant in mercy, and repentest Thee of the evil.”  I take him to mean: “I knew you were compassionate and you would spare Nineveh.  Why did you need me?”  After this, Jonah begs for death.  God simply asks him how angry he is.  Jonah escapes to the desert and again begs for his death.

I think this story is much more mysterious than traditional interpretations allow.  While Father Mapple’s vision of repentance is beautiful in its way, I cannot read it like that.  Jonah is angry with God for the life he was given, and he asks him to take it away.  Ahab, then—and I think the rest of the Pequod crew by extension—is another Jonah, but he does not share the prophet’s passivity.  He is a rewrite of Jonah with an intense drive for rebellion.

The death-wish is worth mentioning again.  Ishmael confesses his suicidal nature at the beginning of the book, calling his trips to the ocean a “substitute for pistol and ball.” All of the whalers of the Pequod, in the carelessness in the face of death, seem to have these feelings.  All of them are rebelling against the place that has been given to them.  This becomes particularly relevant to the non-white harpooneers.

In the end, Ahab is struck down by the whale.  God was willing to tolerate passive Jonah, but not a man such as Ahab.

The Hebrew Bible Online, Book of Jonah Chapter 4:

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Feb 28 2010

Ahab, Master of Magnetism

Published by under Uncategorized

Thrusting his head halfway into the binnacle, Ahab caught one glimpse of the compasses; his uplifted arm slowly fell; for a moment he almost seemed to stagger.  Standing behind him Starbuck looked, and lo! the two compasses pointed East, and the Pequod was as infallibly going West.

But ere the first wild alarm could get out abroad among the crew, the old man with a rigid laugh exclaimed, “I have it!  It has happened before.  Mr. Starbuck, last night’s thunder turned our compasses – that’s all.  Thou hast before now heard of such a thing, I take it.”

“Aye, but never before has it happened to me, sir,” said the pale mate, gloomily.

The storm that set upon the Pequod was a terrifying, quasi-supernatural event in the eyes of the crew.  The lightning which struck the masthead was a very bad omen, as was the burning harpoon and the stove boat.  Just in case the readers weren’t getting the symbolism, Fedallah even prays to the lightning which holds the ship in its grip.  To find the ship’s compasses turned in the opposite direction the next morning, against the natural and obvious dictates of the sun, serves as yet another warning that the Pequod is sailing straight into the jaws of doom.

The connection between magnetism and electricity was discovered in Europe several decades before Moby Dick was written, but it seems unlikely that many whalers (beyond the educated Ishmael) would have been well-informed of these developments.  For most people at the time, magnetism was a mysterious force which probably seemed supernatural.  The compass, in particular, was heavy with allegories which made it particularly well-adapted to superstition.  On the open ocean, with only the sun, stars, and compass to guide the ship, the calculations and instruments of navigation took on a mystical aura.  The steering of a ship can be easily seen akin to the steering of a soul, and the methods of steering therefore take on divine significance.  When Ahab first smashes his sextant and is then confronted with the turned compasses, it seems that the ship has been doomed to go both ethically and literally adrift.  Ahab’s solution, demonstrates his mastery of theater and a special sort of mad confidence in his ability to forge his own fate.

“Men,” said he, steadily turning upon the crew, as the mate handed him the things he had demanded, “my men, the thunder turned old Ahab’s needles; but out of this bit of steel Ahab can make one of his own, that will point a true a way as any.”

Abashed glances of servile wonder were exchanged by the sailors, as this was said; and with fascinated eyes they awaited whatever magic might follow.  But Starbuck looked away.

Ahab recognizes all of the potential for despair that the turned needles might provoke among the crew, and by magnetizing a new needle he also takes control of the men.  He symbolically rejects the judgement of fate placed upon the Pequod during the storm, and chooses his own path.  Starbuck is not convinced, however, and sees Ahab’s actions as a blasphemous attempt to challenge what should not be questioned.  In the final sentence of the chapter, Ishmael seems to agree:

In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride.

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Feb 28 2010

Projections onto Bartleby

Published by under Uncategorized

Let me start by saying I don’t get Bartleby. At all – similar to the narrator. But what I do know is that trying to figure him out, an almost un-human human in any social sense, with the emotions more normal people experience will fail to hit the mark. The few glimpses we get of Bartleby’s interactions are intepreted by the narrator and in them he ascribes his own his own ideas of what he would intend in a given situation to what Bartleby did in the given situation. This is most apparent when the narrator attempts to analyze Bartleby’s actions. Reacting to Bartleby staying in the office after he was fired,

Turning the man out by an actual thrusting I could not; to drive him away by calling him hard names would not do; calling in the police was an unpleasant idea; and yet, permit him to enjoy his cadaverous triumph over me, – this too I could not think of.

The last part of the sentence is most important. If Bartleby really is cadaverous, it is hard for me to believe that he enjoys some perverse pleasure in subverting his boss’s authority. Even if there is a lurking desire and motive under his show of indifference, it seems to be self-interested. Bartleby did not come to the office, I think, a different person, and takes up the agenda of not doing anything there; he would have always been who he is – quiet, strange, and keeping everything to himself.

What seems to happen, then, is a projection by the narrator of what his motive would be if he were to say something like that to him. What this tells us, then, is that the narrator would be looking to subvert his authority if he were working for himself (I am trying to have this example without trippy self-subversion symbolic possibilities), revealing his own psyche. And I suppose now that I am just unpacking what a projection does.

This reminds me of one of my favorite parts of Paradise Lost. When Satan first sees the unthinkably beautiful Garden of Eden, while he marvels at its wondrousness, the scene is also described with a sadness. Trees, though gorgeous, cry. It would be an incorrect reading, I believe, for the reader to just assume that the Garden of Eden has this sadness in it. I don’t think it does. Adam and Eve have not fallen yet, and, excepting Satan’s presence, the world is perfect. It is Satan that projects the sadness onto the landscape. And because the reader identifies with Satan, we too can project this same sadness. After all, we are the descendants of fallen people, we are a fallen race. Similarly, the narrator of Bartleby projects onto Bartleby, and we can do the same. We share a more normal psyche and interpretation of events and words. And, moreover, while trying to ascertain what Bartleby means, and who he is drives a significant amount of interest in the book, this element of projection encourages readers to look into the narrator to understand the work more completely.

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Feb 28 2010

The Spirit-Spout

Published by under Environment, Nature

Chapter 51, The Spirit-Spout, provides an interesting event in this novel. This phantom-like eruption of water serves to tempt and taunt Ahab, as it appears to be unattached and unaccompanied by a whale. Ishmael recounts its appearance,

“…on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea…But when, after spending his uniform interval there for several successive nights without uttering a single sound; when, after all this silence, his [Fedallah] unearthly voice was heard announcing that silvery, moon-lit jet, every reclining mariner started to his feet as if some winged spirit had lighted in the rigging, and hailed the mortal crew.”(224-5)

Its enigmatic, teasing presence suggests that a whale is close by, but just out of reach.  Alluding to the depth of the ocean, the spirit spout in larger ways represents the innumerable ways in which the sea’s  infinite volume can hold and hide the mysteries and creatures of the deep.  The spout in a way acts as a symbol or metaphor for the somewhat unattainable goals and objects they desire of each of the sailors of the Pequod.  For Ahab, it further intensifies the chase of Moby-Dick, frustrating the captain in his pursuit to gain revenge for the loss of his leg and sense of his masculinity.  For Ishmael, the introspective narrator, the sea represents his desire for freedom.  He believes escape is possible on the ocean, and that it can provide a place to remove himself from the confines of society and alleviate his mind from the grasp of depression and melancholy. What he finds on board the Pequod, however, is a highly organized and stratified system of a hierarchy and dictatorship ruled by Ahab. Starbuck’s only wish is to return home safely to his wife and children as quickly as possible. However, his goal is thwarted by the obsessive demands of the captain. In a way, the spirit-spout symbolizes the unfulfilled goals and dissatisfaction of the Pequod sailors, as a limitation of each ones’ perceived destiny or fate.

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Feb 28 2010

The Narrator vs. Cicero

I really enjoyed reading this short story. Bartleby’s indifference and passivity reminded me somewhat of Mersault’s from Albert Camus’s The Stranger, as well as Peter Gibbons’s from the movie Office Space. Being assigned to the “Literary Allusions and Other Moments of Literature” category of our Moby Dick blog, I was intrigued by Melville’s reference to Cicero and why the narrator has a plaster-of-paris bust of the Roman philosopher in his office. In addition to being a philosopher, Cicero was also a lawyer and politician. Despite his opposition to the dictatorship of Gaius Julius Caesar, his political positions were inconsistent and tended to shift in response to changes in the political climate. While this may be a very subtle reference, I feel that Melville makes it to draw a parallel between Cicero and the narrator, as well as emphasize the narrator’s inability to take a firm position on how to handle the strange character of Bartleby. In addition to this allusion, Melville sums up the narrator’s character in the third paragraph of the story; he writes,

I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best… I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause… All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man. (Melville 5)

Melville characterizes the narrator as a “safe man” who always takes the path of least resistance. While the narrator tries to learn about Bartleby and does seem to ponder about his situation, he finds it much easier to leave Bartleby behind and fend for himself. He would like to be charitable and selfless, but he never goes out on a limb to help Bartleby. He never actually asks Bartleby if there is anything that he can do for him; he can only ask Bartleby to do things for him.


Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.”

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Feb 28 2010

Mother Nature as Stepmother

Published by under Gender

As one of the most explicitly gendered chapters in the entire novel, “The Symphony” provides a host of opportunities for interpretation.  Neither does Melville seem entirely consistent with what he describes as “feminine” or “masculine,” within this chapter or throughout the text as a whole.  The “masculine sea” in “The Symphony” has been decidedly feminine and even maternal in the past, and other female descriptions of the natural world in the chapter seem to conflict with this masculinized sea that is a part of it.  In fact, the “strong, troubled murderous thinkings” of the sea creatures seem to describe Ahab more than anything – furthering the idea that he is somehow apart from the rest of the world, and also foreshadowing the violent nature of what is to come.  I was especially surprised to hear the (feminine and natural) world called a “step-mother” for Ahab, “cruel – and forbidding” in the past but which actually “now threw affectionate arms round his stubborn neck” (479).  Reading this I was curious if by 1850 the “cruel step-mother” stereotype that has been so reinforced in modern culture had yet taken root.

Nevertheless, if Ahab has indeed lost his humanity, as we have discussed several times in class, then it makes sense for the feminized world encompassing humanity and nature to be only indirectly related to him – thus a stepmother rather than a biological mother.  As this chapter is all about making the reader sympathize with the grizzled old captain, that he is again distanced from this world by some “cruel” force even as he describes his desire to return to his family and the world of normalcy is very bittersweet.  In fact, the thing that holds him back again and again seems to be himself, “the cantankerous thing in his soul” (478).  Perhaps Mother Nature herself is responsible for putting this “thing” there and driving him to these lengths; and yet, even if he would now be welcome into this other world represented by his “stepmother,” it is too late for Ahab to turn back.  What began as a chapter with some margin of hope that Ahab could accept the embrace of the world at large and abandon his suicidal search for Moby Dick ends with bleak resignation that Ahab is doomed, unable to shake off the cruel binds of his calling.

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Feb 28 2010

I Don’t Make Up Whale Classification Systems On My Free Time, So Why Does Ishmael?

Published by under Narration and narrator

I find myself very interested in thinking about the purpose of the chapter “Cetology”. Considered problematic at the time of publication, the Cetology chapter has been puzzling to many readers and has posed problems for some of the critical readings that scholars have brought to the table in order to analyze the novel. I believe however that the Cetology chapter is an important part of the early stages of the novel and I do not feel that its inclusion is problematic. If one looks at this chapter as a strong display of Ishmael’s voice in the text then one can draw a few possible conclusions about Ishmael and hopefully understand him better.

Ishmael seems to have a case of “whale-mania”, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Cetology chapter. The reader is given a very accurate look at the inner workings of Ishmael’s mind. I feel as if the Cetology chapter is a strong example of Ishmael’s depression. I would wager that classifying whales in a self-created taxonomy was a pastime as infrequent at the time of the novel’s publication as it is today! Ishmael is not your average man; he has strange pastimes and an obsession with whales that is almost psychotic. Could Ishmael be drowning his sorrow in scientific thinking? This certainly seems plausible seeing as he was looking for a whaling vessel so that he could escape the depression he found on land. Ishmael’s Cetology could easily be an avenue for escaping thinking about his life on land, acting as a vehicle to escaping his introspective thoughts.

But does Ishmael do a good job of escaping his introspection by thinking of nothing but whales? The answer seems to be a resounding “no”. Ishmael’s most insightful philosophic moments come when describing whaling, an activity that he supposedly is doing to avoid his introspection. Arguably the chapters that anthropomorphize whales are actually the moments in the novel most telling about how Ishmael feels about people. This is not to say that Ishmael is putting on an act when he says he is going to talk to us about whales and whales alone, but it is definitely an indicator that try as he might Ishmael can not avoid thinking about the relations of people with each other, their government, and with their God regardless of where he is located.

The fact that Ishmael has put as much thought into whale classification as he has does suggest that he is a somewhat learned person, and I feel that this is another contributing factor to his depression. Think for a moment of the restricting force that is determinism. If Ishmael is going through the motions in a preordained life he has many things to be troubled by. Is his intelligence his own? Is his depression a punishment from God because he is damned? Is it possible for him to escape that depression by sailing on a ship? Jonah set sail in an attempt to escape the destiny that God had given him, but of course as any New England Protestant would know, you cannot sail away from an omnipresent God.

Ishmael certainly reflects Jonah in this early stage of the novel, and the Cetology chapter definitely suggests that Ishmael is trying his very best to not think about the possible predestination that God has in store for him. Again, Ishmael seems to be no good at escaping these thoughts as all of his talk about whales and whaling amounts to philosophic monologues on the human experience, but the reader could’ve called this given the story of Jonah now, couldn’t they?

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