Books

'Moby-Dick': We've Come To The End

3D rendering of a sperm whale
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Linda: So we have completed Moby-Dick.

Marc: I know I have.

Something I found especially interesting is that Ishmael seems to have completely disappeared as a character. If he didn't mention clinging to the coffin (and we weren't aware in the back of our minds that he was the narrator), it would be like he simply ceased to exist.

Linda: Absolutely true. He becomes a very passive observer, after really being a very traditional "here's my story" narrator in the early going. It almost seems like a convenience that at the end, it's like, "Fortunately, I caught hold of the coffin and lived, which is how you're reading this book about a doomed voyage written by someone who was on it. Ta-da!"

Marc: In a way — and I apologize for getting somewhat lit-crit about it, rather than pop-culture snarky — he seems to have become just like Pip, who also suffered the traumatic, soul-crushing experience of being left alone out on the open water and came out of it essentially a ghost who walks the earth. The only problem is that Ishmael was very much full of life at the start of his narration, which was of course being related after these events occurred.

(And by "lit-crit," I mean "freshman English paper," of course.)

Linda: Well, I realize that it's also English-paper, but this kind of takes me back to my theory that one way to look at all the whaling detail is that that's his cushion between himself and this traumatic experience. Which is sort of supported by the fact that he spends about a page on what amounts to "and then the whale attacked and everybody died."

Which is far less ink than he gave to comparative whale anatomy.

Marc: Sure, I thought of that exact thing. I mean, I've tried to find it, but I can't find any reference to Queequeg dying, beyond simply the fact that everybody died but Ishmael.

Linda: Right. It's very curious. At the beginning of the book, he's very interested in his personal relationship with Queequeg, but by the end, that's really fallen away, to the point where the guy dying doesn't even rate a mention. Obviously, by then, the story has shifted to Ahab and his madness and the efforts to warn him (which are plentiful, right up until the end), but I still found it surprising.

Marc: "What of Queequeg? What?!"

Linda: You have to feel for Starbuck, though. "Dude. No, dude. DUDE. Seriously, DUDE! DUUUUUUUDE! [gurgle gurgle]"

Marc: "I would like to reconsider my earlier decision not to murder Ahab. Mulligan?"

Linda: Boy, yeah. You've got to think he was kicking himself over that one.

Marc: Should've returned to the last save point.

Linda: I liked the way he was pointing out to Ahab that it's Ahab pursuing the whale, and that the whale is not actually after Ahab. As if Ahab is going to be capable of listening to reason at that point.

Marc: Ahab really perked up by those last few chapters.

Linda: Who says an artificial leg has to slow a guy down?

Marc: He's like a sullen teenager. He may be uncommunicative and angry all the time, but once you find something that catches his interest, you can figure out what activities you can all do together. In Ahab's case, it was dying horribly in an ill-considered attempt to exact vengeance on marine wildlife, but it could be Green Day, you know?

Linda: Or baseball.

Marc: You know, whatever. The point is, once you identify what he's passionate about, he'll open up and come to life. Briefly, anyway.

Linda: And then be murdered by his enemy who, oddly, never wanted to kill him. I mean, it's important to remember in this epic man-whale battle that the whale never wanted any part of it in the first place.

Marc: Man-Whale is the worst superhero ever, by the way.

First of all, VERY limited area of operations.

Linda: Cumbersome in urban environments.

Marc: Pretty much the only sexy crimes he'd be able to stop would be those related to piracy. Because otherwise, it's all illegal gambling boats and shipping violations.

As per the actual content of what you said before I went off on my ridiculous tangent, that connects with something I noticed in chapter 127, "The Deck." Ahab calls the carpenter unprincipled for turning Queequeg's coffin into a life-buoy, and the carpenter responds, "But I do not mean anything, Sir. I do as I do."

You could argue that Melville is having the carpenter stand in for God, which seems unlikely. (Whoever heard of such a thing?) But it's also quite possible that he's speaking for Moby Dick him/her/itself. It's just a whale. As you say, it doesn't want any part of this battle. There's no meaning or motivation behind anything it does. It just is.

Linda: Right. In theory, that makes it a very odd enemy, but if Ahab had any REASON to be angry at the whale, it would be a very different book.

Marc: Of course. He's raging against indifferent nature, to which nature responds by... remaining violently indifferent.

Linda: Seriously. He might as well be a tornado-chaser, for all that nature cares about his wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Marc: I think you just argued that Ahab is the same character as Helen Hunt in Twister.

Linda: Yes. You have put your finger directly on it.

Marc: Which makes Bill Paxton Starbuck, Philip Seymour Hoffman Queequeg and Jami Gertz Ishmael.

Wow, I have way too much instant recall of that movie.

Linda: You really do.

I will credit Melville for this: it's very methodical, the development of doom. A little doom, then a little more doom, until you get to the captain who's already lost his son, which is about as close as doom gets. But still, he pressed on!

Marc: Yeah, that's obviously a turning point. It's one thing to pass up the Bachelor's booze cruise, but once you flip the finger to a fellow captain desperately looking for his lost son, you've sort of crossed over. That's the point at which your humanity fades.

Plus, if you want to get a little bit metaphorical about it, Ahab was given a choice to help someone prevent the same loss he suffered. Ahab lost a leg; the captain of the Rachel lost a son. But the son WASN'T NECESSARILY IRREVERSIBLY LOST by then. Ahab's leg wasn't coming back. So which seems the better option: chase the whale or retrieve the son? That was sort of his last shot at redemption, where he could have focused his energies into something productive that bound him to his fellow man. Obviously, Ahab decided to choose supervillainy.

Linda: Well, "chose" is a strong word. I think we are talking madness here.

Marc: True.

I have to say, I really thought that Ahab and the whale were going to realize that they loved each other all along.

Linda: And then they'd kiss at the end.

Marc: They SORT of did that.

Linda: They were bound together.

Marc: "With this rope I thee GRRRRRK!"

Linda: Yeah. In the end, I think we have to say the whale won.

Marc: That's true. But not before Ahab let flow with a stream of invective that's one of my favorite passages in English literature.

Linda: Heh.

Marc: Not BECAUSE it's invective, you understand. Linda: Yes.

Marc: There was a TV-movie version of Moby-Dick that was on cable about 12 years ago, with Patrick Stewart as Ahab. It was no great shakes, but what really drove me absolutely nuts was the screenwriter, in his infinite wisdom, changed "From hell's heart I stab at thee" to "From the heart of hell I stab at thee." That made me SO MAD. Why would you change that? Why? It's perfect as written. It'd be like changing the first line to "They call me Ishmael." There are a lot of issues with the book and plenty of things that need to be changed to turn it into a movie, but that line is not one of them.

Then, of course, the question arises as to why such a small alteration would incense me so much.

Linda: From hell's heart, you stab at this screenwriter!

Marc: Thus I give up my Nielsen ratings.

It's one of the perfect passages in English-language literature. You don't mess with that.

"To be or not to be; is that the question?"

"It was the best and worst of times."

"My sled, Rosebud!"

Linda: Yes, I think I grasp the level of your frustration.

Marc: Had I been one of the producers, that alone would have automatically disqualified that person from writing my script.

Linda: Tell me more.

Marc: Well, that is a person who fundamentally does not understand the source material he has been asked to adapt.

Linda: Of course. I agree.

Marc: Anyway, I have been holding that inside me for a dozen years now. You'll note that in that time, I did not seek out the writer to exact vengeance for the wound he caused me.

(My vengeance in this case being to shout the actual passage in his face. I may hold an irrational grudge in this imaginary scenario that never played out, but it's not like I'd actually hurt the guy. Just forceful admonishment.)

Linda: Yes, but imagine if that screenwriter had eaten your leg.

Marc: In Hollywood? I could believe it.

So the question is, now that we've finished this daunting task, how do we feel about this book that we've read?

Linda: Well. I'm glad I read it. It's an interesting task to take on. Parts of it are very satisfying. I feel like it's very anticlimactic to say "I found the long, detailed descriptions of whales and whaling hard to get through," but ... I did.

Marc: Of course. Like I've said in the past, it's the story itself, not the reference chapters, that I've always found compelling. When he actually gets to the action, Melville is quite effective at using the language to convey a gripping narrative. Even the hole mentioned above, where Queequeg sort of disappears and then we're told, "Oh, everybody's dead but me" a little later, certainly fits in with the confusion and chaos of what's actually going on. And the last 30 chapters or so are, thankfully, where he returns to that narrative and moves it along with a fair amount of momentum.

Linda: Well, and I don't like to get too ... I don't want to assume that he put the whaling stuff in there for some ulterior motive when some have said that he just kind of wanted to write about whaling.

Marc: I would like to hear more about these ulterior motives.

Linda: Well, the thing I said about how the whaling stuff is emotional distancing, of a sort, since the actual story is hard to tell.

Marc: I was hoping for something more conspiracy-minded.

Linda: No.

Marc: Like Melville was secretly in the pocket of Consolidated Whale or something.

Linda: I DIDN'T SAY CONSPIRACY.

Marc: Maybe Melville WAS a whale and was trying to show how crazy humans attack their rich and storied whale civilization.

Linda: You have gone Ahab-crazy.

Marc: Just look at the name! Turn the M upside down and it becomes a W. Reverse the "el" and they turn into an h. Replace the "vil" with an a. IT'S BEEN RIGHT THERE ALL ALONG.

Linda: Sadly, I've heard more convoluted theories.

Marc: As I said, I'd read Moby-Dick once before (as an adult, which is probably important), and I consumed it pretty enthusiastically. This time, it was a bit more of a slog. I think that might actually be because of the weekly assignments. Not because they became work, but because it set a specific pace for reading it. When I could just burn through it without stopping, I finished it in about a month. But this time, taking care not to read ahead so that I didn't confuse either myself or the discussion, I was socked with whale fatigue. Maybe not as soon as you were, but it did hit. And I think that if I could have just moved straight through it, I might not have noticed. Instead, I had a week to think about it each time.

Linda: Well, I apologize for making Moby-Dick boring for you.

Marc: Apology accepted. But it does raise the question of the best way to approach daunting books and bring them to students. Obviously, there needs to be some way to pace books for discussion and even just to make sure that they're being read and understood. But there surely must be some balance between that and letting folks consume them at the pace that engages the reader.

Linda: Perhaps we should turn that one over to the commenters before we get wrapped up in another book!

Marc: Dare we?

Linda: Since you're so dissatisfied, I GUESS WE BETTER.

Marc: Boy, they'd really better step up.

Linda: At any rate, I appreciate your making it through the book with me.

Marc: No, it was my pleasure. Even if, in the process of completing this forbidding task, my copy of the book lost the front cover, is losing its back cover and ended up with the spine splitting from the bottom. This ordeal has resulted in a broken body.

Heeeeey.

Linda: We've learned so much.

Marc: I now know how to build a whale from the ground up.

Linda: And how to pursue a pointless battle to its bitter, violent, inevitable end.

But enough about reading the book. Hiyo!

Marc: I was expecting a Nicholas Sparks joke, to be honest.

Linda: If Nicholas Sparks had written Moby-Dick, the whale would have died of cancer.

Marc: And it would be structured as Ishmael reading the never-sent letters it wrote and kept in a trunk in its whale-attic.

Linda: "Whale-attic"?

Marc: I'm assuming it has a house.

Probably a four-bedroom colonial.

Linda: You don't think maybe the whale would knock down some walls and just make it all into one big room? Since he's a whale?

Marc: He'd try, but Amanda Seyfried would show up as a member of the local historical society and legally prevent him from doing any major renovations. After some legal bickering, they'd fall in love. Then, of course: whale-cancer.

Linda: I see.

Well, now that we've covered Nicholas Sparks, I fear we must bid adieu to Moby-Dick. But not to books in general, for I am sure we will return.

Marc: I hold that belief as well.

Linda: Thank you, sir. You have been a worthy adversary. It would be my honor to harpoon you and be dragged to my death.

Marc: Way to spoil Christmas.

 

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