'Moby-Dick': The Challenges Of Form, And Also Some Limb Jokes : Monkey See This week on Moby-Dick: A Book In Many, Many Parts, we consider the challenges of form and subject matter that make this a hard book for the modern reader. Also, we make fun of Ishmael.
NPR logo 'Moby-Dick': The Challenges Of Form, And Also Some Limb Jokes

'Moby-Dick': The Challenges Of Form, And Also Some Limb Jokes

We decided this week to just jump right in. We're up to Chapter 50, so feel free to join us in the comments with all your incisive thoughts and, of course, limb jokes.

Marc: Whales and monkeys!

Linda: Yes. So we have reached the point in the book where whales have been spotted.

Marc: Yes. 48 chapters in, after Melville has tried his hand at encyclopedias, musical sketch comedy and psychological profiling.

Linda: My favorite part is where he devotes most of a chapter to, "Let me explain to you why the idea of hunting the oceans to find one particular individual whale is not quite as utterly, totally, obviously demented as it sounds."



Marc: "A single whale can be everywhere at once. See, there's this cat in a box..."

Linda: "It can totally happen! You just, like, bump into this whale a year later! You know how sometimes you meet somebody at a party that you already met at another party? It's just like that."

Marc: "Besides, you'd TOTALLY know this whale if you saw it."

Linda: "It's very distinctive! We are not crazy! YOU'RE crazy!"

Marc: So, yes, Ishmael is very accepting of just about any fool thing that's put in front of him.

Linda: He also knows many, many stories about whaling.

Marc: As per the epigraphs, he is planning on sharing them all.

Linda: "Whaling: An Illustrated Really Long History," by Ishmael Q. Gullibilington.

Marc: I'm starting to think that the folks who argue that Ishmael's not really his name are right. He was Frederick or some such, and then someone came up to him and said, "Your name is Ishmael." And he was like, "I guess it is! Call me that."

Linda: Well, that's his unreliability as a narrator again, which fits nicely with the general fact that the Ishmael's-narrative form of the first section of the book has basically been dismantled at this point, and only some chapters take that form.

Marc: Right. This week's section (which was, whoops!, never officially announced but was basically chapters 36-50) is where Melvishmael goes on an extended holiday from the story and just starts talking about, you know, stuff. It's not as frustrating as "Cetology," but it's definitely my least favorite aspect of the book. As I've mentioned, I'm quite fond of the narrative, less so the detailed discussions of all things nautical.

The POV, the possibility that Ishmael just wants to pick up ladies, and more, after the jump.

Linda: Well, not only that, but as some of the commenters have noted, the POV is wonky, because sometimes it's Ishmael, but sometimes we're secretly spying on Ahab, and so forth. I was reading on Power Moby Dick when I got to the mention of how "I" am a nephew of a particular guy, and the note mentions that Melville was in fact the guy's nephew, not Ishmael. So seamlessly, at times, "I" am Melville, not Ishmael.

Also, the play.

Marc: Aye, the play.

Linda: So that brings me to another thing we thought we'd explore this week: the ways in which this book is intimidating and/or cool and/or off-putting and/or a challenge and/or rewarding, which I think are often some of the same things. Including, "And now, a play, just because I am like that."

Marc: Right. I mean, you can find similar wild stylistic digressions in The Corrections, Infinite Jest, all sorts of ultra-modern books where nobody bats an eye. Hell, Ulysses is built on almost nothing but.

(I know that Ulysses is built on much, much more than that. Please don't email me.)

And in that light, I don't fault Melville for thinking, "What I need here is stagecraft." It's just so shocking to see it before the Civil War.

Linda: In a weird way (and pardon me if this is too nutsy), it almost has parallels to the whole multimedia and "enhanced book" stuff you hear now with the iPad and so forth. "Oh, we're going to stick extra stuff in, like background information and scenes from movie adaptations, and there's going to be all kinds of extra materials." It's like Melville provides his own DVD extras for the book.

Marc: And, I have to say, his own commentary. Allow me to quote from chapter 45, "The Affadavit": "So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory."

I suppose you could read that as Ishmael insisting that he's telling a true story, not a myth. But it's curious that Melville is essentially arguing against reading any symbolism into the book. A book which has, over a century and a half, withstood much symbolic interpretation.

Linda: Well, right. It'll take you right down the path of "maybe he's being ironic about it not being an allegory, and maybe that's part of the allegory," and then you pass out. It's like the guy last week who told us we were idiots because we thought the book was about whaling. Like, I get that the book is not about whaling. But a lot of the book? It's about whaling.

Marc: We could probably set up a whaling concern of our own just from the instructions included here.

Linda: That is a GREAT IDEA. I'm game. Let's get a boat.

Marc: Monkey See Whaling Club!

Linda: Hey, I'm not doing anything for the next three years. I think being lost at sea is actually the only way I get out of paying back my student loans.

Marc: Yeah, but then you increase your risk of running into Rupert.

Linda: Or one of those famous whales Melville was on about. Ishmael has an encyclopediic knowledge of famous whales, man.

And after a while, you do get the sense that he's exaggerating. It's like the Dread Whale Roberts.

Marc: I think he's just like one of those locals who makes up stories about every statue and green space in town so that you'll ooh and aah over his command of local history as he secretly laughs at your tourist gullibility the whole time. The whole book is his elaborate scheme to score with pioneer chicks who've never seen anything bigger than a lake.

Linda: "The fish was THIS BIG, baby."

"It's not a fish."

"Shut up."

Marc: "YOU DON'T KNOW! YOU WEREN'T THERE! It was horrible! I... I just need to be held."

Linda: We were talking the other day about why exactly this book is impenetrable for some people, and I think it's partly the form, but I think it's also the very fact that the idea is to set up this epic, monumental, freakish battle, and for a lot of people, having that be between a man and a whale is hard to relate to. I don't say that in jest, either — we understand war and job loss and other sources of modern angst, but we don't really see a lot of guys lose their legs to whales anymore, so it feels distant, do you know what I mean?

Marc: Even if it's not distant — there are certainly folks who are scarred by or lose limbs to nature — Ahab's reaction to it is completely illogical by modern standards. He is on a personal vendetta against a specific individual bit of wildlife, and he's dragging an entire corporation along with him to do it. Now, using a company to your own personal ends is hard for us to wrap our minds around in the modern era, so it's hard not to view Ahab as a little bit crazy.

If I had to go out on a limb.


Linda: You are so fired.