Herman Melville’s groundbreaking 1851 novel, Moby Dick is an account of one man’s obsessive hunt for the whale that bit off his leg. It is also both not really that at all and an awful lot more than that, so that describing Moby Dick as a whale hunt is a bit like describing Don Quixote (1612) as one man’s obsessive search for a woman whose name he can remember but whose face he can’t quite recall.
Published in 1851, the novel is set some time before that, “some years ago,” within the life of the narrator Ishmael, and it isn’t immediately obvious why Melville thought it necessary to say so. What possible difference could it make if it was set in 1747 or 1847? The answer to that question is, I think, useful to an understanding of Moby Dick. The fact, irrelevant in itself, is one of many small reasons we have for supposing the events actually happened.
In an interview in Paris Review the American author Philip Roth used the word aboutness to describe a property that some stories have, that they are the product of something more than the imagination of their author, that the events and people portrayed in a story have an existence somewhere outside the pages of the book. It is this property of aboutness that Melville creates with this simple statement about the origin of the story. On its own it means nothing, but it is just one of many similar strands that are twisted into a great thick cable of facts that anchors the book in a comprehensible and believable time and place.
In his own lifetime Melville saw the book receive mixed reviews and he died in 1891 in obscurity as a poor, retired customs inspector. In the same way that Beowulf, also a story about the hunt for a monster, was resurrected by a new critical appraisal, after World War I Moby Dick resurfaced from the deep as a story of something more than just a whale hunt, and both it and Melville are now rightly praised and appreciated by all book lovers. In the case of Beowulf it was J. R. R. Tolkien who resurrected it and for Moby Dick the reanimator was Carl van Doren (1885 – 1950) in his 1921 study The American Novel.
Rather than discuss the whole book it is this property of aboutness that I want to talk about here. There are a number of chapters in Moby Dick that do nothing to advance the story but instead extend and advance the reader’s knowledge of whales and whaling. There is, for example, Chapter 24 The Advocate, which sets out to refute some commonly held myths and misperceptions about whalers and their craft. One of the criticisms often leveled at Melville’s work is this sort of lengthy digression that although interesting in its own way could quite usefully have been omitted without detracting from the tale and thereby made the novel considerably shorter and therefore more accessible. Such critiques do, in my view, miss the point of these chapters which, for different reasons, contribute to this very useful novelistic property of aboutness.
The first reason is that they add to the reader’s sense that the novel might be true. If whales actually exist and whaling really is a thing then a story about a man becoming obsessed with catching one particular whale might, conceivably, be true. In her series of novels about a boy wizard, J. K. Rowling did not spend very long on the science behind how spells work or why putting an owl feather inside a stick makes it any different from any other stick because, quite frankly, none of it is true. The reader either grasps the essential premise of her story or they don’t and there is not a huge amount Rowling can do for those readers not sucked into the required core belief in the magical properties of sticks. But Melville can describe why a whale ship looks the way it does, and how harpoons are made, and where the oil comes from, and how to reeve the whale line round the loggerhead, and what exactly a man sees when he is standing in an open boat in the middle of the ocean and he looks up to see a whale fluke bearing down on him, and all of these details accrete to an overwhelming sense that all of this might actually be true. Ishmael knows so much and saw so much and can describe in great detail sufficient of whales and whaling for us to just know, to a high degree of certainty, that this happened and he actually was there to see it.
A second reason is that it adds immeasurably to our understanding of Ishmael. It tells us about the things that interest him, how his mind works, what his values are and it legitimises his desire to go whaling in the first place. If he had chosen some other activity like carpentry or playing poker then we would have formed a very different view of the man but he chose whaling, and by telling us exactly what a whale is and what a dangerous and useful and noble pursuit whaling is and how inaccurate are the depictions of whales in art he enhances our estimation and understanding of who he is.
And third, it gives us the impression that Ishmael is a fundamentally honest fellow who is not merely reporting what he saw but placing the events into a wider context. In Chapter 35 Mast Head, for example, he tells us about the difference between the crow’s nest on a northern or Greenland whaler and that on a southern whaler. This detail is unnecessary for us to know since the Pequod is a southern whaler, but it tells us that he has troubled to check his sources and is not merely repeating blindly those things he thinks he knows. This impression, however, is slightly offset by his insistence that the sperm whale is a fish when most authorities agree that whales are actually mammals.
Maybe having him make a mistake is a sign of something. There are lots of signs and symbols in Moby Dick and making sense of them can begin to feel like a full-time occupation. There are bible references and Egyptian Pharaohs and various gods and their wives and stories of death and repentance and cannibals and widely different religions. There are also skins, the various guises that people adopt and the faces they wear and obviously the whale itself and a one-legged man and a wide variety of ancient buildings and exotic animals and after a while the reader becomes overwhelmed by all these signs.
Imagine someone gives you a lottery ticket. Then they give you another, and another, and then six more of them and eleven more tickets and then they tip a bucket full of lottery tickets over your head and then more and more and whole handfuls of lottery tickets and a sack full of them until you are sat in the middle of the floor engulfed by and drowning in a whole mountain of lottery tickets. The winning ticket might be in there somewhere but you have no way of ever finding it and that is how the reader feels with Melville’s signs, they overwhelm you until eventually you start to wonder whether being overwhelmed by them is actually the point.
In real life we have clues to the next step to take and we have lessons we can learn and indicators to what people really meant or what they are going to do next, but we also have no way of knowing which of these things really matter. Maybe the overwhelming torrent of signs and symbols in Moby Dick is a way of making the story seem less like a story and more like real life in that sense. In a detective story there are specific clues, one or two red herrings (a fish) but the clues you need are all there and if you pay attention you can usually figure out who done it. It doesn’t usually work like that in real life, though, so Melville has made sure that it doesn’t work that way in Moby Dick as a way of saying that this is not an allegory or metaphor or parable, it is not even just a novel, it is a story that actually happened in real life. It is about something, deal with it.
In fact, Melville tells us this, in plain English, in Chapter 45 The Affidavit, “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.”
Could he have said it any plainer than that?