Melville's Moby Dick

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fflambeau
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Melville's Moby Dick

Postby fflambeau » Sun Dec 18, 2016 8:12 pm

I'm rereading this book for the third time (that number has real significance in the book, too) and learning a lot.
I first read it as a 16 year-old half a century ago. I simply was not old enough and versed in experience to understand it. At the outset, let me say that it is an "adventure" story only on the surface and that it is indeed difficult going and long.

I also do not think most critics/Hollywood understand the book.

They tend to see it as good vs. evil (personified by the whale). No! Because the other force involved is represented by Captain Ahab and he is definitely not seen as good by the author: first in the renegade-like name given to him, second he is consumed by revenge and hate. He's even described as "ungodly."

What I see as the key to the book is that the whale does indeed represent evil in general but Ahab represents a more specific evil. He is an evil human who can talk/lure others into his path of evil. The tragedy of mankind is that good people (Starbuck) and others will eventually support Ahab in whatever he wants, even if his motives are bad (an overwhelming thirst for revenge). Why? Gold. That's why Ahab nails a 20 doubloon coin to the masthead for the first sailor who sights the great whale. So, it is not good vs. evil but bad with the good and money driven (humans) allied with bad (humans) vs. evil (of an elemental nature).

Note too the importance of the number 3 in the book is underscored by the beginning: "Call me Ishmael." 3 words. 3 is repeated ad nauseum. The battle with Moby Dick: takes 3 days. Harpooners? Three in number etc. Why? Because 3 is the number that signifies the past, the present, and the future. It is also a sacred number in most religions including Christianity (the Trinity) Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism etc. In other words, Melville is telling us: this is always how things were, are now and will be.

What about the religious references? Note that the theme above is completely contrary to the Christian ethic in the New Testament which is built around the idea of redemption for all who accept Christ. In this book, no one is saved (except Ishmael because he is the narrator) and there will be a perpetual struggle between evil and near evil supported by the masses. Because Melville's view is so dark, and so unacceptable to his century, he camouflages it with lots of religious symbolism: the Bible, Jonah (3 days in the whale!), sermons (Note that "The Sermon" Chapter occurs as Chapter 9, or 3 threes, considered the perfect number), a priest for the sailors, etc. And, of course, a rip roaring adventure story (whaling) is the cover. But his main theme is completely non-Christian: there is no redemption in the book.

There are also gay overtones in the book. It is obvious that Ishmael falls for the harpooner: Queequeg (oh, look, how big it is!). The first night they meet, they spend the night together in bed with Queequeg having his arm around Ishmael in the morning. Melville was unhappily married and was likely a size queen. Of course, these have to be camouflaged too.

Fascinating book well worth a reread or three.
Last edited by fflambeau on Sun Dec 18, 2016 8:25 pm, edited 3 times in total.

Bland
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Re: Melville's Moby Dick

Postby Bland » Sun Dec 18, 2016 8:19 pm

fflambeau wrote:I also do not think most critics understand it.

The high regard you have for your perceived intellect is truly staggering.

I'd be very interested in reading a critical review or essay by a well-regarded critic who makes the sophomoric claim you attribute to most of them.

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Re: Melville's Moby Dick

Postby gargantua » Sun Dec 18, 2016 8:24 pm

I consider it to be a thoughtful review, but I'm about 45 years removed from reading it myself, so what do I know?

Prof. Wagstaff
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Re: Melville's Moby Dick

Postby Prof. Wagstaff » Sun Dec 18, 2016 8:40 pm

I loved Moby Dick! (It's been 20 or so years since my last re-reading.)

True story (and forgive me if I've told it before, which I likely have given how long I've been posting here. It still makes me chuckle, anyway): For my high school Humanities class, there was an "independent study" portion that was simply choosing a classic book and writing an essay about it. I chose Moby Dick. There were no limits/guidelines to what the essay could be about. I was a voracious reader and thoroughly enjoyed the novel but because I was also super-lazy and able to just coast by, I put off writing my essay until the night before it was due. After getting suitably baked (a requirement for all my high school papers) I decided to write about what the implications for the novel's themes would be if you substituted the phrase "Orange Whip" for "White Whale". I don't remember any of my arguments but I do remember I got an A.

fflambeau
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Re: Melville's Moby Dick

Postby fflambeau » Mon Dec 19, 2016 8:03 pm

It's a great read. Since you haven't read it for 20 or so years, may I suggest a reread? I know I found it completely different the third time around. A huge current of gay notions and ideas and relationships in it. And very anti Christian despite all of the biblical window dressing.

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Re: Melville's Moby Dick

Postby Prof. Wagstaff » Mon Dec 19, 2016 9:51 pm

fflambeau wrote:. . . may I suggest a reread?

Well, you can suggest it but it's highly doubtful it will happen.
I average about a book a week these days, but I just don't read fiction anymore except very rarely (and then, it's usually comedic stuff.) I get my share of fiction from movies, TV, and comic books. The books I read are pretty much history and science (or my favorite, history of science) or an occasional biography.

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Re: Melville's Moby Dick

Postby fflambeau » Tue Dec 20, 2016 2:24 am

One other thought: a strong theme running through the book is of predestination, which, of course, is contrary to the Christian doctrine of "free choice." At many points, Melville suggests that actions are predestined and man has little or no choice in them. All in all, this book is very anti-religious, although he cloaks it well.

The narrator tells the story of the Tally-Ho, another whaler, which encounters Moby Dick. He writes, for instance:

"Gentlemen, a strange fatality pervades the whole career of these events, as if verily mapped out before the world itself was charted."


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