Melville’s mythology

In his book, A Reader’s Guide to Herman Melville, James E. Miller, Jr. convincingly rebuts the oft-made complaint about all the “boring whale stuff” interspersed with the narrative of Moby-Dick. The point of all this material, Miller argues, is to elevate the tale of Ahab and his mad quest for revenge to mythic heights:

The cumulative effect of this bulk of material on the whale–its anatomy, its antiquity, its divinity and more–is to storm the imagination by sheer mass and magnitude. Out of his unlikely and disparate materials, by the ingenious strategy of alternately infiltrating, concentrating, and dispersing, Melville creates a mythic setting for his tale. When we reach the final pages of the novel, and see Moby Dick triumphant in the midst of the general catastrophe, we sense in him a lineage and a nature more than flesh, higher than fish; as we watch all the actors but one disappear beneath the waves, and are told that “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago,” we sense a continuity and cosmic significance in the action that only Melville’s massive mythology of the whale could have inspired. (p. 102)

That seems exactly right to me.

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6 thoughts on “Melville’s mythology

  1. Some have come up with purist definitions of art whereby anyone who does this kind of thing has failed somehow. I generally regard such claims with suspicion. I think Moby Dick fails to some degree. But I absolutely love the first half of the book, and think these sections add to it. Another book with somewhat similar asides is Les Miserables, and I also think the book is the better for them. I also suspect that the novel exists for purposes very other than art. The sprawling ones are often the best ones. Give me the universes you cannot take in at a glance. (Though I am also fond of Borges, who can suggest such a universe in a short story.)

  2. That’s fine. The book begins so brilliantly that I wish I could say the same. Truly.

    Are you able to say what it is that works for you here in an analytical sense? People vary in how they value plot versus setting versus characters. And even those who value plot may differ in how much importance they set on a good resolution or a good path toward the resolution. Sometimes after a movie a friend and I will agree on what was good and bad about the movie and come up with a different overall assessment on account of different weightings of things. Friends are often less forgiving of a bad ending than I am. That may sound funny here. But it wasn’t the “ending” as such that disappointed me about Moby Dick, as much as a lagging second half after such a promising beginning. I like knowing what makes something work for someone when it doesn’t work for me. Especially when the work does work for me on some level.

    • I guess I didn’t really feel like the second half “lagged”; what I think Melville was doing–with the digressions, meet-ups with other ships, sub-plots, etc.–was, at least in part, building tension for the inevitable confrontation with Moby-Dick. I also think that many of those chapters are key to what I regard as one of the central themes of the book, namely, that there is a multiplicity of perspectives on reality and that it’s far from obvious which, if any, is the “correct” one. For instance, the experiences of the ships the Pequod encounters represent, to my mind, various approaches or reactions one can have to the White Whale; Melville is constantly preventing us from taking any one point of view–Ahab’s, Ishamael’s–as authoritative. I think this gives a kind of strucutre and unity to the second half of the book that it might otherwise seem to lack.

      • I’ve been reading the Aubrey-Maturin novels, and do find that with O’Brian I have to expect that plot will often be thin. He makes this work for me by having great conversations. This element seemed to help me in the first half of Moby Dick. In the second half, this seemed to taper off. Where I would run into it again, I would feel happy with the book again for a while. (I enjoyed the section where Queequeg had a coffin fashioned for him as he expected to die. That was a return to the kind of thing I liked.) I just found comparatively little of what I had enjoyed in the first half. And it wasn’t the diversions that bothered me. But I do know that different elements will make a book for different people.

  3. The whale stuff was always what I liked best about the novel. In any case, mythic or not, one can’t appreciate the enormity of the ambition Ahab’s obsession has led him to unless one understands Moby Dick’s super-whaleness, exceeding anything Nantucket can bring against him — which requires some familiarity with whaleness and Nantucket whaling.

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