Ishmael: though knowledge be little, yet of books there are a plenty.

Previously on Moby Dick (as they say): Ahab fights the whale, and the whale wins – Moby is wounded, but Ahab loses his leg. He swears vengeance (why?) and chases the whale over half the world, eventually finding him (or is it the other way round? Hard to tell in vengeance stories). Then, in the final battle, Ahab’s ship is lost and everyone except the narrator dies.

Well, that is quite simply the most unpromising material for a novel I have ever seen. Can you imagine what a modern publisher would say? “But can you sum up the story in twenty-five words or fewer, Mr Melville?”

Someone asked me why I thought Moby Dick was a barbed comedy, and not the straight obsession-driven, demonically monomaniacal and really quite dull adventure story it’s taught as and most people think of it as – and as the above summary presents it. The answer is the same reason that people find it difficult to read: they expect a dark tale of vengeance, because this is what they’ve been told to expect, and when they get to the long chapters on classification of whales they can’t work out what’s hit them. They expect Die Hard, and they get Brazil; they expect Emily Bronte, and they get Jane Austen. No wonder they’re flummoxed.

Here’s my evidence. Exhibit A, from “A bosom friend”, where Ishmael and Queequeg find themselves sharing a bed:

How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg- a cosy, loving pair.

Ishmael and Queequeg – the terrifying cannibal savage whose pipe doubles as a tomahawk, remember – are having a cuddle. They are shipped men, perhaps even in the twenty-first century meaning of “shipped”, and each moment together caps the previous in absurdity. Later Ishmael breaks down Queequeg’s door because he is meditating, a practice so alien to Ishmael he assumes Queegueg has killed himself (like you would). Later still they attend a sermon given by a cross between the Reverend Ian Paisley and Jack Sparrow:

While he was speaking these words, the howling of the shrieking, slanting storm without seemed to add new power to the preacher, who, when describing Jonah’s sea-storm, seemed tossed by a storm himself. His deep chest heaved as with a ground-swell; his tossed arms seemed the warring elements at work; and the thunders that rolled away from off his swarthy brow, and the light leaping from his eye, made all his simple hearers look on him with a quick fear that was strange to them.

There now came a lull in his look, as he silently turned over the leaves of the Book once more; and, at last, standing motionless, with closed eyes, for the moment, seemed communing with God and himself.

But again he leaned over towards the people, and bowing his head lowly, with an aspect of the deepest yet manliest humility, he spake these words:

“Shipmates, God has laid but one hand upon you; both his hands press upon me. I have read ye by what murky light may be mine the lesson that Jonah teaches to all sinners; and therefore to ye, and still more to me, for I am a greater sinner than ye. And now how gladly would I come down from this mast-head and sit on the hatches there where you sit, and listen as you listen, while some one of you reads me that other and more awful lesson which Jonah teaches to me, as a pilot of the living God. How being an anointed pilot-prophet, or speaker of true things and bidden by the Lord to sound those unwelcome truths in the ears of a wicked Nineveh, Jonah, appalled at the hostility he should raise, fled from his mission, and sought to escape his duty and his God by taking ship at Joppa. But God is everywhere; Tarshish he never reached. As we have seen, God came upon him in the whale, and swallowed him down to living gulfs of doom, and with swift slantings tore him along ‘into the midst of the seas,’ where the eddying depths sucked him ten thousand fathoms down, and ‘the weeds were wrapped about his head,’ and all the watery world of woe bowled over him. Yet even then beyond the reach of any plummet- ‘out of the belly of hell’- when the whale grounded upon the ocean’s utmost bones, even then, God heard the engulphed, repenting prophet when he cried. Then God spake unto the fish; and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breeching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and ‘vomited out Jonah upon the dry land;’ when the word of the Lord came a second time; and Jonah, bruised and beaten- his ears, like two sea-shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean- Jonah did the Almighty’s bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it!

In the 1956 Huston movie, Orson Welles played Father Mapple, and the critics at the time said he should have played the whale.

Exhibit B (“the ship”): Ishmael negotiates the contract of their employment with the two old owners of the Pequod:

“He says he’s our man, Bildad,” said Peleg, “he wants to ship.”
“Dost thee?” said Bildad, in a hollow tone, and turning round to me.
“I dost,” said I.

Exhibit C: the two meet a prophet by the name of Elijah who hints ludicrously that there are occult forces driving Ahab. Can you even say melodrama?

“Have ye shipped in her?” he repeated.
“You mean the ship Pequod, I suppose,” said I, trying to gain a little more time for an uninterrupted look at him.
“Aye, the Pequod- that ship there,” he said, drawing back his whole arm and then rapidly shoving it straight out from him-, with the fixed bayonet of his pointed finger darted full at the object.
“Yes,” said I, “we have just signed the articles.”
“Anything down there about your souls?”
“About what?”
“Oh, perhaps you hav’n’t got any,” he said quickly. “No matter though, I know many chaps that hav’n’t got any,- good luck to ’em; and they are all the better off for it. A soul’s a sort of a fifth wheel to a wagon.”
“What are you jabbering about, shipmate?” said I.
“He’s got enough, though, to make up for all deficiencies of that sort in other chaps,” abruptly said the stranger, placing a nervous emphasis upon the word he.

One of the online cribs on Moby Dick starts their summary of the plot with:

Ishmael believes he has signed onto a routine commission aboard a normal whaling vessel, but he soon learns that Captain Ahab…

There are many things wrong with this summary, but perhaps the most striking is the “soon”: we are a fifth of the way through the book – 170 pages in my edition – before Ahab even appears. And I suggest that this is the great misunderstanding of the book. Moby Dick is included in the American category of “dark romanticism”: Ahab is the driving force, the theme is stormy and vengeful and Old Testament; or it’s an adventure, in the same way The Lost World or Journey to the Centre of the Earth is. Rather, I believe it is primarily a comedy, and by studying the way Melville presents his gags, we can see the only way we can make a fundamentally boring topic like whale hunting interesting.

Here’s Ishmael again, the master of digressions, already half-a-dozen deep and about to go even deeper – honestly, it makes Inception look shallow. Exhibit D, from “postscript”‘ a title that’s a joke in itself barely a fifth of the way though the book:

It is well known that at the coronation of kings and queens, even modern ones, a certain curious process of seasoning them for their functions is gone through. There is a saltcellar of state, so called, and there may be a castor of state. How they use the salt, precisely- who knows? Certain I am, however, that a king’s head is solemnly oiled at his coronation, even as a head of salad. Can it be, though, that they anoint it with a view of making its interior run well, as they anoint machinery? Much might be ruminated here, concerning the essential dignity of this regal process, because in common life we esteem but meanly and contemptibly a fellow who anoints his hair, and palpably smells of that anointing. In truth, a mature man who uses hairoil, unless medicinally, that man has probably got a quoggy spot in him somewhere. As a general rule, he can’t amount to much in his totality.

But the only thing to be considered here is this- what kind of oil is used at coronations? Certainly it cannot be olive oil, nor macassar oil, nor castor oil, nor bear’s oil, nor train oil, nor cod-liver oil. What then can it possibly be, but the sperm oil in its unmanufactured, unpolluted state, the sweetest of all oils?

Think of that, ye loyal Britons! we whalemen supply your kings and queens with coronation stuff!

(“Quoggy” seems to me to be Melville’s invention; at the end of “Cetology” he lists a Quog Whale. The common connection with “quaggy” = boggy doesn’t make sense in the latter connection, so I don’t see why it should in the former. Melville is kidding!)

Exhibit E, from “cetology”:

The uncertain, unsettled condition of this science of Cetology is in the very vestibule attested by the fact, that in some quarters it still remains a moot point whether a whale be a fish. In his System of Nature, A.D. 1776, Linnaeus declares, “I hereby separate the whales from the fish.” But of my own knowledge, I know that down to the year 1850, sharks and shad, alewives and herring, against Linnaeus’s express edict, were still found dividing the possession of the same seas with the Leviathan.

The grounds upon which Linnaeus would fain have banished the whales from the waters, he states as follows: “On account of their warm bilocular heart, their lungs, their moveable eyelids, their hollow ears, penem intrantem feminam mammis lactantem,” and finally, “ex lege naturae jure meritoque.” I submitted all this to my friends Simeon Macey and Charley Coffin, of Nantucket, both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley profanely hinted they were humbug.

Be it known that, waiving all argument, I take the good old fashioned ground that the whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me. This fundamental thing settled, the next point is, in what internal respect does the whale differ from other fish. Above, Linnaeus has given you those items. But in brief they are these: lungs and warm blood; whereas, all other fish are lungless and cold blooded.

So there’s 50 good arguments in favour of “not a fish” and one bad argument-from-authority against, and Melville/ Ishmael comes down on the side of the latter. Tell me that’s not a pisstake.

Exhibit F, ibid, and so throwaway that if you blink, you’ll miss it:

[The sperm] whale, among the English of old vaguely known as the Trumpa whale and the Physeter whale, and the Anvil Headed whale, is the present Cachalot of the French, and the Pottsfich of the Germans, and the Macrocephalus of the Long Words.

Later: the thrasher whale:

This gentleman is famous for his tail which he uses for a ferule in thrashing his foes. He mounts the [sperm] whale’s back, and as he swims, he works his passage by flogging him; as some schoolmasters get along in the world by a similar process.

There’s even dirty jokes. Exhibit G, where Ishmael delicately brings up (ahem!) the subject of whale spunk:

It was the idea also, that this same spermaceti was that quickening humor… which the first syllable of the word literally expresses.

Yup, that means what you think it does. You think Ishmael is a virgin? There are other risque references. Everyone talks of the whale having “demasted” Ahab – ostensibly comparing his leg with a ship’s mast, but really showing us Ahab’s real gripe with the whale – even more ludicrious. If that isn’t a deliberate play, then I’m a flying dutchman. Dammit, even the title is a phallic pun, as every schoolchild knows (and for sure Melville did).

Exhibits H, from various: the brilliant use of figures of speech combined with gentle poking fun at his characters, even minor ones. The following would be at home in Jane Austen! Father Mapple is describing  a corrupted sea-captain:

Now [this] Captain, shipmates, was one whose discernment detects crime in any, but whose cupidity exposes it only in the penniless. In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.

All in all, the jokes are Shakespearian: not all that funny, but magnificently told. And in literature, jokes like that aren’t only the best kind, they’re the only kind.

I could go on, but all this is in the first third of the book, with Ahab just to appear, and the whale himself won’t for another fifth of the book. The thing is, if you read Moby Dick as an adventure or as some gothic tale of vengeance, you’ll be quickly bored. It’s only by reading it as a comedy that you realise it’s full wild power.


Incidentally, I think the Old Testament is intended to be a comedy as well – have you read the bit where Abraham haggles with the Lord over the fate of Gomorrah? – but I’m prepared to accept Opinions differ on that.


As well the links in my earlier post, there’s the big read at

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