Literary Devotional (rewind): Moby-Dick

This is the last of the Literary Devotionals that I missed while moving.  Everything should run on schedule from now on (or, until I move again).

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) is the undisputed giant of American literature.  The novel still looms large in Western culture, and few people are unfamiliar with its story—though probably just as few as have actually read the book start to finish.  Ironically, despite Moby Dick‘s major role in putting American literature on the map, the novel was poorly recieved, viewed as a step below Melville’s other works.

The novel’s narrator, Ishmael, decides to seek relief from a midlife crisis by joining the crew of a whaling ship.  He travels to the whaling hub of New Bedford, Massachusetts, and finds work on a ship called the Pequod.  Ishmael learns that the vessel’s enigmatic and reclusive captain, Ahab, is missing a leg, which he lost to the jaws of an infamously ferocious white sperm whale claled Moby-Dick.  Only when the Pequod is well out to sea does Ahab emerge on deck and announce that the sole goal of the expedition is to hunt down and destory Moby-Dick, wherever he is in the vastness of the ocean.

Ahab’s obsessive search takes the Pequod thousands of miles, around the southern tip of Africa and toward Southeast Asia.  Despite numeous bad omens, Ahab focuses unwaverinly and manaically on his quest for vengeance, all the while making near-biblical pronouncements:

Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.

Utimately, the Pequod finds Moby-Dick in the waters of the Pacific.  In the monumental battle that ensues, the whale destroys the ship, Ahab is killed, and the entire crew—save Ishmael—is sucked down into the depths.

Moby-Dick contains philosophical musings on countless topics, from the Bible to fate to the solitude of the ocean.  The white whale itself is one of the great enigmatic symbols of literature, and theories about what it sagnifies vary greatly.  Ahab views it as an embodiment of all the evil in the world and believes it his existential duty to confront and defeat this evil.

Ishmael tries to understand the whale by considering it peice by piece; individual chapters of Moby-Dick discuss the whale’s heat, spout, tail, and so on.  But despite these efforts, Ishmael finds the creature’s gargantuan, unfathomable quality can be captured neither by the human mind nor by the written word.  Some critics have therefore taken the whale as a representation of God, a reminder of the inevitable doom that befalls any man prideful enough to try to control the uncontrollable or comprehend the incomprehensible.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale


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