Literature and Writing Quotes
How we cite our quotes:
For this is one of those disheartening instances where truth requires full as much bolstering as error. 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. (45.7)
Ishmael (and Melville) is highly concerned with making the underlying structure of Moby-Dick seem reasonable and even probable. He’s obsessed with creating a veneer of realism. In this passage, he claims it’s because he doesn’t want the novel interpreted symbolically. We’re sorry to disappoint him, but some of the symbols are just too obvious! Still, it’s important to remember that part of what Moby-Dick tries to do is play down its own literariness. Of course, the other thing it tries to do is play up its literariness. But at least that creates an interesting contradiction.
Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters. (63.1)
This brief tree metaphor gives you a much better idea of how to visualize the structure of Moby-Dick than a classic plot analysis can: instead of moving from the initial situation through a conflict to a climax and denouement, we start with an initial situation, and then explode in all different directions, branching out over and over again until the novel has spread itself far and wide into many different places. There’s just one problem: how do you end a novel like that? (Well, you’ll just have to read on and see. One hint: pruning!).
In life, the visible surface of the Sperm Whale is not the least among the many marvels he presents. Almost invariably it is all over obliquely crossed and re-crossed with numberless straight marks in thick array, something like those in the finest Italian line engravings. But these marks do not seem to be impressed upon the isinglass substance above mentioned, but seem to be seen through it, as if they were engraved upon the body itself. Nor is this all. In some instances, to the quick, observant eye, those linear marks, as in a veritable engraving, but afford the ground for far other delineations. These are hieroglyphical; that is, if you call those mysterious cyphers on the walls of pyramids hieroglyphics, then that is the proper word to use in the present connexion. By my retentive memory of the hieroglyphics upon one Sperm Whale in particular, I was much struck with a plate representing the old Indian characters chiselled on the famous hieroglyphic palisades on the banks of the Upper Mississippi. Like those mystic rocks, too, the mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable. (68.5)
If the whale was metaphorically like a book before, at this point it becomes a literal book, even if it’s an unreadable thanks to its incomprehensible language.