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Reading <em>Moby-Dick</em> at 30,000 Feet

Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet


by Tony Hoagland

Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet Theme of Death

There are two big ways that we think mortality plays a role in "Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet." First, the only reason we worry about wasting time is that we only have so much of it. Our speaker seems worried about wasting his life living passively, and not getting a chance to feel excitement, danger, and a connection to the world and to his feelings. At the same time, though, facing the risk of death (by doing something dangerous like whale hunting) seems to be almost part of the appeal of the fantasy life as a crewman on the Pequod for our speaker.

Questions About Death

  1. How do the danger and the risk of dying factor into the appeal of being a character in Moby-Dick? Do you think our speaker feels that the risk of dying is an integral part of the appeal, or would he be just as excited about the idea of riding a jet ski around a lake? 
  2. When our speaker talks about "rushing through the world for sixty years / at unimaginable speeds" what does he mean? How is it that traveling around at high speeds (say, on an airplane) makes a lifetime seem to go by faster? Shouldn't we be saving time, and living fuller lives, by getting everywhere more quickly?
  3. What is the relationship between ending a life (like the life of a whale) and feeling alive? Do you find it troubling that killing can be such a thrill? Do you think our speaker would look at things differently if he were closer to the real situation (and not simply imagining it)?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Death is seen from a strange perspective in this poem. The idea of dying at the end of a lifetime spent in "a room so large, / a corridor so long" is scary, whereas the possibility of drowning on a whaling voyage seems like part of the excitement. So, from our speaker's perspective, death is really only bad when it comes before you have a chance to live in the way he idealizes.

The speaker is off his rocker. Killing a big whale shouldn't make anyone feel more alive. It should make them feel really, really guilty.

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