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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 Passivity

Our speaker sits. He looks, remembers, imagines, and thinks. He's just about the least active person you can imagine. Even the memory he drifts into is of watching planes. There's no doubt about it—the speaker of "Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet" clearly seems bored and discontent with his passive position. The contrast between his passivity and the action in Moby-Dick (and his desire to be part of such action) is pretty much the central tension of the poem.

Questions About Passivity

  1. What's the connection between our speaker's passivity and the way that he feels distant from his own emotions? Does being passive make him feel distant, or does being distant (physically or emotionally) make him passive? Or is it more complicated than that?
  2. Although our speaker doesn't do much physically, he sure has an active mind. Do you think imagination is something we should consider passive? How does our speaker feel about it?
  3. Is our speaker's passivity basically a feeling of impotence? What about the way that he checks out the stewardess and fantasizes about holding up the harpoon and slaying a giant beast? Does he just wish he could be more manly and violent and powerful?

Chew on This

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

The last line tells us that our speaker's longing for adventure is not in fact a longing for control. He still wants someone else to direct him (the captain), so we understand that his dislike for passivity has to do with his desire to be physically active and engaged with the world around him.

The speaker's passivity is his own fault. He could be a whaler if he wanted to.

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