Study Guide

Moby-Dick Literature and Writing

By Herman Melville

Literature and Writing

Chapter 24: The Advocate

And, as for me, if, by any possibility, there be any as yet undiscovered prime thing in me; if I shall ever deserve any real repute in that small but high hushed world which I might not be unreasonably ambitious of; if hereafter I shall do anything that, upon the whole, a man might rather have done than to have left undone; if, at my death, my executors, or more properly my creditors, find any precious MSS. in my desk, then here I prospectively ascribe all the honour and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard. (24.22)

Even before he’s done telling the story of the Pequod, Ishmael’s already imagining the prestige that his manuscript will garner when it’s finished. Or perhaps this is a moment where Melville’s own voice shines through, and he’s thinking about his own role as the author of Moby-Dick.

Chapter 32: Cetology

Finally: It was stated at the outset, that this system would not be here, and at once, perfected. You cannot but plainly see that I have kept my word. But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience! (32.44)

Through the cracks in this quotation, we can see Melville’s anxieties about his work on Moby-Dick peeking through. Yet, the claim that the book is just a draft, or the draft of a draft, is more than just a worry that it’s not good enough. It’s a claim that all great literature and writing only begins with the author, developing its full greatness only as it persists in a culture over time.


What then remains? nothing but to take hold of the whales bodily, in their entire liberal volume, and boldly sort them that way. And this is the Bibliographical system here adopted; and it is the only one that can possibly succeed, for it alone is practicable. (32.25)

It’s no accident that Ishmael divides whales into categories taken from libraries. Moby-Dick is a book titled with the name of a whale, and Moby Dick is a whale that can only be understood if he’s treated like a book.

Chapter 45: The Affidavit

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.

Chapter 63: The Crotch

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!).

Chapter 68: The Blanket

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.

Chapter 79: The Prairie

Champollion deciphered the wrinkled granite hieroglyphics. But there is no Champollion to decipher the Egypt of every man’s and every being’s face. Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable. If then, Sir William Jones, who read in thirty languages, could not read the simplest peasant’s face, in its profounder and more subtle meanings, how may unlettered Ishmael hope to read the awful Chaldee of the Sperm Whale’s brow? I but put that brow before you. Read if it you can. (79.6)

This is supposed to sound as though Ishmael is daring you to interpret the whale as a symbol, daring you to try as hard as you possibly can to "read" the whale’s meaning. It’s also Melville daring you to make sense of this crazy novel. We know you’re up to the challenge!

Chapter 102: A Bower in the Arsacides

The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics. But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing – at least, what untattooed parts might remain – I did not trouble myself with the odd inches; nor, indeed, should inches at all enter into a congenial admeasurement of the whale. (102.13)

Ishmael’s close association between composing a work of literature and the body reminds us that Moby-Dick continually interprets the body as a blank page on which events write themselves. Think of Queequeg’s tattoos, or Ahab’s whalebone leg, or Starbuck’s condensed leanness. Our bodies tell our stories, so why not tell our stories on our bodies? That’s how Ishmael thinks, anyway.

Chapter 104: The Fossil Whale

One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their out-reaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it. (104.3)

Ishmael (and Melville) are convinced that the whale itself, as a topic, makes Moby-Dick a grander and more momentous novel. Even the act of writing itself seems exaggerated by such a monstrous subject. In response, Melville creates another of those transcendent moments where man and the natural world seem to be dissolving into one another.

Chapter 110: Queequeg in his Coffin

Many spare hours he spent, in carving the lid with all manner of grotesque figures and drawings; and it seemed that hereby he was striving, in his rude way, to copy parts of the twisted tattooing on his body. And this tattooing, had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last. (110.19)

We’ve gone through the whole novel assuming two things: that by the end we’d figure out what the White Whale means, and that Queequeg himself knows what his tattoos mean. But if a man can be covered all over with symbols that he has no way of interpreting, then maybe a novel can too.