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Week 3--Encountering Moby-Dick

Anne Dalke's picture
So: What are your initial reactions to Melville's "organic form"? How does the novel "strike" you?
(For how many of you is this a re-reading? What were the contexts of your earlier readings?)
In what ways do you think/feel that the context of this current course might be influencing what you are noticing now about the novel?
One Student's picture

latch-key under the mat? a chart of the undertow?

"Physiognomy, like ever other human science, is but a passing fable. If then, Sir William Jones, who read in thirty languages, coule not read the simplest peasant's face in it 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 it if you can."

-end of chapter 79, page 380 in the Penguin edition

And I think that that is the thesis of the book, or the key. Or it may be the key for me.

On the other hand, just a little earler at the end of chapter 76 (pg 370):

"Unless you own the whole whale [i.e. comprehend the tremendous might and awfulness of the whale], you are but a provincial and sentimentalist in Truth. But clear Truth is a thing for salamander giants only to encounter; how small the chances for the provincials then? What befel the weakliing youth lifting the dread goddess's veil at Sais*?"

I think that these two quotes illustrate the the tensions around knowing in this book ...

*Full text of the poem here:

And the last stanza, which narrates the fate of the young man who looked at what he wasn't supposed to look at:

He speaks, and, with the word, lifts up the veil.
Would you inquire what form there met his eye?
I know not,--but, when day appeared, the priests
Found him extended senseless, pale as death,
Before the pedestal of Isis' statue.
What had been seen and heard by him when there
He never would disclose, but from that hour
His happiness in life had fled forever,
And his deep sorrow soon conducted him
To an untimely grave. "Woe to that man,"
He warning said to every questioner,
"Woe to that man who wins the truth by guilt,
For truth so gained will ne'er reward its owner."

One Student's picture

Humor Theory Applied to Moby Dick

"Humor makes it possible to make serveral statements at once." -The Function of Humour in Roman Verse Satire, Maria Plaza

I've been reading some theory on Roman satire for a presentation on satiric representations of warfare for my Classical Warfare class. Another useful idea is the position of the author and the position of the satiric persona, which the author uses as a mask, relative to the object of the satire. Where does Ishmael stand? Also, that there is a didactic (teaching) function to satire, and that the humor isn't just there to make some moral go down more easily - the humor itself teaches.

Claire Ceriani's picture

Access to One Man's Thoughts

I wasn’t in class last week, so I really can’t build on the existing discussion much, but I can offer my opinions.


Moby-Dick is actually one of my favorite books.  I read it in an American Lit class in 11th grade, though I didn’t actually get to discuss it with the class (it was for one of those independent reading projects where everyone chooses their own book off a list).  I think I like it for the same reason that a lot of people hate it: I expected it to be a novel, and it wasn’t.  It was probably the first thing I ever ready that really surprised me in that way.  I decided I liked it for this rather enigmatic quality that makes it not quite a novel when I came to my favorite chapter, Cetology.  (Interesting how that rather mirrors this class…)  I suppose I first liked this chapter because it’s unexpected and subtly humorous.  I like it now after having read the book once and going back with a different perspective, because it truly makes the work a story from out of a man’s mind.  I don’t mean fabricated, I mean remembered and reconstructed.  Ishamel isn’t just giving a list of events, he’s somehow allowing us into his memories and all the opinions he has of them and all the information he associates with them.  I think this “organic form” as we seem to be calling it allows us to see the events of this story unfold in a very unusual way.  I don’t feel like I’m reading the story of Ahab and the white whale as told by Ishamel.  I feel like I’m reading the story of Ishmael remembering these events, which includes his careful consideration of how to classify whales, something he clearly considers important.  It also includes the Etymology and Extracts at the beginning.  Knowledge colors memories.  It includes stage directions and soliloquies, which makes me feel that at these times, Ishmael’s memories focus more on the words of others and not necessarily on his own thoughts at the time.  The story does begin as though he is merely telling it to someone as he’s told it to many people, but it’s really only the exposition that reads this way.  Once he gets to the darker story itself, it becomes more a developing collection of thoughts.  He’s run through how it all began in his head many times, but this is the first time he’s really stopped to tell the story of his time on the Pequod.  It’s interesting that Ishmael goes on this voyage as a sort of suicide, wanting to be isolated from the rest of the world, yet we as readers are later granted access to everything that was going on in his mind during that period of isolation.

Christina Harview's picture


So... all of the questions above were addressed in class but we are to repeat them here, for some reason.

I knew very little of what to expect from Moby Dick. I had heard much hinting that it was not only a non-novel, but also that many other people didn't like it upon first reading it. This was my first hint that I would probably adore it. I go for the wounded, unconventional type.

As I suspected, I found myself enjoying the first part of the book immensely. I thought to myself, they don't know what they are talking about; this is certainly a novel if I have ever seen one. and a good one at that. But then, I hit the chapter about whale classification. It was then that I first understood the confusion concerning book classification. A 'normal' novel would never do this (supposedly). When I first got to the chapter using stage direction and third person, I immediately began to unlock the idea of the 'non-novel' Moby Dick. This was clearly not your average book.

As I said in class, I certainly enjoyed the subtle (and not-so-subtle) lines poking fun at religion (Christianity specifically). Melville certainly knows how to employ the use of subtle and almost invisible sarcasm. So subtle that I don't think that some of the people in the class even picked up on the fact that he was scrutinizing religion in the first place.

So I guess that's it about Moby Dick.

I became one with them and for an instant, as we came closer and closer to the mess hall where the feast would be held, I became them and it was I who was beating down on the ship and the captain and the sea. It was I who was angry at and scared of the world all at once. I was the clean water plummeting from the sky without a single inhibition; I was freefalling, weightless, and intent. They were beating on me, but in my mind and in my chest, I was beating right back. I would always be beating right back.
l. amsterdam's picture

Week 3 Discussion Summary: Expectations, Order, Authority

This week, we began to read Moby Dick, and so various aspects of the novel were the center of our discussion.

Tuesday’s discussion started with everyone stating the expectations they had coming into the novel, and whether or not they had been met. Most of us, it seems, came in with the expectation that we would be bored; the novel seems to have the (unfounded, we concluded) reputation of being very dry. However, that expectation was not met; in fact, a number of people commented on the (unexpected) amount of humor in the novel. Religion was another topic that came up frequently. Many people found Melville’s irreverent attitude toward religion striking. Many also found the constant allusions to the Bible a bit difficult to grapple with, many of us lacking the familiarity with the Bible to understand (or even catch) many of them. Branching from this, we discussed briefly how the internet may work to get around a lack of background knowledge. There was also discussion of the fact that the Bible was a referential structure that most readers would have been familiar when Melville wrote the novel, and how our feelings toward religion work within a reading of Moby Dick. We then discussed humor within Moby Dick, and how Melville uses it to mock the reader for her expectation that any authoritative and truthful idea could come from the written word (We are led to the “Etymology” and “Extracts” by underlings who may actually be dead, only to find that there is no single history of the word “whale,” and that we cannot actually believe the authority of many of the quotes on whales). Contrasting with Melville’s humor, however, is the idea that he wanted to believe that there was an underlying truth or order in the universe.

Thursday’s discussion began by returning to the ways in which Melville challenges the authority of the written word. For example, in returning to the fact that there is no single etymology for “whale,” he pushes the reader to think about how heavily she relies upon a book as an authority. We also talked about the place of religion and spirituality in Moby Dick. Ishmael, on one hand, concludes that there is a human soul that outlasts mortal life (a life which we live, Ishmael says, like oysters gazing at the sun through the water, unable to understand the nature of this ultimate truth), and that this soul is so powerful that God cannot destroy it. Another facet of spirituality in the book is Father Mapple, who conveys, through the story of Jonah and the Whale, that the soul naturally goes against the will of God, but you will eventually find the greatest satisfaction in disobeying your own will (and the will of others) for God. We also discussed the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg, namely whether or not it is sexual. We were generally undecided as to whether or not they were actually sleeping together, but concluded that it is another way in which Melville challenges objective authority or reality (If two men, whether or not they are having sex, have a relationship like that of a married couple, it could be another blow to the reader’s foundational understanding of marriage). Finally, we talked about Ahab, and that his search for Moby Dick is ultimately a search for order in the universe (He has to believe that Moby Dick took his leg out of hatred and must have revenge exacted upon him, versus his losing his leg being a random, meaningless event). The final thought of the day was that the book seems to be saying that complete knowledge of anything is impossible; however, someone challenged that by asking whether that in and of itself was a complete idea.

egoodlett's picture


I said in class on Tuesday that upon beginning Moby Dick, I'd expected the novel to continue mainly in the first person. But thinking back now, that's not exactly true. As I was reading it, I was also waiting for the change or the shift that we were told would happen, a shift I was assuming would be to a encyclopedic-type explanation of things. Why I was expecting that, I'm not sure, but I think it has something to do with this novel vaguely reminding me of Robinson Crusoe (minus the racism), which had a similar change in it.

So I wasn't completely surprised when I stumbled across the sudden shift in perspective, though it did somewhat annoy me. I guess at first I felt like it was an unneeded interruption to an otherwise perfectly enjoyable narrative (And, also, I was still remembering how annoyed I was reading Crusoe, which I think affected my mood).

However, as that section continued, I began to find that it kept my interest in other ways. The in-depth character descriptions kept the story moving, and the tidbits of the history of whaling leant more background to the main story.

Eventually, though, I stumbled across a change that really did surprise me. It started in Chapter 37, and by Chapter 40 it was obvious that the novel had switched to a play form for a while. But at Chapter 41, it switched back to a narrative. I wasn't really sure what to make of this last change. I suppose it was a good way to show glimpses of a lot of different sailors' personalities (especially in Chapter 40), but that could have been accomplished in a narrative as well. Why the sudden shift to playwriting?

akeefe's picture

So to generalize...

This is my first time reading Moby Dick. So far, I have found it to be a fascinating journey. As we discussed in class, we all came (or had to actively tried not to come) at this novel with certain expectations. I found it interesting, particularly in the case of us who had never picked up Moby Dick, that we could still have such distinct opinions of it. We had heard it was boring. We had heard it was a classic. We had heard it was about some obsessed guy, and his obsession.

What I think is so interesting is that within all of these expectations, stereotypes if you will, we also find generalization. I once had a psychology professor tell me that paying attention to stereotypes is important, because they tell the story of group interactions. We cannot ever entirely rid ourselves of stereotypes, because our brain wants to classify information on a generalized, categorized level. What we can do is change our method of categorization. However, that is not the purpose of this post.

What I mean to say is that, can this idea hold true for the stereotypes/generalizations about literature? Can we learn anything about how literature functions in our society by the categories we place it in? There are many elements of the piece that could have been generalized about. The story has comedic and satirical elements; there’s adventure; there’s religion. However, what we have heard about Moby Dick, is that it is another scholarly work, part of “the classics.” Perhaps, Moby Dick isn’t considered a comedy, because it doesn’t function as one. I could with my new experience of this novel attempt to change this, but students will still be reading it in English classes around the country. I can’t currently foresee, therefore, this notion changing without some evolution of how we deal with texts.

AF's picture

And of course it comes down to religion

As I mentioned in class, I had a rather unhealthy obsession with religion as a child. By the time I reached my eighth grade graduation however, I had come to the conclusion that I could no longer trust in my childhood religion merely because it was presented to me as truth. Recently, the ever elusive question of faith reached a level of almost obsessive importance again.

So here I go, already entering into the world of Moby-Dick as a perfect example of what Melville warns his readers not to be: a meaning seeker.

What type of reader am I? Well clearly that's an easy question to answer. I am a meaning seeker, a generalizer, a philosopher. I look for universal truths in order to apply some sort of lesson to my everyday life. Honestly, I don't think there has ever been a single thing I read that I didn't try to relate to my life philosophy. This class is, for the first time, causing me to question the way I read and my relationship with books in general. Ultimately, I think I have fallen into the same trap as Melville. I mock organized religion and claim to consider it meaningless while deep down, I secretly have always continued to search for some higher power, some meaning behind it all.

Where will I be at the end of Moby-Dick? Where will Ishmael be? Probably in the middle of the ocean with only enough money for a new pair of clothes, but only time will tell I guess. 

M. Gallagher's picture

A note on comedy-

So far my favorite thing about Moby Dick, far above the "organic form" and the gorgeous writing, has to be the ample servings of wit, irreverence, and humor. I suppose I still don't expect to giggle my way through 19th century works, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

My former roommate, current roomate, and I read to each other at night- and I find myself stopping mid-sentence, quite amused by what humorous insight I've just read. I said in class that I went into reading the novel with as few pre-conceptions (or as many contradicting ones- so as to cancel each other out) that I could manage. While I still hold this to be true, I'm pretty sure no one had ever told me that Moby Dick was funny, even though plenty of people had told me how dull and drearily boring it was (as they would humorously take on the woebegone and histrionic habit of the very Victorian feel they had been complaining about).

I also mentioned in class that one of the few true associations to Moby Dick I had was through a website that parodied "The Bible Code", which while entirely irreverent, seems to fit what we discussed of Moby Dick on Tuesday. Not only is Moby Dick in "conversation with" the Bible (okay, so I'm making a jest there, but it's still making a commentary on the Bible as an authoritative source), but the website furthers the spirit of Moby Dick to give up questionable meaning to those questing. I suppose, I saw it as one-upping the "multiple choice" answers and making a mockery of the whole inevitable process of searching for meaning, which the novel also does.

One Student's picture


Never read Moby Dick before, but based on what I know of the plot, I wonder if the quotes at the beginning are an amplificiation of what comes after, or if what comes after is an amplification of the quotes. Sure, the rest has charming facetious Ishmael, and his dear friend Queequeg and Ahab. Characters just help form the pattern, they're much-elaborated ideas walking around. Perhaps it will turn out that in the quotes, and between the lines of the quotes, and in the sum of the quotes which is great than its parts, is the same meaning as in the novel?

I am particularly interested in the image, found in the extracts only so far, of the whale as an animal so large that it is practically a place.

I like Ishmael's theology. I don't expect to like the theology of characters, esp not 19th century characters. The book is in conversation with the Bible, and it's not a conversation I've heard before. For one thing, it's not simply allusion, but is the Bible recycled, reused, co-opted. I also like how the black/white dichotomy is getting complicated. Ahab is dark, and I know that Moby Dick is white. So where should our sympathies lie, which hunter/hunted?

Oh, and interesting that the etymology and the extracts are attributed to a now-dead-of-consumption grammar school teacher, and a sub-sub-librarian. Both educated, apparently with active minds, but utterly obscure and unimportant. Is the presentation of the book made humbler, doesn't it make it seem like an obscure manuscript?

About Ishmael's name: this character has an unpleasant step-mother. Sort of like the Biblical Ishmael, driven from his home by Abraham's wife, Sarah.

To what extent is Ishmael like and not like Jonah? To what extent is Ishmael fleeing. True, he is not paying to flee.

I'm surprised at the tone of the section narrated by Ishmael: light, easily amused, thoughtful but not very serious, despite the events he's looking back on. Not what I expected at all. Doesn't even feel like a 19th century novel.