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Moby Dick

egoodlett's picture

Moby Dick – one of the celebrated classic novels of 19th century America. This is the introduction given to high school students across the country as they embark on the journey of the Pequod. But are the expectations raised by such an introduction fair ones to give the text’s soon-to-be audience? Though Melville encountered a poor reception when he first published Moby Dick, its status as a classic in modern times is rarely disputed. Otherwise there would be no droves of high school and college students whose expectations as readers we would need to worry about in the first place. So no, my question is not whether or not Moby Dick is a classic piece. Rather, I ask, should Moby Dick be considered a novel at all, or would it not be more accurate to call it a compendium of the genres that existed at the time when Melville was writing?

For the majority of the early chapters, Melville maintains a first-person narrative voice. For chapter 12, “Biographical,” he does momentarily switch to a third-person story focused on Queequeg, but for the moment this is not so jarring, because we understand from the introduction to this chapter that it is Ishmael retelling his history after he “had become more familiar with [Queequeg’s] broken phraseology” (60), and was thus able to decipher the tale. So, despite the fact that this chapter is, as many later ones will be, written in the third-person, chapter 12, at least, is understandable in the context of the first-person narration. When we reach chapter 23, however, the narrative changes. The first line of the chapter, “Some chapters back, one Bulkington was spoken of” (116) immediately jolts the reader out of the story, calling attention for the first time to the physical book that is being read, instead of keeping the reader involved in the current plot.

The following chapter further unsettles the narrative by leaving the narrative altogether for the moment, and begins an explanation of the history of whaling which might be more appropriate in an encyclopedia than in a “novel.” Still, this too we can justify by the preface to the chapter, in which Ishmael explains that he is telling us all of this so as “to convince ye, ye landsmen, of the injustice hereby done to us hunters of whales” (118), and to defend the reputation of the whaling industry against disrepute. Many such encyclopedic chapters appear after this one, some of which are interspersed with narrative, and others which stand alone, yet whose practical purpose we can surmise from the course of the story. For example, in chapter 89, the difference between Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish is explained, and the laws governing the whaling industry in dealing with these two types of fish are also explored. At first, we may wonder what the purpose of this chapter is, but once we reach the return to the narrative in chapter 91, we learn that this background information has better prepared us to understand the reason another ship was legally able to take a whale that Stubb had previously injured. The encyclopedic chapters can be explained in this manner. They were probably added by Melville (though ostensibly through Ishmael) to help the reader better understand the finer plot-points of the story, and the whaling business as a whole.

Alone, these sections, though jolting in their distinct difference from the narrative chapters, probably would not be enough reason to question the genre of the piece. But they are not the only sections mixed in with the first-person telling. As we read further into the book, we find more and more chapters told from a third-person point-of-view. Some of these have occasional references to “us,” or begin with an “I” as does chapter 61, which begins with Ishmael drifting in and out of consciousness while keeping a sleepy watch from the mast-heads, but then progresses to Stubb’s chase and murder of the whale spotted upon Ishmael’s awakening. The second part of this chapter does not bother to explain how Ishmael came to witness all that followed – the chase and Stubb’s actions that lead to his eventual success. Nor do the majority of the third-person narrative chapters explain how our first-person narrator could have witnessed all of the events that take place within them. Chapter 34 describes a dinner at Ahab’s cabin-table, where only the mates and the harpooneers dine. Yet it is told from a close third, allowing the reader to see all that transpires between the mates as they eat, and then the harpooneers as they dine afterwards. No explanation is offered as to how Ishmael could have come to witness such a private affair, nor indeed is there even a mention of Ishmael at all. Throughout the chapter, not one “I” or “us” alludes to the presence of anyone telling the tale from within it. This also, however, could be explained. Switching to a third-person narrator allows Melville to show the reader such moments as these, which transpire outside of the narrator’s plausible field of view, but which are still interesting to the reader, and helpful in deciphering the personalities of the other players in the story.

But, as if these shifts in perspective aren’t destabilizing enough, Melville chose to go one step further. Beginning in chapter 36, the narrator is momentarily removed still further as the writing begins to take on a dramatic form. The stage-like introduction to this chapter, “(Enter Ahab: Then, all.)” (174), is at first the only indication of the beginning of this shift. The rest of the chapter, though it contains notably more speaking than many of the previous ones, is still written in the third-person form. The following few chapters contain more and more hints toward a playwriting form, until chapter 40, when the narrative disappears completely, replaced by a chapter written entirely in the dramatic form. Any descriptions are written as stage directions, and the dialogue that makes up most of the chapter no longer appears in the narrative form (i.e.: “Moby Dick?” shouted Ahab (176)), but instead in the manner of a play. For example:


Fair play! Snatch the Spaniard’s knife! A ring, a ring! (192).


And then, immediately after chapter 40 concludes, chapter 41 brings us sharply back to the first-person narrator by beginning, “I, Ishmael, was one of that crew” (194). It is interesting that Melville takes us back to the narrative so sharply and so soon, after he had so slowly weaned us away from it through the chapters leading up to 40 (chapters 36-39). These chapters contain mostly dramatic soliloquies, and are not so strikingly different from the narrative form, because although there are a handful of stage directions mixed in, there is only one person speaking throughout, which we see in many of Ahab’s narrative monologues (for example, the one in chapter 132 that extends from halfway down page 592 all the way to page 593).

Looking back at these chapters, therefore, as well as chapters like 53 and 65, which mix narrative and definition, and chapters such as 61 which mix first-person and third-person narrations, it becomes more and more difficult to draw a line between the different genres that appear in the text. Some chapters, like 40, obviously belong to one genre, but others, like 36, appear to be a mixture of genres. The story remains cohesive throughout the piece, but the text itself, rather than belonging to one genre such as that of the novel, appears to be more an amalgam of genres, tied together by the common thread of the story, for all of these chapters tell pieces of the whole tale.


Anne Dalke's picture

Plot--and Story?


It's helpful, in this course on genre, to have you trace out so carefully and deliberately the "compendium of genres" that make up Moby-Dick; you do a great job in tracing the way Melville jarringly conducts us from first-person narrative to encyclopedic chapters, from inexplicable third-person accounts to dramatic forms--and then returning sharply again to first-person narration.

What you don't do, though, is begin to explore the question of why. This is a great review of the how, a thorough description of what Melville does. But--

so what? What does it get us, to see all these shifts? Are you calling into question Melville's control of consistency and point of view? (Do you presume that consistency is a vlue, and that he is violating it?) Are you questioning the validity of genre theory as a way of thinking about the novel form? Are you saying something about the historical evolution of the novel (or non-novel, or unnovelistic compendium) in the 19th century U.S.?

Your essay ends where it begins--in showing us the accuracy of saying that Melville's text is "an amalgam of genres, tied together by the comon thread of the story." Your mention of "story" puts me in mind of the important syuzhet/fabula distinction developed by the Russian formalists, who separated out the sequence of events the work relates (the story) from the sequence in which those events are presented in the work (the plot). Is that a distinction that would be helpful to you, as you think about ways to answer some of the "so what" questions that your essay provokes in me?