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Hunting for meaning in the doubloon and Moby-Dick, and in "The Doubloon" and "Moby-Dick"

Hannah Mueller's picture

As Ahab contemplates the doubloon he has declared a reward for the first crewmember to spy Moby-Dick, he muses that a “certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth” (470). Ahab deeply desires to believe that everything has its implicit significance, but in the context of Chapter 99, “The Doubloon” in Moby-Dick, the idea that all things have an inherent meaning is made to seem not only unlikely but also undesirable. The crewmembers’ search for meaning in the doubloon parallels both Ahab’s attempt to understand the significance of Moby-Dick’s attack and the inquiry involved in reading any text. Each interpretation of the doubloon is different, suggesting that meaning is not inherent in a text, or in any situation in life, but exists only with each individual reader. As this essay will be analyzing a text, a comparison must necessarily be made between my search for meaning in “The Doubloon” and the crewmembers’ search for meaning in the doubloon. This connection will be drawn in the larger context of the classroom and its class members’ academic inquiries.

Seven different characters examine the doubloon where it hangs nailed to the mast. Their musings are each unique, and although Stubb does listen to others’ opinions, there is no dialogue between any of the characters in the chapter. The doubloon itself, on a whaling vessel in the middle of the cold ocean, is far removed from its native equatorial context. Although its markings were never intended to apply to the Pequod’s voyage (neither readers of Moby-Dick nor the crew have any specific first-hand knowledge of its history), each member who examines it draws a different significance from the doubloon, which they easily apply to their own situation. In Starbuck’s reading of the coin, his faith reflects back to him a gloomy world in which God is “a beacon and a hope” (472), but is not always present to save. He fears that their voyage will end in death. Stubb sees himself as the sun as it struggles through its zodiac, always beset with difficulties but emerging intact at the end, a vision of what he expects from the Pequod’s cruise. Flask sees a doubloon; he doesn’t analyze the markings, but considers the coin’s meaning to lie in its pure monetary worth—“sixteen dollars,” or “nine hundred and sixty” cigars (474). He is on the Pequod simply to earn a living. Each mate draws from his own attitudes about the voyage to give meaning to the doubloon, instead of drawing meaning from it.

Ahab sees his own reflection in the doubloon; to him, “this round globe is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self” (471). Ahab recognizes that interpretation creates meaning instead of deriving meaning from a source. His “rounder globe” is the world that humans use to understand themselves but has no meaning of its own. Ironically and tragically, however, he has not taken his own insight to heart. If Ahab’s quest to destroy Moby-Dick is, as he says, an attempt to discover what is behind the “pasteboard masks,” the meaningless “visible objects” (178) of the world, then he is obsessed with finding a meaning that exists in and of itself. What he fears, and what this chapter suggests, is that no such meaning exists.

As each crewmember draws his own meaning from the doubloon, so too does each reader of Moby-Dick draw her own conclusions. Melville makes the connection between the doubloon and text explicit. As he listens to his crewmates’ musings, Stubb reflects, “There’s another reading now, but still one text” (474). Like the doubloon and like the whale, Moby-Dick has no inherent meaning; Melville seems content to release his book into the world to become just another one of its “pasteboard masks,” with no ultimate significance woven in. By doing so, he suggests that no text contains its own meaning, but that readers give text meaning through individual acts of reading and thereby interpreting.

There are many similarities, and a few key differences, between the way the crew of the Pequod interprets the doubloon and their quest for Moby-Dick, and the way a class of students interprets a text. On the ship as in the classroom, there is a constant search for meaning. The crewmembers are trying to understand their place on the ship and their reasons for following Ahab, and they find meaning in the doubloon to match reasons they already have for continuing the voyage. Students read texts in order to interpret them according to what they have already learned about literature, society, science, and other branches of human inquiry. Both on the Pequod and in the classroom, interpretations vary and are not unified into a comprehensive whole. No single opinion emerges from the crew’s analyses of the doubloon or from a class discussion on “The Doubloon.”

At the same time, there is a consensus to continue the process of inquiry. All the crewmembers do decide to continue to follow Ahab in his pursuit of Moby-Dick. Because this pursuit, like the analysis of the doubloon, is in turn a metaphor for the search for meaning in texts, this consensus can be seen not as the discovery of a single meaning in one text, but as the continuation of the hunt for significance. In other words, the meaning of the doubloon is not the same for all the crewmembers although their interpretations of it all conclude in the acceptance of Ahab’s quest. Instead, like students who have differing interpretations of a text but still agree that the text should be interpreted, the sailors on the Pequod have different reasons for following Ahab, while they all agree that they must join him on his hunt for meaning.

Unlike on the ill-fated Pequod, however, in academia there occurs a continual dialogue. “The Doubloon” is structured so that no two characters ever talk to each other. Their own individual interpretations are their only interpretations, derived solely from the mirror of the “round gold” (471) in which they see only themselves. In contrast, students read texts in order to interpret, or to see themselves reflected in, many different people’s work. While they use their own experiences, as stated above, unlike the sailors on the Pequod they are also always searching for new experiences in new texts in order to interpret other texts better, in a larger context. Every student will understand a slightly different meaning from whatever she reads, but she will have a wide variety of texts from which to draw conclusions. In addition, within the classroom a spoken dialogue occurs between classmates and instructors. Unlike Ahab, academic inquirers do not need to discover the “truth” or the inherent meaning of what they are reading.

So, this inquiry that I write is part of a web of inquiry into the text called Moby-Dick. Literally, this essay is part of the World Wide Web and available to be interpreted by anyone, and a new interpretation will be generated by anyone who reads it. My analysis of “The Doubloon” is different from the crewmembers’ analysis of the doubloon because I am in dialogue with other readers and interpreters. One way to express the difference between the kinds of search for meaning taking place in academia vs. in “The Doubloon,” then, is to say that the former is an emergence story while the latter is an anti-story. While the elements of one are in conversation with each other and working toward more useful interpretations, the characters of the other are mired in their own individual viewpoints without attempting to understand one another better through dialogue, so their lines of inquiry end as soon as each stops talking.

Ishmael, the narrator, makes Moby-Dick as a whole an emergence, rather than an anti-story. The book is really an amalgam of different texts, all of which can be seen as being in dialogue with each other. Ishmael is writing and responding to the “pasteboard masks” he encounters as he journeys on the Pequod; like students, he does not have to know the “truth” or final meaning behind what he sees. Instead, he presents it to his readers as another sign for them to interpret and give meaning. In fact, his text is subtitled “The Whale,” making it a counterpart to Ahab’s whale, the text with which the captain is obsessed. Ahab and his crew’s search for meaning in the doubloon and Moby-Dick, then, I interpret as a warning concerning readers’ search for meaning in “The Doubloon” and Moby-Dick. The warning is that the best kind of inquiry is done by accepting both that dialogue is necessary to create the most useful interpretations, and that what is “behind,” “at the core of,” or “fundamental to” any text (or whale, or doubloon) is no more or less than what the reader invests there.


Anne Dalke's picture

Attempting to understand one another better...


What’s really delightful about this is its self-reflective quality, your ability to see that the crew’s reading of the doubloon is “mirror” for y/our reading of this book, “The Whale.” I especially appreciate your interpretation of “continuing the hunt” (both in the book and of the book) as continuing the search for significance, the hunt for meaning. Also especially nice is your ability to tease out the difference between the self-absorbed readings of the crew, and our dialogic ones.

Your description of “readers giving texts meaning though individual acts of interpreting,” rather than seeking out the meaning inherent in the text, is what is known, in the business, as “reader response theory”; do you know about this way of talking about interpretation? I wrote about it an essay I did on emergence; you can look @ Literature and Literary Theory as Forms of Exploration for an overview, and for links to further reading, should you be interested….

My questions for you are three, two small, one large:

1) You say that it is both “ironic and tragic” that Ahab does not apply the insights of reader-response theory to the way he manages his own life: he fruitlessly continues to search for a meaning hidden behind the meaningless objects of the world. Think about these two descriptors some more: is his decision ironic or is it tragic? What is the difference between those two modes, those two “genres”?

2) Why do you say Melville is “content” to release his book without any “ultimate significance woven in”? What about the text (or something else you know about him/his writing) leads to that characterization? It could well be that we apply reader-response theory, constructing our own meanings, to texts written with an intent to convey a truth (see, for example, Marina’s reading of Moby-Dick as an argument in favor of fate).

3) My big question, however, has to do with your assertion, towards the end of your paper, that “in academia…students are always searching for new experiences in new texts…attempting to understand one another better through dialogue.” I like this description of what we are up to, in our class, @ Bryn Mawr and in academic generally, but I don’t see you providing any data to back up that claim. Why do you think that we are aiming, in classes, is to understand one another better? Would your classmates and other teachers agree that that is our shared goal? Rather than (say) to understand the text better with the assistance of others’ points of view? Do all university classes really aim @ the sort of dialogic community-building that you describe? In asking these questions, I am thinking of conversations going on elsewhere on campus, about the problematics of community building, the ways in which some folks get shut out of the conversation, their points of view not invited or encouraged to join the dialogue; see some notes about expanding our educational mission