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Big Books (Moby-Dick) Forum

Comments are posted in the order in which they are received, with earlier postings appearing first below on this page. To see the latest postings, click on "Go to last comment" below.

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Encountering Moby-Dick for the first time
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-02-18 15:04:56
Link to this Comment: 4658

In this forum, I invite you to record your initial responses to Moby-Dick. Any/all thoughts are welcome; if you need a "nudge" or two to get you going, you might consider first all those "parts" you skinmmed through to get to the "novel proper," the etymology and extracts (which I like to imagine as the results of a 19th c. version of a "Google" search). What sort of tone do they set for the book as a whole? What kind of authorities does Melville draw on? What do you think the point/purpose/pattern of these two sections are? Why might Melville have set up the novel that-a-way, and what sort of effect does that opening have on you? What sorts of expectations--on your part--does it feed?

If none of that interests you, talk about Ishmael: what do you make of him?

Or Father Mapple's sermon: what do you make of that?

Or: what HAS snagged your interest in this big book, so far?

I'm very much looking forward to hearing--

melville's words
Name: orah minde
Date: 2003-02-19 16:07:27
Link to this Comment: 4674

we're supposed to talk about feeling; okay. have you ever read a book and gotten the chills and then forgot about those chills and then reread it and gotten the chills double because the actaul writing gives you the chills and then remembering your having forgot those initial chills? it's kind of the same feeling as falling; like the beauty of words liquifies the base on which you thought you stood. yup, that's what i FEEL when i re-read the first paragraph of moby dick. "when i find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp drizzily November in my soul; whenever i find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funderal i meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberatly stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off-then, i account it high time to get to sea as soon as i can."
how did i forget about that???????and i sink deep into two feet of snow.
maybe i didn't forget it but in fact am blinded by the skill of a master poet: he is one who can make it so every time someone reads his words it's as if the words were fresh, blossing ever time the reader's eyes fall upon them. melville spills words from the spout of tuck's everlasting spring and the words remain youthful for eternity.

First Reactions
Name: Emily
Date: 2003-02-19 23:18:56
Link to this Comment: 4690

The relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg has indeed "snagged my interest." I don't know what this says about me but I really didn't enjoy the whale or boat descriptions that much. However, I thought the scene in the Inn where Ishmael first meets Queequeg was really funny. Who would ever expect the guy he had to share a bed with would be a Cannibal who sells heads out of a big bag? Not me. I just think the idea is really funny. Also, I was surprised by how quick the two characters became friends. They say a few words about stabbing each other and their friendship is sealed? Not highly probable, but entertaining nonetheless. Another aspect of the first 40 chapters that I enjoyed was the suspense surrounding Ahab. There was so much mystery and buildup to the character that I was a little disappointed when he was first introduced. So far he doesn't seem like a bad guy, but the fact that so little is known about him makes me think there's a lot more to come of this character. Why does he want to kill Moby Dick so much? Is it really just because he got his leg? I hope there's more!

Name: Eric Seide
Date: 2003-02-19 23:34:29
Link to this Comment: 4691

I find that the very short chapters (some only a page or two) give the novel a very choppy feel. It sort of reminded me of (get ready for extreme corniness) the ocean. As the chapters kept switching, I couldn't help but think of waves and the ocean. It was probably just me, but I thought that was an interesting feeling.

not what i expected
Name: Phil
Date: 2003-02-20 09:11:05
Link to this Comment: 4697

I was not quite sure what to expect from Moby Dick, but I was pleasantly surprised by it and really enjoyed this first section. I found the novel to be incredibly funny, which was completely unexpected. In particular, I found the Queequeg to be extremely amusing. For example, the section when he is unable to understand the word 'kill' until Ishmael 'translates' it into kill-e was hilarious. On another note, I did not really understand why Melville changes styles so much. Chapter 3 begins in the second person. Towards the end of this section, Ishmael does not narrate at all, and the narration switches to an omniscient third person. Starting in Chapter 36, Melville's writing turns play-like. I did not understand these inconsistencies, although I realize that third person narration is probably necessary to flesh out characters such as Ahab and Starbuck.

Moby Dick
Name: Barbara sp
Date: 2003-02-20 16:02:55
Link to this Comment: 4707

I find the binding together of so many characters in Moby Dick quite fascinating. There is Ishmael bound to Queequeg by virtue of their tolerance of each other's cultures and religions and their immediate liking for each other; Ahab bound to Moby Dick by an obssessive need we don't yet understand (the ivory leg becoming a part of him also makes him and the whale one); Starbuck unwillingly bound to Ahab, and powerless to cut loose; and the whole crew bound to Ahab by a sort of demonic oath.
At the end of Chapter 40, the whole thing takes on a Shakesperian tragedy tone, with soliloquies by Ahab and Starbuck,as the story seems to move towards a meeting with fate or destiny. And poor little Pip, praying to "thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this smalll black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear!" adds to the feeling that we are reading the end of Act I in this tragedy.

Melville's playfulness
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-02-20 17:55:36
Link to this Comment: 4714

Here's a paragraph from my essay on "Grace" (which we read @ the beginning of this course) that says what I was trying to say in our discussion today:

Moby-Dick...begins with what the students could easily identify as nineteenth-century versions of a "Google" search—the Etymology and Extracts. By questioning the validity of a single definition of a single word, Melville plays unrelentingly with the human propensity to organize and categorize the multiplicity of the world. As generations of literary critics have observed, Melville's attempts at precise definition and classification, his simultaneous running joke at the difficulty—the impossibility--of arriving at them accurately, his testimony to the inadequacy of books to describe life's most profound experiences, his whole long "anatomy" of "multiple choices" calls any comfortable or final resolution into question. More specifically, in his delight in hetereogenity, in mixing up discordant kinds of writing, Melville refuses to acknowledge any literary protocol, any traditional restraints on what might be said in print. His acts of playfulness invited us, in turn, not to places limits on what we might say in the classroom, in the forums, in the final papers.

So...inviting you to transgress limits...think a little more about what Emily said above about her interest in the relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael. What IS going on in Chapter 10, "A Bosom Friend"?

Melville as dramatist
Name: Natalie Ab
Date: 2003-02-21 23:20:58
Link to this Comment: 4745

I found it very interesting how Melville actually stage-directs certain movements and opens chapters with statements that seem very much like intros to scenes in a play. While this does serve to orient the reader in the direction that the author wishes them to focus, it is also rather manipulative. My guess is that Melville used this tactic because it enabled him to utilize all the space in the chapter for plot/characters, thus keeping the chapters short and choppy to acheive the wave-like quality we mentioned in class on Thursday.

ishmael and queequeg; nature and civilization
Name: orah minde
Date: 2003-02-23 23:07:46
Link to this Comment: 4779

what is going on between Ishmael and Queequeg?
they are gay lovers.
but....i don't think that their sexual life is of much importance compared to the intense friendship that is being described in chapter 10.
it seems more like a platonic marriage. but as my mind sways back and forth i think that they are probebly having sex and melville is just trying to hide this aspect of their relationship because it would be shunned by the readers of his either case they are lovers.

a theme that runs through the entire novel is the meeting of the savage, wild, and untamed nature with the civility of society. The summation of the book is the ultimate defeat of civility and culture to the victorious untamed. so, what is happening in chapter 10? there is a union between 'uncouth' the 'savage.' Chapter ten ends with Ishmael saying, "consequently, i must then unite with him in his; ergo, i must turn idolator."

perhaps a stretch
Name: Bernadette
Date: 2003-02-25 09:37:35
Link to this Comment: 4825

I can't say I absolutely dissagree with Ora... Perhaps Ishmael and Queequeg are havind sex... But I'm not sure that this tran of thought isn't too much of a stretch. Partially because, although Ora expressed how Melville could not have been blatant about a homosexual relationship - what he writes at times does seem so obvious: "Considering how sociably we had been sleeping together the night previous, and especially considering the affectionate arm I had found thrown over me upon waking in the morning" (55) as well as the comment that Queequeg doesn't socialize with the other sailors.... It just seems to be very bold for his time.

As for 'all those arts we skimmed to get to the plot' such as the etimology... in thinking about that I wondered what the book would be like without the intense technical detail. Somehow I think the novel would lack a dimension that is essential for its being the "big book" that it is (and by that I don't mean long). To possibly make a bad analogy - has anyone ever read The Lord of the Rings? Tolkein creates an entire world with its own languages and histories. Though at times the relating of all the info the reader needs to fully understand the world seems tedious - it is necessary. Perhaps Melville's details serve this purpose in Moby Dick - I for one knew nothing about whaling previoulsy and though I could just read this as a seafaring story without all those details - the whaling aspect is of course essential.

reading md
Name: orah minde
Date: 2003-02-25 13:40:26
Link to this Comment: 4832

my experience of reading this book for a second time has been very different, or maybe it is just the act of reflecting on the novel while in the process of reading it. i see and appreciate that melville is a stunning writer when he tries to write styalistically. i admire and read in awe when he uses this skill....but, i ask myself while reading chapters like 'cetology,' "am i enjoying this?" and the answer is absolutly NOT. i mentioned in the begining of the year that i was only one in a high school class of 25 who enjoyed reading this book, i would like to revise that statement and say that i was the only one sufficiently dazzeled by melville's style (and especially the last line of the book) to end the book on a positive note. everyone else in the class was able to maintain a resentment toward melville for writing chapters like 'cetology.' i am curious to see how many people find his exquisite writing style sufficient enough to justify reading all 500 pages.

p.s. on the debate about whether ishmael and queequeg are having sex. i don't really care. i think that it is our 21st century minds at work trying desperatly to pry into their bedroom. i don't think it matters to the author or the tale and therefor should not matter to the critics.

class notes...
Name: Bernadette
Date: 2003-02-25 21:08:47
Link to this Comment: 4836

I was the recorder for the group of us that discussed what "the author's moral" is in Moby Dick so I will try to post here our ruminations. Though I have to admit that we didn't come to any kind of consensus (at least I don't think we did - did we?) and so this may not make much sense.
We spent our discussion time coming up with possibilities though - here they are (or at least what I can understand they were from my notes):
Barbara brought up the emphasis on bonds between characters in the novel such as that between Ishmael and Queequeg and also the unity of the men under Ahab in the quest for Moby Dick. We also discussed the role of Fate in the novel, likening it a bit to Greek tragedy (though later professor Dalke pointed out that though in parts Melville plays with that genre it is not consistent throughout the novel). A connection was seen between the force which Fate holds over the characters and the force of the white whale. Though the men are destined/fated to die they continue to push on, and defy death as they continue their quest - in the end they have no hope of combating such a force as they have no hope of conquering Moby Dick. Barbara brought up that Starbucks is the only one who does not see Moby Dick as a malignant force and believes it wrong to hunt the whale in such a manner.
We also discussed the possibility of the moral being about the breaking down of civilization. Ishmael and Queequeg's friendship was cited to support this - specifically when Ishmael states that he would become an idolater. Paganism was also related to the ships existence outside of the realm of civilization, as an isolated island (Ora suggested a similarity to Lord of the Flies). And finally the unity of the men under Ahab who is depicted as evil/bad because of his desire to destroy Moby Dick is a turning from civilized Christianity and towards pagan idolatry.

Please excuse me if I have misrepresented the group's discussion and feel free to correct anything I've written here.

Thursday's Discussion
Name: Natalie Ab
Date: 2003-03-01 10:10:12
Link to this Comment: 4884

I've been thinking about the question Anne ended class with on Thursday, "what does your soul look like" (paraphrased). I was kind of stuck on the animal theme, as those were the examples given, but I finally came up with this: my soul is a cat. The personality traits of cats- inquisitive yet fearful, both solitary and wanting company, independent, able to completely relax in certain situations, aware of their surroundings, etc- really gets at a lot of my complexities.

Name: orah minde
Date: 2003-03-01 14:22:28
Link to this Comment: 4885

thinking about our conversation last class:
imagine the size of the universe. and then image yourself. humans are so small compared to everything that if we actually beleived that our worth is equal to our relative size then we would crumble, know that our existence has no consequence. so, how do we remedy this dilema? we say that there is something out there that has special interest in us. we are SPECIAL. this is God. it doesn't matter if there is actually a being out there that is looking at us and directing our lives because just the widespead beleif that there is something remedies the problem of survival in such a universe. i am reminded of a poem by wallace stevens called 'anecdote of the jar'
" i placed a jar in Tennessee,/And round it was, upon a hill./ It made the slovenly wilderness/Surround that hill.//The wilderness rose up to it,/ And sprawled around, no longer wild./The jar was round upin the groun/ And tall and of a port in air./ It took dominion everywhere./The jar was gray and bare./ It did not give of bird or bush,/ Like nothing else in Tennessee."
God is the 'jar' in the wild universe. God puts order in the universe though even if he does not ACT. his mere prescence (or human generated presense) orgonizes and makes the universe a place in which humans can live.
so, when people get cancer is it helpful to put blame on God? or, do we say that the person must have done something wrong because our actions translate directly to God's inflictions of justice? it doesn't matter what we say because there is something there that is aware of our pain, whether or not it is good or evil- it is present and knowing.

ps i am a tightrope walker.

My soul
Name: Emily
Date: 2003-03-02 13:59:43
Link to this Comment: 4891

OK, everyone. I've figured it out. My soul is a jigsaw puzzle. It gets mixed up, jumbled around, and still put together again and again. Sometimes pieces are lost, but they're usually found in a few days (perhaps between the seat cushions of my conscience). It's a challenge to figure out how to put it together, but if you can, it's a pretty picture!

Name: Eric Seide
Date: 2003-03-02 17:05:21
Link to this Comment: 4893

After much deliberation, I have decided what my inner soul could be. I think it's a dog: happy, loving, loyal, excited, and playful.

Personal thoughts
Name: Mia
Date: 2003-03-02 20:39:45
Link to this Comment: 4896

Moby Dick caught my interest at first because I was very much able to imagine what was going on and it helped me read the book and as an adventure story was enjoyable to read. The individual and interesting personalities of each of the crewmates and the mystery of Captain Ahab set up a great beginning. I also like that Ishmael narrates his experiences and also tells of his personal thoughts - of his acceptance of religion, how he described himself as timekeeper while weaving a mat, etc. I think it is these personal thoughts that give the book it's depth. Anyone could tell a whaling story of the sailors and their fight with a whale, but it is the other things perceived and learned (about others or yourself {meaning Ishmael}) on the voyage that make it interesting.

Name: mia
Date: 2003-03-02 20:43:28
Link to this Comment: 4897

Although, for as interesting as the book can be, I find that some parts are lacking interest. I realize that Melville has most likely been on a whaling ship and is eager to tell his knowledge of it through Ishmael, but some of the chapters - especially the one that described all different types of whales I feel we could do without. I suppose that is all part of the 'being right there with the whalers' experience

Ahab's Wife Excerpts
Name: Natalie Ab
Date: 2003-03-02 21:05:18
Link to this Comment: 4900

I found it intreguing that one of the excerpts in Ahab's Wife was the scene in Uncle Tom's Cabin where Eliza crosses the ice. In addition to the fact that we just read the book, it also brings up an interesting relationship and dichotomy between people and the water (and nature in general). Nature is both alluring and frightening, helpful and hurtful- generally something to be feared that nevertheless has the power to lure people. I can't seem to get a grasp on exactly what Melville's argument about nature is. Some of his descriptive chapters, however boring they seem to those of us who don't care about the different types of whales, celebrate what nature has to offer, but the fact that nature is eventually going to kill everyone makes me wonder exactly what Melville is trying to accomplish.

Flow of the Novel
Name: Sebastian
Date: 2003-03-03 20:54:36
Link to this Comment: 4919

One of the aspects of Moby Dick that I am appreicating the more I read is the way he constructs the tempo of the book and the style with which he presents different dialogues. At first I disliked the "informative" parts of the book much like Mia, but I am beginning to find them interesting and I'm appreciating the way in which he crafts the novel itself like a whaling voyage; lots of routine and lack of action, and then burst of intense activity. The thing I love most about the dialogues is how the conversations between the sailors seem so natural while dramatic soliloquies by Ahab are dark and fiery. All these things add to the atmosphere and enjoyment of the book.

ok, so I'm not evil....
Name: Kati Donag
Date: 2003-03-04 15:40:00
Link to this Comment: 4940

On Thursday's class no one, other than me, used the word evil in describing themselves. Some people said "I'm both" and didn't elaborate. I said that I'm both: good and evil. I felt that I needed to emphasize the evil, because no one else was saying the word. Then I really did feel bad because everyone was shocked I said I have evil in me. I thought about my evilness all day. Why am I so willing to admitt my "evilness"? I'm not evil, but there is some of it in me.

So I took my question to lunch with me. My friend at lunch laughed and told me "of course your not evil!" She said that we were asking the wrong question and that we all gave the wrong answers. My friend believes that "good" and "evil" are such abstract, huge, un-earthly ideals that no human (no matter how hard we try) can obtain them. So, I can try all I want and I will never be "evil" and I will never be "good", at least according to my friend. So can we be "both"? My friend says no. By the very nature of the ideals of "good" and "evil" it is impossible to be a part of either or both. Its got to be all the way or nothing. Therefore, we are all neither. I am not good. I am not evil. I am human.

I liked this line of thinking. I was very pleased with myself for being neither, and just being human. I was happy until my dad called me on the phone. So I told him my big class discussion/lunch discussion discovery of the nature of humaness. He told me I was evil. What?! So here's my dad's arguement: Original sin (Genesis). End of story. Humans are evil.

I don't agree with my father, but maybe this is where my unabashed claim to evilness came from. So, at the end of the day I am neither good or evil. I am human. I think it's a very good thing to be.

my Self
Name: Kati Donag
Date: 2003-03-04 23:44:00
Link to this Comment: 4946

Last semester I took a course entirely devoted to finding and defining the Self. After three months of thinking about it, here is how I now describe my Self:

A label will no longer define me. No label can define my Self.

So, I am not an animal or an object. I'm just me.

No Labeling the Self
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-03-06 00:55:17
Link to this Comment: 4963

I want to take up what Kati said in her message about just being her self, unlabeled.

Melville says "whatever is truly wondrous and fearful in man, never yet was put into words or books"( Norton, 364); "that Queequeq 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" (366-367).

Is that what you mean, Kati? That the self is inscrutable, so indescribable? Why then do we pour over words, why then are we reading books? Do we think the essence of what and who we are CAN/not be put into language?

Moby Dick
Name: barbara
Date: 2003-03-06 06:42:28
Link to this Comment: 4967

Finished Moby Dick late last night and hope I can make some sense. Is Moby Dick evil? Only to Ahab. To everybody else, just a big, dangerous fish that defends itself when attacked. I think Ahab had to give evil a face in the same way we were trying to describe our own sense of good and evil in the class room the other day. Words, language are a poor representation of our feelings and fears, and as Melville suggests with that opening chapter, everybody has a different name for a whale, and the encyclopedia is not going to help us to give meaning to something as abstract as good and evil. Hope this doesn't come under the heading of "weak ethical rewriting," but it's the best I can do at six in the morning.

Moby the Man
Name: Emily
Date: 2003-03-06 18:04:01
Link to this Comment: 4980

Similar to the way we were personifying our souls, I was thinking it would be interesting to personify Moby Dick. When this idea came into my mind, I immediately thought of a cranky, obese, old man. I see him wearing something sleek and formfitting. Maybe a tight, white pinstriped suit. I think he'd be a hermit and live in a little shack somewhere. He gets really mad when people try to talk to him (telemarketers, family, etc.) He just wants to be left alone to live his unhappy life. What is your Moby Dick like?

Name: Eric Seide
Date: 2003-03-07 12:35:18
Link to this Comment: 4986

In response to Emily's query, I see Moby Dick as the guy who keeps to himself, and always does whatever he wants. While whales are usually gregarious, Moby Dick travels alone, eating, smashing ships, doing whatever makes his little whale heart happy. I see his personification being free spirited and independent. Oh, and I see him being very big.

the issue of self-awareness
Name: Phil
Date: 2003-03-08 01:38:42
Link to this Comment: 4989

I've been thinking about a point that was raised in our discussion on Thursday relating to the intelligence of sperm whales. Specifically, I think that the intelligence of these animals has been grossly underestimated. The question of whether or not Moby Dick could consciously select and attack Ahab was also brought up, calling into question the issue of self-awareness. Dolphins, an extremely close relative of the sperm whale, exhibit self-awareness. Additionally, since this characteristic is also displayed in most apes, albeit inconsistently, it is reasonable to consider self-awareness a possibility for the sperm whale. At the very least, it suggests complex cognitive capabilities.

The notion that the large brain possessed by the sperm whale was less impressive relative to body weight was also brought up. The large difference in body weight to brain weight is distorted in small in large animals, making direct comparisons inaccurate. For example, the brain: body ratio of a human is 1:43, while that of a mouse is 1:13.

I think that this adds an interesting angle to the view of Moby Dick as a force of nature that is not aware of what he is doing.

Some links:

the animal of my soul
Name: Julia
Date: 2003-04-16 19:57:22
Link to this Comment: 5423

If I were an animal I would be a dachshund puppy. I like to explore my surroundings but always find myself back at home; I have a similar story with meeting new people but becoming very attached to only a few. I always seem to be doing things that could be called causing trouble, but being a puppy I donÕt mean to be any trouble. I like human contact; I could spend hours, maybe even days cuddling with my friends. The specification of the dachshund comes in with my stubbornness. I know how to do things one way and IÕll keep doing things my way as long as I can get away with it. Most of the time change is good, although I wonÕt always admit it at the time. I also have my times when I would like to dig a hole to crawl into, although in my case to hide.

wondering about my Self--again
Name: Kati
Date: 2003-05-14 14:05:01
Link to this Comment: 5661

This is into response to Anne's message asking me about defining my self. Last semester in my c-sem "Finding the Bias: Tracing the Self Across Contexts" my class spent countless hours and hours trying to define the self. After an entire semester and one sleepless night creating my Find the Bias portfolio I came to the revelation of the idea that my self cannot be defined by a label. This is because a label is too restrictive and too permanent--they're hard to peel off. I think that words and books are an excellent form of self-expression, but more than just one are needed. Millions upon millions are needed because the self is a constantly changing thing. A book can be a good start to describing or defining the self but it would have to be under constant revision or have a new edition for everyday of your life. So maybe no, a book isn't the right answer, maybe it should be more like a serial. A book becomes dated. I think Melville was on the right track with the quote you gave, Anne.

Name: Sebastian
Date: 2003-05-15 12:31:40
Link to this Comment: 5682

After reading Moby Dick and discussing it within this class I feel that I have a new understanding of what the book is about. When I read before in high school we mainly analyzed the more obvious themes of religion and fate and destiny and how Melville was using these themes in the book. At that time I felt like that was all very interesting, but now after a second stab at the book and after analyzing and discussing with Anne and the class, a new idea of the book has come to life for me. Now I see the book as a discussion by Melville on human nature and the meaning on life itself. The important part of this though is not that the book tries to tell you, "This is human nature...", or "This is the meaning of life...", instead it offers multiple avenues of exploration of both of these ideas. This book means much more to me now than when I read it the first time (in more ways than I am capable of explaining with words here) and I still, and hopefully always will, refer to it and various passages as a source of reflection or contemplation about life. This is still my favorite book.

Name: Melissa
Date: 2003-05-16 10:52:21
Link to this Comment: 5700

The beautiful part about Moby Dick is the way that Melville encompasses so many writing styles and so many views on the thinking of man. The universal view in Moby Dick that orah mentioned really made me think of Horton Hears a Who. One of my favorite books from when I was a child. This book seems to explain or attempt to explain as Melville does that there are so many things on this earth that wer have no idea of and may never fully understand. Such as the natural order of the great white whale and if it was appropriate or morally sound for him to attack theship. I believe that too often we find ourselves discrediting the inteligence of animals and thier true brain functions. Many animals are just as smart aswe are some such as dolphins are possibly considered more intellegent. This may not be the case for whales. However, its still saomething to contemplate.

How big?
Name: Alex
Date: 2005-01-10 15:33:01
Link to this Comment: 12027

How big was Moby Dick?

Date: 2005-04-20 10:52:32
Link to this Comment: 14748

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