Qualifications To Read Classics: Ignorance

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Qualifications To Read Classics: Ignorance

Catherine Durante

Movie critic Stephen Snyder once wrote that "dialogue is a bit dry and consistent foreshadowing becomes repetitive and irritating" (2002). Of course he was speaking in reference to George Lucas's 2002 second part "Star Wars" trilogy, "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones." Though no mention of Melville's Moby Dick can be found on this reviewer's page, is this statement not applicable, especially the piece regarding foreshadowing? Melville saturates his text with constant clues and hints that lead one to an expected denouement. Please do not misunderstand; foreshadowing can be an effective literary device if used in a subtle manner, emphasizing the word "subtle." Melville dispenses foreshadowing sentences as frequently as Ahab's monomaniacal anguish episodes occur to utilize the technique and ultimately intrigue the reader. As good of an intention as is, Melville's machination backfires and instead of the reader appreciating such a seductive tactic, he or she feels a sense of inferiority. Melville in his epic Moby Dick underestimates the literary capacity of the reader by including such pronounced clues making one doubt Melville's confidence in one's intelligence.

When scrutinizing the plethora of chapters Moby Dick contains, chapter forty five seems to be the most degrading for the reader. Ishmael expresses to those reading four things; the first is that he knows of "three instances where a whale, after receiving a harpoon, has effected a complete escape; and, after an instance, has been again struck by the same hand, and slain" (170), the second is that "there have been several memorable historical instances where a particular whale in the ocean has been at distant times and places popularly cognizable" (171), thirdly, many men die whaling and land-bound men "have nothing like a fixed, vivid conception of those perils, and the frequency with which they recur" (172), and lastly the Sperm Whale "is in some cases sufficiently powerful... and judiciously malicious as with direct afterthought to stave in, utterly destroy, and sink a large ship" (173). The reader has now been given a blueprint of the last chapter of the book. The framework has been set and Melville decides to drop his cards in the poker game. Melville does divulge the reason for this revealing chapter writing how "without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise [one] might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable" (172). Must the reader be reminded that the book is fiction? There is every indication that this book should not be taken as a biographical account of actual souls; an indication that is established in the very first line. The man writing these adventures and the man living these adventures are not one in the same. The reader will buy the story with or without the assurance that Moby is not a hoax due to Melville's opening narration explaining that the events had already passed and to see Ishmael as only the narrator. These seven pages are a waste of novel space. One feels that Melville is treating one as a child, constantly reprimanded and disciplined to have a certain mind set. It is insulting.

One now finds him/herself at the end of the line, the final five chapters. After endearing over four hundred pages of constant awareness that the Pequod is fated to rest in Davey Jone's Locker, Melville decides to give the reader the last fortune cookie... another ship. Facts and the gospel truth apparently do not suffice. The reader must have external proof that the whale is real and the encounter will be deadly. Thus, Melville decides to fabricate another ship haunted by Moby Dick, the Rachel. As the Pequod drifts away from the vessel after being assailed by the white whale, Ahab's barge is described as "not quick enough to escape the sound of the splash that the corpse soon made as it struck the sea; not so quick, indeed, but that some of the flying bubbles might have sprinkled her hull with their ghostly baptism" (404). The vernacular is striking but at this moment in the novel, that is all that is striking. The reader is bored of Professor Trelawney telling Harry Potter that his tea leaves, crystal ball, and stars behold the grim. Especially after one hundred and thirty two chapters, Melville should believe one understands the gravity of the ending. It is hurtful.

This argument also leads to the question of whether the reader should respect Moby Dick. Gasps can be heard all over the world. Who would dare question Melville's relationship to the reader? This writer would. Why should the reader care about a piece of literature that does not challenge but rather hands over clues on a golden platter? Melville ran away with himself when writing Moby Dick. It is said that while writing Moby Dick Melville did not eat until four or five in the evening, only consuming tiny morsels and enthusiastically shouted out, "Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand!" (Richard Volney Chase 1949). Melville's drive seemed to parallel that of Ahab's, bordering between insanity and the uncertain being behind the insanity. He was compelled to write, to find his white whale. In a sense, the novel can be seen as a voyage, a therapeutic voyage that Melville uses to compress his overwhelming nautical knowledge. If one can assume that the character of Ahab draws on Melville's psyche, then readers are the crew and they are sacrificed at the expense of a madmen's quest. The reader is forgotten and Melville continues his selfish pursuit of writing his masterpiece. Beneath the surface, Melville cuts the rigging and one is set out to see with no land in sight.

This notion is not easy for a reader to accept. The author doubts one's abilities as a reader, which is lower in level than an interpretive reader, and has forsaken him or her to empty his head of knowledge onto the page. By including copious amounts of explicit clues Melville has hindered the reader's ability to expand his or her mind. Yes, many aspects of the book are open to interpretation; however, one's main pleasure in novel reading is to experience verbally the transition between where one began and where one finds oneself at the cusp of the book. Less than halfway through Moby Dick Melville has revealed the end location for the reader. Wolfgang Iser is on the pro team. According to Iser, "the meaning of the text is not self formulated, the reader must act upon the textual material in order to produce meaning" (Kolat 2000). Half of this job is already accomplished for the reader with Melville's constant hints. This stumbling block in the appreciation of such a "classic" novel does not live in only those who have read Moby Dick but for every generation that is exposed to any aspect of the plot. A generation of readers will also feel the same restriction the novel provides just as Culler states that "literary meaning... is not the result of the reader responding to an author's cues... but is an institutional matter, a function of conventions that are publicly agreed upon... of the assumptions shared by the group he belongs to" (Dalke 2006). Melville will forever constrict a reader's interpretation for generations.

Melville has solidified himself as the anti- M. Night Shyamalan. The ending is no "Sixth Sense." Well, why does it have to be? The argument is not whether an ending is required to be a surprise but whether the reader- author relationship is held intact. In Moby Dick there is no trust cycle. The reader confides in the writer and commends him/ herself wholly to be swept by the text. Melville does not have faith in the reader to explore the novel entirely. Instead, he provides the climax early on which reduces the point of the climax itself. Of course, one may argue that by revealing the end of the novel, the reader is allowed to focus on what is in between the beginning and end. Then again one may also argue that what is in between contains a majority of foreshadowing that can ruin the text for anyone. Was Melville aware of this effect? If so, he may have already tattooed his coffin.

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