Just Another Meaning

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Second Web Paper
On Serendip

Just Another Meaning

Student Contributor

Call me Ishmael. The first line of this story begins with an assertion of self-identity. Before the second page is reached, it becomes quite clear to me that within this assertion of self-identity lay an enticing universality. Ishmael represents every man somehow and no man entirely. He is an individual in his own right, while personifying a basic human desire for something more, something extraordinary. As his name implies, "he is an outcast from a great family" (p.18). Although we all share Ishmael's yearning for adventure (however deeply hidden it may be), to throw aside our civilization (despite its discontents ) could mean societal suicide. So, we look through his eyes, we cling to his desire, we dream of his escape.

This world of ours in all its absurdity is seemingly as vast as an ocean beyond its horizon. Yet with all its opportunity, with all its splendor, we somehow manage to spoil the prospects it so generously offers. We pack ourselves into overcrowded spaces; we cram our brains with bits and pieces of irrelevancy; we herd ourselves along a well-beaten path; we cloud our souls with a veil of conformity. And yet there still remains, somewhere deep inside every one of us, the desire to cast aside restraint and venture into whatever indulgence tugs at our heartstrings and innermost fantasy.

For Ishmael this was the sea: "Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses...then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can" (p. 18). For Ishmael to remain on shore would mean to "grow hazy about the eyes" and lose sight of what makes him happy, the drive that makes him human- his love of the sea.
Ishmael sees his decision to set sail in search of adventure, not so much a matter of choice but of irresistible fate or destiny. When our world becomes too restrictive and society's dictates threaten to overwhelm him, rather than lashing out at his fellow landlocked prisoners he quietly takes the ship (p. 18). And for those too apprehensive to leave the safety and steadiness of land, Ishmael recounts his adventure so that others can vicariously experience his freedom.

Here we have come across one of the many wonders of story telling: Stories allow us to see things we might not have the audacity to see ourselves and to become things well beyond our own perceived potential. And so we turn to stories to fill our voids, to quench the fires of our hopes and dreams, to calm our restless spirits. We might choose security rather than spontaneity and comfort rather than jeopardy, but we are able to do so and remain sane only with promise of participation in something outside of ourselves.

Through our relationships to the boundless expanse inherent in the telling of stories, "the great flood gates of the wonder-world swing open" (p. 20). The story of Moby Dick is particularly compelling, as it presents us with the "ungraspable phantom of life" and then subsequently offers us "the key to it all" (p. 20). Through a first person narrative dictating a story intrinsically linked to the universality of human restlessness, Melville offers each of us a window of reprieve. We may choose to take it as an important life lesson and throw caution and practicality to the wind in search of unbridled happiness, or we may choose to take it as a possibility best experienced at a distance, on a page. Whichever we choose, the sea of opportunity is being offered for our own exploration.

As we encounter stories, we are not passive receivers but active participants, a position that generates a sense of importance and involvement within us. However, a story has no meaning until one is ascribed to it. Therefore, a story is not only an expressive means of escape, but also an opportunity to partake in a malleable truth. We are able to indulge ourselves in the limitless possibilities, molding and sculpting literally what we will.

Moby Dick has been called the book of books, the story of stories . However, its greatness does not lay in the particular formulation of particular words in particular sentences into particular paragraphs and so forth. As with any great story, Moby Dick is comprised of infinite, multifaceted, and often allusive levels of meaning. What makes a novel great is its interaction with its readers. The degree to which a story remains unguarded and flexible while simultaneously enticing and provoking its readers, is what makes it great.

The meanings I find hidden within the text of Moby Dick are unlike any others. Yet, they are mine and mine alone. As in Moby Dick, the innumerable meanings that lie dormant within stories are like ungraspable phantoms. With Moby Dick representing an epitome, the beckoning ungraspable phantoms concealed in stories, are the key to their command.


Melville, H. Moby Dick.

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