Book Habit Blog - Moby Dick - 157th Anniversary

by Herman Melville

An Appreciation of Moby Dick on the 157th Anniversary of its Publication


Ahab is the soul of Moby Dick, but the physical and symbolic reality of the whale gives us the core ideas of the book. No other novel in American literature presents us with a more complex, poetic, and convincing portrait of a species or of an individual creature. The White Whale is the object of desire, the ferocious grail of Ahab’s quest.

He takes arms and legs, drags boatloads of men into oblivion and in attacking them purposely, smashes other boats into pieces. He cracks open the Pequod; she sinks with all hands but one. He is said to be ubiquitous, immortal, and the personification of “retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice (819).” * He hunts those who hunt him.

Moby Dick is beautiful, deadly, a “dumb creature,” a “demon,” a mighty animal hunted into madness, a representative of “the heartless voids (282),” “a living opal (374),” a victim, an intelligent mammal that defends itself from violence, an “intelligent malignity (264),” a “phantom,” the repository of a supernatural evil, an assassin (819), a follower of hidden pathways in the seas, an individual possessed of a crooked jaw and a hump “like a snow hill in the air (8).” Ishmael also grants him “a gentle joyousness – a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness (783).” 

I want to think of Melville in his “ship’s cabin” of a study at Arrowhead, coming up out of his imagination, noticing the candles guttering in the draft, raising his head from his tight handwriting, and looking out through the frosted window north to Mount Greylock, white and yellow in the late sun. Even with “snow drifts piling up to the first floor windowsill (261),” his dream-state is so persistent that he can still sense the “air transparently pure and soft,” and the “all-pervading azure of air and sea (774).” He can still hear Ahab’s long final lament to Starbuck. He can still see the White Whale rising in blue water under a warm sun.

~ Mike