In Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, the whale, key at every stage of the Pequod’s journey, plays a different role for Melville himself, for our narrator Ishmael, and for the modern reader—but ultimately connects to the human experience at a deep level.
Inside the closed system of the Pequod, with no outsiders to regulate their culture, whales and Moby Dick specifically become god-like creatures with no human match.
After the ship sets sail, the culture of the Pequod becomes a closed system, isolated with no connection to the outside world. With a group of only men there for three years, and with no cultural regulation from the rest of society, the attitudes which develop over the voyage are entirely different from anything back in Nantucket.
Chiefly, the ship has Ahab at the helm, a man whose mental capacities beyond endlessly pursuing utter revenge are questionable. Melville does illuminate the more human side of the captain sharing details about his life with Starbuck. As he reflects in “The Symphony,” Ahab finds himself lonely after forty years at sea. He slew his first whale at age eighteen, and has barely even paused, only returning to Nantucket to see his wife a few times over his life. Nonetheless, the captain resolves more strongly than ever to continue his fixation, pursuing the White Whale until the bitter end. In the chapter “Moby Dick,” Ishmael says, “with the mad secret of his unabated rage bolted up and keyed in him, Ahab had purposely sailed upon the present voyage with the one only and all-engrossing object of hunting the White Whale.”
Meanwhile, the crew remains entirely captivated by the same goal, to finish the quest (an oath for accomplishing Ahab reminds them of frequently). Though Ahab wants to save Starbuck’s life by keeping him on the main ship during the hunt, “The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung.” In the end, everyone is willing to die for what they see as justice on the magnificent creature. Ishmael sums it up: “Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals…”
The language the narrator/Ishmael use to refer to the whale indicates the royal esteem in which they hold whales. Describing groups of the “fish” in “Schools and Schoolmasters,” he directly compares whales to religious figures: “Gently he insinuates his vast bulk among them again and revels there awhile, still in tantalizing vicinity to young Lothario, like pious Solomon devoutly worshipping among his thousand concubines.” The grandiose language continues at every turn; he describes “a wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling” on the boat from “the peculiar terror [Moby Dick] bred” and the “monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies” as the whale with its “supernatural surmisings” “haunted those uncivilized seas.”
Most beings could never acquire such significance that so many people would pursue them in this fashion until the end of time (or their death, whichever came first). But in the novel, Moby Dick ascends to being a higher force, and the demise of the creature becomes irresistible for Ahab and the ship’s crew to pursue. Melville’s perceives whales as awe-inspiring creations, and he brings such a feeling at an extreme level to his cast of characters on the Pequod.
Though Ishmael appreciates whales as God-like figures, he also views whales as a truly wondrous scientific curiosity at which to marvel.
“Cetology,” “The Sperm Whale's Head—Contrasted View,” “The Right Whale’s Head—Contrasted View,” “The Battering-Ram,” “The Great Heidelburgh Tun,” “The Prairie,” “The Nut,” and “A Bower in the Arsacides” are just a few of the literally dozens of chapters devoted to facts and information about whales throughout the novel. While Melville penned Moby Dick in most decidedly a pre-Twitter era, it could clearly be a much shorter book if Ishmael had chosen to omit the whale facts. As modern readers we can grow exhausted of this information (though we certainly experience our narrator’s true passion with every additional page detailing their skeletons), but it is not superfluous to Ishmael. He finds the creatures’ anatomies and inner workings critical to conveying the story, even if the true action can at points feel like an afterthought. He is obsessed with the scientific analysis of whales.1
At one point while inspecting a whale’s body, Ishmael writes “I have been blessed with an opportunity to dissect him in miniature.” He apologizes for any inaccuracies in his measurements of the various bones. He spends more chapters correcting misconceptions about whales, as people with true passions are wont to do; in what he must see as a service to his readers, he spends many pages explaining the incorrect details saved in various drawings of whales. “Serious fault might be found with the anatomical details of this whale,” he comments of one.
Readers would likely not consider the scientific perspective if Ishmael was not so adamant about including it. With our modern societal approach towards animals of assuming we know everything important, we lose the sense of unending curiosity so clearly occupying Ishmael. The perspective he brings by studying whales in the book deepens their character in the narrative: he makes them no longer merely hunter’s victims or gods, but rather augments them with another dimension.
For modern readers looking back at the whaling industry so uncompromisingly depicted in Moby Dick, the hunting of millions of whales for oil seems a horrific demonstration of humanity’s lack of care for the environment. But it was a drop in the ocean compared to the damage humans do to the environment every day now.
The voyages of the Pequod are for whaling: hunters attempt to spear as many whales as possible and extract their oil for sale and profit. The Pequod’s crew kills dozens of whales through the story, and pass many other whaling ships along the way doing the same, giving readers the sense that thousands of whales were being killed. According to scientists’ estimates, though, over three million whales were slaughtered just over the course of the twentieth century. Sail-powered whaling ships took 300,000 sperm whales in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and their progress continued growing until around 1960, finally ending for the most part in the 1980s.2 The total number killed is likely in the many tens of millions. This may seem like terrible cruelty, considering what significant and intelligent animals whales are, though at least we can be happy knowing that humans have essentially stopped hunting whales in the time since.
The state of the planet Earth right now can be described as nothing short of utter calamity. Ballooning human carbon emissions have drastically altered the balance of the natural ecosystems, and every species is trying to adapt in the face of insane changes on impossibly short timelines. Meanwhile, humans are only accelerating their damage, not slowing down or reversing. After several years of plateauing worldwide emissions, 2017 is setting a new record for global carbon emissions. The scientific community has come to the consensus that 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is safe, but measurements from this morning are 406 ppm, following the breach of 410 ppm last April.3 International biodiversity faces a crisis of epic proportions as humans make extinct species never even identified: climate change alone is projected to threaten a quarter or more of all species by 2050.4 Storms, wildfires, droughts, and glacial melting are increasingly ferocious (climate scientists say the Arctic “shows no sign of returning to reliably frozen”5). Every single day, the damage humanity does to our natural environment, the only truly hospitable place discovered so far, is vast—we emit a billion tons only of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every ten days.6 Or as anticipatory design systems theorist Buckminster Fuller put it, “Humans beings always do the most intelligent thing…after they’ve tried every stupid alternative and none of them have worked.” This can be hard to argue with considering issues like the damage done by the energy use of the Bitcoin network, an infinitesimal side project in the map of all human activities.7
In the chapter “Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish?—Will He Perish?,” Ishmael begins to consider the possibility of it not all being “honour and glory of the whale-ship.” He brings up the concern that whalers could be hunting whales to extinction, and postulates whales having shrunken since the start of human whaling, because the ones described by ancient Roman naturalists were larger. As a capitalist, a man whose main drive is for profit, Ishmael naturally concludes there are no moral issues with whaling. He justifies this nonsense by hypothesizing, without any evidence of such a shift, that the pattern in which whales swim is more spread out than it was in the past.8 Ishmael feels so many whales exist, they could never go the way of the American buffalo from just a few hunts (13,000, to be specific). He dismisses all these concerns, concluding, “we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality,” and “the eternal whale will still survive, and…spout his frothed defiance to the skies.”
Ishmael remained in denial of the possibility of his actions contributing to true damage of what he loved most dearly9 because it terrified him. In a depressing look back at this period of human history, the modern human can conclude that these actions barely qualify as a footnote of humanity’s environmental atrocities, the scope of which have only increased exponentially with no end in sight. Ishmael’s beloved whale carcasses left behind to litter the oceans are just one drop, among so, so many.
Melville’s genius in Moby Dick lies in showing so many dimensions of the whale. He creates a magnificent creature who can humble its isolated hunters as if he were a god. Yet the whale is also the subject of Ishmael’s obsessive studying. And even a century and a half later, the character of the whale can bring a completely different perspective to readers, one deeply intertwined with science and religion and the human experience. The whale is not one symbol, two shapes, or three dimensions, but triumphs in transcending these boundaries. It captivates everyone by speaking to all of us in dramatically different ways. Melville’s story is not one of religion, petty revenge, or environmental tragedy, but ultimately humanity.