Moby Dick

Since September I’ve gotten 38% of the way through Moby Dick, according to my e-reader.

The main theme of the novel is the question of whether we’re subject to nature or have dominion over nature. You can take that to mean theology’s divine-ordained nature, philosophical naturalism’s concept of nature, or surface-level English 101 “man vs. environment” nature).

The portrayal of Moby Dick, the whale, as a violent and uncontrollable being is obviously a symbol of how nature is imposing. However, there’s a lot of text where the vastness of the ocean in general stands in for nature’s dominance as well.

Subjugation to nature is mirrored through subjugation between people. Specifically via the three “main” characters — Ishmael, Starbuck, and Ahab — who basically range from servant to master. There are some pretty vivid descriptions of this. Ishmael, the servant, says it’s okay if he’s beaten so long as he gets to go to sea.* Ahab, who has ambitions of being a master over nature, says the sun’s theoretical ability to strike down on him is evidence enough that he can strike back.**

Starbuck is interesting since he is not a huge presence (at least so far), but he provides an interesting balance between the two. At one point he basically says: “I signed up for this voyage willing to risk my life to hunt whales in general, but not Ahab’s whale.” There’s a whole chapter dedicated to whether Ahab has the crew under his control, with a focus on Starbuck’s role.

The shift to the Ishmael-Ahab-Starbuck triangle is distinct from the earlier part of the novel. The early part focuses a lot on Ishmael and Queequeg (who is nominally a cannibal) finding similarities between each other. There are universalist overtones*** and suggestions that all of humanity has something in common.

Those universal themes kind of take a back seat mid-novel. I’m not sure whether Melville deliberately shifted characters to suggest that this sort of impartiality loses relevance under the harshness of nature, or whether it emerged naturally from the plot.

Melville was probably conscious of the shift, since there’s a chapter where several native men from different places, who were hired as crew, get backgrounded and become brute strength whalers. It’s done in a very complimentary way to the native whalers and its seems like a last hurrah for Queeqeg before/around the change in focus to Ahab as master of the ship.

Apart from that: I’d note that the chapters are short and digestible. Even if you don’t know all the words you can get the gist. They kind of blur together despite the fact that each tends to focus on a particular topic. There are some good joke chapters, particularly “Chowder” and “The Ramadan” which are wryly funny but not laugh out loud hilarious.

Choice quotes and footnotes

*Ishmael says it’s okay if he’s whipped so long as he gets to go to sea

What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks? What does that indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament? Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance? Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about—however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way—either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.

** to Ahab, the sun’s theoretical ability to strike down on him is evidence enough that he can strike back

Hark ye yet again—the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other

***There are universalist overtones…

What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself—the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.

Now, as I before hinted, I have no objection to any person’s religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don’t believe it also.


Something that has always confused me was Battlestar Galactica lifting the name for their Lieutenant Starbuck. This is made even more bizarre, because while they’re many things, Galactica’s Starbuck is definitely not an intellectual Quaker. This was a decision made even more curious by the implication that Starbuck’s commanding officer, Commander Adama, is their Captain Ahab, as the two couldn’t be less alike. Glad you’re enjoying the book.


Something that has always confused me was Battlestar Galactica lifting the name for their Lieutenant Starbuck

It has to at least be because Starbuck has the word “star” and the show is in space, right? I haven’t seen it though.


I really want it to not be that shallow, ngl. Although, you might be right.


There’s the coffee chain too of course.


This passage prints, uncited, in its entirety in Repeat the Ending as a one-time response to an unproductive group of commands. Subsequent attempts print something far more reasonable (topical). A tester thought it was a bug, and perhaps it was.

So far as I can tell, the two Starbuck characters share nothing but a name, but it’s perfectly acceptable for an artist to do something because “I liked the source material and it sounded cool.”

TC, I hope you’ll keep us updated with your thoughts and impressions!


Moby-Dick is one of my favorite books. The first time I read it in high school, I hated it and didn’t even get halfway through. Then I read it again in my early 20s and fell in love. Now I’ve read it 6 or 7 times. I’ll probably read it again pretty soon.

It’s extremely weird. Much weirder than its pop-culture reputation would suggest.


Much weirder than its pop-culture reputation would suggest.

I think Moby Dick has gained a ‘kind of funny’ status in popular culture, recently. At least compared to ‘War and Peace’ etc.

My two favourite pop culture references are A Series of Unfortunate Events’ “Call me Ish” line and Metal Gear Solid V’s giant flaming sky whale.

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If I remember Moby Dick correctly, the line “Call me Ismael” is somewhere 2/3 of the book? Either that’s a long intro, or maybe I was reading the wrong book!

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It is the first sentence of the first chapter of the book. Maybe you were reading the abridged prolonged version? :wink:

Aha! I have defeated the summary tool!


It’s after a really long introduction of made up of entirely of quotes, so it seems like 2/3.


Is this linked text the original or the changed version?

And I’ve looked at the German translation which is PD, too. The translator simply removed “Call me Ismael”!

This one seems to have it. But it is famously the first line of the novel — more of a famous opening than a famous line — and I can’t imagine any version removing it.


The one I have linked above is the New York edition. British edition is this one (I think): The Project Gutenberg eBook of Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

Although there are many differences between those edition, both have the “Call me Ishmael.” line as the opening sentence of the first chapter.


I didn’t know that the German translation has the name as Ismael instead of Ishmael.

Have a look here, it is without the mentioned sentence:

I see, that’s on translator I guess. The one I linked as the British version above seems to be an amalgamated version. Melville Electronic Library let us see scans for both first editions side by side: Herman Melville Electronic Library

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That’s bizarre.

The title page notes that it is the “only authorized German edition from the American” … maybe whoever owned the copyright had an issue with the line being used?

However, I have no idea when the line became famous (Moby Dick itself apparently wasn’t famous until the 1920s). I also couldn’t find out when the translation was published.

Interesting to read about old copyright and “piracy”. I think I will stick to the original version. I somehow assuned Melville was British, but I checked and found out he was American. So I go for the American version. And not for the German version; after I saw the “Call me Ishmael” missing I don’t trust the translators.

I somehow assuned Melville was British, but I checked and found out he was American

Maybe he’s like The Killers, the best British band from America.

The early chapters of Moby Dick mention Nantucket as a setting repeatedly IIRC, but it seems very British at times. In my head, I read most of the voices with a British accent. Some of the innkeepers, etc. seem like Discworld characters with their brashness and quips.

Then again I guess Moby Dick was written ~75 years after the U.S. was founded, so maybe there was not so much cultural drift to separate the two countries.


It was written by an American, and published in London. There’s a 3-books “original” version of it somewhere (YouTube) but that surprised me.

If I remember it right, the story I read was tight and gripping, but that most of the reviews mentioned long, dry technical discourse about the whale. That my recollection reflects that the first 2/3 of it consists of dry, technical discourse about the whale makes me think that the version I read may have juggled the “whale-fact chapters” into the beginning of the book.

Whatever the case, “Call me Ishmael” does occur in chapter one: Loomings.

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