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.