Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is a major 19th epic and a “Great American Novel” that routinely appears on best-of-all-time lists next to Homer and Dante. This grand literary judgment descends from early 20th century critics who rescued the novel from obscurity after decades of scorn and neglect. When the book first appeared in 1851, no one knew what to make of Melville’s cosmic whaling revenge tale. Reviews were highly mixed, sales dismal, the book flopped.
This Moby-Dick revival happened to coincide with a period of modernist experimentation with narrative structure in the work of writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Suddenly, Moby-Dick didn’t seem so strange anymore. More like a brilliant, proto-modernist tragedy. But if you expect straightforward seafaring adventure, as the animated TED-Ed lesson above by Sascha Morrell points out, it’s a hard slog. The exhaustive lessons on whales and whaling, chapter-length soliloquies, language so dense, colorful, and allusive.... Leonard Woolf became so frustrated in a 1929 review, he called the book's prose “the most execrable English."
Melville wrote bad sentences, Woolf pronounced. “His second greatest vice is rant or rhetoric…. I cannot see the slightest point in this kind of bombast, and, when it raves on for page after page, I almost pitch the book into the waste-paper basket and swear that I will not read another line, however many people vouch for the author’s genius.” This contrarianism sounds an awful like Virginia Woolf’s take on Joyce’s Ulysses. Like that book, Moby-Dick inspires widespread guilt among those who have been told they should read it, but who can’t bring themselves to finish or even begin.
Who was right: Melville’s early critics and readers (and Leonard Woolf)? Or the millions who have since seen in the novel something profound and prophetic, though no one can say exactly what that is? Why should we read Moby-Dick? For many, many reasons, but most of all the language. The word “rich” doesn’t begin to describe the layering of images: “A mountain separating two lakes,” Morrell says in a striking example, “a room papered floor to ceiling with bridal satins, the lid of an immense snuff box. These seemingly unrelated images take us on a tour of a sperm whale’s head.”
The symbols themselves invite us into other cryptic allegories. Chapter 99, “The Doubloon,” competes with Achilles' shield in The Iliad for metaphoric density, yet like a modernist novel, it fragments into multiple perspectives, each one examining ideas of currency, conquest, myth, ritual, etc., as Ahab bullies and provokes the crew into interpreting a coin nailed to the Pequod’s mast.
If the White Whale be raised, it must be in a month and a day, when the sun stands in some one of these signs. I’ve studied signs, and know their marks; they were taught me two score years ago, by the old witch in Copenhagen. Now, in what sign will the sun then be? The horse-shoe sign; for there it is, right opposite the gold. And what’s the horse-shoe sign? The lion is the horse-shoe sign- the roaring and devouring lion. Ship, old ship! my old head shakes to think of thee.
What Woolf saw as excessive bombast seems to me more like form mirroring function. Melville writes sentences that must echo over the squalls and talk through maddening lulls that bring on strange hallucinations. Like Joyce’s, his language mirrors the discursive tics of Ahab and Ishmael's modes of thought—nautical, theological, political, sociological, mythic, historic, naturalist, symbolist: explorations into a bloody, cruel, ecologically devastating enterprise that drives its demented captain—violently obsessed with a great white beast that has crippled and enraged him—to wreck the ship and kill everyone aboard except our narrator.
Learn about Melville and Moby-Dick in the additional resources at the TED-Ed lesson page.