Sunday, February 27, 2011

Scientific Description in Moby Dick

One aspect of Moby Dick that clearly stands out to the reader is Melville’s ample use of scientific description to help tell the story of the White Whale. Melville devotes several chapters to classification and descriptions of whales as well as to detailed descriptions of the processes of whaling. I believe this use of science is an important part of Moby Dick, and that in trying to understand the novel, it is helpful to put it in a scientific as well as historical perspective.

In his thesis “He Gives Us More Besides: Reimagining Moby Dick as a Work of Science,” Nathaniel R. Young makes “an attempt to explore Melville and Moby Dick as a work of natural history, a work informed by the science of the day, which gives us more besides.” (Young 8) His introduction and first chapter give a short history of Melville’s education as well as a detailed analysis of Melville’s work put in the context of natural history. The second and third chapters elaborate on his argument, but are not as relevant to my argument. In reading this thesis, it is clear that Melville was influenced by the scientific studies of that time period, and that this influence should have an effect on how the reader understands Moby Dick.

In his introduction, Young compares Herman Melville to Charles Darwin, emphasizing the difference between Darwin’s desire to continue his education and Melville’s desire to “forge his spirit in the crucible of worldly experience.” (Young 4) I believe this strong desire of Melville’s to see the world, even if it meant taking a job that some might have considered below his station in life, is important to reading Melville’s descriptive sections on whaling. Melville believed in the power of experience; as a writer, I’m sure he wanted to convey this power to his readers. He achieves this through his detailed descriptions in chapters such as “The Line,” “The Dart,” and “The Crotch.”

To an author like Melville, these chapters are not merely filler in a story about a whale, but are an attempt to more deeply involve the reader in the story. If the reader can imagine himself in a whaleboat as it is about to take a whale, then the story of Moby Dick will certainly be more powerful. This fact seems obvious, but I think it is particularly important in understanding Moby Dick because Melville puts so much time and effort into these descriptions. It seems that Melville did not want to leave any room for terms and events related to whaling to be misunderstood or misinterpreted. It is important that the reader does not skip or skim these sections just because the information they convey does not seem to be directly related to the plot; this information is meant to enhance the reader’s understanding of the plot.

Another important point that Young makes regarding the use of description in Moby Dick is that Melville’s description of whales closely follows scientific descriptions of species in contemporary natural history texts. (Young 26) Young specifically cites the works of Androvaldi, Gesner, and Jonston, and lists eight topics that these scientists used to describe life: the origins of the animal’s various names, the animal’s habitat, the animal’s physical features, the animal’s general temperament, the animal’s use as a food or medicine, a description of how to eat the animal, specific medicinal uses for the animal, and the animal’s presence in human society. Examples of all of these categories can be found in Moby Dick. Many, including the full description of the whale’s name, physical appearance, and character can be found in “Cetology.” The whale’s use in food and medicine can be found throughout the descriptions of whaling’s importance or in “Stubb’s Supper.” Lastly, several chapters are dedicated to evaluating representations of whales in art, including chapters LV, LVI, and LVII.

Young shows through his analysis that Melville was following a pattern of description when he wrote Moby Dick. Although Melville was not really educated as a biologist, Young argues that he was aware of scientific descriptions of species, and would have thus been aware of what details would have been considered worth describing. (Young 25) Again, I believe Melville is trying to help the reader experience his encounters with whales through these precise and detailed descriptions. I also believe this is why three chapters are dedicated to evaluating images of whales in contemporary art; Melville wants to warn his readers that not all images are accurate, and that the best likenesses are made by men or women who have actually encountered a live whale. Without a clear picture of a sperm whale in one’s mind, it would be extremely difficult to imagine how terrifying a whale the size of Moby Dick could be, which is why, once again, it is crucial that the reader does not skip or skim chapters such as “Cetology,” as these chapters are so important to a full understanding of the story.

As Young describes it, “Moby Dick is a novel whose breadth and depth conspire to continually challenge the motivated reader.” (Young 9) Melville includes a scientific description of whales and whaling to help the careful reader reach a higher level of understanding through a deeper knowledge of relevant information.

Works Cited

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick, or, the whale. Public Domain Books, 2009. Electronic.

Young, N.. He gives us more besides: Reimagining "Moby Dick" as a work of

science. Diss. University of Wyoming, 2010. Dissertations & Theses: Full

Text, ProQuest. Web. 27 Feb. 2011.


  1. I like the research you used; for what it's worth, a number of people have done work touching on parallels between Melville and Darwin. Anyone who's ever read *The Voyage of the Beagle* and *Moby-Dick* or *Typee* together is going to inevitably go somewhat in that direction.

    So I think your topic was good and relevant, and I also think your summary of Young sounds quite good. I wish you'd trimmed a little bit of it, though, to begin to advance a little more of your own argument. While I think your discussion of the chapters on images of the whale was good and well-informed, I'd really like your response to what seems to be Young's idea - that MD can be, or even should be, understood as a work of science *first*, rather than last (as we will inevitably tend to do in a literature classroom).

  2. You summarize Young well in an easy to understand way. Actually your entire paper is written in a very clear manner that made it really easy to understand your main points. I was also made aware of your argument very early in the paper which really helpful, and you brought it up again at the end in a way that reminded me without repeating the idea verbatim. However, I think you argument may be a little too obvious. While it's interesting to note the parallels between Melville's descriptive techniques and the techniques other scientists, I think we can all agree that Melville thought the chapters that are more scientific based are of great importance to understanding of the meaning book. It would definitely be interesting if you could push further and use your excellent understanding of Young and these chapters to explain one of the purposes of the book.