Thursday, March 10, 2011

The leviathan and turmoil

The inclusion of the “extracts,” portion in Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” is a seemingly odd way to preface a novel. However as with many other instances in “Moby-Dick,” Melville is directing the reader in a particular direction for which they should analyze the text.

One of the most contentious points surrounding the novel is the meaning or symbolic relevance of Moby-Dick. The entire extracts portion is dedicated to various and differing quotes about whales, almost as if Melville anticipated the numerous interpretations possible.

An interesting quote is included from Lord Bacon, whose philosophies would have intrigued Melville to say the least.

“The great Leviathan that maketh the seas to seethe like boiling pan,” is quoted as Bacon’s version of the psalms.

Similar to Ahab’s view of Moby-Dick, Bacon understands “the leviathan,” as a tormentor of the seas. Ahab called Moby-Dick an evil accursed white whale (Melville 36). In class, the symbolism of Moby-Dick was discussed. For every character Moby-Dick had a different meaning.

Melville’s inclusion of the extracts seems to lend to the chaos surrounding Moby-Dick’s meaning. In Bacon’s quote, the idea is presented that the whale is an antagonist of the seas. One of the points that was presented in class was chapter 54 “The Town ho Story,” in which Ishmael relays a story of Moby-Dick’s ostensible god-like nature. In swallowing up Radney, the argument was made that Moby-Dick was some sort of enforcer of good.

The fact that Ishmael is relaying this story of populist uprising to a group of Peruvian noblemen was perceived as some sort of underhanded jab at the higher classes. However, the final quote of the chapter falls more in line with Bacon’s idea of the whale.

“For all these reasons, then, any way you may look at it, you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness. So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.” (Melville 54)

Melville also makes the point that the seas are an inherently chaotic place. The e\image of the self-consuming shark served as a symbol of the seas innate cannibalism. Moby-Dick seems to be a continuation along this same thread. As an inhabitant of the tumultuous seas, Moby Dick is a product of its environment and thus an inherent tormentor.

Melville’s choice of Bacon’s version of the psalms is significant. The original text in which the leviathan is mentioned is Psalm 104 which merely describes it as yet another sea-creature.

“…There the ships go; You formed this leviathan with which to sport. They all look to You with hope, to give their food in its time.” (Psalm 104)

Bacon’s version casts a significantly more disparaging light on the animal, in order to cement its tumultuous nature.


  1. I think you're certainly right that this extract portrays the whale in terms of violence and chaos - hopefully we'll get around to talking about the Biblical and pre-Biblical roots of this portrayal of the whale, which you also allude to.

    At one level, though, this is kind of obvious: an extract which portrays the whale in terms of chaos does exactly that. One might ask, of course, whether this is in tension with, or complementary to, the view which understands MD as divine; the Leviathan of the bible is portrayed as a kind of primordial rival to God.

    The oddest thing here is that you allude to Bacon's philosophy (and therefore, I presume you know something about it), without giving us any sense of why that philosophy is significant here. What you have offered is fine, but a little too obvious; a reading which incorporated the question (and an answer to it) of why Melville wants to allude to Bacon specifically could have led us farther along in some interesting direction.

  2. I liked the extract that you picked because it showed one of the views about Moby Dick, specifically Ahab's belief that he is a menance. I liked that you also brought up the fact that we talked about there are so many views about what Moby Dick represents because I found that to be an interesting tangent.

    I think if you had explained more fully how Bacon's whole philosphy played into his belief that whale's are evil it would have developed the argument better. I don't really know anything about Bacon, so it was a little confusing.