Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Whaling is a Way of Life

While reading through the Extracts at the beginning of Moby Dick, I felt like the quotes all said pretty much the same thing: whales are big and strong. Whales are smelly and have large body parts. One particular quote caught my eye:

“And pray, sir, what in the world is equal to it?”
-Edmund Burke’s reference in Parliament to the Nantucket Whale-Fishery (xiv)

Unlike the majority of the other quotes, this one does not explicitly have the word “whale” in it. Instead, I believe this quote refers to the process of whaling itself, and more specifically the catching of the great Moby Dick. Understanding the meaning of this quote helps the reader to become more aware of what whaling means to each member of the Pequod. Each person is on board that whaling ship for different reasons. For example, the narrator Ishmael seemed to use the sea as an escape from his boring, methodical world. In the very beginning of the novel, Ishmael says he decided to become a whaler because he had no money and nothing on land was all that intriguing to him anyway. He even goes so far as to say whaling and a life on the sea is his “substitute for pistol and ball” (3). All throughout the plot Ishmael seems to at least accept if not love his time at sea. Whaling started out as an adventure for him, but in the end (perhaps through Starbuck’s influence) Ishmael seems to be more interested in the monetary gains by capturing Moby Dick. An almost direct answer to Edmund Burke’s above question seems to be given by Ishmael in chapter 24 The Advocate: “Here I prospectively ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard” (122). I think here Ishmael means that some men get their educations through paper degrees, but sailors like Ishmael can get much more valuable experience and acquire greater knowledge through whaling. And in reference to the Extracts quote, no education can equal that given to a whaler.

To Ahab, whaling is basically a complete opposite compared to what it means for Ishmael. Ahab considers Moby Dick to be the root of all evil. He makes finding and killing the whale who took his leg his one and only priority. His life as a whaler is consumed by his vengeance for Moby Dick. What whaling means to Ahab is shown in chapter 36 when he officially addresses the crew for the first time, saying:

“It was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now… Aye, aye! It was that accursed white whale that razed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!...Aye, aye! And I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! To chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out” (177).

By reading the quote from the Excerpts, it is easier to understand what whaling means to Ahab. Ahab will never be able to take revenge on Moby Dick unless he captures Moby Dick. Whaling consumes him, and consequently whaling and the pursuit of Moby Dick actually IS Ahab’s life.

Ahab’s first, second, and third mates Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask seem to just prefer life on the sea over life on land. Starbuck is driven by his faith and money. He sees whaling and the pursuit of Moby Dick as his profession, and wants the capital gains. Stubb takes whatever the sea throws at him with a smile and accepts life for what it is. Just as with Starbuck, whaling is a way of life for Stubb. Flask is the most adventurous of the three mates, and enjoys pursuing the whales the most. What these three whalers have in common is one thing: they are all active crewmembers of The Pequod. The Extracts quote asks: what could equal a career of whaling? The novel Moby Dick answers this question: nothing. This is shown through Ahab returning to find Moby Dick, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask remaining mates under an unemotional and vengeful captain, and even Ishmael writing an entire novel on whaling. While the life of a whaler might not be luxurious, all of these men can’t help but return to the sea, or at least spend a large chunk of time writing about it. The sea and whales have consumed each and every one of them, thus becoming their world.


  1. I'd actually argue in favor of you refining your understand of what "it" refers to. It may, metaphorically, refer to Moby-Dick, and presumably it refers to whaling, but if Melville is to be believed, it refers to the "Nantucket Whale-Fishery", that is, the *industry* of whaling headquartered in Nantucket. Burke is presumably interested, at least in part, in the economics of it. You could, of course, look it up - the text of this speech might (or might not) be readily available.

    This doesn't raise problems for the rest of your material, but it does offer the possibility for refinement: while different people are involved in whaling for different reasons, the industry as a whole exist because the economics work, and work very well.

    Incidentally, why do you think Ishmael is increasingly Starbuckian/monetary in his views? I'm at a loss as to why you think this.

    I feel like this essay becomes less focused as it goes on. I'd argue that you could, and should, have focused more thoroughly on the economics of the whaling *industry* (possibly including research) as a way of retaining and extending your focus.

  2. I like the direction you took in trying to figure out what whaling means to various members of the Pequod's crew; one quote that I have kept in mind throughout the entirety of the book is Ishamel's same pondering of "what the White Whale meant to them." I think that question is one not easily answered in a paragraph because I think the meaning delve deeper than what we can conclude with a definition of one word (especially for some of the primary characters). I think someone could easily write a novel on Ahab's relationship and feelings towards Moby Dick, or at least what they believe Moby Dick means to Ahab. That being said, if you want to revise this entry I would suggest just looking at Ahab's views of Moby Dick because I think you're given the most material to work with. Examining how Ishmael's views on Moby Dick change throughout the novel would also be an interesting novel and would help you to further explain why you feel he ultimately views him as a thing strictly of monetary value.